Gabriel Scott, an owner-operator with a three-truck fleet, said he had been chasing payment from broker TQL for almost five months when he decided to do something drastic, something most owner-ops have probably dreamed of -- face-to-face confronting a broker over nonpayment.
Nonpayment impacts untold numbers of owner-operators annually. Recourse is often limited to a few wait-and-see approaches or bond claims. But Scott isn't like most owner-operators, and the story leading up to him spray painting "TQL PAY ME MY $8,000" on the side of his reefer trailer and driving it right up to TQL's office in Ohio shows a novel, principled approach that seems to have paid off.
The following is Scott's own account of the events that led up to the TQL showdown on Wednesday.
The saga kicked off in June, when one of Scott's drivers delivered a TQL-brokered load to a customer. The delivery and all the paperwork went over uneventfully, until Scott heard from his factoring company.
"I went to send the documents to my factoring company, and in my email the next day TQL said there's a claim on the load," said Scott. "The driver said the customer never said anything, so I called TQL and they said the customer claimed there's a hole in my trailer the size an eagle can fly through."
A confused Scott instructed his driver to "stop everything you're doing and take a picture," using his iPhone, which timestamps pictures. Just two days after the claim, Scott provided pictures and full documentation of the load successfully delivering -- without a big hole in the trailer. That should do it, right?
"No reply" from TQL, said Scott. The load was scheduled to pay around $2,000, and Scott said that if TQL had merely stiffed him on the $2,000, he probably would have taken it on the chin.
"If it would have just been a $2,000 load, I probably wouldn't have gone to TQL's office," he said. But "according to them, it's the policy of TQL to not release owed money pertaining to the carrier until all claims are solved."
That meant that a few previous hauls, which had zero claims on them and already scheduled payments lined up, wouldn't pay either. The total came to just about $8,000, a devastating number in today's rates environment.
"TQL would not acknowledge that, and the factoring company had to rebate me the sum of $6,000. It's hard times, I had to find a way to pay them $6,000 because they hastily took the money from me," Scott said. "I was going to try to get on a payment plan, maybe $500 out of the paycheck. ... I'm still in business and have cargo insurance."
Then begins the long "customer service phone call" nightmare sequence. "I called them every other day and then every other week, they kept saying 'we are working on it, we are working on it,'" said Scott.
All summer and into fall, Scott persisted. If he had a dime for every time TQL declined to rule on his claim, he figures he might not even need the $8,000 anymore.
A few weeks back, Scott, like so many other owner-operators, sought the support of a trade group, in his case the National Owner Operators Association, a relatively new outfit headed by WM On Time Trucking's Mike Boston.
Scott had to somewhat come clean with the NOOA crowd, as NOOA's official stance remains a total boycott of broker TQL over similar rate transparency and payment issues its members have reported.
Scott posted on NOOA's Facebook page, saying "look, I know nobody is supposed to haul with TQL, but this is what happened." Scott also made a few posts on LinkedIn, which gained similar traction and support among drivers, also among TQL's staff.
Note that the customer got their shipment, TQL got their cut of the load, Scott paid his driver, but only the small trucking business got cut out of the agreed-upon deal.
"If you are driving for me, regardless of whatever, I pay my driver," said Scott.
The response to Scott from the NOOA crowd was overwhelming. Other owner-operators commented with similar horror stories, some owed $7,000, some owed $11,000, all from TQL.
Scott likes to run between Washington, Texas, and New York. That means over all those months he frequently passed by TQL's Ohio headquarters, turning the nonpayment issue in his mind.
Finally, about two weeks later, Scott reached a breaking point. "I told TQL 'I will be showing up at the TQL office with three trucks and I will block all the entrances until I get paid,'" he said. "I was going to make a statement."
Importantly, Scott didn't say this in a menacing way, but he didn't take no for an answer, either. Ultimately, Scott didn't expect his stunt to pan out as well as it did, but he had actually done it before.
"I've done it before with Coyote," he said. "There was a situation where I was delivering a load in Atlanta and I was waiting for over 18 hours. I called the customer support and nobody replied, or they just told me to keep waiting. This was supposed to be a reefer load. I canceled two other loads for this one."
Eventually, in desperation, Scott told Coyote "don't even pay me to deliver it, I'm willing to withdraw this load for free, don't pay me for detention and don't pay me for a layover. I have an emergency with my daughter and I have to go."
This was intended as a simple 200-or-so-mile haul from Savannah to Atlanta he'd picked up to get back to his home base in Texas. He selected the load while in Jacksonville, simply looking for a run to get him moving back West.
With ample time at the receiver, doubting his reefer load would get accepted after 18 hours, Scott googled "Coyote office" and found they had a location in Atlanta. "I drove my truck and parked my truck right in front," he said. "I knew that action was going to be taken immediately. I knew that the police are going to be called and tell me to move my truck. I know they can arrest me, but then I know I can post the bond. That's always on my mind, that's the worst case."
For Scott, the payment issue sits second to principles, morals, duty.
"I went to protest my opinion. You guys are not right," he said. "I tried all the legal ways to get paid. A little deviance is OK sometimes."
In the case of Coyote, Scott said they paid the same day for the load he delivered in Atlanta.
TQL, by late October, was still stringing Scott along. A representative named "Bill" took on Scott's claim and promised to personally oversee it and make amends where possible after seeing Scott post on LinkedIn that he'd be visiting TQL's office.
"You are owing me for over 100 days now. What happens if nobody takes it up? Do I wait for a year? I just got to keep waiting? There's no infinite time to wait," said Scott. "I told them that over the phone," and Bill said he'd "expedite the case, and the claim is going to be taken care of."
Scott said he would only delay visiting TQL's office because of Bill's outreach. "I want to show you I can be reasonable," he said. "Just communicate with me. If you communicated with me, we wouldn't have a problem."
Two more days passed. Bill called Scott to say he was working on the claim and that they'd release the funds, but only $6,000 -- withholding the original claim amount of about $2,000.
Now, more paperwork. TQL, according to Scott, tried to dispute his paperwork, saying his factoring company had not issued an invoice, although Scott had provided that documentation. Scott had the factoring company send the invoice again, but still no word on the $8,000.
At this point, Scott had a day off and just so happened to be in Ohio. He was planning to take the wife and kids on vacation the next week. "It would be nice to have $8,000 in my pocket," he said, so he called TQL for an update. Once again, the rep who picked up asked for his MC number. Once again, he's put on hold. Once again, they tell him Bill is on another call. Once again he patiently waits to hear back.
Scott said he'd wait on hold for Bill, but Bill wasn't around. Enough was enough.
"This is not a threat, this is an action," said Scott to TQL.
Scott's wife backed him up, briefly speaking to TQL on the phone about the long, dreadful saga.
"My previous message was I only have a tiny bit of patience with TQL, I already woke up on the backfoot waiting for them to call on me, so now I'm going to take action," he said. "I took a shower and got dressed. I was 22 minutes away, but I stopped at Walmart and got spray paint."
Scott wrote the now-infamous message on his trailer and headed over. His two other trucks were on standby, ready to come help him out. Mike Boston of NOOA, according to Scott, said they could have 20 trucks down there if he needed backup.
"I didn't come here to steal, I didn't come here to fight, I came to send a message," said Scott.
What happened next will probably go down as something of a legend in trucking lore. Scott pulled up to TQL, got the police called on him by security, and went on Facebook Live. Hundreds viewed the stream live, and many countless thousands more since then. TQL faculty filmed the event from inside the building. Some TQL staffers came and spoke to Scott outside.
When the cops showed up, Scott showed appropriate restraint. "I told the security guard, I'm not here for you. Call the cops, I'm not a criminal," he said.
"The police told me I got to move, that this is private property and I can't protest here or it's going to be a criminal trespass," said Scott. "I said you can't arrest me, I have business here. I'm not stupid, knowing everything that happens in this country. I obeyed the cops," driving his truck and trailer out of the parking lot.
Parked nearby in his truck, Scott got a call from TQL, only this time they were the ones pleading.
"I told you I was going to show up and I wasn't joking," he said. "You saw my calls, you see all these calls, you see all these complaints and you don't take them seriously. I'm not the only carrier! If it was $1,000, I'd let it go. I wouldn't take action. But let's calculate how many carriers these guys are owing at least $1,000. It shouldn't be done that way," Scott summarized his conversation with TQL. "You have a claim. I have insurance for a reason. I have $250,000 in cargo insurance. I pay $1,800 every month. This month, I'll start paying $2,100. Why are you going to tell me you don't want to file a claim on my insurance? Do this legally. Pay me my money and go through the procedure and file a claim and get your money from insurance."
Yet insurance would ask for verification of the claim, would ask for pictures, Scott said. "The insurance lawyer would go to court to fight that, that's how the big boys play. I'm a small carrier, but that's all I wanted," he said.
At this point, Bill noted TQL had paid Scott about $5,800, releasing the payments on hold while his $2,000 claim processed. But Scott didn't see the money in his account. He didn't see any confirmation emails or missed calls.
"I'd be happy to take your word for it, but my wife said you guys are paying today." he said. "You're going to see me."
TQL continued to promise they had posted payment, and asked Scott to take down his videos and comments online. After waiting to hear from his factoring company that the money had indeed cleared, Scott mercifully obliged. (The factoring company here may have been slow in reporting the payment as well, and Scott said he's now going with another factoring company.)
"If a broker puts me on Carrier 411 or something, I want to rectify that issue and have them take me down off there. I can't make money if I have bad reports on Carrier 411, and I don't want the same for them," said Scott.
With that, Scott deleted the videos and comments, also scrubbing TQL's name from his trailer. "Mission accomplished," he said. TQL promised to pay him the remaining $2,000 on November 26.
TQL sees annual revenues north of $8 billion, but Gabriel Scott successfully faced the broker down with a few key tools -- first off, excellent documentation and prompt communication, the hallmarks of any solid owner-operator business.
Secondly, Scott kept cool. The nightmare situation of nonpayment and revolving-door customer service loops could drive almost anyone crazy, but he stayed focused and on topic.
Finally, he managed to do what so many massive trucking organizations and advocates can't seem to achieve: Putting a human face on the American owner-operator.
"When I drive past here tomorrow, they'll remember this carrier," Scott said. By meeting TQL face to face, he was able to impress upon them the urgency of their nonaction. "Did you know you owe this MC number money? Now you know me, and every other person in the building knows my truck and my MC and knows that one department is lacking. ... Loads are literally less than $2.20/ mile. With the payments to the drivers, I don't even make 30%. If I'm running late on a $5,800 payment, I probably paid over $4,800 just running the load," he said.
In that way, Scott showed TQL the face of a man who works hard to haul loads across the country. It wasn't a snarling, rabid face of anger, but that of a business man who stands behind his work and holds others to the same standards.
In the end, Scott thanked TQL for finally coming around. "Please help pass on the appropriate information that TQL paid me and the staffer Bill handled it quickly after reaching out to him that I was coming to display my artwork," he said.
Scott doesn't want any hate or anger directed at TQL, and feels satisfied with how the incident played out.
TQL did not respond to a request for comment on this story. If we do hear back from TQL on this matter, we'll be happy to update the story.