Team players

Jack and Judy Tripp of Bandera, Texas, have been team driving for three years. A 40-year veteran truck driver, Jack was joined by wife Judy after she sold the family-owned hardware store. “I enjoy getting to see the United States and getting paid for it,” Judy notes.

Phil and Diane Madsen spend 90 percent of their time in a 126-in. sleeper cab. It’s home, as well as beach house and mountain cabin. The 2006 Volvo VNL 64300 in which they haul expedited freight for FedEx Custom Critical has all the comforts of home without any of the constraints, Phil says. The Madsens eat, sleep and blog from their roving residence.

To many couples similar to the Madsens, team driving isn’t just a job, it’s a way of life. The lifestyle doesn’t fit many couples, but for those with complementary skill sets who are suited to long hours together, team driving offers built-in advantages, including good earning potential.

Husband-wife teams have advantages over other types of teams, says David Hill, spokesman for FedEx Custom Critical. “The things like trust and respect, which have helped them build a happy marriage, also make them a great driving team,” he says.

For example, Thomas and Jo Ann Withers, leased to Prime, tend to divide the work according to strengths and preferences. “He takes care of the outside, and I take care of the inside,” Jo Ann says.

With the Madsens, “For the most part we are equally capable of doing the things that need to be done,” Phil says. “I make sure the truck’s running right and everything’s taken care of on that. She does all of the paperwork because I hate it.”

This division of labor gives teams a significant edge over solo drivers, he says. “Solo driving takes a lot more energy than team driving. For example, if a team pulls in for a fuel stop, one will refuel the truck, and one will go inside and take care of picking stuff up and paying for the fuel. That can really save time.”

The other major advantage, Phil says, is speed of delivery. “Team drivers can keep a truck moving nonstop cross-country, and that opens us up to freight opportunities that solo drivers couldn’t get.”

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Team operations give FedEx the flexibility to cover more ground per shipment and more loads per customer, Hill says. “In the expedited freight industry, a load can come up at any time, and these loads can take our owner-operators anywhere,” he says. “FedEx has some very successful solo drivers. But in complying with hours-of-service regulations, they can’t drive the straight-through distances that a team can.”

For Chris Martin, fleet manager for the Witherses, teams maximize customer service, production and profitability. “Some customers require that we have a team to haul their load,” he says. “It’s more miles per day that that particular truck is able to run.”

Teams are strategically important to Schneider National, says Dan Van Alstine, head of truckload services. “The most important thing is that it gives us access to market opportunities that require expedited transit or, because of the value of the load, require constant surveillance,” he says. The pay productive teams can earn, moreover, is a huge benefit for the drivers and for company recruiters, he says.

According to the 2007 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report, 83 percent of owner-operator teams had average hauls greater than 200 miles, averaging 125,020 miles a year. Solo owner-operators in similar applications averaged 100,608 miles.

With those additional miles come extra revenue and extra net income – as well as additional variable expenses, such as fuel and tires. “You’re going to have to spend more money to make more money,” says Thomas Withers. “You’re only going to make 25 to 35 percent more than an average solo driver makes, not double.”

For example, at Tri-State Motor Transit, where owner-operator teams are paid at 70 percent of revenue, teams average $1.82 a mile to solo operators’ $1.50, says a company recruitment officer.

Among the 400 large and medium-sized carriers surveyed for pay and benefit data by the National Transportation Institute, none has owner-operator mileage or percentage rates that differ between solo and team, says NTI owner Gordon Klemp. However, 54 percent of those carriers offer team sign-on bonuses that range from $2,000 to $5,000. Those bonuses are normally paid in six months, Klemp says.

According to the Market Behavior Report, 12 percent of owner-operators drive team. Of those, just more than half are married to their driving partners. Most of the rest are related, such as the Pittsburgh father-son team of Kevin Maxwell Sr. and Kevin Maxwell Jr.

Kevin Sr. worked 25 years in housing, but that industry’s slump forced him to look at other types of work, including trucking. “I said, ‘You know what, my kids are grown. Why not?'” The Maxwells went through training and orientation together and have been on the road more than a year, leased to Schneider.

“It’s not the same to drive with anyone else,” says Kevin Sr. “Even after driving with that person for a while, I don’t know them well, but who do I know better than my son?”

Kevin Jr.’s quirks, habits and tastes in music and food are similar to his father’s, and they know each other well – all of which makes for a comfortable working environment. “We are our own separate people,” Kevin Sr. says, “but my relationship with my son, I think, is better now. I don’t think I would want to do this with anyone else.”

Kevin Jr. takes the night shift at the wheel, and his father drives during the day. Both say that sleeping in a moving truck is the most difficult part of their job.

Part of the sleep challenge stems from the 2005 changes in the hours-of-service regulations, including the requirement that any split sleeper-berth schedule include one segment of at least eight hours in the bunk.

Kevin Sr. says it’s still more like being on vacation than being on the clock. “I’ve gotten to see buffalo, and I saw a bald eagle in Oregon last week,” he says.

Jo Ann Withers agrees that work doesn’t feel like work when the team relationship is good. “When people ask us when we’re coming off the road, we tell them we’re not,” she says. “We like what we do, we’re proud of what we do, and we’re good at what we do.”

Solo vs. team
Phil and Diane Madsen, together for 12 years, have spent the past five on the road. Moving from separate careers to shared space and success was a surprisingly easy transition, they say. “There are a fair number of couples we know that express amazement at this arrangement,” Phil says.

Trust is critical to their professional and personal relationship, Diane says. “You have a sense of security when you have a trusted driver in the truck.”

“You’re less vulnerable because there’s someone here to look out for your best interests,” Phil says.

Thomas and Jo Ann Withers, leased to Prime, didn’t enter team driving with the built-in trust that is the backbone of a marriage. The Withers were a driving team before they were a couple, according to Thomas.

Still, they echo the Madsens’ sentiment. “While you’re sleeping back there, trusting the person who is driving is necessary, and not everyone can do that,” Jo Ann says.

“Both of us have driven solo,” Thomas says. “When we started driving as a team it was strictly business, but we built a relationship out of it.”

The transition from solo to team driving isn’t easy. “I had to change my ways a lot,” Thomas says, “because I had been driving longer than she had. I had to humble myself to where the work that she does is just as important as what I do.”

“If they’re a new team, we do spend more time with them as it relates to how to manage time and how to deal with another associate within the truck,” says Dan Van Alstine of Schneider National.

In a Truckers News survey, only 19 percent of solo drivers said they would consider team driving. More than half the drivers who would consider it were married, but Thomas recommends they think twice.

“I wouldn’t suggest a driver trying to talk his wife into coming out on the road if she’s not in the profession to begin with,” he says. He and Jo Ann have been successful at it, he says, because they both chose trucking as a profession before they chose each other.

Tax rules for teams
Husband-wife owner-operator teams have the simplest arrangement for income-tax purposes because both incomes count as one.

Unmarried owner-operator teams have two options for structuring their business relationship for tax purposes, says John Turner, CPA at The Trucker’s Accountant in Houston. “They have to do something to show that they are partners, or they have to hire the other person as an employee,” he says.

If the team declares a general partnership, each driver is taxed like a sole proprietor. The other option requires one driver to be responsible for payroll and related taxes and liable for the team’s lease to a company. The ensuing paperwork means extra time and expense.