The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic were tough on just about everybody in trucking, but those linked to the automotive industry were hit harder than most in some ways. For three-truck Grayson Transport owner Scott Donaldson, out on his own with a few central customers, three trucks and contract operators for just a few years at that point, it was a particularly tough moment.
During the first couple months, particularly April 2020, Donaldson said there was simply no work for his operators.
He hunkered down, and continued to pay his drivers for the first few weeks -- he didn’t want to lose any of them. All have been with him since he went full-time managing the small fleet in 2018 after a long career hauling himself, easing into business ownership slowly from his home base in Loganville, Georgia. The rescue Paycheck Protection Program loan program of the time helped fill the gap for the business and drivers.
Fortunately, one of Donaldson's primary customers supplies parts for the BMW plant in Greer, South Carolina, and it was one of the first automotive plants to start back up, though on a limited schedule early on.
By June-July 2020, his mostly short-haul drivers were back up to a couple trips a day, and the small fleet was poised to reap the rewards of the moves made as freight came back.
“I gave all my guys the appropriate letters stating there was no work until further notice, so they could use those to get whatever help they needed,” Donaldson said. “I felt like I tried to be as fair as I could about it and help them out. They’ve done a great job for me and my family. I appreciate them.”
Three-truck Grayson Transport is one among five semi-finalists for Overdrive's Small Fleet Championship in the 3-10-truck division.
Scott Donaldson's foundation in LTL, as a driver, paid long-term biz dividends
Grayson Transport owner Donaldson has been in the trucking business since he was 19 in 1986, when he drove locally for a small private fleet around his Loganville, Georgia, home base. Yet he found what would be a three-decade home in less-than-truckload after a few years.
His first LTL job was driving for Standard Trucking Company out of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he started in March of 1989. When Standard closed its doors in 1993, after bouncing around a little Donaldson landed at NationsWay Transport Service. Six years on they folded as well -- he spent a brief period at Consolidated Freightways before he found the company that would be his home for much of this century.
Running LTL with USF Holland, Donaldson hauled auto parts and slowly built relationships with logistics managers at some of those companies.
By 2010, he felt he wanted to take a chance and make extra money while remaining full-time as a driver, so he bought his first truck. He requested a leave of absence from Holland, was granted it for five months, and drove the truck himself leased on with another carrier. When that five-month leave was up, he had to make a decision -- go back to work, or strike out on his own completely. By then, he decided to return to Holland, and he hired another driver to drive his truck leased to another carrier.
That arrangement kept up until 2015, when Donaldson was able to secure his first customer.
Donaldson used his time at Holland to build relationships with potential future customers. His ultimate goal, he said, was to be an in-house carrier for a shipper. He wanted a different approach than what Holland was doing, as not to steal their business. His would be a truckload business.
Today, Donaldson’s three-truck Grayson Transport Service hauls raw and finished auto parts for two direct customers to suppliers who then send them to manufacturers for the assembly line.
The first of those two customers was also a customer of Holland’s when Donaldson was driving for them.
“I got my foot in the door there in 2015 after running [his own truck] for brokers,” he said. “I took two runs from them -- one was a Wisconsin run and one was a Michigan run. One ran every week, and one ran about once a month.”
Over the course of a few years, Donaldson made it a point of just “sticking my head in the logistics office” and letting them know he had his own equipment, if there was anything he could do for them. “It was at least two years before I got the call asking for quotes on those two trips.”
Donaldson’s second customer came along in 2018. That gave him another decision to make regarding his own career. The assistant logistics manager at his first customer left and went to a new startup company in a similar line of work. “They had an opportunity, and he called me,” Donaldson said. “I knew I couldn’t do this business and stay working a fulltime job. I had to make a decision.”
Since the potential customer was a startup, Donaldson went to their location to see how it all operated and to find out more about the company. “The rest is history,” he said.
He decided to leave USF Holland at that point in 2018, buy two more trucks and start driving for himself. While he had his own operating authority as early as 2013, Grayson Transport Service was truly born in 2018, he said.
“That was always my goal to commit to someone and ... just to get with somebody and have some stability, so to speak,” he said. “That was my goal from day one. I had been in LTL, dealing with some of these customers my whole career. I built a lot of relationships during that time.”
Sergio Santana, logistics manager for Geiger Automotive US, said his company has worked with Donaldson and his drivers for more than five years. “We have consistently been satisfied with the level of service and professionalism they have demonstrated,” he said. “Grayson Transport Service has consistently gone above and beyond to meet our transportation needs. Their dedication to punctuality, reliability and safety has greatly contributed to the smooth operation of our business.”
Santana added that Grayson’s “flexibility and willingness to accommodate our ever-changing scheduling needs” helps set the fleet apart. “They have proven time and again that they are willing to adapt to our requirements, even on short notice, without compromising on the quality of service.”
Maintaining customer service -- the answer is always 'yes'
When it comes to customer needs, Donaldson finds a way. No matter what the request, he's tried to live by the motto that the answer is always “yes.”
“We make it happen,” he said. “Both of my customers operate on a predictable schedule, but there are times that situations happen when they need something extra, and it’s an automatic yes.”
Greg Beckwith, warehouse operations manager for DisplayIt, said he has nearly eight years of experience working with Grayson, stretching back to when Donaldson was still approaching the business on a somewhat part-time basis. “Scott has been very competitive with his pricing and usually beats out his competitors,” he said. “He works with my schedule and has always been able to deliver on-time.”
Beckwith said he’s used Grayson for one-off deliveries, as well as “established milk runs (mixed loads from various suppliers to one customer) for demanding, tier-one automotive companies.”
Five years into full-time small fleet management with three trucks, Donaldson still has the same two drivers he had when he brought them on in 2018. A third driver, who he put in his first truck in 2010, just recently retired and still makes a few runs for Donaldson here and there.
He pays operators a flat rate that averages out to about $35 an hour for their time worked, including any detention time for delays at a customer.
“I try to pay good because I don’t provide health insurance,” he said. “Health insurance is very expensive. I try to pay them good for what they do and their time spent.”
He also offers paid time off -- a week every six months, starting from their first day with the company.
He also leaves a little cash or a gift card in their trucks on occasion, sort of like a safety bonus, he said. “It’s kind of random, but I do it at least once a quarter.” He also writes a check on each driver’s anniversary date with the company worth $100 for every year they’ve been with him.
Donaldson and his drivers all operate under the 150-air-mile short-haul exemption, so his trucks don’t have ELDs. They track mileage in a notebook, and each weekend when the trucks are parked -- one of Grayson’s customers allows the company to park the trucks on their lot -- Donaldson collects paperwork, gets the mileage and anything else he needs.
He also uses that time each weekend to go over the trucks, looking for any maintenance-related issues. The three trucks in the fleet are his first-purchased 2005 International 9400i (which he drives himself); a 2011 Freightliner Cascadia; and a 2015 Cascadia day cab. Operators inspect the trucks daily, but his own weekend checks make sure everything is up to snuff. A former competitor in the Georgia and National Truck Driving Championships, Donaldson has a keen eye for all things safety-related, he said.
Donaldson paid cash for all three trucks, as well as his four in-service dry van trailers (he has a fifth that a customer rents for storage), so his business is debt-free. Paid-for status for all the equipment comes with a tax tradeoff, though, given all units are fully depreciated out. He’s eyeing the purchase of a new or newer used trailer before the end of this year to help out on the tax front.
Most maintenance on his equipment, unless it’s something simple he can bolt on, is done by a handful of shops he uses.
An eye on safety with a charitable heart
Donaldson prides himself on safety. As a competitor in both the Georgia and National Truck Driving Championships when he was with USF Holland, he won Rookie of the Year honors in the Georgia competition in 2009. That same year, he just missed being named Grand Champion.
He continued to compete and, in 2015, made it to the national “Super Bowl of Safety” in the four-axle class, where he placed as a finalist.
“In terms of helping in business, it’s more of a safety thing,” he said. “Safety first, always. I tell my guys, this isn’t a heart or lung transplant we’re hauling here. You don’t have to take chances.”
During the time competing, he linked up with another Holland driver, Herschel Evans, who started the Safety Drive for a Cure benefiting the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. It started as an event for Yellow and Holland drivers from around Georgia to come together as a warmup of sorts for the Georgia championship, coupled with a fundraising event for the PBTF. Donaldson always participated as a Holland driver, and after he went out on his own, he started donating equipment and time to the event. The event now brings in upwards of 100 drivers from across the country, raising as much as $50,000-$60,000 in a day, he said.
“I’m not putting this thing on; I just help out,” he said. “I go help out, donate equipment, money, time. My wife always finds something on the auction she likes.”
Grayson Transport Service also donates to the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Wounded Warrior Project.