Getting With the Programs

They won’t actually take the wheel, but the new generation of trucking software products can help you do just about everything else.

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Kenneth Fennell Jr. of Springfield, Mo., an owner-operator leased to Seaton Carriers, has been a professional driver for 25 years. But in the world of trucking software, Fennell says, he’s strictly an amateur.

“I’ve been open-minded about computers all this time, but once they became affordable, my wife and I had babies to feed,” Fennell says. “So I never had anything to do with a computer until we finally got one for the family this Christmas.”

Fennell is a fast learner. He now uses LoadLedger software from AntWorx to keep track of expenses, income, maintenance schedule, fuel tax liability and more.

“I generate cost-per-mile reports, and I store all my contact info for shippers, receivers and the like,” Fennell says. “If I need directions, my wife can pull it all up and read it to me over the phone. But mainly I like being able to keep closer tabs on my business.”

Owner-operators are becoming as good at choosing software as they are at choosing trucks, tires, engines and loads, and for the same reason – because it’s good business. A few years ago, truckers had to make do with generic business software such as Quicken and Excel, which remain good options for many. But a variety of affordable, trucking-specific programs now help drivers choose routes, log miles, figure taxes, track costs and monitor their engines.

“Owner-operators don’t even have to do their DOT logs manually anymore,” says Ahmad Lamah of Global American Technology Corp., maker of FlashMaxx, a program that records every aspect of a haul, including mileage, wait times and speed, and completes the driver’s log book electronically.

“The best business owners are going beyond using the software just to track expenses for tax purposes,” says analyst Chris Brady of Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting in Manhasset, N.Y. “Instead, they use software as an analytical tool for improving their business.”

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For example, if an owner-operator’s fuel costs are going up, fuel-tracking software can help show whether the problem is the price at the pump or a truck that needs maintenance or replacement, Brady says.

Owner-operators’ interest in software usually starts with calculating cost per mile and fuel taxes and planning routes where diesel prices are lowest, but they soon realize the larger potential, says LoadLedger creator Karen Randolph of AntWorx.

“Just because you have cash in your pocket doesn’t mean you’re making money,” Randolph says. “Truckers see their numbers on our software and say, ‘Am I really running at that rate?’ Shave $100 off a quarterly fuel-tax payment, and you’ve paid for the software. It’s hard to do that on paper.”

A good routing program alone can save an owner-operator big money, says Craig Fiander of ALK Technologies, maker of PC*Miler, PC*FuelTax and the new CoPilot Truck, a voice-activated laptop GPS program. An owner-operator running 125,000 miles a year at an operating cost of 90 cents per mile could avoid 2,500 of those miles through better routing, for an annual savings of $2,250, Fiander says.

“If you take a detour, if there’s a logjam or jackknife ahead, or maybe if you just take a wrong turn, CoPilot Truck will direct you off that route and immediately recalculate a new route for you,” Fiander says. “It’s going to make you a safer, more efficient driver and enhance overall customer service.”

Former owner-operator Virginia Edwards of Roxboro, N.C., says even basic accounting software could be a big help. “I used a pencil and paper, and I knew everything down to the penny, but it was very time-consuming,” says Edwards, now safety manager at Carolina Pride Carwash. “Today I’d get a reasonably priced laptop and a copy of QuickBooks. It’s a lot easier. You’ve got an electronic copy of your books that you can share with your accountant, even e-mail it cross-country if you have to.” In fact, Edwards suggests asking your accountant what software she uses, then buying accordingly.

When Randolph went software shopping on behalf of her one-truck owner-operator husband, Lanny, now leased to CDN Logistics of Northlake, Ill., she soon got frustrated with generic accounting programs. “It’s fine for tracking the checks you write, but it doesn’t help you make the business decisions associated with trucking,” Randolph says. “It doesn’t help you plan miles and tolls and fuel.”

Out of her frustration, Randolph devised LoadLedger, unveiled at the 2000 Great American Trucking Show. “It’s basically double-entry accounting software for trucking,” she says. “It does the books exactly as an accountant would do them.”

Amy Krouse of Rand McNally-TDM, maker of RouteTools, advises prospective buyers to take advantage of free demos and short-term trials. “We talk to truckers every day, and we know that $199 is a significant investment for many owner-operators,” Krouse says. “What sells them is being able to play with the product a little bit and get their feet wet.”
New buyers should make sure they’re not buying more software than their hardware can handle, says owner-operator Fred Gasperson of West Linn, Ore., who developed Hammerlane Owner Operator software and its latest version, Hammer2. “We have customers still using old 386 Intel processors with 8 megs of memory, but the faster the processor, the faster the program will run.”

New buyers should keep in mind, too, that snazzy business software must be accompanied by sound business sense. “We try not to give our customers business advice,” Randolph says, “but sometimes we have to educate people a little bit about the accounting process.”

“Owner-operators have to get over their fear of software and not let it intimidate them,” Edwards says. “You don’t have to know how computers work in order to use them.”

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