To hear Richard Kershman tell it, he never planned on a career in the trucking industry, much less becoming an owner-operator. After a stint in the U.S. Air Force as an electronics technician, he originally went to work in the oil fields of Texas and Oklahoma in 1961 to help fund his dream of becoming a pilot. He eventually became a flight instructor and aircraft mechanic while working as a crop duster to pay the bills.

Richard returned to the oil fields in the early 1980s, lured by a higher paycheck and less strenuous working conditions. But the booming U.S. oil economy quickly went bust as the decade wore on, forcing Richard and his wife, Martha, to try a different career — trucking. The couple bought their first truck in 1987 and leased themselves out to a national carrier. Working out of Oklahoma City, they eventually had five trucks in their company, which they called Chino Trucking after their dog.

Making money proved difficult, especially with five trucks and drivers to manage. So the couple sold off their fleet, kept one truck for themselves and went fully independent in 1994, working as a husband-wife driving team. They've been a success ever since.

The Kershmans haul produce cross-country, mostly from Richmond, VA, to Salinas, CA, and back, working nonstop from mid-April to November. Then they haul Christmas trees out of Portland, OR, to Texas during November and December. They park their truck from January through March and enjoy a much-needed break.

The key to their success, says Richard, is simple: You must work all the angles, from managing your taxes and routes, to how you choose your brokers. “When you lease out to a carrier you have a safety net because the carrier pays a lot of your bills,” he explains. “When you're fully independent, it's a lot tougher. Especially if you don't plan everything out.”

After two decades on the road, Richard has amassed a treasure-trove of tips that would-be independents would be wise to think about before going it alone:

Develop a routine. Richard believes that if you pick up loads at random you'll never survive. He suggests setting up a “triangle” operating zone. For instance, if you live in Atlanta you might want to connect with Chicago and Portland. That gives you major freight hubs where you can get loads that pay well and get you home. Developing routes also helps you pinpoint good refueling locations at truckstops you know and trust.

Solo vs. team. If you're going to be a solo independent, you need to factor in the downtime required by hours-of-service regulations; this means running shorter lanes. If you're going to drive as part of a team you need to run coast-to-coast to get the best paying freight.

Find good brokers. “Good brokers are the key to your success, but do your homework,” Richard warns. “Always run a credit check before accepting a load.”

Technology is your friend. From the start, Richard has relied on technology to help him run his business. He invested in a laptop computer and subscribed to an online load matching service to help keep his truck rolling and make money. He uses ALK's PC Miler software to help calculate revenue-per-mile earnings and find the most efficient routes.

Don't forget taxes. It's easy to forget about taxes when you're dealing with day-to-day issues on the road. The Kershmans estimate they'll owe Uncle Sam about 32% of what they earn. This helps them stay on top of what they're really earning so they're not shocked when April 15 rolls around.

This column presents the independent contractor's perspective on working with fleets and fleet managers.