The Diesel Gypsy
by Duff McCutcheon
You sense a bit of the outlaw in longtime trucker Ken Morse when talk turns to trucking prior to deregulation.
In the mid-seventies, Morse was on his way to building up a modest trucking empire in Centreville, King's County, N.S. - albeit on the wrong side of regulation.
"We were a gypsy truck outfit before deregulation," says Morse. "We hauled loads that were so-called ‘illegal' under regulation. We ran in the middle of the night, we ran around the scales, and we ran with phony invoices. I had one of the early Nova Scotia motor carrier licences and I applied for all the licences, but every time I would apply for a new one, the opposition would come in and say, ‘we don't need him.' That trucking regulation was phony as hell you know - it was kinda tough. The regulated carriers were hauling and getting [freight] subsidies while the gypsies like myself had to haul for the price of the marketplace."
Then Morse found a clever way of getting around the rules. He bought a truck rental company from a friend and went into the business of renting trucks and drivers to shippers, putting the burden of licensing on the guy that wanted to move the goods.
Now, GK Morse & Sons Trucking boasts 44 trucks and more than 50 employees in an operation that sees freight - "anything we can get in a trailer," he says - moving all over North America. Where a long run back in the old days was a trip from Centreville to Halifax, Morse and his two sons, Robert and Ricky, are now sending drivers to B.C. and back every week - and all points in between, both here and south of the border.
By the time Morse had found himself a loophole through which to build his business back in 1976, he'd already been in trucking for a couple of decades. Raised on a farm in rural Nova Scotia, Morse had been around trucks and machinery since Day 1, learning to drive on his dad's 1939 GMC. He bought his first truck - a 2.5-ton Chev - for $400 at age 20, put a dump body on the back and started hauling gravel for the various road projects on the go in 1950s rural Nova Scotia.
"In those days you could get a job hauling gravel whenever they were putting in a new road. Whenever someone got a contract to do some paving, anyone who had an old dump truck would come around for work. Everyone had single-axle straight trucks so they needed a lot of trucks," says Morse of his early years. He'd also find a bit of work hauling local farm produce to Halifax once in a while. "I just bought the truck with the hope that I'd find something to do with it."
He'd also bought himself a farm, growing crops for a local processing plant. "I'd get a little trucking out of that as well," he says. "There was peas to haul in the summer," - and hay and Christmas trees to haul in the fall and winter. Morse was always looking around for ways to generate revenue with his truck, and late fall would find him trucking Nova Scotia's pine trees down to New Jersey for the Christmas tree season. He'd round out the rest of the winter buying and selling hay for area farmers and hauling it around with his truck.
By 1965, Morse had three trucks, "and it started growing faster," he says. "I had a few drivers working for me. In 1969 I got my first diesel, a B-model Mack. We'd put a dump body on in the summer for hauling aggregate, and then put a fifth wheel on in the fall for hauling Christmas trees and then hay around in the new year. We hauled a fair amount of pulp wood as well."
The early seventies saw Morse bid adieu to his farming life so he could devote his full energies to his newly formed trucking enterprise: GK Morse Trucking, which consisted of five tractors, five drivers, and a few dump trailers and flatbeds. While he was still busy hauling aggregate, hay and Christmas trees, the addition of a reefer trailer enabled him to begin hauling produce. "We started doing Newfoundland-Florida reefer runs and we'd haul whatever we could get - lots of peat moss and potatoes down, and produce back."
Today, at 71, Morse is still in the office every day answering phones and overseeing the business. He has an exclusive contract with a shipper that sends a lot of trucks running back and forth between the Maritimes and British Columbia. "We're licensed to run all over the U.S., but only about a quarter of our business goes south - largely east of the Mississippi and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico," he says. Morse himself hasn't been a dedicated driver since 1971, "but I take a trip once in a while just for fun. I do miss it because that's the main reason I got into it - I like to drive."
And how has business changed since he was a 20-year-old tenderfoot hauling hay around in a single-axle gas job? "We used to make money in the old days," says Morse. "The margins are so slim now. We're paying 80 or more cents a mile for fuel. When I got into diesel trucks, it used to cost me about 40 percent of my gross dollar for fuel and a driver. Now it costs around 60-65 percent, sometimes more. Then you have to buy the truck, keep tires on it, keep it repaired, register it, insure it - the margins are very small. Once in a while you get a lucky load and you make a little money on it, but there are other trucks you're running that sometimes run at a loss. But if you don't keep them all out on the road, then you're not going to get the lucky load. Most of the freight today… well the prices are set in the marketplace and the competition is pretty brutal."
"Dad's seen a lot of change over the years," adds son Robert, a dispatcher. "Take log books - right up until 1989 we never used them. Before, you were allowed to drive the truck until you got tired and then you went to sleep, then you woke up and drove again. Nowadays, once you open your log book you have to put your whole day in, so you've got people driving around tired because they have to finish their day out."
When asked if he has any secrets to impart, gleaned from his years building a successful business, Morse just snorts: "Successful business? How would you know that? 45 trucks? That just means the finance company hasn't come to get them yet. Ha ha ha."
On a more serious note, he's quick to credit his drivers for the success of the company. "We've been lucky over the years," he says. "We've always had a great bunch of guys working here."
Of course, it helps having a leader that has business instincts like Morse, whether it's sniffing out opportunities hauling hay or drawing freight cross country. It speaks volumes about the man that at 71 Morse still wakes at 4:30 every morning and heads to the office bright and early to man the phones. As you might imagine, he has no plans for retirement.
Any hobbies? None to speak of. "No golf, no fishing. I don't do anything, no recreation. I like doing business. I like being around the operation," he says. "I love trucking. It's just a bad habit I can't break. I'm happy doing business as [a] trucker. And I like to think of myself as brutal competition."