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FREIGHT FOCUS

by Jim Park
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When you make a promise, you had better be able to keep it. That's a near universal truth - except in politics, but we should know better when dealing with that crowd. In the expedite business, a promise kept is money in the bank, and a good bet that there'll be more coming your way.

The expedite sector is called upon to deliver in a hurry - that's the nature of the business. Some other cog in the wheel has failed, and the expediters are called in to save somebody's bacon. But as Bruce Schumm points out, "There's no point in making a promise you can't keep, just to get the business."

He's the president K-DAC Expedite in Petersburg, Ont. - a hamlet a stone's throw west of Kitchener, Ont. K-DAC calls itself an Emergency Freight Specialist. From Schumm's perspective, any request is worth considering, but it has to be reasonable.

There's a bit of a myth about the expedite business that everything has to be there yesterday, and by golly, they'll move heaven and earth to get it there. Just try that one on a U.S. Customs officer these days, or on Matty Moroun, the reclusive and recalcitrant owner of the Ambassador Bridge linking Detroit and Windsor. They couldn't care less how hot your freight is.

The truth about expedite's effectiveness is that trucks are positioned to move in and load on a moment's notice, and as many of the barriers to on-time arrival as possible have already been dealt with.

"We get the odd call from a panicked shipper who just got a call from a customer who needs something yesterday," Schumm says. "Depending on the nature of the emergency, there's usually a way of helping them."

But he won't accept a load he can't deliver on time. That, he says, just sets you up to fail.

"I understand that there are so many hours in a day, and only so many miles a truck can travel in an hour, so when I accept a load, I make sure the shipper and the receiver are comfortable with the pick up and delivery time we propose," Schumm says. "I certainly won't ask a driver to do the impossible."

If something needs to be 500 miles down the road in five hours, clearly it's not a job for a truck, or even a panel van. That one will have to fly. But Schumm always explores the options.

"We ask if there's any flexibility in the scheduling, looking for ways to buy a few hours on a delivery time. We try to find out if the load is scheduled for production the moment it arrives, or if there's a staging process that could give us a few hour's grace," he says. "Often, we discover the load could be safely delivered several hours later than planned, or production scheduling can accommodate a later arrival. If everyone is happy with the plan, then we dispatch the truck."

Schumm's business is solving problems, not creating them. He says accepting an unrealistic delivery deadline is taking on too much of the shipper's problem. When he can keep a promised delivery arrangement, everyone wins, even if it takes a bit of juggling. If product is needed to keep an assembly line running, and some foul-up or another has forced a shipper to call the expediters, it's a given that there's a deadline attached.

But expediters also haul small loads - just because they're small.

It's Not Always JIT
Tight deadlines aside, there are a growing number of shippers who prefer to use smaller trucks to move their product simply because they're smaller-volume shippers. Often there are time constraints that make LTL service an unattractive option.

Some shippers can't necessarily wait until it's convenient for a truckload carrier to fill a little space with a smaller LTL shipment, so expedite trucks get the call. They can move 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.

And LTL remains an option, even in the expedite business. Don McLeod runs a one-truck operation out of his home in Stoney Creek, Ont. With fewer than 20 customers on his regular list, he specializes in moving small loads around a 250-mile radius of home. He makes his calls late in the week to arrange work for the following week, building LTL when he can, or moving a "truckload" when it's available. He runs a 22-ft tandem straight truck with a lift-gate and a ramp on the back to add flexibility to his operation.

"I've peddled groceries to corner variety stores for a food distributor, and I've moved brake presses for a machine shop," he says. "I do what they want me to do, and I try to schedule the movements to suit my customer's needs. I've also found some of them to be pretty flexible when it suits me. I build LTL when I can, or run with a partial when it suits them."

The Driver's Life
Schumm describes his drivers' lives as like being on the fire department. "Same thing every day, only different. It's exciting work, really, and never the same from day-to-day."

While K-DAC has a stable of regular customers with fairly predictable loads and destinations, the calls still come in from the one-off customers. Earlier this year, K-DAC had a tractor-trailer on tour with Quebec's Cirque de Soleil, and they've delivered cases of vaccine to Whitehorse, and cheese to St. John's, NL.

Typically, there's more freight to move toward the end of the day, week, month, or year, Schumm says. That's the way business works. It'll be quiet around the office on a Monday morning, and pandemonium by Friday afternoon. The early days of the month are slower than the waning days, and the same applies to yearly cycles, with a significant blip in a March, when a lot of manufacturers experience their year-ends.

The Expedite Truck
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, and the sector is well suited to owner-operators because of the reasonable start-up cost. Typically, these trucks are Class-6 or -7 cab and chassis, fitted with a 20- to 24-ft box. Barn doors are preferable to roll-up doors for the maximum opening width, logistic posts and tracking are a good investment, as are a set of straps, decking bars, plywood, and blankets for the sensitive freight. Reefers or cargo heaters are options that add flexibility, cost, and often, revenue.

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 big truck. The engines can 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. Here are some of the available cab and chassis, and drive train options. Of course, a Class 8 can be easily modified, too, to accommodate a cargo box.

Cab and Chassis
Freightliner Business Class M2
International 4200 or 4300 series
Kenworth T300
Peterbilt Model 335
Sterling Acterra A-Line

Engines
Cat C9 - 285-400 hp with 890-1100 lb-ft torque
Cat C11 - 305-370 hp with 1050-1350 lb-ft torque

Cummins ISB - 185-275 hp with 1600 lb-ft torque
Cummins ISC - 250-315 hp with 1300 lb-ft torque
Cummins ISL - 310-350 hp with 1300 or 1400 lb-ft torque

International VT 356 - 175-230 hp with 460-620 lb-ft torque
International DT 466 - 210-255 hp with 520-560 lb-ft torque
International DT 570 - 285-330 hp with 800-950 lb-ft torque

Mercedes-Benz MBE900 - 150-300 hp with 860 lb-ft torque

Transmissions
Allison Automatic Series 1000, 2000, 2400, 3000, 3200, or 3400MD
Eaton Fuller 6- or 10-speed automated Autoshift
Eaton Fuller 5-, 6-, 7-, 9, or 10-speed manual
Mercedes MBT 6-speed synchronized
ZF Meritor 9- and 10-speed manual
ZF Meritor SureShift automated 9- or 10-speed

The automotive side of the biz - a significant contributor to some expedite truckers - usually has a summer shut-down and other seasonal shifts in volume, but the work is there and it's fairly predictable.

The automotive sector remains the dominant shipper in the expedite world, so it follows that most of the freight moves around the Great Lakes region, but that's changing as automotive suppliers spring up around the continent. As the customer base expands, so too does 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. You won't find much of an expedite market in Saskatoon, though there are bound to be niche opportunities for owner-operators like Don McLeod.

As you can see from our lead photograph, expedite trucks come in a variety of sizes and shapes - something to suit all kinds of drivers. Schumm get lots of calls from people looking to drive the cars or the panel vans, but says he prefers to hire drivers with at least a straight truck licence. Many of his recent recruits are middle-aged folk, recently downsized from other jobs, who want to give trucking a try. Many opt for a straight truck licence instead of a tractor-trailer ticket, finding satisfying work at an expedite outfit.

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 potion of the freight means less time away from home. If you don't mind the occasional 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.