Matchmakers

At the end of a haul, Steve McMillan desperately needed a load home. McMillan fired up his computer and found a load through an online load board in 30 minutes.

“They were helpful and gave me directions and all the information I needed to get the load and get it to the destination on time,” says McMillan, a driver for Dave and Son’s Transport. “It was easy to sign up and find a load. I had a choice of about five or six different ones.”

McMillan isn’t alone. Owner-operators are increasingly finding that using online load boards can eliminate a lot of deadhead miles. With the addition of broker credit reports and other related services, some load sites offer a much more comprehensive service than was available in the late 1990s.

At the same time, users must pay monthly fees from $20 to $50 or more, sort through outdated postings and deal with unknown brokers. Users must also have frequent access to the Internet or have an assistant at home who can search for loads.

The advantages apparently outweigh the disadvantages. Online load sites, used by only a few thousand drivers in 1996, now have more than 80,000 users, according to the major providers.

Doug Moscrip, operations officer of Internet Truckstop, a service available through eTrucker.com, credits the increase to convenience and speed. “The amount of information has increased,” Moscrip says. “People who don’t know each other can do business.”

Even during the recent economic downturn, traffic at NetTrans has continued to increase, says President Darren Brewer, and so has the competition. “In the early days of the Internet, back in 1996, it was just us and Internet Truckstop,” Brewer says. “Just the other day I counted more than 75 different sites. A good number of those were private sites – fleets that were listing excess loads. But when it really comes down to it, there are only a handful of sites that rise to the top.”

As the economy started to soften a year and a half ago, Brewer says, the number of users on load boards fell. Some users were members of several boards and cut memberships to reduce costs.

Others were truckers such as Jim Reynolds, a driver for Dawes Transport, who finds only limited use for loads posted online. “I think most are the leftovers after the buzzards picked the good loads,” he says. “Once you build up a broker relationship with a certain few, then just call them and never use the Net broker load boards.”

Just two years ago, a flurry of online load matching services sprang up as the Internet boom vaulted the brokerage and logistics business online. Although dozens still remain, most of the loads suitable for owner-operators are available on five boards: GetLoaded, Internet Truckstop, TruckersEdge, NetTrans and Truckit.

Those five offer similar services and pricing. All offer unlimited access to loads with a suite of tools such as routing, weather and mileage. They also offer some form of credit rating service for clients. Their software allows you to narrow freight searches or receive alerts when a load match is made.

The oldest load-matching provider on the Web is Internet Truckstop, which boasts a membership of more than 30,000. The site offers discounts for truckers who pay on time and, for those who register though eTrucker, a 30-day free trial. Those truckers too busy to monitor the site are sent an audible alarm when loads are posted that match their criteria.

The biggest load service in the industry, DAT, didn’t get onto the Web until 1999. Its most recent incarnation, TruckersEdge, recently replaced www.DATinternet.com and melds DAT’s load databases with those of DAT’s fax-based service, IFS.net. Now the database company is owned by TransCore.

While online load boards are designed for computer access, several boards offer additional ways to search for loads. A premium membership with TruckersEdge, for instance, gives you access to loads via phone and fax; members of NetTrans can use any of more than 300 Internet kiosks at truck stops; and TruckIt users can receive a text page through their cell phone or pager when a load becomes available that matches their criteria.

All these extra services help owner-operators make informed business decisions, but the convenience of finding loads is what brings them back. Owner-operator Dan Belford says load boards fit well with his cross-country runs. “My main runs are from Boston to L.A., then back,” he says. “I’ll also use them if for some reason I get out of my normal lane because they pay quick, loads are easy, and most pickup and delivery times are easy to adjust to what I need.”

More often than not, a site user is a partner or a spouse managing the business at home, Brewer says. Partners can learn the ins and outs of online boards while the driver is on the road, enabling the driver to focus on driving and resting instead of worrying where the next load is coming from.

Owner-operators emphasize the need to employ good business practices when using the online boards. Load boards simplify the process by taking away some of the hassle, but they don’t guarantee great hauls. You still need to negotiate a good price for your labor and get a good return on the trip.

“Some pay well, and some pay nothing, but we pick and choose what we want,” says Cheryl Gentry, an owner-operator team driver based in Memphis, Tenn. “Like with any freight, double check your miles and figure your rate per mile and let your lease company do the legwork to be sure you get paid.”

As online load boards have matured, the volume of available freight has also improved. By their own calculations, the largest five online load boards – depending on the season – could have more than 50,000 loads a day.

“It’s now easier and more affordable than it’s ever been to find freight whenever and wherever you need it,” Brewer says. “It comes down to how aggressive you are. If the trucker wants to use technology to his advantage, to reduce deadhead miles, then he can.”


Internet Truckstop
$35-105
Compunet Credit Services
Web
www.truckstop.com

TruckersEdge
$50-80
TransCredit
Web, kiosk, phone
www.truckersedge.net

GetLoaded
$35
TransCredit
Web
www.getloaded.com

NetTrans
$35
Internal credit rating service
Web, kiosk
www.nettrans.com

TruckIt
$35
TransCredit
Web, kiosk, pager
www.truckit.com

WOULD YOU TRUST THIS BROKER?

On the five biggest boards, the minimum fee will get you something owner-operators have dreamed about for years: credit checks.

Three of the services – TruckersEdge, GetLoaded and TruckIt – offer a credit score from TransCredit, a transportation-specific credit rating service. The service, used by associations such as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the National Association of Small Trucking Companies, provides a two-digit score; the higher the number, the lower the risk. Truckers who want more detailed information can order credit reports from TransCredit for an additional fee.

The Internet Truckstop and NetTrans take a different approach. Internet Truckstop’s Doug Moscrip says his service posts the average number of days a company takes to pay, which he believes is more useful than the system used by Transcredit. “With TransCredit, if you are a very large company but very slow to pay, you get a very good rating. If you are small company and pay your bills in a timely fashion, you get a low rating,” Moscrip says. “We post beside every load how many days average and whether there are outstanding payments. This better reflects the true credit-worthiness.”

TransCredit President Winston Aston disagrees, saying his service considers more factors than payment trends in calculating its credit scores. In addition to pay turnaround, the credit service looks at how long a broker has been in business and how long the carriers that use the broker have been in business. A large, established broker such as C.H. Robinson that has been in business for 20 years will score much higher than a new broker.

“If a broker pays in 30 days, but he’s been in business for only six months, he’s a risk,” Aston says. “Every credit company in the country will tell you that broker’s a very high risk.”

NetTrans runs its own factoring service and rates brokers based on their success in collecting money for deliveries. “We actually know how well the brokers pay,” Brewer says. “We go as far as qualifying our brokers. We have almost 2,000 brokers in our system.”


SPECIALIZED SITES

EXPEDITED
www.expediteloads.com

FLATBED
www.eflatbed.com
www.intran.com

HOPPER
www.hoploads.com

LIVESTOCK
www.livestockloads.com
www.bullwagons.com

CATERING TO NICHES

Although large online boards feature a variety of freight, niche load sites are siphoning off some of their traffic. You can find load sites devoted to niches such as flatbed, livestock, expedited, agriculture – even truckers with hopper trailers have a site.

Such boards have popped up in industries for various reasons, when both loads and trucks are scarce, when deadhead is a rule or when there are special hauling requirements.
Consider livestock hauling. Just a few years ago, cattlemen were limited to the trucking companies they knew locally. Now they can tap into databases of truckers in 48 states and Canada.

In the past, ranchers didn’t have many options, says Tammi Hohenberger, president of Livestock Loads Corp, which runs www.livestockloads.com. But as the cattle industry has tapped into trading cattle over the Internet, cattlemen can buy cows from all over the country and have to find a way to move the beef. In addition to Livestock Loads, ranchers can also tap into trucks listed on www.bullwagons.com.

“Cattlemen absolutely love it,” Hohenberger says. “Once they get past the fact that they’re doing business with a trucking company they don’t know, they’re saving an average of 30 cents a mile.” The ranchers save so much because they can help the truck driver fill his backhaul.

Still, says Michael Warren of Bullwagons.com, getting ranchers to plug in has been difficult. “Most ranchers don’t want their competitors to know where they’re loading, what they’re buying and how much it weighs,” he says. So Warren is changing his site into more of a truck board, where ranchers can look at available equipment without divulging their shipping practices.

“Truckers are happy they’re getting loads,” he says. “If you’d use a service like this and keep it visible, you’d be loaded all the time. It used to be that loading a truck into Kansas, you’d never know that there’s a load in Oklahoma going back East. Some of these haulers are getting loads they never dreamed of.”

Livestock Loads may have several hundred loads available at any given time, far fewer than the 10,000 on a large general freight site. But if you’re looking for livestock, the board offers a good start toward lowering costs.

“About 95 percent of our users are owner-operators,” Hohenberger says. “In this business, there are so many unloaded miles. This saves shippers about 20 to 30 cents a mile and gives truckers a backhaul.”



James A. Crawford II also helped with the article.

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