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When you face your fear, most of the time you will discover that it was not really such a big threat after all. We all need some form of deeply rooted, powerful motivation -- it empowers us to overcome obstacles so we can live our dreams.” –Les Brown

To characterize 2008 as a tough year is a little like saying Godzilla is a big lizard – it wasn’t just tough; it was downright mean and nasty.

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Yet now the page has turned and it’s 2009 – a new year with a bevy of its own dire challenges, along with those left over from 2008. These are extremely daunting times for any trucking operation to face, let alone for the smaller carriers and independents that simply don’t have the same fiscal resources to draw on as larger companies.

That doesn’t mean success in this economic maelstrom we’re stuck in isn’t possible – far from it. This is something I talk to my compatriot Timothy Brady about this all the time, by the way: how truckers large or small can find ways to succeed despite the steep grade ahead. As a former owner-operator with over two decades worth of experience, Tim knows his stuff: it’s why he’s not only a contributing editor to FleetOwner but the business editor at American Trucker as well.

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He also forged his trucking career in a very demanding segment, too – the moving industry. Not only did he have to drive long, irregular routes, plus help pack and unpack priceless family heirlooms, he also worked face-to-face with customers – a rare thing for most drivers. You learn a thing or two by literally working in the customer’s kitchen trip after trip.

That’s why Tim stresses time and time again that truckers need to make personal connections with their customers so they can explain the value they bring to the table. You can’t be yet another faceless truck in a long line of big rigs; shipper must understand who you are and the skills you’ll put to work for your customers.

“The idea here is to develop a niche that provides shippers with better customer service through less handling, quicker pick-up and delivery, and more personal care of their items being shipped – a service for shippers often left in the lurch by most of the large carriers and brokers,” he explains. “But to be a success at finding these types of customers takes a bit of grit, a large amount of dedication and a stick-to-it-iveness that will rival anything you’ve ever attempted.”

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Tim believes you’ve got to search the hidden places in your area where these small manufacturers might exist. They might be a home-based business or may be leasing their space in an older building off the beaten path. “Check with your local Chamber of Commerce, manufacturing associations and bankers, or go down to the county court house and see who’s licensed to manufacture what,” Tim says. “There are very few businesses that don’t ship and/or receive something brought by a truck. Find the ones who are having a difficult time getting their products or supplies shipped.”

This is exactly the same kind of advice offered by another business expert I listen to regularly: Professor Jerry Osteryoung from the college of business at Florida State University. He also served as the executive director of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship at FSU from 1995 through 2008. He’s a firm believer that opportunities still abound for entrepreneurs despite the rough economic waters and though it’ll be hard sailing for a while, things will improve.

“By far the most important goal is just to survive 2009. It is going to be tough as we just are not through this recession. However, by the late part of 2009 or early 2010 we should be moving out and into a growth economy,” Osteryoung says. “It is so important to remember that we have gone through 13 recessions since the great depression and we have come out of each one of these. We will come out of this one as well.”

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He believes that if you have the resources, now is the time to take advantage of market opportunities. The most successful firms coming out of each recession are those that did not shrink but wisely invested to be able to grow rapidly once the economy turned, Osteryoung stresses.

“Keeping as much cash as possible in these difficult times is a wise and strategic move,” he notes. “In difficult times cash is always going to be king and the more you have the better. Suppliers short of cash are going to be able to give you some tremendous terms if you can pay quickly.”

Another resolution is to get your debt down to a much lower level. “As you look around at the plethora of store and business closings, it almost always relates back to having too much debt,” Osteryoung explains. “While leverage adds value it also adds so much risk. The problem with debt is not the rate that is being paid, but rather the size of the principle payments that must be made no matter what. In the 2009 environment, the less debt you have the better.”

On the personal side of things, Osteryoung says businesspeople of all stripes must develop ways to deal with stress in a productive but not harmful way. “Make sure that you have a plan to deal with the incredible stress you’re going to feel getting your business through this economic morass,” he notes.

He points to a life experience of his own as an example. “When I was writing by dissertation to complete my Ph.D., I had some committee members that were impossible to please,” Osteryoung recalls. “What helped for me is to go to the gym every day and just run for 30 or so minutes. As ran, I pretended that I was stepping on the face each committee member that was giving me so much grief. At the end of my run, I felt so much better and with a lot less stress.”

Finally, if you’re a manager in the trucking business today, you’ve got another big thing to think about – keeping up the morale of the employees you’re entrusted to lead. Not easy in these times, for sure, but Osteryoung is adamant that this is one of the absolute critical functions of any manager in the business environment we’re living through today.

“Make sure that you support your staff in this next year,” he warns. “Fear is going be running rampant as we work our way out of the recession and your staff is going to be very fearful not knowing what is going to happen to their job and your company. You will have to go out of your way to ease your staff’s anxiety. While you are struggling to survive, your staff trusts you to navigate the ship through the storm. Staff needs for you to be strong no matter what so that their fears are minimized.”

[As usual, you can reach Professor Dr. Osteryoung by e-mail at jerry.osteryoung@gmail.com or by phone at 850-644-3372.]

So while it is going to be a very big challenge, our economy is going to improve eventually. We’ve just got to make the best of what there is now and be ready to benefit when we start climbing out of this slump – whenever that might be.

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

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