Skin in the game

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I recently had the opportunity to talk about best business practices with owner-operators attending the annual Great American Trucking Show in Dallas. The popular Partners in Business program, produced by sister publication Overdrive magazine and ATBS, was jam-packed with business knowledge-seeking owner-operators, and attendance exceeded expectations – surprising in the face of the conventional wisdom that independent contractors are a vanishing breed of driver.

I’m always puzzled when I hear the doom-and-gloom scenarios that sprout up every time there’s a downturn in the industry. Over the years, the threats of fuel prices, deregulation, insurance costs, government regulations and other predictors for failure have been blamed for putting owner-operators on the endangered species list. Somehow, this tough, stubborn breed of driver manages to adapt, survive and even thrive.

While it’s certainly a “survival of the strongest” business with little margin for error, the successful owner-operator is an alluring driver resource for fleets. There’s no doubt we’ve recently lost some owner-operators to high fuel prices, but this is more indicative of the cyclical nature of the industry, and today we have 25,500 more owner-operators than we did 10 years ago. The survivors remain a dependable, business-savvy service-oriented source of capacity for carriers.

With predictions that the industry will be hauling 31 percent more freight by 2017, C.R. England and other carriers have focused on greatly increasing their owner-operator fleet. Josh England, vice president the company’s independent contractor division, says owner-operators make up 62 percent of C.R. England’s fleet, with 2,100 owner-operators now versus fewer than 1,000 five years ago. “Our numbers consistently show that they are the safest on-time driving resource,” he says. “They are invested in the business, act more responsibly, run more miles and offer the most professional customer service.” By offering good pay, steady miles and plenty of business and tax counseling, England feels it’s in the company’s best interest to help its owner-operators succeed. “These guys have skin in the game,” England says. “They care about their equipment, and that translates into the ideal driving resource for us.”

One great thing about living through a few down market cycles is the ability to ignore histrionics and get down to the business of running a good business. I predict that long after I’m gone from the industry, owner-operators will still be hauling freight across the country. I don’t know many long-timers who’d bet against it.