A few breaks in the storm

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Last November, I wrote about “the perfect storm,” predicting multiple uncontrollable forces converging upon the trucking industry. A year ago, fuel prices were fluctuating, driver shortages parked trucks and shipping rates remained flat. The advice to pare down, get lean and take care of your customer base was taken by many of you. In fact, if you are reading this column a year later, you are probably one of the survivors.

After almost a year of dealing with one set of problems, suddenly the economic storm blew up to hurricane proportions following the Sept.11 terrorist attacks. We are now, shakily, in the “eye of the storm,” and it’s a good time to take stock.

As an old Navy dog once told me, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” Fortunately, plenty of trucking company owners find bright spots in the otherwise gloomy skies. Because this is a season of giving thanks, here are some things the trucking industry can be thankful for:

Fuel prices. As we go to press, fuel prices are lower than they’ve been all year. Dropping fuel prices can make an immediate improvement to your bottom line. Continue training your drivers to drive for fuel efficiency. Those skills will pay off over time.

Interest rates. Take advantage of low interest rates by considering refinancing where possible.

Hazmat regulations. Some hazmat freight has shifted from rail to truck. Take advantage where you can. Also, this is a good time to review hazmat safety concerns and make sure drivers are thoroughly trained.

Driver pool. As unemployment rolls expand with laid-off aviation, travel and recreation workers, driver shortages decrease. Drivers are more willing to stay put, and turnover costs are significantly down. Take this opportunity to build the team you want instead of one you are forced to take in tighter markets. It’s still important to keep employee morale high because more is asked of them. Don’t cut pay or benefits unless absolutely necessary.

Market share gains. If you are still in the trucking business, then you probably are going to be one of the survivors. Now is the time to pick up market share from your less fortunate competitors. Increase your share of the pie.

Used truck market. This isn’t exactly a news flash, but there are some great bargains on used trucks. It might also be a good time for your motivated drivers to buy a truck and get their own authority.

Still, we are only in the eye of the storm; the worst may be ahead of us as the economy continues to be a cause of uncertainty. However, adversity makes us stronger, more skillful navigators. Nobody predicted the current conditions, but good leadership through tough times continues to pay off.

Chip Magner is publisher of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail Lmagner@eTrucker.com.