Trucking in a recession? Owner-operators sound off, messages mixed depending on niche

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Updated Oct 28, 2022


In today's edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast, we drop back two weeks in time to the site of the Mayberry Truck Show in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, where despite rain threatening from remnants of Hurricane Ian, scads of owners and operators showed out in force for the second annual event at the home location of Bottomley Enterprises.

Our own video editor Lawson Rudisill was at the show, and, given fairly recent news of negative GDP growth in both the first and second quarters -- satisfying one popular definition of a recession -- and a stock market down in a big way that week, Rudisill surveyed a variety of owners he caught up with on what they were seeing in their operations. (All photos from the show in this story are by Rudisill.)

Howes logoOverdrive Radio sponsor Howes is offering a prize pack including bottles of anti-gel fuel treatments Diesel Treat and Diesel Lifeline, among other things, to callers to the podcast message line: 615-852-8530. Got a winter fuel-gelling-related story in your past? Tell it to us in a message, or relay your own experience with Howes products. We'll be back in touch for your shipping information.Answers to the question of just whether owners and operators were seeing indicators of a bona fide recession at that moment ran the gamut from definitive yeses to more positive outlooks, based on individual experiences that I think will be illuminating for many.

One common theme: For those staked in trucking for the long-term who can keep close rein on costs, hang on tight and, whatever happens in the wider economy, odds are the tight grip will sustain you. 

Operator Austin Kiser, who hauls with a pristine 2018 Peterbilt 389 glider for his father's Rosedale, Virginia-based Greg Kiser Trucking, emphasized a have/have-not dynamic for freight lately. Kiser is trucking along well in his bulk business, still commanding higher rates given the rise in the cost of operations. 

austin kiser standing in front of a semi-truckStay tuned for an update on the rig – there’s been quite a lot of work put in, particularly on the 6nz Cat, since we last saw Kiser in spring of 2021 at the East Coast Truckers Jamboree at Kenly 95 in North Carolina.

For others, noted Kiser, rising rates were just not keeping up, and he worried that if the wider economy continues to generally slow or falls off a cliff, equipment/parts costs stood a good chance of overwhelming those who've gotten into the business buying equipment during recent-years cost highs. "I wouldn't really call it a recession," he said of the current environment, but considering inflationary pressures, "when it does go down, it's not going to be good."

Equipment availability, at least when it comes to new-truck orders, likely won’t improve any time very soon -- that could mean continued high costs for for new and used trucks, mentioned by Kiser in the podcast, longer-term. 

I had the opportunity to sit in with a select group of dealers last week here in Nashville as part of Overdrive sister publication Trucks, Parts, Service’s Successful Dealer awards program, now in its 10th year. Editor Lucas Deal asked this question to every dealer there: “When do you expect new equipment production rates to return to 2019 levels?”

Dealer sentiment shown on question and answer boardAs shown, the question-and-answer was done anonymously, on a big board where dealers in attendance indicated their best answer with stickers on several choices. A few staunch pessimists among the group actually chose “Never,” but most seemed to coalesce around the “2024 or later” answer.

Said Massey Motor Freight fleet owner Troy Massey, also showing at Mayberry, about those inflationary pressures: "Times are about as tough as what you can get right now in trucking" when it comes to costs for fuel, insurance, equipment,  parts and more. Yet: "I may be wrong because I'm optimistic," but "I don't think it's going to get any worse." Here's hoping he's right. Take a listen:

Also in the podcast:

dealer sentiment on question-and-answer board about sales growthWith regard to recessionary pressures on the dealer business, most dealers actually expected sales growth looking out the next few months compared to the same in 2021 -- for some a result of high demand on limited inventory.

TPS's Lucas Deal, presenting results from his ongoing surveying of a big group of dealers, too, made note of surprisingly sanguine attitudes around their own businesses' prospects, provided freight demand continues at recent-history levels. Surveyed within the last months, more dealers than not predicted the "next six months will be better" for their businesses than conditions at the present moment. Among those in the equipment aftermarket, attitudes were more mixed, with growing caution around prospects. 

For most owners and operators you'll hear in today's podcast, clearly there's a similarly growing level of worry, of cautious outlooks on what could be coming. In addition to Austin Kiser and Troy Massey, here's who you'll be hearing from: 

Owner-operator John highleyAn owner-operator whose big win at a truck show earlier in the year regular readers may well remember is John Highley, pictured with his Landstar-leased W9. It won the primary kids’ choice award at the first annual Large Cars & Guitars truck show in Kodak, Tennessee, in May. In the podcast, he also details his unique concert-tour hauling experience, recently with punk rock band Green Day.

Mel Williams and her truckOwner-operator Mel Williams (The Trucking Unicorn around social media) was showing her 2003 Peterbilt 379 at Mayberry. Williams is leased with the 5F fleet, and noted she was beginning to feel the pressure of declining rates but had managed to stay profitable, and optimistic, in spite of all.

John Rooney with Ford CL9000 caboverOperator John Rooney, moving LTL freight with R&L Carriers, noted "slow" had been the business watchword for him in recent weeks. Recession is here, he said, "don't let anybody fool you." He was showing his "toy" in this Ford CL9000 cabover.

Brent HallMinnesota-based owner-operator Brent Hall emphasized that those with trucking staying power, in it for the long-term, would likely be fine through the highs and lows -- with smart business practices.

Operator Brand BurroughsOperator Brandon Burroughs noted that while inflation is obvious all around, including in the rates the bulk-hauling business he pulls with has been able to get from of its own customers as costs rise, business has been holding strong, at least for him, despite the slowdown stories that rise to the fore.

Podcast transcript:

Todd Dills: Hey everybody, it's Todd Dills, your host for this October 14th, 2022, edition of the Overdrive Radio podcast where we're going to drop back two weeks in time to the site of the Mayberry Truck Show in Mount Airy, North Carolina, where despite rain threatening from remnants of Hurricane Ian, scads of owners and operators showed out in force for the second annual event at the home location of Bottomley Enterprises there. Our own Lawson Rudisill was out at the show, and given recent news of negative GDP growth in both the first and second quarters and a stock market on a wild ride, mostly down, particularly in the week right before the show, we wanted to know the answer to the question of just whether truck owners felt we were at that moment in or shortly due for bona fide recession.

Answers ran the gamut from definitive yesses to more positive outlooks based on individual experiences that I think will be illuminating. One common theme: if you're in it for the long term when it comes to trucking, and you can keep a close rein on costs as much as possible, hang on tight and whatever happens, we'll come out on the other side. We're going to hear a bevy of voices.

Mel Williams: The Trucking Unicorn on social media. My name is Mel. Everybody just calls me “the trucking unicorn.”

John Highley: My name's John Highley. I've been leased to Landstar for 20 years.

Troy Massey: My name's Troy Massey, owner of Tri-State Vacuum and Rental and also Massey Motor Freight out of Nacogdoches, Texas.

John Rooney: My name's John Rooney. I've been driving for almost 31 years.

Brent Hall: Brent Hall from North Mankato, Minnesota.

Brandon Burroughs: My name is Brandon Burroughs. I'm out of Zebulon, North Carolina.

Todd Dills: And one more.

Austin Kiser: My name's Austin Kiser and I work for my dad, Greg Kiser. Him and my grandpa, which is Gary Kiser, we have about 35 trucks, pneumatic tanks, dump trailers and haul cattle. It's Greg Kiser Trucking or Gary Kiser Trucking. Rosedale, Virginia.

Todd Dills: Operator Kiser was showing a pristine 2018 389 Glider and spread axle dump trailer that we featured before in Overdrive. The tractor, anyway. Stay tuned for an update on the rig. There’s been quite a lot of work put in particularly on the 6nz CAT since we last saw Kiser in the spring of 2021. Here's what he had to say about his and his family's small fleet business in the current environment, with the prospects for success for any trucking company at the moment very much dependent on...

Austin Kiser: …what you're hauling, really. The work's out there right now. Fuel price is way too high, but really right now with fuel surcharge and stuff, if you haul the right things, it ain't too bad, but I think this economy, everything's booming. Things are so high right now, trucks, trailers. They cost double what they used to and these finance companies and stuff that are... I just think it's going to be a bad thing when it finally drops because you got so much into something you won’t be able to get that much out of it. I wouldn't really call it a recession, but definitely it's changed in the last 10 years a lot. Prices have went up on everything. The parts, you can't get any parts right now. They're so high when you do get them, you can't half afford them. Like I said, when it does go down, it's not going to be good.

Todd Dills: Equipment availability, at least when it comes to new truck orders, won't improve any time very soon, with all that entails for new and used truck pricing, mentioned by Kiser. I had the opportunity to sit in with a select group of dealers last week here in Nashville as part of Overdrive's sister publication, Trucks, Parts, Service’s Successful Dealer awards, now in the 10th year of existence for the award program. Editor Lucas Deal asked the question to every dealer there, namely: when do you expect new equipment production rates to return to 2019 levels? Question and answer was done anonymously on a big board where dealers in attendance indicated their best answer with stickers on several choices. A few staunch pessimists among the group actually chose “never,” but most seemed to coalesce around the “2024 or later” answer. And with regard to recessionary pressures on the dealer business, most dealers expected sales growth this year compared to 2021. For some, a result of high demand on limited inventory.

Not all were 100% sanguine, yet maybe it further underscores a measured optimist's outlook for the prospect of a prolonged recessionary environment, such as the outlook adopted by the first small fleet owner we'll hear from just the other side of a break for this word from Overdrive Radio's sponsor. And as last week, we've still got prize packs that will go out to anyone dialing into the Overdrive Radio podcast line at (615) 852-8530. Those prize packs include Howes Diesel Treat and Diesel Lifeline anti-gel fuel treatments and more for a limited number of callers. Call in to tell us your winter fuel gelling story and/or your experience using Howes’ fuel treatments or other products. As noted, do it with a call to our podcast voicemail line, the new number: (615) 852-8530. We'll get right back in touch for your shipping information.

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Todd Dills: That's Howes. H-O-W-E-S. Howesproducts.com. To get us started, here's a fleet owner with a decidedly glass-half-full attitude when it comes to the prospects for his and other trucking businesses.

Troy Massey: My name's Troy Massey, owner of Tri-State Vacuum and Rental and also Massey Motor Freight out of Nacogdoches, Texas. We operate a fleet of tanker trucks out of Nacogdoches, Texas and then also a smaller fleet of reefer trucks that run over the road. About 325 total units, my wife and I, Abby, Abby Massey. Probably times are about as tough as what you can get. Right now in trucking, the way fuel is and the way insurance, everything is so unaffordable. Rates have dropped some. The demand has dropped some and you see a lot of guys saying, "Ah, this is not for me. I'll just sell my truck and maybe I'll get a job doing something else." Yeah, we're in tough times. We're definitely in tough times. Do I think it's going to get any worse? I'm a pretty optimistic person in everything that I do.

I don't really think that it's probably going to get any worse. I may be wrong because I'm optimistic, but I'm always going to see the glass as half full because I'm always looking for things to get better. What you have to do to overcome all of the things that are against you as a company owner is cut costs everywhere you can. You have to take care of your drivers. That's number one, because if you don't have drivers, then you got truck notes that are sitting in your yard. You got insurance with trucks that are sitting in your yard. So take care of your drivers number one. Always remember your drivers are the backbone of everything that you do and you're nothing without them if you're thinking about from a company owner's standpoint. Other things you can do is just cut cost everywhere you can. Make sure you stay on top of your maintenance.

When you get behind on your maintenance, it's going to catch up with you. Stay on top of your notes and just watch your freight as closely as you can. And as tough as it is sometimes, you just got to say no to cheap freight. You just can't do it because it makes it more difficult on the whole bunch of drivers for everyone out there. And network. Make friends. There's a lot of freight out there. I network with people all the time. I network with guys that... We own 325 trucks that we run. I network with a guy that has one truck. He's one of my best friends. He has one truck and we share freight all the time. He doesn't charge me anything. I don't charge him anything. So you got to network with your friends and that'll help you because you don't always have to make money off of every single thing.

You can help one another. And the final thing I think about that is just stay on top of your business and watch your cost. Trucking's always tough. Is it tougher right now? Yeah, it's tougher right now, but it's always tough. The odds are always stacked against us. But the coolest thing about truck drivers to me is, and company owners, the trucking business in general, we're so resilient. We always find a way. We as in all of us, all these people out here, if you panned around, you see all these people in this trucking community. We're all so resilient and we just find a way to make it work. And so do I think we're going to make it? Absolutely. There's no doubt in my mind that we're going to make it work. Is it going to be tough? Yeah, it's going to be tough for a little while, but guys, just stay on top of it and just don't take no for an answer.

And remember this very important thing. I'm sure somebody else has got this saying. Just what I tell myself for my whole life, I've always told myself, if it was easy, everybody would do it. So if you're thinking about quitting, just remember if it was easy, everybody would do it. So guys, y'all hang in there and just continue to grind it out, watch your costs, do a good job, be on time, pick up on time, and do everything you can do to be the best owner/operator or fleet owner that you could possibly be. Because if you're better, then you're going to keep people. So the other thing is, I'll tell you, I try to be uplifting and positive. If you want to follow me, please follow me on TikTok, @troyjmassey. If you want to follow me on YouTube, and then I'm on Facebook. I don't check Facebook a whole lot, but I'm Troy Massey on Facebook as well. I'm probably on TikTok more than anything. Instagram, too. I forgot about that. I forgot I'm on Instagram too @therealtroyjmassey.

Todd Dills: Next up, an owner-operator whose big win at a truck show earlier in the year you may well remember. It's John Highley, who's W9 won the primary Kids' Choice Award at the first annual Large Cars and Guitars Truck Show in Kodak, Tennessee.

John Highley: My name is John Highly. I've been leased to Landstar for 20 years. I haul mostly specialized lift-gate freight, entertainment, things that require a little bit of special attention. Yeah, we do concert tours, lot of things that, like I said, require extra equipment. We have the lift gate, we have ramps, lot of straps, pole decking, a lot of extra equipment that we carry so we could do different things.

Had something kind of cool happen recently. We were hauling Green Day and we were playing the Metro Club up in Chicago and, middle of the night, my phone started blowing up I guess as Green Day was coming in the limo. They liked the truck so they did a TikTok with the truck in there. Done a lot of people over the years. Met a lot of nice people. We've gone to some really cool places. Lot of times we do... We're downtown, which is where a lot of truck drivers don't want to go and I get that because it's pain in the butt sometimes. We do Madison Square Garden, TD Bank Arena up in Boston. We just did the Outlands Festival out in San Francisco, which is out kind of past Golden Gate Park, not an easy place to get into. So we go a lot of places where truck drivers with good common sense would never try to get into.

Todd Dills: Chicago, for instance. Owner-operator Highley's Kenworth is outfitted with a 122-inch big bunk ARI Sleeper. No doubt interesting at times navigating some of the places he goes. Lawson Rudisill asked him for the most interesting venue he'd ever been to. To my surprise, he called out the recent visit to Chicago where Green Day's TikTok account picked up his beautiful rig.

John Highley: Probably the coolest venue I've ever been to is one we did just recently. It was the Metro Club up in Chicago and Green Day played there right before we did Lollapalooza and the Club was a really neat place. It only takes like 1,100 people in the venue. So it's a very small club, but it was built in 1914 as a vaudeville theater. It's up in the Wrigleyville up by Wrigley Field in that part of Chicago. We went and walked around and looked at the place and just the architecture of the place was just phenomenal.

Todd Dills: As for current conditions and the question of recession or no recession, while Highley was certainly a bit less glass-half-full than fleet owner Troy Massey, he in some ways struck a lot of the same chords given his decades of experience of the ups and downs of the trucking business within the economic cycles.

John Highley: I've been in this industry for 35 years. I see it go up. I see it go down. I see it go up. I see it go down. The biggest thing about this industry is when times get tough, the thing that changes is capacity. So if a guy can make it through the tough time, he's going to come out good on the other side. Because when the times get tough, guys lose their trucks, guys sell their trucks. Some guys just say they don't want to put up with it. They made a little bit of money when things were good and now they're done. They move on to something else while that changes the capacity, which will drive the rates back up.

This is probably one of the worst times that I've ever seen in my 35 years. The economical time that we're in across the board as far as fuel prices, everything at the stores, everything is skyrocketed for people. So I think this is going to be a tough recovery. We will recover because we always do. But I think this one's going to go on for a while and I think it's got to be tough. I think there's going to be a lot of people that are going to be closing the doors during this one.

Todd Dills: Among owner-operators hoping for the best among it all was Mel Williams out at Mayberry with her '03 379, as you'll hear, and some optimism but also recognition of deteriorating conditions to share.

Mel Williams: I am The Trucking Unicorn on social media. My name is Mel. Everybody just calls me the trucking unicorn. This is my 2003 379 Peterbilt. I do run a 99 6Nz motor. I am leased to 5F. 5F OTR works with owner-operators. So what they do is they essentially help you with everything, dispatch, loads. The whole business model is to link drivers with better paying freight. The way that it works is it helps to minimize our deadhead miles and our downtime. So we're constantly getting our next load the day before we actually deliver. With that being said, you set up your preferences, so if there's states or cities that you don't go to, you never have to see it. If there's types of freight that you don't haul, you never have to see any of those loads.

That's how we're constantly getting the better paying loads at the quicker times. So I haul a dry van, so it's pretty much anything you can put in into a non-refrigerated trailer. Anything from paper to Monster cans, empty Monster cans, beer, bricks, you name it. If you can put it in a dry van, that's what I haul. The freight rates are more or less in the garbage. It's really hard to find decent paying freight to get you at least to break even running your truck, let alone to make money. My truck costs me $1.75 a mile to run. So I have to see at least $2.25, $2.50, to even turn any kind of a profit on my truck. I do see some of those rates with 5F. I'm seeing roughly $2.50 to $3.30 a mile, but it's not a consistent $2.50 to $3.30.

There are the occasions where it's less than that and you're just fingers crossed and hoping that nothing happens along the way. So as far as recession, it can't stay like this forever. It's just a matter of how determined are you to overcome? That's my theory. Life is what you make it. You can either be miserable every day or you can wake up and find the positive every day, find something to be happy about. Trucking is controlled chaos. That's what we signed up for. We decided to be truck drivers and we decided to sign up for controlled chaos. So you can either let that ruin your day or you can figure out how to just roll with the punches and accept that this is what I signed up for and I'm going to make the best of it.

Todd Dills: Wait-and-see dynamics for LTL puller John Rooney, driving for R&L Carriers, though, were certainly not the reality. Rooney was definitive that, at least for his freight, slow had become something of the watch word, particularly in recent weeks.

John Rooney: My name's John Rooney. I've been driving for almost 31 years and I drive officially for R&L Carriers.

Todd Dills: He was showing at the Mayberry Truck Show with a beauty of what he called a “toy,” for now.

John Rooney: It's a 1984 Ford CL9000, 400 Cummins, nine speed. It's a fun toy. Well, I do LTL for a living and we are definitely in a recession because we're the first ones to know it because of what we do. We're doing all the small one-pallet stuff and we have been slow for... The last few weeks it's been noticeably slow. We've been slowing down over the last few months, so we're definitely in a recession. Don't let anybody kid you. We're definitely because I'm not getting in anywhere as near the hours I'm used to. And yeah, we're definitely slowing down.

Todd Dills: Cue one Minnesota-based owner/operator who, well, emphasized those with trucking staying power, in it for the long term, would likely be fine through the highs and lows with smart business practices.

Brent Hall: Brent Hall from North Mankato, Minnesota, just a single truck owner-operator. Got a 386, White 386 Fitzgerald Glider started as and just been modifying it from there. Do a dry van and reefer freight, little tank business here and there. I would say we're on the skirt of one. If not, we're in one with... The COVID did help. Rates all went up $4 or $5 a mile, drops down, fuel's still up. Rates go back to, per se, normal and fuel's still up and everyone got their authority thinking there was big money involved in it. Now everyone's wanting to quit because they bought high priced equipment and thought they were going to make a quick buck and now can't. It's something you can't jump in and jump out of. You're either in it for the long haul or you're not. And it's more of a lifestyle as much as it is a business. You're going to be in it with the ups and downs and you got to be smart about everything.

Todd Dills: Finally, though Brandon Burroughs noted inflation is obvious all around, including in the rates the bulk hauling business he pulls with has been able to get from its own customers as costs rise, business has been holding strong, at least for him, despite the slowdown stories that rise before.

Brandon Burroughs: My name is Brandon Burroughs. I'm out of Zebulon, North Carolina. I drive for a guy out of Four Oaks, North Carolina. His name's Andrew Carroll. We haul liquid fertilizer, dry fertilizer, pretty much anything that'll go in a tanker or a dump. I drive a 2007 Peterbilt 379. It's got a Caterpillar C15 in it. It's hard to say. I know the stuff that we haul, all the prices went up, so it's costing a whole lot more to haul the stuff and mess like that. So I know our price is going up, but I'm hearing that all the other people's prices going down and they're having to haul it cheaper and mess like that. So for us it really hasn't changed. It just went up. But that's what I think anyway.

Lawson Rudisill: You're still just about as busy?

Brandon Burroughs: Yes sir. If not busier.

Todd Dills: Big thanks to everyone who talked with Mr. Lawson Rudisill at the Mayberry Truck Show. To take us out to the end, here's a little more from the unique entertainment-haul operation of Landstar leased owner-operator John Highley, speaking to the day to day of the work hauling out concert venues and just why the Missouri-headquartered owner-op calls his beautiful Kenworth “Free Bird.”

John Highley: The artist usually walks off the stage about 10:30 or 11 at night. As they're walking off, the road crew's already starting to tear things down. The lead driver, whoever that may be, I've been lead driver on a couple shows and it's very, very busy. You get the trucks in as fast as you can. You get everything tore down. Everything has a specific place on the trailers. Each trailer has a specific job and we get them loaded up and we get onto the next venue just as quick as possible because when we get there in the morning, they're waiting on us. So they usually start... Especially on the east side of the country, a lot of the venues are a little bit closer together, 200, 300, 400, sometimes 500 miles apart. So it's a pretty busy night. You get your trailer dumped in the morning, run up to catering, get some breakfast, get your butt in bed, get some sleep while you can.

If you're doing a festival, you're going to be outside parked by the stage so it gets really, really noisy. You lay down and you get some sleep and then we're usually up by 9:30, 10 o'clock that night getting the trucks lined up, getting them in the docks, getting them loaded up and ready to go to the next one.

The guys that work the road crew, my hat always goes off to these guys because they have their hammocks and their backpacks and they hang them up underneath the stage and they work until their job's done and they're laying there sleeping underneath the stage, a lot of them, with all that noise and everything. And they nap while they can and then that night they're back up and doing it again. When I was a little bitty kid, I had a cousin down in Oklahoma and he actually played in a local band with Steve Gaines before Steve Gaines joined Lynyrd Skynyrd. And as a little kid, I used to hang out down there a lot and to me it was just a lot of long haired guys with guitars and I really had no idea who anybody was. But as I grew older, I kind of felt a connection to it. And then believe it or not, in 1983 our class song was "Free Bird". So the songs always kind of stuck with me.

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