Benchmarking against public carriers

Benchmarking is a hot topic these days. The Truckload Carriers Association is in the early stages of a major effort that will allow truckload carriers to compare their own cost and efficiency ratios to those of the top performers and discuss how to achieve those numbers.

Benchmarking in trucking has always been difficult because the vast majority of carriers are family-owned or closely held.

Carriers that have publicly traded stocks are another source of up-to-date benchmarking information. Comparing your financials with those from public carriers may seem like comparing apples and oranges. Their operations, size and cost structure may be different, but even so, their financials can be valuable benchmarking tools, says Steve Silverman, chief operating officer of Raven Transportation, a 230-truck carrier in Jacksonville, Fla.

“No one benchmarks in this industry,” Silverman says. “But you have to benchmark against something. You have to find somebody you can measure against.” Silverman says he primarily benchmarks against Heartland Express and Knight Transportation. Even if it were possible to access private carriers’ financials, Silverman says he would still measure his costs and margins against those two public carriers.

“In order to grow, we decided that we have to operate at under 0.93 operating margin. In the public truckload carriers, the only two who consistently do that are Heartland and Knight,” Silverman says. “We get the results that they do. Other companies don’t know how to benchmark their costs.”

Silverman benchmarks his costs with Heartland and Knight by converting expense items to a percentage of revenue and comparing his percentages each quarter to look for changes. To compare costs, however, you have to match your expense structure to theirs, which may require you to move some expense items around. A public carrier may, for example, combine fuel taxes and licensing or fuel and oil as a single expense item, while you may list these expenses separately.

Despite the differences in fleet operations, some margins and percentages are useful benchmarks for all carriers, Silverman says. These include driver costs and fuel costs as a percentage of revenue. He also looks at Heartland and Knight’s contractor costs as a percentage of revenue and their revenue per loaded mile and per total mile. If you have questions about how these carriers have saved money in any area, Silverman suggests you call the public carrier or pay them a visit.

“I’ve taken it a step further,” Silverman says. “I’ve gone to visit Heartland and asked about their maintenance cost on tires, parts, or if they are considering satellite communications, trailer tracking, etc. There are a lot of things you can learn from the ones operating the best.”

Even if you don’t find benchmarking against public carriers to be meaningful, their public filings can be useful. Gary Hanke, president of Pegasus Transportation, a 170-truck carrier in Jeffersonville, Ind., says he uses public carriers’ financials to look for trends, not for benchmarking. Seeing the trends public carriers take help when he and his employees are setting goals, he says.


Resources

  • Publicly traded companies must file quarterly and annual financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission. To search the SEC database for these documents, visit www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm.
  • Another source of benchmarking information, especially for small trucking companies, is RMA, an association of credit lenders, which publishes the RMA Annual Statement Studies. The studies, sorted by SIC code, are based on the financial statements of commercial bank borrowers and prospects. You can purchase studies online for $59.95 each by
    visiting www.rmahq.org/SICdownload/main.html.