When we caught up with Miles Verhoef, he'd spent the day in Fargo, N.D., looking for - and not finding - the right load for his drop-deck flatbed.
Miles Verhoef, pictured with his dog Trixie, keeps cost down by eating in his truck and using an APU to limit idling.
"I'm a little picky about what I haul," he says.
There's plenty of freight, but much of it doesn't pay enough to cover his costs, much less his profit. "Obviously I'm not going to want to go for a rate that's not going to cover my cost of operation."
It's astonishing to Verhoef how many wanna-be owner-operators don't understand this fundamental or even cost of operation.
This means he spends time sitting, or "bouncing" empty to somewhere he can pick up a good load, but he still sees it as good business.
"It just doesn't make sense to take the profits from one load to basically pay to haul somebody else's load."
Verhoef, 46, learned the trade working as a company driver for 16 years then as a lease driver for five. The leasing gig was sweet, he says. He was the number one outside contractor to a carrier that delivered to mom-and-pop drug stores and Ben Franklin stores in the Great Lakes region.
"The money was good, and I was home every weekend."
Then management decided to get rid of the fleet and instead go with the cheapest transportation they could get.
"They ended up losing about 20% of their customer base," Verhoef says.
The lesson - that you get what you pay for - was a good one to take into the next stage of his career.
In 2003 Verhoef got DOT authority and went out on his own with a 1999 Peterbilt 379.
For a number of years, he hauled refrigerated foodstuffs, at one point adding another tractor and a couple more trailers.
He didn't mind the deliveries in the wee hours of the morning and multiple stops, but he did not like the way he was treated. "You're basically lower than dirt at most of these grocery warehouses."
About a year ago, he bought a flatbed and now hauls a wide mix of cargo, from the occasional steel coil to construction equipment, locomotive parts and, most recently, hay from the upper plains to drought-stricken Texas and Oklahoma.
He keeps his costs down with an APU to limit idling, and he eats most of his meals in the truck. He manages his fuel economy the old-fashioned way: He slows down.
"If I run 70 mph, my mileage is around 5.75 mpg. If I slow down to 60 mph I can increase that to 6.75 mpg. That makes a significant difference, especially when fuel prices go up."
It's hard to manage a surcharge when you're working load-to-load through brokers, he says. "You base your quote on your costs."
His truck is paid for. Although the maintenance costs are slightly higher than a new rig, if he stays on top of them, they're manageable - and there's a big difference in insurance costs.
Verhoef is on the road up to seven weeks in between time home at the family farm about 250 miles north of Billings, Mont. "Between the North Pole and nowhere."
An alternate board member of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, he keeps up on the rules, maintains his truck and operates safely.
Safety is a lesson he learned early. At 18, he rolled his father's tractor-trailer loaded with 65 head of cattle. "I was going too fast, I didn't have any brakes and I was inexperienced. I totaled Dad's truck and killed 10 cows. It wasn't a good thing.
"But by golly, I've learned a lot since then."
To read more about the new breed of owner-operator, click here.
From the April 2012 issue of HDT.