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OK Tire

To the Edge and Back

by Jim Park
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Trent Lalonde once had a grade school report card arrive at home with a warning from a teacher saying, "Trent does not play well with others." More than once in his adult life, he's been told he has a bad attitude. There's a subtle difference between socially unacceptable behavior and refusing to be led down the garden path. In his case, refusing to be taken advantage of has propelled him to a level of personal success he never would have achieved had he followed the crowd.

While working as a lease-operator, Trent began to reject the notion that he should take unprofitable loads or sit around waiting because it was expected of him. It seemed to him that in serving the carrier's interests, he too often had to compromise his own. Call wanting to succeed a bad attitude if you want, but the change in perspective is putting money in the bank, and has definitely improved his quality of life.

Trent became a lease-operator in November 1996, after three years as a company driver. He'd done a lot of different kinds of trucking, and found deck work the most lucrative. The effort required to keep everything running smoothly was largely his own, yet he continually saw his profits going elsewhere. He actually saw company drivers doing better than he was.

"I once came home with a cheque for $1800 (after fuel, etc.) for two weeks work, while a company driver I knew at the same outfit earned a $2200 cheque for 12 days on the road," he said.

There wasn't much left to get by on, and by early 2000, Trent began looking seriously at going on his own. "I've seen 30-year veteran lease-ops unable to make their payments. I sure didn't want to get to that stage, even though I was already there. I just didn't want to admit it."

He started keeping a journal of what he did and how it paid. It was a game plan for the day he went solo. The book included notes on names for the company, the destinations where the money seemed to be, names and contacts for good paying freight, as well as goals and strategies for getting there. Most importantly, he noted his personal strengths and weaknesses. He knew that running solo meant the buck stopped with him, and he was painfully aware that he couldn't afford too many mistakes in that game.

With a year's worth of notes in his journal, and a clearer vision of where he wanted to be, he was still teetering on the edge. He wasn't making enough money, but he was afraid to take the next step. Then came the push he needed. He had been dispatched on an over-dimensional load to Boston. The trip was a nightmare from beginning to end.

"Company policy was to stop at each state line and order the permits once you got there," he says. "That made absolutely no sense, given the waiting time for the permits to arrive. I wanted it all set up in advance, but as it was explained to me, the cost of missing the window of opportunity on the permit because of a delay in arriving in a particular state made it less expensive for the company to buy each permit as it was needed. They weren't too interested in what that policy was costing me - sitting overnight with a wide load waiting for permits - because they had lost money in the past on expired permits."

In July 2001, he took the leap and began running independent, under his own name. He was in debt when he started - pretty well at the do-it-or-die stage. He was using a credit card to make his truck payment.

He bottomed out financially at Christmas time, five months into his new venture. He had sold off both of the rental properties he owned and his credit card was up to $13,000 when he called Mercedes Benz credit asking how to go about giving the truck back, even though he had yet to miss a payment.

He had run a couple of good months, but it just wasn't enough. He knew the revenue was out there, he just needed a bit more time to develop the business.

What he had going for him, in those dark days, was the faith and encouragement of his family, and the knowledge that things couldn't get much worse. He knew his numbers, and he knew he was getting what he needed, just not enough of it.

The finance company talked him out of giving the truck back, and he juggled the payment between a couple of different cards. Within three months, he was well on his way to recovery. They say it's always darkest just before the dawn, and in Trent's case, that was certainly true.

Looking back, even with his notes and plans, he says he made a ton of mistakes. The first mistake was relying too much on load brokers. The second was running lanes he liked rather than following the money.

"That's something I never understood when I was a lease-operator," he recalls. "I couldn't figure out why they were always sending me places I didn't want to go. I've since realized that those routes were making the carrier money."

The most difficult part of the transition was making the cold calls to sell his service. It's easy to grab something from a load board, and some of the brokers paid well enough, but the real money lay in direct billing. He'd never done that before, but it worked out too. Slowly at first, but with calls for repeat business, he'd soon established a short list of shippers very happy to deal directly with T. A. Lalonde Transport Ltd.

He knew from the start that he never wanted to grow the business beyond a single truck, and he found it difficult to turn down work because he wasn't set up to do it. But he was right to do so. He realized pretty quickly that there was real value in serving a shipper well, even if it was on a really small scale, and the shippers seem to realize the benefits of that personal level of service.

Smiling now, he recalls a work order for a repair job in July 2002, just six months after nearly pulling the plug.

"The bill was $11,700," he says. "When the shop manager asked how I planned to pay it, I asked for 30 days, he gave me the time, and I paid his bill.

One month Trent saw his fuel bill top $6800, and his cell phone bill hit $700. But that month, he grossed over 25 grand. So it's all relative.

"I wish I had had some experienced single-truck operator to show me the ropes," he says, looking back. "I wouldn't have made quite so many mistakes along the way, but the experience I gained in spite of myself has proven invaluable."

The biggest surprise in going out on his own was realizing how much he needed to earn to run the truck and support his family.

"The second biggest surprise was how easy it was to get what I needed if I was able to justify it and then deliver what I'd promised," says Trent. "The money is out there if you know what the market will bear and you don't leave anything on the table."

Trent won't discuss rates, but puts his cost per mile at $1.70, everything included: wages, taxes, fax paper, the works, so you know the quoted price is well above that. He says he felt uncomfortable at first quoting what seemed like such a high price, but he gets few refusals now. In fact, he's doing most of the refusing.

"There was a situation not long ago where Trent was shopping the load boards for a load north. There was a good one posted, and the rate was good, but when I ran a credit check, I saw seven bad collection reports," says Trent's wife and business partner, Tania. "He left the load there for someone else."

Trent does the trucking in the family, but Tania is a big part of the operation. Trent says she is the final test for any do-it-or-don't questions.

It takes a lot of faith and trust to let someone take you as close to financial ruin as the Lalondes were three and a half years ago. Tania was aware of how poorly they were doing, and she also knew that with Trent's determination to succeed and his well thought-out plan, the chances of succeeding were better than even. She knew the risks and the costs, as well as the rewards, and her deft management of their financial affairs is largely responsible for their recovery.

At the time I sat down with Trent and Tania at their home in Saskatoon, he had just worked out a deal with Kelsey Trail Trucking, a small operation that favors single-truck operators like him. He had sold his business to Kelsey Trail - truck, trailer, customers, and all - and has taken a position in dispatch/freight sales to help them expand into the American market.

Of course, the obvious question was if he had worked so hard to get there - had finally made it - why did he sell?

"The family," he said without hesitation. "I'll be home with the girls while they are growing up, and that's what's really important."

Not only has Trent succeeded in beating the odds at success, he has translated that determination into a profitable sale, and a job that will see him home with his family while still doing what he loves. By any standards, we'd call Trent Lalonde a winner.

Trent Lalonde's Formula for Success

~ Follow your dreams, but don't leap without looking. It's a long way down with no net at the bottom.
~ Look for shippers who will do business directly with single-truck operators, and service the heck out of them.
~ Don't take on more than you can do on your own, no matter how tempting it might be. Establish yourself first and get into a profitable position, then look at growth potential.
~ Follow the money, even if it's somewhere you wouldn't ordinarily go. Trucking around the country is fine, but if your lifestyle preferences are standing in the way of your earnings, you may have to re-examine why you're an owner-operator in the first place.
~ Forget the old ways of doing business. If you know you can do better on your own, do your research, and then go for it.