Trucking his way: Matthew Karr, May Trucker of the Month, puts out his shingle as K-Mac Trucking

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Updated Jun 14, 2023

2021 Peterbilt 389 and Polar four-hole fuel tanker of Matthew KarrOwner-operator Matthew Karr downsized during the COVID-19 pandemic to just a single power unit -- this 2021 Peterbilt 389, shown hooked to a newer Polar four-hole fuel tanker he's now using with newly-minted authority as K-Mac Trucking.All photos courtesy of K-Mac Trucking LLC

Year 2022 was something of a banner one for independent owner-operator Matthew Karr. Leased to fuel hauler Quality Transportation of Halltown, Missouri, he put up big profit numbers in the 2021 Peterbilt 389 he spec'd with a 290-inch wheelbase and 78-inch sleeper, generally "not trying to make it a show truck," Karr said, but rather just what's necessary for what the rig fundamentally is. A "hammer's a hammer," he added. 

For Quality, too, he'd taken on a bigger role beyond just delivering fuel to retail stations. "I was bidding on work," Karr said, dispatching five of Quality's trucks out in Colorado for a time. In the fuel-delivery business, he's been something of an emergency-service provider in recent years. 

Rebecca Valdez, a logistics manager with Fort Wayne, Indiana-headquartered fuel wholesaler Petroleum Traders, was among Quality's customers who relied on Karr's blend of drive and organizational smarts to get the job done. "I’ve worked with him for years," Valdez said, comprising much of her career at Petroleum Traders. "He is a wonderful person -- considerate, communicative. He’s one of those guys that when I have something come up that is outside my knowledge -- a truck-specific question, say -- he’s very helpful and has explained it for me" with no hesitation.

"He’s on-time, really communicates any issues, and he works with us to find solutions," Valdez added. "Whenever I have something unusual come up, he’s one of my first calls. If he can break free for me, he will."

Karr, nominated for Overdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year award by his wife, Koren, is Trucker of the Month for May 2023. 

Overdrive's Trucker of the Year logoOverdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year program recognizes clear business acumen and unique or time-honored recipes for success among owner-operators. It seeks nominations of owner-operators whether leased or independent throughout the year. Nominate your business or that of a fellow owner (up to three trucks) via this link.

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The nomination comes at a time of transition. Speaking in early May, the owner-operator was awaiting just one more piece of paper from the state of Missouri to begin hauling with his own authority as K-Mac Trucking. He's setting up with fuel wholesalers to do what you might think of as a mix of local and more OTR work, of a piece with that emergency-service acumen Valdez described.

"Some of the suppliers I’ve set up with," Karr said, "like the idea of having someone who will travel for them. You can charge a premium freight rate for that." 

Contract haulers in a particular area -- "Nashville, for instance," he offered -- "might have an issue," maybe there's a pipeline down, whatever the case may be. "If you're willing to travel [you can] capitalize on opportunities" where and when they arise. "That's why you'll see a lot of gas trucks with sleepers on them." 

[Related: 'Everything is a lesson': Pulli Express Inc.'s paths to profit through continual adjustment]

Owner-op Karr's 25-year odyssey back to the fuel business

The Republic, Missouri-headquartered K-Mac Trucking is the culmination of a now 25-year career behind the wheel in various capacities for the father of four children, all in their 20s now. 

His move to Southwest Missouri when he was just 18 or 19, near a brother, set him on the trucking path. "My brother's neighbor was a dairy farmer," Karr said. The dairy farmer's kids had trucks. The daughter of the family would eventually become Karr's first wife. "Honestly, I owe my career" to his ex-father-in-law there, Andy Morgan, who first taught Karr how to drive a Class 8. Morgan's method was a version of the old yardstick method of driver training, one-on-one, "get your hand smacked" if you grabbed the wrong gear sort of thing, Karr said. Morgan "just taught me everything," including the best piece of advice any operator might well get. "You never know as much as you think you know, and never try to outdrive yourself," Karr said. Keep high in the mind a keen awareness "of your own limitations."

It served him well when, at age 22, he "actually got my license," he said, and a chance encounter out West at a fuel stop put him on the course to where he is today.  

[Related: The yardstick method of driver training]

He was pulling OTR at the time for Central Trucking. "I think I was in Wyoming. A tanker driver passed me," Karr said, and when he got to the truck stop he'd been headed toward to fuel he noticed that same tank hauler sitting near the fuel island in a lawn chair. "He was unloading" fuel at the stop, and the two swapped a story or two. "He was telling me about how fast-paced it got" delivering fuel, and "I thought I might be interested in that."

Being "young and ignorant," in Karr's words, he quit the Central Trucking job and got on with an outfit where he learned how not to do trucking. The company soon converted all its company trucks to lease-purchase arrangements. It didn't end well, though Karr "did really well for a while" at 82 cents per mile for his compensation in the early parts of this century. But fuel was on its way up, and he wasn't paying enough attention to costs. Speeding tickets mounted, furthermore, with the pressure to run, leading to a short-term career killer. "I got my license suspended," Karr said.

To boot, his personal life was suffering. His first marriage would eventually end in divorce. A custody battle ensued, which he won, then drove dump trucks locally for a time. Yet "I never forgot about the gas business" and that tank hauler in his lawn chair at the truck stop in Wyoming. 

He would get another run at truck ownership eventually, but this time things would be different. That's thanks to what it seems every owner-operator eventually finds if he/she is to make it work -- a true, valuable mentor. For Karr, that mentor would be owner-operator John Autry, whom Karr met working with Solar Transport out of Des Moines, Iowa, hauling ethanol. 

What did he learn from Autry? It's the "simplest things" that stick out in his mind today. For instance: "Spending a little now will save you a lot of money later" when it comes to basic preventive maintenance, Karr said. "You’re not always going to be able to pay yourself -- make sure you" sock away enough reserve for those "rough times."  Hauling fuel, "drive shocks only last about a year ... [yet] shocks are $100 apiece. Tires are $700. And bad shocks makes your tires go bad."

[Related: The work-life balancing act as an owner: With rates down, focus on family, custom relationships to tip the scales]

He found something else at Solar as well. "We met in the gas industry," said Karr's now-wife, Koren. "We worked at Solar together ... and immediately clicked. ... We were friends for years, and both leaned on each other during divorces." 

Matthew and Koren Karr on beachKoren (right) didn't tell owner-operator Karr (left) that she'd nominated him in Overdrive's Trucker of the Year program initially. "I was a little shocked," he said, yet honored, ultimately, that she thought to put his name forward. The pair are now proud grandparents -- the Karrs' grandson Rhett is approaching three years old, while two others, Ulysses and Colter, are 5 and nearly 1, respectively.
They'd both dated other people throughout the intervening period of years, then "somehow," Koren said, "he asked if I wanted to go to dinner one night after work -- he came and picked me up and had flowers."

Karr was moving forward as an owner-operator when the pair married in 2016, having taken those lessons learned from Autry and, after much deliberation and with his daughters still at home, buying his first truck outright, careful not to over-commit in the beginning. "I was raising my daughters," he said. "I didn't want to commit to something I knew I'd have to commit 100%." He tested the waters leasing with various companies before finding Quality Transportation. 

"He's a great man," Karr said of Quality's owner, old-school in all the good ways. The fleet of about 100 trucks has been a lifeline for him in the years since, which included a few operating with authority and learning a good bit more about trucking -- the hard way. "I grew too fast, and tried to buy too much" in the way of equipment during that first maiden voyage with his shingle hung out. With the COVID pandemic in full swing, he went back to leasing. Fortunately, he "got to sell everything when the market" for equipment was up, he said. "The last couple of years I’ve done pretty well for myself moneywise," running steady as she goes through it all hauling fuel for Quality. 

Karr's first truck -- a Freightliner CoronadoKarr's maiden voyage with his first truck purchase came via this Freightliner Coronado.

Strike when the market's cold

Now's the ideal time, he said, to go back out on his own to do things entirely his way, keeping that past failure high in his mind.  

For his recent move back to running with his authority, the 2023 Polar fuel-haul, four-hole, 9,500-gal. trailer is his most recent purchase, likely his last for quite a time.For his recent move back to running with his authority, the 2023 Polar fuel-haul, four-hole, 9,500-gal. trailer is his most recent purchase, likely his last for quite a time.

During the height of the COVID market when Karr sold most of his small fleet equipment and went back to leasing, a friend was "wanting to buy a truck" and get in on the spot freight boom, "when the market was stupid," Karr said -- stupid high, that is, for equipment. "Luckily, he listened to me" and didn't do it. "I said, 'Robert, I've been through these ups and downs and swings for 25 years. ... If you want to buy a truck and you want to get started" as an owner-operator, "do it when times are bad.' Now, things have slowed down a little bit, interest rates are going up. ... If you can make it in slow times, you will really flourish" when business cycles turn upward.

KW Karr purchased for a driver during his brief small-fleet sojournAmong the equipment Karr sold after his difficult sojourn as a small fleet owner was this Kenworth, the first truck he bought to put another operator in.

He's laying the groundwork for himself now, spending recent weeks "filling out his carrier packets for the fuel industry" suppliers he'll be working with, said Koren. Karr's longtime fuel-tax and permitting partner, Missouri-headquartered Motor Carrier Services owner Hazel Burris, handled the authority applications and last week noted "we’re waiting on a transporter permit from state of Missouri to transport fuel" that, when in hand, will have Karr up and running with all he needs. "Business-wise he’s a great guy," she added of Karr. "Johnny on the spot" when it comes to "getting the paperwork in" to her office for IFTA prep. The Karrs "pay very close attention to detail. They’re good, hardworking people who want to do everything right – the first time." 

[Related: Trucking with authority, take two: Matthew Karr's second run at independence, hauling fuel]

Such qualities should serve Karr well on his new journey, riding the waves of the topsy-turvy fuel business. "We charge by the gallon, so much per-gallon ... with a fuel surcharge on top of that," he said. The price, and demand, can fluctuate wildly with the cost of fuel. "If the price is going way up on a particular day," he added, wholesalers try to "load as much as they can before that time." Dynamics there really "keep you on your toes" as a carrier.

He's no doubt up for the challenge. "When I first started, fuel maybe moved a penny up or down" day by day. "If it moved two cents everybody was in a panic mode," he said. "Now it may have 20-cent swings" in a single day. For a transporter willing and able to be that emergency supply provider, the future could be bright, he feels. 

Valdez concurs to an extent. Karr at least has the qualities that set him up well for success in the niche. "He’s one of those guys who never says no," as Valdez put it. Rather, "he says, 'let me figure it out.' I’ve asked him for some crazy stuff over the years." 

Owner-operator Matthew Karr, she added, has always delivered. 

"He’s genuinely intelligent, and understands the entire scope of the business," she added. 

Here's best of luck to him through 2023 and beyond. 

You can enter your own owner-operator business or nominate another for Overdrive's 2023 Trucker of the Year competition via this link. Nominations will be accepted throughout the first half of 2023.

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Jay Hosty began his trucking career as an owner-operator in 1981 at the age of 19. Since the beginning, his business focus has honed in on per-mile costs. That, mixed with his own frugality, have led to a long, successful career.