2008 Trucker of the Year: Heavy hitter

Bryant owes much of his success to working in the oversized niche and owning his own trailers: a Fontaine double-drop (foreground) and a Great Dane tri-axle step-deck.

After seven years as an owner-operator, Bruce Bryant had a great idea: “I decided to get my truck paid off in 1990,” he says. Once he paid off his 1987 Peterbilt 379, he could run fewer miles and still cover his bills. But no good deed goes unpunished, and losing his tax write-offs for depreciation and interest meant his annual reckoning with Uncle Sam went helter-skelter.

“I wound up owing $22,000 to $24,000,” Bryant says. He refinanced the truck to make ends meet. The lesson he learned: “Either you pay payments and have new equipment, or you have no payments and pay the IRS.”

Bryant chose the former and now drives a 2007 Kenworth W900L. Even with new-truck payments, he enjoys a six-figure net income while spending weekends at his home in Mobile, Ala., with his wife, Renee, and their 13-year-old son, Jaden.

“Over the years I’ve received countless great comments about many of our drivers,” says Roger Marchman, Landstar’s agent in Pensacola, Fla., to whom Bryant is assigned. “But Bruce Bryant is the kind of driver that I have repeatedly received positive comments about from our shippers.”

Bryant, 46, is known for his honesty and dependability, says Roger Lewis, pastor of Bryant’s church, Calvary United Pentecostal. “I have other drivers in our church, and they’re good drivers, but I’ve talked to them, and Bruce has a sterling reputation,” Lewis says. “It’s because he’ll just go the extra mile for someone that has a load.”

Bryant proved his mettle early. At 14, he helped his trucker father overhaul an engine. At 18, he earned a chauffeur’s license and drove for his father’s owner-operator company, Bryant Trucking.

He struck out on his own with Bestway Cartage in 1983, the year he was married, and got a full dose of the owner-operator’s world. Within a year or two, he had to replace an engine in his 1976 Peterbilt. He chose one from a wrecked truck, but it broke the crankshaft. He borrowed to come up with $9,000 to replace that engine with a reconditioned Cummins.

“While I was waiting for it, we bought a little ’76 model International conventional – no sleeper, just a daycab,” he says. Bryant ran Mobile to Wyoming about 15 times, sleeping on a board stretched across the seats. Whenever Renee went with him “just to get out of the house,” he says, she slept on the board while he slept on the floorboard. “It was pretty miserable,” Bryant recalls. “We were young, and that was an adventure.”

Apart from his work ethic, Bryant’s success largely comes from his mastery of oversized hauling and his association with Landstar Systems, one of the most lucrative carriers for owner-operators, based on clients’ income averages at financial services firm ATBS.
“You compare the type of hauling I do with the guy who pulls a van, and it’s apples and oranges,” Bryant says. “It’s a lot more work, a lot more aggravation.”

His typical oversized loads pay $3.50 to $4 per mile. He nets about $1 a mile, including deadhead and out-of-route miles. Bryant expected to finish 2007 with about 116,000 miles, meaning $116,000 in income. In four of the past five years, he’s netted between $110,000 and $120,000.

The aggravation sometimes starts before he cranks the truck. Though he’s familiar with oversized load restrictions in much of the Southeast, where he normally runs, he sometimes has to research legal requirements for a certain load or route and make other arrangements, as well as figure out whether unusual complications are going to eliminate his profit.

He once considered a load out of New Orleans headed for Decatur, Ala., that would pay $26,000. It would be 16 feet wide and 18 feet tall on the trailer, requiring an escort bucket-lift truck for lifting power lines.

“It would take a month to do,” he says. Bryant declined, and the load moved by barge.

Most loads don’t require a bucket lift, but half his oversized loads require a pilot car. Bryant arranges the service, but the customer pays the escort directly.

“The speed limit in most states is 55 mph,” he says. “You can only run daylight hours.” Bigger cities also prohibit oversized loads during peak morning and afternoon rush hours, further cutting into daily miles.

Logistics isn’t the only hassle. Gross vehicle weight often is 90,000 to 100,000 pounds, so “there’s more wear on tires and equipment,” Bryant says. The extra weight and aerodynamic drag mean fuel economy stinks: 5.2 miles per gallon with an oversized load. “It’s like pulling an open parachute,” he says.

Bryant books most loads himself, often by accepting automated phone calls from Landstar, and he’s developed a quick trigger finger. “Sometimes I hang up before the message is finished. I call, and it’s gone.” Other times he calls his Landstar agent.

Renee occasionally books loads from home, but says she prefers to focus on home-schooling Jaden. She contributes to the business by keeping up with expenses and revenue before presenting them to their accountant. “I make sure the money’s right,” she says.

She also manages other aspects of their finances, such as making sure there’s no repeat of the 1990 tax fiasco. “Since then, she has set aside $750 a week for income taxes,” Bryant says. Renee keeps business checking and savings accounts fat enough to cover maintenance costs. “She puts aside money I don’t even know we’ve got,” such as for individual retirement accounts, he says.

Bryant doesn’t track cost per mile regularly, but he keeps sufficient tabs on current rates and costs to accurately assess any given load.

“Sometimes I get a calculator and figure out what a load’s paying,” he says. “My cutoff is at least $2.50 a mile, and that’s open step-deck loads. You have to know what it’s going to take to succeed.”

Fuel is by far his biggest cost, especially given his poor fuel efficiency. Before starting a haul, he checks prices at three or four on-route truck stops where Landstar has discounts.

Bryant says he forgoes the potential fuel savings of driving an aerodynamic tractor simply “because I like the classic type,” such as his W900L and the Peterbilts before it. When he’s not hauling oversized, he limits his speed to 67 mph, gaining at least some fuel savings. And he’s careful to practice progressive shifting and slow acceleration and deceleration.

Landstar passes on 100 percent of fuel surcharges, which an agent will quote as a per-mile figure or a percentage of revenue. On oversized loads, that can be as much as 18 percent. “So on a $1,000 load, $180 goes directly into my pocket,” Bryant says. One recent load paid a surcharge of 38 cents per mile.

About 80 percent of his loads are oversized, and most of his hauls are between Texas and the Carolinas. Every month or two, a Texas load involves sending a trailer across the border. “Most times it comes back in one or two days,” Bryant says. “One time they kept it for two weeks.” Such unplanned vacations at a truck stop aren’t all bad, considering the customer coughs up $100 per hour detention, up to 10 hours a day. “I get 100 percent because I own the trailer,” he says.

Bryant uses his Fontaine double-drop for most loads. He uses his Great Dane step-deck when oversized load demand is down.

Sticking to a four-year trade cycle, about 500,000 miles, helps avoid most major maintenance. Bryant has the tools to perform minor jobs such as adjusting brakes and changing lube, filters and brake pads.

Though he’s home most weekends, Bryant finds little time for hobbies. He works sporadically on a 1977 Corvette he bought in 1982. He likes to fish, often with Jaden, on vacations. The family owns a time-share in Branson, Mo., and swaps with owners in other locales. “We’ve stayed all over – Orlando, Pennsylvania, Virginia,” he says.

Time off also has been spent addressing family needs in recent years. Bruce’s mother, Peggy Bryant, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, but she’s been cancer-free since getting treatment.

Renee’s mother, Mary Talley, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about five years ago, then came with her husband to live at the Bryants’ home for a month after Hurricane Katrina knocked out the Talleys’ power in 2005. She died in 2006.

“He didn’t hesitate to go off the road and help them immediately,” says Gregg Nelson, a Landstar Carrier Group vice president. “If I know him well enough, I know he didn’t stop with family and in-laws.”

Lewis, his pastor, says Bryant’s had that strong sense of compassion, as well as a disciplined personal and professional life, ever since he met him 20 years ago.

“He and his wife are very good business people,” Lewis says. “They could have done differently, but they have been very conservative in their business dealings and make a good income because of his hard work and their thriftiness. He had the choice of just getting by or doing well, and he applied himself.”

A Landstar family
Bruce Bryant’s parents, J.D. and Peggy Bryant, used to be team drivers for Landstar System. “My dad still drives for Landstar,” Bruce says. Peggy stays home, but still checks the computer for loads.

“He won the very first Roadstar Award – he and my mom together – the first year they gave them, in 1991,” says Bruce, who himself received the fleet’s highest honor for safety and service in 2002.

“J.D. was just a class act,” says Pat O’Malley, president of the Landstar Carrier Group, who’s known father and son for two decades. J.D.’s father did regional hauling in a straight truck.

Bruce and his wife, Renee, “live the life they preach, just the consummate family,” O’Malley says. “Most people who are successful, there’s always a strong presence behind them. Renee’s certainly been a big part of their success.”

Renee rides with her husband once or twice a year, though she used to ride more frequently. “I’d like to go more,” she says. Their son, Jaden, has ridden, including one trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Landstar has one of the industry’s most rigorous owner-operator screenings and especially high hurdles for heavy hauls, approving drivers for ever more challenging loads only if they demonstrate the right skills. “Bruce has achieved the highest clearance,” O’Malley says.

Faith with works
Bruce Bryant obviously is an active member of Calvary United Pentecostal Church. He serves as worship leader, Sunday school director and Sunday school teacher for young married couples. Not so apparent is how well he applies Christian values outside the church doors.

“If he has a fault, it’s that he’s a sucker for a sad story,” says Roger Lewis, his pastor. “I wouldn’t want to think of how many he’s fed at the truck stop. I tell him, ‘That’s how they make their living, Bruce: panhandling.'”

Bryant says he’s familiar with that argument, as well as the assumption that beggars will buy booze with any money they get. “But you don’t know that,” he says. Even if the recipient makes a bad choice, “that’s not me, that’s them. I can’t help what they do with it.”

He once met a homeless man in Jacksonville, Fla., who was planning to sleep under a bridge in near-freezing temperatures. “I went into my truck and gave him two blankets, a coat of mine, and said, ‘Maybe this will keep you warm.’ I’ve never been there, but I’d want somebody to help me.”

Bryant has the same attitude with fellow Landstar owner-operators in difficult situations, says Gregg Nelson, a vice president who has worked closely with him. “I know he rescues a lot of people,” Nelson says. “He does a lot of that stuff under the radar.”

Bryant says he takes particular concern for Landstar newcomers, advising them where to haul and where not to, and whom to call within the company for certain needs. “If I had had some help when I first leased, it would have been a lot easier,” he says.

He’s also generous with his church, missions and other charitable organizations. His charitable giving exceeded $20,000 in 2006.

“I’m not bragging, just stating the fact,” he says. “Scripture says faith without works is dead. That’s the works part: You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is.”

As Overdrive’s 2008 Trucker of the Year, Bruce Bryant will receive:

  • Prize package, including travel bag, from Alliance Brand Parts
  • A seat from Bostrom Seating
  • Duffle bag, jacket and hat, plus heavy-duty lubricants from Castrol
  • Accident reporting kit and first aid kit from Caterpillar, in addition to company tumbler, T-shirt, hat, mouse pad and a model of Cat C15 engine
  • A Model 29 LTD Black Chrome limited edition CB radio from Cobra Electronics Corp.
  • Two steer tires from Continental Tire North America Inc.
  • A refrigerator/freezer from Dometic Corp.
  • Prize package including a leather jacket and Mobil Delvac oil from ExxonMobil
  • Set of steer tires from Firestone
  • $100 prepaid fuel card from Fleet One
  • Jacket, golf shirt, koozie, tire gauge and hat from Fontaine Trailer Co.
  • A model Cascadia truck, fuel card, hat and calendar from Freightliner Trucks
  • Jacket and polo shirt from Great Dane Trailers
  • Coat and two model trucks from Howes Lubricator
  • Prize package from International Parts
  • Prize package including leather jacket, hat, model truck and leather bound logbook from International Truck and Engine Corp.
  • Prize package from Internet Truckstop
  • A leather bomber jacket and hat from Kenworth Truck Co.
  • Jacket from Mack Trucks Inc.
  • A set of steer tires, winter jacket and hat from Michelin North America Inc.
  • Racing jacket from NAPA Truck Parts
  • All-expense-paid trips to the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Ky.; the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas; the CCJ Trucking Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and a trip anywhere in the continental United States, with $1,000, from Overdrive.
  • Weekly CDs from Overdrive Top Ten Countdown
  • Bi-weekly CDs from Overdrive Trucking News
  • Humanitarian Bowl jacket and a rewards card from Roady’s Truck Stops
  • Train horn, hat, T-shirt and license plate frame from United Pacific Industries Inc.
  • MVP business kit from Volvo Trucks North America Inc.
  • Delhi XM SkyFi 2 digital radio and a boombox from XM Radio
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