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Freight Focus: Expedited Trucking

by Jim Park

How much does it cost a major automotive manufacturer to stop an assembly line? It can run into the millions. That's dollars per hour, by the way, not annual losses. The cost of shutting down a plant makes the cost of emergency shipping look like chump-change. It's no wonder that some folks are prepared to pay big, big bucks to ship a can of paint or a handful of springs. The type of vehicle doesn't matter; it could be a panel-van or a tractor-trailer, as long as it gets there in time.

Somewhere between Fed-Ex and a 53-footer lies the realm of the expeditor, an industry sector largely centred in southern Ontario and the northeast United States. It's mostly straight trucks and some panel vans, but tractor-trailers get into the game occasionally as well. The key to expedited trucking is flexibility. These guys don't run on schedules the way the couriers do, and they don't tell the customer they'll have a truck in the area in a day or two. Their stock in trade is rapid response - like right now - and a firm commitment to deliver.

That means they have very specific service commitments and they have all the insurance policies in place to ensure the loads get there. Chris Gleason, president of Lions Delivery Service in Toronto, Ont., says that he has service agreements in place with several truck rental firms and tire service companies to make sure the freight gets rolling again as quickly as possible if trouble crops up.

Gleason says the expeditor has to be prepared for the unexpected. "The customer isn't paying to have his freight delivered when it's convenient for us," he says. "The key is keeping the customer informed. They know problems arise: it's up to us to help them make alternate arrangements."

That means advising the customer as to the progress of the truck - when it's loaded, when it clears customs, and when it's going to be there.

There's a fair bit of pressure on the drivers, but it's nothing that can't be managed. Sharp drivers know that timing and positioning are important in this business, so they take care of all the necessities such as showering, eating and fueling right after they unload. When the next call comes, they're ready to roll.

Auto parts and materials related to automotive production are still the mainstay of the expedite business, but that's changing. As more and more industries slash their production inventories, the expeditors are finding more new markets. The service area of the expeditors is still mostly around the Great Lakes and any other region that has a large volume of automotive production. But as the customer base expands, so too do the list of destinations. Anything from a Rolls Royce jet engine to a seat cushion for a Ford Taurus can wind up on an expedite truck. It all depends how badly somebody needs the freight.

The demand for time-sensitive delivery of small quantities of freight has given rise to a relatively new concept in trucking: the over-the-road straight truck. These folks aren't by any means limited to medium-duty machinery, but the typical expedite truck is a class-6 or -7 cab and chassis, fitted with a 20- to 24-ft box. Many owner-operators have successfully modified a class-8 tractor to accommodate the cargo box. They're still traveling in style, but without the aggravation of dragging a trailer around. Talk about the best of both worlds.

Some of these mid-range trucks are spec'd with full walk-in sleepers, top-of-the-line seating and interior packages with all the toys one would expect to find in a heavy-duty big rig. The engines may be a little smaller, but so is the payload. A 250- to 300-hp engine does a fine job with a gross weight of less than 50,000 lb, and, we're talking double-digit fuel economy numbers as well!

Tight deadlines aside, there are a growing number of shippers who now prefer to use a smaller truck to move their product because they're smaller-volume shippers. John Waghorn of HPD Transport in Brampton, Ont., says his business volume is growing steadily.

"These shippers can't necessarily wait until it's convenient for a truckload carrier to fill a little space with a smaller LTL shipment," says Waghorn. "We can move those smaller loads for a better price than using a full tractor trailer, which means better service for the smaller shipper who still has a delivery deadline."

It's niche trucking and it's growing in popularity. HPD driver Ross McCarty recalls hauling a desk containing a giant bubble gum machine from a studio in Toronto to the Radio City Music Hall in New York for a special taping of the Rosie O'Donnell show. He once trucked nothing but a 50-lb box containing some kind of gold-based material worth $1.5 million all the way to San Antonio, Texas.

The reality of competing against the big manufacturers has put a lot of pressure on the small-volume manufacturer. The small-load door-to-door carriers like HPD and Lions Delivery Service have helped level the competitive playing field a little. McCarty says it's no different from his point of view, except that he's not dragging a great big trailer around.

"We still have to get the freight there: there's just not as much of it," he says.

Depending on the carrier, the rate of pay can be almost the same as you'd expect to earn on a big truck, maybe even more. The working conditions aren't that different either, and the close proximity of the major percentage of the freight means less time away from home. If you don't mind a million-dollar delivery deadline hanging over your head, the expedite business offers much of what you've come to expect in a career as a driver or owner-operator. There's just less weight involved.

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