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Dollars & Sense

Big versus Little Carriers: A Game of “Would You Rather?”

By Jason McGlone
Posted Dec 1st 2010 2:30AM

In some ways (how few they might actually be), the differences between large and small carriers can be negligible to the owner/operator; he’s out there running for the carrier no matter their size, trying to ensure that he stays profitable in the face of an economy that, until recently, has been pretty brutal.  At the same time, however, the carrier itself plays an inimitable role in that they’re the ones doling out the freight.  It’s a necessary, symbiotic relationship where both parties seem to hope balances out, advantage-wise.  The differences between large and small carriers are undeniable, and most drivers, as you might guess, have an opinion about these differences.  

Naturally, I put the question to the EO forums and they delivered, as they tend to.  The overwhelming pattern that I noticed in the forum’s response, somewhat surprisingly, has less to do with the differences between large and small carriers than it does with folks’ opinions on carriers overall: nobody is 100% happy, and that’s just a feature of the industry.  

OntarioVanMan: Express-1 is the biggest I've contracted with, so far I am leaning to stay that way, but over my years I've noticed one little detail.  When you get on a friendly basis with dispatch and customer service reps, there are load offers I should be turning down, but it gets personal and I accept them.  I do "too many favors for friends.”  It gets in the way of good business decisions.

aristotle: Having worked with larger and small carriers, my experience has been that smaller is so much better. Headaches go down, revenue goes up.        

fastman_1: I've always been with small carriers, and have done well once I learned where their lanes are.  The next carrier is gonna be a medium-sized carrier; I can't see me ever being with one of the “Big Three.”  

ATeam: Be the carrier large or small, I don't know a single expediter who is 100 percent satisfied with his or her carrier. Some leave small carriers for large and are happier there, and vice versa.

One of the reasons among several that Diane and I chose a large carrier was the carrier's national reach. One of our expediting goals is to see the country. A large, national-reach carrier can help us accomplish that goal better than a small carrier can.        

ntimevan: If i could go back to summer of 2003 and start over i would go with a medium size company or bigger. I started out with a 98 ford s/t 22 ft. box , was talking signing on with the cat, but answered an ad on EO with a small company that was in need of more straight trucks to run out of Chicago. I stayed with this company until I was the last truck. They were great people to work for and with and we still talk a couple times a year.  But to go back I think I would of survived easier working with someone that I really wasn't that personal with and had there eggs in more than a few baskets.

davekc: Since we work with both, I would say the answer is somewhere in the middle. Small companies are more personable and can run as well as the "big dogs" if the economy is zooming along.

When it isn't, the larger carriers have a better ability to move freight at better rates because they have in-house accounts. That eliminates much of the cheaper freight for them where the smaller ones are in constant bidding wars. That is why some of the small and medium carriers cut their their drivers pay over the last two years.  Specialty loads that pay higher generally are done by the larger ones because of insurance and other high cost items.  Haz-mat, Canada, and government loads come to mind.  Those type of loads can come in handy if the economy is still depressed.

I would be mindful as well that many of the smaller carriers success is reliant upon the larger carriers for their overflow. If that doesn't produce, they are starving. Seen a fair amount of that over the last year as well.

greg334: It seems to come down to the individual, not the company, they matter when it comes to the carrier.

See I look at company selection as something that need to have goals and needs behind the decision. If a person aligns their goals and needs with the company, then they may do well but if they don't, then disaster could occur. I don't mean do well in the sense of success, but rather fit in to the program.

A lot of experienced people here know how to be flexible and adjust themselves to the little things while a lot of newbies can't even figure out goals but regardless one common thing that happens a lot here seems to be a popularity contest mentality--"I want to sign on with FedEx because..."--with no valid reason other than the cheerleaders talk about "success.”  FedEx is the example the same goes with E-1 and Panther and so on. Left out most of the time is the reality that you should select the company based on your needs, not what someone is doing there.

Smaller companies tend to treat people on a more personal level, and if there are problems, it can be personal to both parties. In larger companies, it’s less personal on the company's end but always personal on the driver's/owner's end; you're just a number.  A trend started a while ago where larger companies either try to replicate the personal feeling (you are a name not a number here). Both have an advantage.  I tend to like the number thing because it gives me more latitude when there are issues with some people and I complain--like when a dispatcher tells me I have to run a load straight through without rest.

With smaller companies you can identify who's who: "That's Jerry, he's head of the safety department," but with larger companies, you get, "Hold on I will transfer you to extension 203022934934".

nightcreacher: In my 26 years of expediting, I’ve been with both large and small carriers.  They both have their advantages and disadvantages.  Large companies have more run opportunities but also give way more discounts to keep the freight moving, so your pay can go up and down.  Smaller companies seem to take care of their drivers more, as they try harder to keep them busy.  In any event, it’s what each individual does to maintain their own business.

streakn1: The small Mom & Pop carrier that we are currently leased to has a well established "National Reach" customer base that they service well, and do so with a average fleet size of 30-40 team trucks.  Granted, there are small carriers that run only regional areas, but if your goal is to "See the country," then you weed out those prospects.  We have many friends that drive for, or are leased onto small carriers whose freight lanes take them all over the country.  And good honest carriers at that.

Having driven for, or been leased to small, medium, and large sized carriers in the past, our preference is a small, honest, and financially stable carrier with established accounts nationwide. Do your homework and you will find them. We obviously did. If I said that I was "100% happy" with our current carrier I would be lying. No one is ever 100% happy with their carrier every single day. All carriers have their faults, some more than others. Our current carrier has the least faults and the most tolerable ones for our needs.

CharlesD: I run a very small carrier and still drive. I've been in all 48 states in the last year and just in the last month I have had drivers in and out of every region of the country. The truth is, there's freight going just about anywhere you want to go and most carriers have access to it, especially the more exotic locations that a lot of drivers avoid.

In the end, if you’re looking for a carrier to lease to, it’s best to sit down and figure out what your goals are and do your homework--specifically in finding out what each carrier offers.  Talk to their recruiters and, if possible, get some driver references.  In situations where those are difficult to find, you can always resort to the EO forums to find people who are either currently driving for a carrier or at least have driven for them in the past.  Often, drivers can be a carrier’s best (or worst) recruiters.  

Once you find a carrier that most closely meets the goals you want to achieve, the chances are pretty good that you’ve found one you’re likely to be happy with.  And really, happiness is what we’re all trying to get at, isn’t it?


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