Steady as he goes

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Don‘t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.” - Capt. James Lawrence, U.S.S. Chesapeake


I‘ve seen the same grim, steely determination that no doubt infused Capt. Lawrence and his crew as they faced the HMS Shannon in battle on the high seas in 1813 reflected in the eyes and words of many owner-operators I talk to nowadays. With the U.S. national average for diesel fuel at $4.21 a gallon, fuel surcharges hard to come by, and lackluster freight demand, many are fighting hard just to survive, much less eke out a profit at the end of each week.


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(The indomitable Capt. James Lawrence)


Many may also face the fate of the Chesapeake, which ultimately lost its battle with the Shannon, followed by Lawrence‘s death from wounds sustained from small arms fire during that historic clash. Yet many others won‘t - not only surviving the current rough patch but also perhaps profiting as trucking capacity begins to again get scarce - much the way the United States escaped from several catastrophic losses during the War of 1812 (the burning of Washington D.C. the biggest of them) to eventually win that conflict against England.


I got the chance to talk with Robert Zuckerman, a veteran owner-operator operating from (of all places!!!) Rhode Island about the challenges facing independent truckers like himself these days. “There‘s two ways to look at the business these days: either you tough it out or get out of it,” he told me over the phone as he wrapped up a haul. “The question you need to ask yourself is, will I make the same amount of money I do now if I get out of this business? Because most likely, in whatever other career you choose, you are going to start at the bottom. So I am just going to tough it out. But here‘s the thing: I love this job and I don‘t want to do something else.”


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(Robert Zuckerman, posed in front of his rig.)


Zuckerman is also of the “old school” when it comes to driving trucks, as he acquired and honed his skills in the late 1970s over the course of several years, maneuvering an ever-larger vehicle for his family‘s scrap metal business. “I learned on one piece of equipment at a time: from forklifts to a series of straight trucks, then a tractor, a tractor and 20-foot trailer, followed by a tractor and 40-foot trailer, and so on,” he related.


These were old 1950s and 60s Mack trucks, along with a 1966 Autocar, Zuckerman added, so shifting was like learning an ancient, intricate form of tai chi, with every movement requiring precision or disaster would strike. These trucks didn‘t have power steering either, much less air conditioning or air ride seats, so Zuckerman is more than appreciate of the modern-day comforts found on today‘s tractors.


“I appreciate trucking today so much, because I didn‘t have the air conditioning or all the electronics kids today take for granted,” he said. “It makes driving a lot easier.”


The important thing Zuckerman believes will get him - and others like him - through the current rough patch is the ability to adapt, the remain open to learning new skills (especially ones related to business management), and to renew his focus on the small details of trucking. For today, every single penny counts - not a one can be wasted, he told me.


“How do you survive? You need to make smart business decisions and pay attention to the small stuff,” Zuckerman said. “I never used to give a second thought to the small stuff, like $10 air filters. Now I do - and the $5 and $1 items as well. Not only am I paying attention to all the numbers, I am also trying to manage my time and effort better too - that‘s worth money to me as well. Because your time is NEVER free.”


Zuckerman's also been working with Tim Brady -- FleetOwner's contributing editor, a former driver, and formidable trucking consultant in his own right -- to beef up his business and financial management skills as well. “You have to go with the flow or get left behind in this business now,” Zuckerman explained. “I‘ve been an owner-operator for over 15 years, but just now I am getting my business organized on a laptop computer so I can track the numbers better.”


Yet he‘s also a big believer in keeping home and work life separate from each other: a hard thing to do when you are an owner-operator, but one he thinks is necessary. “Business is business and personal is personal: you need to remember you wear two hats when you drive for yourself,” he said. “I go so far as to not park my truck out in front of my house: I keep down the street a ways in a secure area. That way when I am home, I am completely focusing my time and effort on my family.”


Zuckerman applies his “steady as he goes” philosophy to his equipment as well, staying on a strict maintenance schedule that he thinks helps him stave off larger, more costly repairs over the life of his truck. For example, Zuckerman said he changes the oil on his 2000-model Volvo VN 660 every 10,000 to 14,000 miles - a much shorter interval than the manufacturer suggests - because he wants to keep the inside of his engine just as clean and in good working order as the outside of his truck.


“It‘s got 847,000 miles on it and I only had to rebuild the bottom-end of the motor at 500,000 miles and change one fuel injector. That‘s it in terms of major repairs,” he said. “I change all the filters at every oil change and change the transmission fluid every other year because that helps keep my truck in good working order. This truck has never given me any problems as a result.”


Still, he and his wife and their three kids are tightening their belts, cutting costs where they can, not going out to eat as much, watching every penny. His wife recently took her retail clothing business online so she could save the money spend on store rent. They plan to do what it takes so Zuckerman can keep driving, awaiting better days to return.


“The first four years after I bought my new Volvo were great - then the costs started increasing,” he said. “Also, the business isn‘t what it used to be. Common courtesy on the road isn‘t there anymore. We as drivers don‘t treat each other as equals anymore. But I am going to do what it takes to stay in this business. I‘ve been driving all my life: I could never sit in an office and push paper. This is what I love to do.”

What's Trucks at Work?

Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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