Long live the owner-operator!

user-gravatar Headshot
Updated Apr 15, 2013
Trends among profitable owner-operators continue to show short-haul niche specialization bringing high rates and good net income.Trends among profitable owner-operators continue to show short-haul niche specialization bringing high rates and good net income.

The challenges in today’s market for owner-operators were on full display after Overdrive Editorial Director Max Heine asked this somewhat loaded question on the Overdrive Extra blog two weeks back: “Is the owner-operator a dying breed?”

A grain-hauling owner-op running short local/regional routes broke down business revenue from 2012, for instance, in a comment under the post. The business showed revenue of “$110,000 last year on paper. But after miscellaneous taxes, truck and trailer payments, fuel, tires, insurance, repairs and other expenses we had a profit of approximately $11,000 to support a family of four. That’s rough.” Indeed it is, and others verbally pumped fists to decry the conditions for owner-operators in the trucking industry today — while some of it was clearly little more than piling on with little substance behind it, numbers told the tale of where success seems more and more to be found among operators nationwide. Niche short-haul seems to be where the one-truck independent business retains substantial profitability, depending on the operation.

Take the example of this fuel-additives-hauling operator, who after taxes and expenses netted around $50,000 in 2012, which he considered a fairly good year. And get this:  he was “out overnight” through the year a total of only 58 days and “ran a total of 47,000 miles with a dry van,” giving the operator a profit-per-mile of more than a dollar. He explained his operation this way: “Each trip I have anywhere from 10 to 30 hours of waiting time before I can bring the empty tote tanks back. Sometimes they pump them out while they are in the van — other times I pallet-jack them to the back of the trailer, when they have to be taken out to a ship at anchor to be pumped out. All my loads are hazmat,” and he charges per hour for use of the truck at $50 hourly. “This goes to show,” he adds, “there is money to be made. You just have to find a niche.”

Adaptation to industry change with operational shifts was also stressed. An owner-operator posting as “Job Hopper” put the challenge of managing costs and revenue this way: “I’ve been trucking for 30 years and an owner operator for the last 20. I’m still here because I learned to adapt. I watched many of my friends lose trucks because they looked at the bigger runs. They thought the big check was the answer. My brother-in-law grossed $200,000 three years running and averaged $1.45 per mile and still lost his truck because he had to have a fancy Pete with a 550 Cat… After five years his truck was just about shot.”

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers
The ALL NEW Rand Tablet
Presented by Rand McNally

At the same time, the operator added, “I made $150,000-$165,000 running within 100 air miles of my home with an average of $3.45 per mile loaded and empty. I did and still do run a 1998 9400 international with a 370 DDEC III, and she gets me 6.5 mpg.

“In 2012 my profit was $129,000. 2011 was $123,000 and 2010 was $105,000.I don’t have an accountant. I take care of all of it. Doing this I know how my truck is doing and where to make the adjustments. This formula doesn’t work for everyone but by the grace of God this high-school dropout isn’t doing too bad.”

We’ll be discussing various owner-operator business challenges on Sirius XM Thursday, April 11, at 2 p.m. EDT on Road Dog Trucking Radio channel 106 with host Mark Willis. Tune in.

For more of the near 100 reader responses weighing in on the current state of the owner-operator business model, digest the comments under Heine’s last post on the subject here.

Showcase your workhorse
Add a photo of your rig to our Reader Rigs collection to share it with your peers and the world. Tell us the story behind the truck and your business to help build its story.
Submit Your Rig
Reader Rig Submission