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Small fleets in the catbird seat for growth: For-hire carrier size over the pandemic period

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Updated Apr 8, 2022

As regular readers will know, I spent time early this week out at the Truckload 2021 annual conference of the Truckload Carriers Association, where Tuesday night was unveiled the ultimate winner of the Owner-Operator of the Year program we partner with TCA on. Here's a big congrats to five-time finalist Bryan Smith for the big win -- and both Glen Horack and Doug Schildgen, runners-up, for their success. (Horack, leased to Prime, is now a three-time finalist himself.)

I'll echo owner-operator Smith's commentary from the TCA stage Tuesday night and encourage independents to enter the next contest, and small fleet owners to nominate their best drivers. The contest is open to independents and leased owner-operators – with up to five trucks, where the owner still drives. Follow the link here to access this next year's contest, or nominate another owner or driver through October 25. 

[Related: Fifth time's a charm for Bryan Smith, who bags the big prize from TCA/Overdrive

Truckload 2021 yielded plenty other discussion, too, some of it germane to a data analysis Avery Vise recently conducted in his role at FTR Transportation Intelligence and that FTR was kind of enough to share with me last week. That analysis looks at truck counts and how they've changed over the course of the pandemic period, taking a snapshot of carrier census data (as self-reported by carriers on their MCS-150 forms) as of March of 2020 and comparing that to another snapshot taken in September 2021. 

What it shows is illuminating -- if incomplete, as data-quality issues with self-reported carrier data are well-known -- and laid out in part in the charts below here. Vise's analysis seems to confirm a lot of what's been bandied about in anecdote after anecdote. Todd Amen, president of owner-operator business services provider ATBS, noted two weeks back that he knew of just two sizable partner fleets who'd grown in the past 12 months

Knight Transportation chairman Kevin Knight, speaking during an executive panel at Truckload 2021 also Tuesday, put it succinctly: "we’re not a growth industry anymore" in the present moment. Knight's Q2 earnings report shows tractor count down 2 percent to 18,034 this year, compared to the same quarter last year. Kevin Knight was speaking in the context of driver pay when he went on to note that, for large fleets, there are "more ways to put your capital to work rather than just going out and buying another truck." It's worth noting that Knight views what's happening with increasing rates and driver pay as a fundamental correction to a large degree and is hopeful it sticks into the future.

He sees the rates/driver pay rise continuing, yet is skeptical of a large amount of fleet-size growth.  

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