‘Best thing that ever happened’ to former owner-operator team

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Updated Jun 7, 2013

Pete Carpenter, of Nashville, Tenn., spent 25 years as a one-truck owner-operator, many of them team driving with his wife, Christine. After working for North American Van Lines and FedEx Express, in 2003 the Carpenters finally settled on FedEx Ground.

Christine and Pete Carpenter started as team drivers and now run Pac Trucking, a small fleet based in Nashville, Tenn.Christine and Pete Carpenter started as team drivers and now run Pac Trucking, a small fleet based in Nashville, Tenn.

In 2008, “We decided we’d had enough of being on the road and started purchasing other contractors’ trucks,” Pete Carpenter recalls. That year they bought three small fleets. Then they added three used Volvos, growing the new Pac Trucking to 19 tractors by 2009.

Their career track is a good example of what the U.S. Small Business Administration celebrates this month with its National Small Business Week, June 17-21. Many owner-operators make good money and enjoy their work without growing to a small fleet. But it’s worthwhile noting what the Carpenters learned about operating under their own authority and expanding beyond one truck.

STAY ON TOP OF PAPERWORK. “That will make you or break you,” Carpenter says. File papers on time. Use financial services providers.

PLAN TIME OFF AROUND FREIGHT. “Take your vacation when there’s ice and snow and no one’s got freight,” he says.

USE A PAYROLL SERVICE. The Carpenters use ADP, which provides weekly paychecks and handles financial reports and taxes. “Why would you want to do that if someone else will do it for $92 a week?”

USE A GOOD ACCOUNTANT. “They’re paid to keep up with that stuff,” says Carpenter, who tried to do his own taxes at first.

USE A GOOD SHOP. He ran his own at first, then sold it to his head mechanic. “He’s got seven full-time employees. He still fixes my trucks.”

ADD AT LEAST TWO TRUCKS. Having three or more trucks is best suited to the business model of a small fleet.

FOCUS ON PREVENTIVE MAINTENANCE. Each of their trucks gets a thorough inspection every 15,000 miles to help avoid expensive downtime on the road.

TREAT DRIVERS WELL. Pac Trucking sets pay rates above average, and doesn’t shirk on equipment needs – Sirius XM, good seats, mattresses changed every few years. “We know what it takes to be comfortable out there. Team life is rough,” says Carpenter, who has 10 full-time teams.

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FOCUS ON SAFETY. Pac Trucking gives a 2 cents per mile bonus for any month when there are no violations or customer complaints.  That and other safety initiatives have paid off: The company went more than 8 million miles without an at-fault accident until a minor trailer scrape this year.

The Carpenters’ last five years have seen no shortage of challenges. But Carpenter doesn’t shortchange their earlier years, when they embarked upon “our adventure of adventures.”

“Everyone thought we’d lost our gourds,” he recalls. “We sold everything and bought a truck. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”