Home Team Advantage

“The biggest difference is you get to stay home and get the home cooking,” says Frankie Trujillo, a Florida independent who has three young children.

When Frankie Trujillo started driving, he obeyed the call of the open road, but eventually the call of family was greater. The independent trucker has spent the past 16 years driving around his home in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“My dad talked me into driving local with dump trucks,” says the father of three young children. “It’s a little easier on the family life, and you make a fair living.”

Trujillo is one of thousands of leased and independent owner-operators who earn a living with hauls of 100 miles or less. Many more make regional hauls of more than 100 miles, but on routes that bring them home every night. Often they are involved in construction and agricultural businesses, and some have second jobs to fill seasonal gaps in work.

Local owner-operators are paid by the mile, load, ton, hour or percentage of revenue – or some combination of the five. They are also more likely to be independent than their over-the-road colleagues, and while long-haul truckers average more income, the difference is much less when compared on a per-hour basis.

“You don’t make a killing, but you do make a living,” Trujillo says.

One advantage of local hauling is that drivers can be insulated from swings in the national economy, says analyst Chris Brady of Commercial Motor Vehicle Consulting. “When there’s a downturn in freight, it’s felt much sharper in long-haul than local,” he says. But short-haul operations are frequently tied to more narrow commodities, such as agricultural and construction hauling, where a bad harvest or a spike in mortgage interest rates could cause a more severe drop in freight availability.

Not only do local haulers get more home time, but they have more control over their time than long-haulers largely because they’re closer to home. “I work however long I want to,” says John Goestenkors, a fourth-generation owner-operator from Pocahontas, Ill. On a warm, early July afternoon, Goestenkors was on his fourth load of the day and figured if he could complete two more, he could go home early.

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It’s not unusual for over-the-road drivers to have a load canceled or to get rescheduled, stranding them at a truck stop hundreds of miles from home. Local work is more predictable, and when plans do change, local haulers aren’t typically stuck waiting for a load.

Bob Slama has had jobs that took him out in a 700-mile radius from his home in Lyons, Ill., near Chicago. Occasionally he enjoyed an unexpected diversion to Memphis, Tenn. But now that he works with a 10-truck carrier, hauling petroleum within a 100-mile circle, he knows what to expect.

“It’s nice to know where you’re going and know when you’re going to finish up,” Slama says. “I can pretty much count on being home. When I hauled over the road, I would get tied up expecting a backhaul that didn’t work out. Maybe you miss your pickup time and miss your load. Then you’re stuck.”

Some drivers, such as Gary Swartz of Lock Haven, Pa., like short-haul operations because proximity to home and a flexible schedule allow them to keep maintenance costs to a minimum. “If you need to do a repair, and you’re over the road, you pay through the nose,” says Swartz, who has been driving Pennsylvania roads for 36 years, occasionally venturing into neighboring states.

While maintenance may be less expensive for local haulers, they do more of it. Swartz and his son, Robert, haul bulk commodities such as coal, calcite, sand and stone. They also haul demolition materials in dump trailers. The nature of the hauls – industrial sites, unimproved roads and city traffic – takes a toll on equipment. Tires and brakes, in particular, wear out more quickly for local haulers.

Gary Swartz says he changes his oil at least every 17,000 miles and usually lubes once between changes. Because some of his hauling is more regional, he can afford the longer interval.

Palisades, Colo., owner-operator Ron Brickey, who hauls asphalt, gravel and sand for United Cos., does all his own PM every 8,000 to 9,000 miles. “I drive a lot of dusty roads, and I’m in a lot of stop-and-go traffic,” Brickey says. “I also have a lot of idle time.”

Like his counterparts, Trujillo changes his oil and greases his chassis more frequently than over-the-road drivers, preferring a complete PM every 10,000 miles. After fuel, tires are his biggest equipment expense, just like over-the-road drivers. But he wears through them about twice as fast because of rougher running conditions and weight.

With his new Sterling, Slama changes the oil every 10,000 miles and maintains brakes and springs. “At least once a month I crawl under the unit and adjust the brakes and use my grease gun whether I need a PM or not,” he says.

Even with the idle time and short runs of local hauling, many local haulers still pile on the miles. Brickey adds 70,000 to 80,000 miles a year to his 1984 Kenworth W900 dump. The truck has 1.8 million miles, which isn’t uncommon for local haulers. One of Slama’s trucks is a Hendrickson, a truck that hasn’t been manufactured in years.

Though he has some control over his loads, Slama prefers to work as much as he can, saying that he could run 24/7 hauling petroleum products if he wanted to. Now working six days a week, he says his revenue and his net income are better than they ever were over the road. He once grossed $3,000 a week hauling regionally but now often brings in more than $4,000.

The kicker is his expenses are much lower. “I’m saving a lot because my typical fuel usage for a week is 300 gallons. You can do that in a day or two on the road. My cost per mile is $1.01, but that’s deceiving.”

That’s because he’s not putting that many miles on his truck. Slama typically makes more than $100 a load. Some loads pay much better, and some loads have fewer miles. The first $100 goes to expenses and the truck, the rest in his pocket. “The cheapest load I took recently was $125,” he says.

Trujillo says he’s paid by the ton, load or trip. But he typically makes $1.10 for the first mile, 10 cents a mile thereafter and additional pay per traffic light, which translates to $15 to $16 an hour. The biggest influence on his profit is fuel, especially since he’s unable to negotiate a surcharge.

“I figure fuel is costing me another $400 to $500 a month more than last year,” he says. “That’s coming out of my pocket.”

He says he grosses $2,000 to $2,500 a week, or around $10,000 a month. Over the road he would make $10,000 to $15,000. But he says the extra money isn’t worth the headache, and he figures he takes home about the same amount after expenses.

Because they work longer hours and spend more on fuel and on out-of-pocket expenses such as meals and hotel rooms, over-the-road drivers often earn less per hour than short-haulers.

“I don’t gross as much, but I net a whole lot more,” Brickey says. “Whenever I was running over the road, I could go through 160 to 170 gallons of fuel a day. Now I only go through 40 or 50 a day. I’ll end up making, in a 10-hour run, $750.” The over-the-road driver, Brickey figures, makes less for that same 10 hours “if you figure the per-mile for that 10 hours,” he says.

Dump drivers, whether in a dump truck or operating a combination vehicle, can do much better than the $38,000 to $41,000 averaged by all owner-operators who drive less than 100 miles per trip. Of the 87 percent of dump haulers who average less than 200 miles per trip, net income averages more than $48,000 a year, according to the 2005 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report. Hazmat hauls also tend to pay above average.

While choice hauls aren’t always available, reputation goes a long way. “If you get out there and run hard for them and don’t hee-haw around, they’ll keep giving you business. If not, they’ll send you packing,” Goestenkors says. “Most of our loads are word of mouth. A lot of it is farm-related. The construction has also built up over the years.”

For owner-operators willing to travel long distances, the money has always been there. But now it’s also there for drivers wanting to stay closer to home, as long as they’re willing to work hard and put up with city traffic and frequent maintenance.

“Right now I’m in here with my brother-in-law working on our motorcycles,” says Gary Swartz. “It’s a typical Saturday. We get to talk shop and work on cars, trucks and motorcycles. I don’t know if I really want to be a modern over-the-road driver. They have to put their home second and their truck first. I worked through the years so I didn’t have to do it. I enjoy doing things like this. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

6 good reasons to stay close to home
Ron Brickey started driving professionally in 1968 after driving trucks in the Marines. He drove locally and over the road, hauling largely between Colorado and the West Coast. A decade later, his personal life changed.

“After we got married, we decided it was time for me to stay home,” Brickey says. He pulled the fifth wheel off his Peterbilt and installed a dump body. Twenty-six years later, he’s still hauling bulk cement locally. “Being home is the biggest reason I stayed local. We’ve got six kids. I’ve gone to a lot of wrestling matches and soccer games.”

Family is also important for Frankie Trujillo, who has a 10-year-old and two younger children. “It’s certainly easier on the family life,” Trujillo says of local hauling. Trujillo’s father even drives one of his trucks.

John Goestenkors, 33, says he’s wanted to drive since he was 16, and has spent most of his career driving local. He has a cousin who drives over the road, but Goestenkors stays local to be part of the family business. He’s leased to his father, and his mother manages his books.

“She knows where I go to and what I make,” he says. “She does all the billing.”

Even when short-haul income doesn’t keep up with long-haul income, home time and family interactions are motivation enough for many owner-operators to stay local.

No work? No problem.
Some local haulers have a hard time finding work 12 months of the year, but they make good use of their slack time. Many have other jobs to supplement seasonal construction or agriculture loads. Others just take it easy.

John Goestenkors hauls rock and grain in a dump trailer and heavy equipment and farm machinery on a lowboy. With his father, who has three rigs, he owns 12 trailers, ensuring they will not miss an available load. When construction or agricultural loads are scarce, Goestenkors operates heavy equipment as part of his dad’s business. “When he’s slow, he helps us,” he says. “It’s a family deal.”

Frankie Trujillo usually works on his truck when bad weather in Florida keeps him idle. But he also has a loader and can clear land if work is really slow.

Ron Brickey’s workday averages eight to 10 hours until Christmas. Then he takes a month off to do truck maintenance and go on vacation.

“I had some problems with my heart a few years ago, so now I pick my own hours,” Gary Swartz says. “If I get played out, I can take a rest. The guy I’m leased to doesn’t push me, and that’s the way I like it.”