Trucking nearly broke the Stoll family. Literally and figuratively. Several times.
While unhooking a trailer full of toilet seats for Bemis, Bryon Stoll was struggling to get the landing gear to budge. Slowly, it started to move. Barely.
Bryon readjusted his feet and mustered all his might. He was going to drop this trailer, and with a final hefty crank "the handle came off in my hand," he recalled. "My feet stayed planted but from the waist up I twisted and leaned back at the same time, just from the sheer force of it."
The combination of force and motion shattered one of his vertebrae. That was the end of his trucking career, or so he thought. Bryon had a spinal infusion to repair his back and joined a small local company as its systems administrator. He also joined the local volunteer fire department, "and the work I did with the fire department and getting certified as a fire firefighter and EMT," he said, "I guess it helped strengthen my core muscles. And all of a sudden my back problems went away."
Bryon and his wife, Holly, were in the process of establishing their young family when fate struck yet again.
"After about five years on the department, I answered a call for a house fire right across the street from where we were living and broke my tibia and my fibula in my left leg," Bryon recalled, "and that put me down and out."
During his rehab period, Bryon decided he wanted another career change, and all the money being made in oilfield work held a major allure.
"I really didn't want to get back into trucking, because I started trucking back in the mid- to late-'90s, but from the kind of money we're talking, 'let's do it," he said to himself. "It was all financially driven, but that allowed us to buy a house, get our credit straight, buy a brand-new pickup truck. You know, we started going down the right path here, you know, getting our stuff together."
The Stolls worked in the North Dakota oil fields for six years, but when oil prices dropped customers stopped honoring contracts. The Stolls had a vested interest in the companies they worked for and maxed out credit cards to keep themselves afloat before ultimately returning home.
"If you ever listened to Kevin Rutherford and his advice on starting a business and getting into trucking," Bryon said, "we did everything opposite of his suggestions and advice."
In 2016, while trying to figure out the family's next move, Bryon said Holly told him he should "buy a truck and work for myself. So we did," he recalled. Suprise Trucking – the Stolls' New London, Wisconsin reefer carrier – now has eight drivers "concentrated on serving our customers, providing excellent communication and always striving to be on time. We insist on hard work, honesty and fulfilling our drivers' and customers' needs."
Holly owns the majority of the company and is the company's President, its namesake (Suprise is her maiden name) and handles most of the business end of the company. Bryon is co-owner, vice president and driver. Suprise Trucking is among 10 semi-finalists for Overdrive's 2021 Small Fleet Champ award.
The drop in freight rates with the onset of the pandemic, Bryon said, incentivized a few drivers to stay home, "but we persevered and bought multiple pieces of equipment and were able to expand and able to grow."
The fleet features two company-owned trucks and seven owner-operators with an eighth on the way.
"So we've slowly, slowly been growing and we've helped three or four of the guys buy their trucks," Holly said.
The company has added three drivers in the first six months this year – a growth rate that's been stoked by a dedicated customer with an inventory backlog and spot reefer rates that are on an absolute tear.
"We have one direct customer and that's hauling windows and doors – finished windows and doors – and we deliver them to builders," Bryon said. "And they, at the beginning of the COVID, you know, everybody was shut down. So they've got a backlog," and now "they're screaming for trucks all the time."
It doesn't take a lot of talent to find good rates these days, but Holly said what sets Suprise Trucking apart from other small trucking operations is the amount of forethought and planning they put into working the right load board, or the right broker, at the right time for the right driver.
"We have a handful of brokers that we use very often and that definitely helps," Holly said, adding the company has brought on a former co-worker from the oilfield to help manage the logistics side of load booking. "Knowing your lanes right now is very key."
Being able to effectively work its lanes has enabled Suprise to secure a fleet-average rate of about $5 per mile – more than $1.50 per mile higher than reefer spot market averages.
Focus on people, diversification for growth
Holly said another way her virtually debt-free small company is working to stand out is in how it treats its employees, namely its drivers.
"We don't force anybody to do anything, but when they tell me they they're ready to work, we put them to work," she said. "When they say they're ready to go home, we send them home. If they have a personal issue that needs attention, we'll do whatever we can to help with that."
The Stolls, and Suprise's acumen for negotiation and load planning, have passed down some hefty settlements for operators willing to put in the hours. Bryon said active owner-operators routinely gross $10,000 to $15,000 a week, adding one driver recently topped $17,000. Holly is also an advocate for detention pay and routinely will request it on behalf of her drivers when appropriate.
Bryon said the company's goal for this year was to have 10 trucks running by the end of the year. While he's not sure he'll hit that mark, he's certain they'll be close. And he's already eyeing 2022.
"If we can keep these guys, I would like to see about five more next year," he said.
An authorized dealer for Pittsburgh Power, Suprise Trucking is also diversified, helping its drivers -- and any driver or local business -- improve fuel economy (and profitability) with tunings and Pittsburgh's Max Mileage catalyst.
"Back in the day, you get a truck and you want to make a million dollars. You go out and run and run and run," Bryon said of adding to the business. "The more miles you put on the more money you make. Well, I don't like that idea because my butt starts to hurt. It gets sore. So we try to work, work smarter, not harder. And it's working really, really good for us.
"All of our drivers use catalyst by their choice, we don't pressure them. They just choose to do it," he continued. "I tell them, 'Buy one gallon and try it and let me know.' And they keep coming back to keep buying it. They don't want to run without it."
Outside clients source the product and other work through them, too. "Eight years ago, I didn't foresee myself" doing this type of work, he said, "but I'm glad we took the leap. But then 20 years ago, neither one of us ever thought we'd be where we are, doing what we're doing."
What they're doing now is crushing revenue goals. The Stolls pay their owner-operators 80% of the secured rate, and Suprise grossed $1 million dollars for the first time last year – a nearly 100% improvement over 2019. This year, the company is on pace to eclipse $2 million in gross revenue.
"We don't have many thrills and bells and whistles," Bryon said. "I've got one friend of mine – an owner-operator for a company in the area – and he's trying to figure out his numbers. Well, when he asked for a copy of the rate con, [the company] sent it to him, but they have a piece of paper in the picture covering the rate. And I hear that so much from so many different people. It's like just part of what they do in the industry. And it's like, so you're taking their word on what they're paying you. My guys, we're full transparency. They want to know something, we show it to them. Actually, they've seen the invoices. They'll see the rate con. It's all accessible to them."
Suprise also leases reefer trailers to its drivers – another revenue stream for the business, albeit a small one.
"We have more reefers than we do, probably, trucks," Holly said, "but [if drivers] don't want to go buy their own, they pay us $300 a week to rent from us." No mileage surcharge. No hours rate or usage fee. "It's just a flat $300 a week. ... Some of these places you rent a trailer from, they'll hit you for the $300 a week, but then they're charging you a mileage and surcharging your hours on the reefer, and by the time you're done, you're almost $3,000 a month."
Suprise works to reinvest into its community alongside its employees and contracting owner-ops. Bryon said the company supports the local art leagues and various other causes that support local businesses and charities. And, of course, local volunteer fire and EMS departments, he added.