DECATUR – Learning to survive and thrive in the economic ups and downs of the trucking business means knowing when to slow down and when to hit the gas in pursuit of opportunity.
That's the message from the Decatur-based McLeod Express trucking firm, and they should know. McLeod has grown in 28 years from a handful of trucks to a fleet of 340 semi units, 775 trailers and 425 employees, 345 of those being drivers and the whole team hauling in multimillion revenues.
"When I look back, I was probably pretty bold," said company founder, CEO and sole owner Mark McLeod, 52, recalling his efforts to hunt up customers in the early years. "I was also young and dumb but knew I had a service to offer and wanted to get my name out in front of it."
McLeod Express got rolling in 1986, an outgrowth of hauling grain for his father, Jim, down on the family farm in the Assumption/ Moweaqua area. Mark McLeod had left college intending to go into farming, but he soon heard the honk-honk of opportunity in the trucking field and decided to focus on that.
"For about the first dozen years I was the only salesman and concentrated on Central Illinois customers," he recalled. "And I developed it from there."
Slowly winning the trust of big firms such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. and Tate &Lyle turned out to be a shrewd road maneuver. McLeod has dozens of customers now, but those two Decatur-based firms are still two of the largest clients, although they have been joined by such names as Anheuser-Busch and Procter &Gamble.
The recession of 2008 had swept through the trucking industry like a winter storm on a freeway, leaving many overextended companies jack-knifed in bankruptcy. But not McLeod, where lessons of fiscal discipline learned from his father kept Mark McLeod's foot on the brakes of careful cost controls and his firm on the straight and narrow.
"We've always taken a fiscally conservative approach," he said.
"And we were in a good position to weather the downturn. Trucking is a cyclical business, and even in the good years you always have to be prepared for downturns; it's the lesson you learn and the key to survival in this business. But then you have also got to be a risk taker when the opportunity is there."
And it's there now. Customers are moving product, and McLeod Express is accelerating right along with them and expanding its capacity. The founder's 26-year-old son, Colt, now manages a new brokerage and logistics operation for the company in St. Louis that oversees complex freight-moving operations.
And experienced experts from outside the family have been brought on board to run and expand the core company business. Those hires include a new McLeod Express president, Dave Gibbs, who arrived in 2013 and was previously an executive vice president with a larger carrier. Mark McLeod wants him to steer a company that now appears to have no upper limits on how far it could grow.
"It's time to take it to the next level," the founder said.
Gibbs has a lot more to deal with, however, that just worrying about which piece of the trucking gravy train he wants to go after next. Job one for anyone in the business is finding more truckers because, as the industry expands and baby boomer drivers pull off into retirement, a driver shortage is becoming acute.
Gibbs said trucking is not easy work, and the fine art of piloting a massive machine in all weather in places you don't know certainly isn't for everybody.
"It's a very difficult job, and it has had a high turnover rate," he said.
McLeod Express is part of a leading trend in the industry to make trucking more appealing. Rates of pay are up, and Gibbs said loads are being arranged to give drivers more frequent home time. The company has also come up with a system that smooths out the ups and downs of payment-per-mile wages, so that drivers' paychecks are more consistent.
Expenses associated with the vehicles those truckers drive are also moving in a consistent direction: upward. Aside from volatile fuel costs, increased environmental regulations are calling for ever-cleaner trucks that cost a lot more to buy. McLeod Express is purchasing 100 new trucks that will cost about $130,000 each, replacing previous models that cost $90,000 each.
Gibbs doesn't have a problem driving toward a cleaner world, but he wishes the federal government that bombards the trucking industry with new rules would also recognize its importance and do more to encourage and support it. He points out that manufacturers creating a few dozen jobs are universally applauded, and yet trucking firms collectively hiring hundreds of workers get no respect.
"In all the discussion about the shrinking middle class and all the manufacturing jobs that have gone, just look at the trucking industry," he said. "A brand new driver is possibly going to earn $35,000 to $37,000 and we have guys that earn $60,000 and the average is in the $40,000 to $50,000 range," he added.
"These are middle class occupations with full benefits, health care and whatnot. McLeod and other firms are in a trucking industry with a crying need to add hundreds of thousands of those jobs, and yet we get almost zero support from the government."
Gibbs said the trucking industry can't idle too long licking its wounds because it's servicing a recovering economy picking up speed again, and customers are calling. "The vast majority of everything in this country, ultimately, gets moved by a truck," he said.