Opening the public carriers’ books

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Truckload carriers posted big gains in operating profits during 2002. More precisely, publicly held truckload carriers posted big gains. These results may or may not be typical of truckload carriers in general. We really don’t know yet. Privately held carriers weren’t required to file their 2002 financial data with the Department of Transportation until the end of March, and it takes a few months for that information to make its way to the industry.

But if you want insights now into how select carriers in any segment – truckload, LTL, package, specialized, etc. – ran their businesses last year, it’s there for the taking. For example, how did Covenant Transportation turn a $63,000 operating loss in 2001 into a $24.9 million operating profit in 2002? How were Swift and J.B. Hunt able to post 40 percent operating profit gains?

SEC filings of publicly traded carriers leave much to be desired as benchmarking tools. If you want information on carriers of your size, that operate in your region or have similar operations, you are much better off with a more comprehensive resource, such as the Blue Book of Trucking Companies from Transportation Technical Services Inc. (www.ttstrucks.com) or Twenty from the Top from the American Trucking Associations (www.truckline.com/store).

But SEC filings do have their advantages. Perhaps most of all, they are free. Quarterly and annual reports are available at this site. You can search for filings by company name or by SIC code, such as 4213, which is over-the-road trucking. SEC filings are a chore to digest, however, as they are filled with financial babble and legalese.

You can find highlights of a carrier’s financial results in its news releases, which are usually available on their websites. Another interesting free resource is the quarterly conference call with investors that many carriers hold. You can find a calendar of those calls at Yahoo! Finance and can listen to them as they occur or from an archive, which may remain a week or two.