The Great Recession has finally caught up with America’s Top 500 private fleets. For the first time since the annual survey began seven years ago, there is a significant drop in the number of trucks operated by the country’s largest fleets. Not only is this year’s truck total for our Top 500 12.5% lower than last year, it’s also lower than 2008’s total.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Sales of new trucks were well below normal replacement levels in 2009, which meant fleets of all types chose to cut back by not replacing equipment being retired. Shrinking revenues and production also brought severe cost-cutting pressures for American business in general, and private fleet operations certainly couldn’t expect to escape notice as parent companies turned over every rock looking for ways to reduce expenses.

What hasn’t changed is the significant role private fleets play in truck transportation. Despite tough economic times, the 2010 Fleet Owner 500 still accounts for roughly 13% of all commercial vehicles running in the U.S. Businesses as varied as construction, utility services and retail still rely on their fleets to provide a foundation for profitable operations.

While private fleets account for more than three-quarters of all commercial vehicles in this country, they remain nearly invisible. When the general public thinks of Wal-Mart, they think of its big-box stores, not the 6,900 tractors in its private fleet. Coca-Cola is a soft drink, not the operator of more than 17,000 trucks. AT&T is a lot of things to different people these days, but few recognize it as the country’s largest private fleet operator with some 78,000 commercial vehicles.

The Fleet Owner 500 seeks to bring recognition to this vital segment of the trucking industry by identifying the largest private fleets in the country. The rankings are based on total power units operated by a fleet. A breakdown by tractors and trucks is provided, and while they aren’t a factor in the rankings, trailer numbers are also offered. The fleets are also divided into nine industry categories: concrete/cement, construction, food or beverage, manufacturing/processing, petroleum/chemicals, retail/ wholesale, sanitation, business or home services, and utilities.

Overall, tractors operated by the Top 500 were down 8.2%, trucks 14.5%, and trailers 2.4%. Among the nine categories, concrete and petroleum/chemicals showed the largest decline in truck numbers from 2008—23.7% and 19.8%, respectively. Although all nine recorded a drop in total trucks, declines in manufacturing (0.5%), sanitation (1.2%) and retail/wholesale (1.3%) were slight and well below the private fleet average. By comparison, all categories but concrete and construction show fleet growth in the 2009 survey.

The data for the Top 500 is collected by Fleet Owner’s FleetSeek using a number of public and proprietary sources that are verified by follow-up telephone interviews.

In addition to this print version, the 2010 Fleet Owner 500 report can be found on our web site (fleetowner.com). Reprints are also available, as is a database version with more detailed fleet information. For ordering and price information, contact Reggie Lawrence at rlawrence@fleetowner.com.

And if you’d like to have your private fleet included in next year’s Top 500 survey, send contact information to Ron Roth at rroth@fleetseek.com.