Survival strategies, tactics to thrive in a down market: Owner-operator business in spotlight at MATS

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Updated Mar 7, 2024

The updated, 2024 Partners in Business handbook for owner-operator business, start to finish, is on its way. It will see official release at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, March 22, at the Mid-America Trucking Show attendant to our annual seminar with business services firm ATBS, coproducer of the manual with Overdrive.

There, ATBS Vice President Mike Hosted and longtime Overdrive contributor and owner-op business coach Gary Buchs will walk through cost, revenue and bedrock income benchmarks across major segments, data derived from the tens of thousands of clients who work with ATBS for tax and consulting services. 

The goal? To deliver insights to apply to your own business, with a close emphasis on taking concrete steps now to position for better income when freight markets improve. And, crucially, build business to survive the next big downward economic cycle, always right around the corner. 

As noted, ATBS data guides the path forward. Early insights gleaned from Hosted's analysis of year-end 2023 numbers show the owner-operator income declines reported at mid-year having halted, good news for everyone in trucking looking for the much-speculated-upon bottom of this freight business cycle. Since then, "we’re bouncing on the bottom," he said. "It seems like we’re at the end" of the long fall in freight demand, and rates.

Partners in Business 2024 coverThe 2024 Partners in Business edition (pictured) will be available the week of MATS in March, this year sponsored by new partner on the owner-op business journey, Rush Truck Centers, who shares our vision for your success. The 2023 edition for both new and established owner-operators sits at well more than 100 pages' worth of information and guidance -- and is available as a free download via the form at this link.[Related: Truckers' New Year's Resolutions: Get closer to the freight source, and back to basics on costs]

On the costs front, owner-operator variable costs (fuel, tires, maintenance, anything it takes to run the rig down the road) have been generally flat compared to 2022, when inflationary pressures spiked those big-time. Yet in 2023, inflation finally caught up to fixed costs, as many owners made hay of a return to reality in the used truck markets with falling prices to replace equipment "at a faster rate" than during the pandemic-induced truck-pricing crunch, Hosted added. Those purchases, though, came at higher interest rates, of course, among other factors driving an 8% year-over-year rise in fixed costs.  

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ATBS data is among the most solid of resources available for direct analysis of your owner-operator peers' relatively recent and historical cost, revenue and income trends, as Gary Buchs has it. Yet studying the owner-operator benchmarks is most useful if, "and I personally suggest it’s a big if, the truck owner first can access a usable breakdown" of his or her own numbers. 

Ask yourself, Buchs said, "Are my revenue and expense breakouts readily available in real time?" Or at least close to it, with weekly, biweekly, or monthly assessments? Some owners log performance per-trip/per-load, even.

If you're in the habit of playing a lot of catch-up, as it were, with the business books, strive for more frequent reckoning with your numbers, as Buchs has said before. If it seems like a daunting task to start, begin with the most recent week, he recommends, and work your way back in time. 

A more full understanding of your own numbers will help you glean even more out of the seminar than you might otherwise, Buchs added, to better "evaluate lost opportunities, and just what are the potential possibilities" for boosting income in the future. 

[Related: How to catch up on bookkeeping, one load/week at a time]

Rush Truck Centers logoPartners in Business is sponsored in 2024 by Rush Truck Centers, premier solutions provider to the commercial vehicle industry with 150-plus full-service dealership locations in the United States and Canada. They represent industry-leading truck brands and offer parts, service, collision repair, and a range of aftermarket solutions.In the session, Hosted will give his best assessment of what owner-operators can expect for the remainder of the year ahead. To date, with rates down and costs up, most have made up for lost income with more miles -- up a fairly dramatic nearly 8% on average in 2023 over 2022. It seems as if plenty of you took to heart the "extra load" tactic illustrated in last year's MATS session to boost profitability in challenging times. 

average miles 2023 by month, compared to 2022This is but a small preview of the kinds of information ATBS will share at the MATS session -- this chart comparing 2022 (black bars) miles run with 2023 month by month. As shown, starting in March, monthly miles were significantly higher throughout the rest of the year as owner-operators sought to offset profit declines ongoing in the weak markets.

It's not just owner-ops running more miles: utilization is up across the board, Hosted suggested. Big publicly traded fleets Hosted also tracks report a similar rise in miles run per truck in 2024, yet another reason trucking broadly hasn't seen meaningful improvement in demand metrics and rates since they leveled out in the second half of last year. All those miles amount to a "huge capacity change in trucking, when we needed a loss" to help the rates situation, Hosted said. 

Where do we go from here? If you're in attendance at MATS, find out at 2:45 p.m., Friday of the show (March 22). We hope to see you there. (For those who can't be in attendance, as we have for the last couple of years Overdrive will rebroadcast the event via the website and our video and podcast networks in the near-term aftermath.)

[Related: The 'extra load' to boost profitability in challenging times]

Extra extra: A chance to meet our Trucker of the Year, Jay Hosty

MATS attendees can also join me and the rest of the team at the PIB session in congratulating Diamondhead, Mississippi-based owner-operator Jay Hosty for his big win in our Trucker of the Year competition. To start the session, I'll give Hosty and everyone else the first look at what amounts to the trophy commemorating the win -- it's to be a faithful scale-model replica of Hosty's 2006 Western Star 4900EX tractor. Pennsylvania-based Hoffman Mechanical Design owner Eston Hoffman, headquartered in Pennsylvania, has been hard at work building the pieces of the puzzle that is scale-model design, as you can see below.    

Jay Hosty's Western Star with Eston Hoffman's scale model build in processHosty's 2006 Western Star (left) with a shot of builder Eston Hoffman's progress, in pieces, on the replica of the rig at right.

The result is sure to be fantastic. Congrats again to you, Jay. I'm looking forward to getting the final build in your hands next month! 

For the rest of you, know that we'll be doing much the same for the ultimate first-place finisher in this year's Trucker of the Year program. Nominate your own or another owner-operator business via this link. Those with up to three trucks at the end of 2023 are eligible.  

overdrive trucker of the year 2024 logoWe want you to get involved in this year’s Trucker of the Year award program. Enter your own owner-operator business, or that of another exceptional owner (up to three trucks), via the brief entry form at this link.

Find plenty information about the owner-operator business, start to finish, in the latest edition of the Overdrive/ATBS-coproduced "Partners in Business" handbook for new and established owner-operators, a comprehensive guide to running a small trucking business. Follow this link to download the most recent edition of Partners in Business free of charge.

The Business Manual for Owner-Operators
Overdrive editors and ATBS present the industry’s best manual for prospective and committed owner-operators. You’ll find exceptional depth on many issues in the 2022 edition of Partners in Business.
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