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DECEMBER 7, 1999

SMART ANSWERS

How a Small Trucking Company Can Really Get Moving
Alliances with other regional companies could expand your reach


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Q: I run a small trucking company, and I would like to expand my business. How do trucking companies that haul special products grow?

---- K.J., Connecticut

A: With the economy flourishing and e-commerce taking off, the $372 billion-a-year U.S. trucking industry is booming, and small businesses are definitely cashing in. There are a handful of very large national trucking companies, including Rodeway Express, J.B. Hunt, and UPS, with thousands of vehicles. But 70% of the 380,000 trucking companies in the country operate six trucks or fewer.

Gary Satterlee, president of Harbor Division Inc., a growing trucking company located in Wilmington, Calif., near the Port of Los Angeles, recommends contacting brokers who handle the products you ship to stimulate your company's growth. "There are brokers in every manner of trucking I've ever encountered," Satterlee says. The brokers will typically offer jobs at lowball prices, promising you steady volume. Don't be put off.

Satterlee says they'll introduce you to new shippers, with whom you can establish long-term business relationships that, one hopes, will be more fruitful than the initial brokered deal. Customer service and reliability are the cornerstones of a successful trucking company, he explains: "Every single time — for whatever reason — that your company fails to perform as promised, you must call the customer immediately and tell that customer he's about to be hurt and why. Be proactive on the bad stuff, because nobody else is, and it'll give you an edge."

As a small trucker, you may want to follow a recent industry trend and form alliances with local haulers in other regions from the one you serve. These kinds of operating agreements will help you gain customers. "It's a pain in the neck if your customer has to relay cargo from carrier to carrier for a long haul. If you have several other companies you could contact along the chain for pickups, it allows you to serve more customers and do it better," says Bob Costello, chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, an industry lobbying and trade organization. "Trucking companies that operate in the Northeast are allying with those in the Southeast, doing things like the airlines have done on a smaller scale, so each one gives the other extra business."

For specialized carriers that only haul certain products or hazardous materials, the techniques for generating growth are the same as for general carriers, Costello says. He recommends that you network with other companies in the same specialty and try to create geographic alliances, though the possibilities may be more limited. The ATA has groups that specialize in hauling for particular sectors, allow members to network, and address issues like safety. "You learn quite a bit when you get together with other companies that are doing what you're doing. You find out how they're doing things to get new business," says Costello. You can contact the ATA, which is based in Alexandria, Va., by phone at (703) 838-1700. At the organization's Web site, www.truckline.com, you can interact with other members via message boards, place classified ads, read up on industry news, and peruse the online membership directory.

To find out about networking in your state, contact the Connecticut Trucking Assn. at (860) 520-4455. Additional resources are available online at www.trucknet.com, www.allabouttrucks.com, and many other trucking industry sites.




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