Expediter Profile: Terry O'Connell
In an industry which has, over the years, experienced increased owner/operator turnover, it's unusual to find an independent contractor who has remained with an expediting carrier for a substantial length of time.
Expediting shares many characteristics with conventional trucking, "job-hopping" being one of them.
Owners and drivers are always seeking to improve their lot and the search for a better deal or more miles at another company drives this search.
In this expediting business, longevity with one company is quite often measured with a short ruler; an owner/operator with five years with one carrier achieves the status of a "grizzled veteran," often reminiscing with other vets about the "good old days."
Well into his THIRD decade with the same company, Terry O'Connell is well known to expediters everywhere. Before his lovely wife retired from the road, Terry and Rene' could often be found at various truck stops and layover locations, sitting at a large restaurant table, surrounded by expediter friends from their company and others.
The couple could be readily identified when entering the truck stop parking lot by their signature raised roof vans with the custom Missouri license plate, "HOT FR8."
Friendly and gregarious, Terry and Rene' were always a welcome addition to any group of expediters on a layover.
Terry tells us of his background: "I was born in Boston in 1941, and reared in Quincy, MA."
"After high school, I followed in my father's footsteps and joined the Navy Reserve in 1959. When the Navy 'suggested' that I go on active duty, I decided to join the Coast Guard, figuring I would be driving a little boat up and down the local river."
Terry had married his high school sweetheart in 1964, and to help the couple celebrate, the Coast Guard immediately sent him to the North Atlantic in the middle of winter for duty on a weather ship. He remained with that ship for the next five years.
Terry says, "I discovered that I enjoyed the unconventional lifestyle of a sailor, never knowing what the next day would hold."
"I was reassigned in '65 to an ocean-going buoy tender which was home ported in Hawaii. Upon arrival, I left for a 6 month cruise, which was soon followed by reassignment to another ship and another 6 month voyage."
"During my years as an enlisted man, things were always financially challenging, so when the executive officer of my ship encouraged me to go to Officer Candidate School, I took that opportunity."
He continues, "My goal in going to OCS was simply to earn enough to feed my family, which by this time, included a baby. When I graduated OCS, my income nearly doubled."
Terry spent a couple of years working on a buoy tender off Cape Cod, in addition to working on light houses and light ships from Maine to New York.
"I went to Vietnam in 1969," Terry says. "I was put in command of an 82 foot Coast Guard cutter based in Da Nang. We worked for the Navy, boarding Vietnamese vessels with the purpose of stopping the infiltration of the enemy and his supplies coming down from the North."
"After a year in Vietnam, I rotated stateside. I was assigned to Coast Guard District Headquarters in Cleveland, OH where I spent most of my time designing aids to navigation. After two years, another assignment took me to yet another buoy tender working out of May port, FL, this time as it's Executive Officer."
After two years at that duty, and two more years on another buoy tender home ported in May port, Fluttery was transferred to Santa Barbara, CA as Commander of Coast Guard Group.
In this capacity, he was responsible for all the Coast Guard Groups in Santa Barbara and Ventura county, handling drug interdiction, search and rescue, aids to navigation and law enforcement relating to drug activity.
Terry's military career came with a price: "By this time, my first wife had pretty much had enough of military life with all of the accompanying sea time and the long absences. It took quite a toll on our marriage and resulted in our going separate ways."
"Sometime after my divorce, while still stationed in Santa Barbara, I met my future second wife in a Mexican restaurant and we got to know each other over a few margaritas."
Rene' O'Connell was born near Leipzig, Germany during WWII. The first few years of her life were spent in bomb shelters during the Allied bombing raids of her country. Her father, who was in the German Army, was killed in France and she lost her mother when Rene' was 18.
Travel, employment and most aspects of life were heavily restricted during that time. She left East Germany just prior to construction of the Berlin Wall, with little more that the clothes on her back, winding up in West Berlin in a repatriation camp. She emigrated to the US in 1965.
Terry says, "Rene' and I were married after 6 months of dating and her entrance into the Coast Guard life could have been a disastrous one: I was transferred to Alaska to command an ocean-going buoy tender operating from Kodiak Island!"
"It sounds like hardship duty, but actually it was quite comfortable with ideal living conditions. The weather is comparable to the New England weather I grew up with, but I have to say, the long summer days and short winter days take some getting used to."
"We went there for two years, but liked it enough to extend for two more."
Terry and Rene' were then transferred to Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC. After 5 years in the capital, his last duty assignment took the couple to St Louis, MO. Terry finished his military service thereafter a 3 year stay, retiring as a commander.
Terry tells us that all of his military moves had left him with a sense of wander lust and that he wouldn't be content to work a 9 to 5 job in one location.
"After retiring, I didn't want to start another career. Rene' discovered an opportunity with Roberts Express. One of our neighbors in St Louis was a recruiter with Roberts and he gave us the lowdown on the company. Signed on with them as a team in July 1989."
"One of the reasons we began in this business was that we had no particular allegiance to settling down anywhere in particular and expediting would give us the opportunity to check out different areas of the US with an eye towards relocating to a better spot if we found one."
"We had our house in St Louis that we had purchased while still in the Coast Guard, and as it turned out, we decided to stay in that area and make that our retirement home."
"We started with a cargo van. We briefly considered moving up to a larger unit, but we enjoyed the freedom from government regulation in the smaller truck."
"Our first truck was a conversion van which we had tried to convert to a cargo hauling van," Terry says." We just weren't comfortable with that. Our next van was our first Ford diesel van with a hightop.
When we first started running a van, there weren't many models of how to set up a van for sleeping. During the first few years in this biz, we spent most of our time in motels.
"When that became too expensive, we started planning out some sleeping arrangements for the truck and developed this idea of building a moveable wall between the sleeping area and the freight."
"Our big green van was our favorite van with cabinets and tv/vcr. We built in a 4'x6' sleeper area with the moveable wall. If freight required more room we could open up the sleeper wall to make more space. I particularly liked the fact that when we opened the back doors, there was no indication that there was a sleeper and there were no personal items visible."
"Aside from a TV/VCR, we didn't put anything else in the van. We consciously avoided a refrigerator and other amenities, because we didn't want to be restricted to staying in the van all the time."
Terry states that he's always enjoyed the expediting lifestyle; going someplace new, someplace different, or as he describes it, "the nomadic, erratic existence."
Reflecting back to the early days of his expediting experience he says, "Back then the makeup of the Roberts Express fleet was many owners, each of whom were operating a one truck company."
"There was a real sense of community among the expediters with the wives going shopping and the men hanging out together during layovers."
"One memorable layover experience was during a weekend when we wound up in Harrisburg, PA on a layover. We happened to have a case of sausages we were taking back home, but we met up with a bunch of expediting friends and one of them had a microwave with him, so we went through the sausages fairly quickly."
Thinking back on the business side of things, Terry remembers, "It was very successful and lucrative, especially in the early 90's. Nationwide expediting seemed to mushroom in the 90's. Roberts kept pace with the competition through that time, and the contractors enjoyed a very fruitful relationship with the company.
"I feel the transition from Roberts to FedEx Custom Critical was seamless, with no changes in philosophy that impacted the contractor, at least none I could see. The FedEx logo has been helpful in finding parking spaces and gaining easier access with it's high-profile recognizability."
Over the years with Roberts and FedEx Custom Critical, Terry and Rene' have traveled over 1.2 million accident-free and citation-free miles. The couple spent nine years together in the truck until Rene' decided to retire from the road in 1998.
"Even though Rene and I lived in a lot of places over the years, we'd never had the opportunity to travel the way we wanted and to see the country. We got to stop in and see our old military friends who were scattered across the country."
Terry has some thoughts regarding the future of this industry: "I think that expediting has reached a plateau with a lot of companies competing for the same amount of freight. I think the major companies will remain viable, but there will be some shaking out of the smaller, mom and pop type expediting concerns."
"I believe the future of expediting is within the computer world with more contractors going online, using internet load matching and computer mileage programs. Even I have a GPS gadget on my dash. I use it in concert with the company routing info I can maintain my on-time percentage."
"I continue to enjoy this lifestyle; when the freight is moving, it provides us with a good deal of discretionary income. I've been taking it home every weekend unless a load comes out to keep me on the road over the weekend."
With all those years of expediting experience behind him, Terry has some thoughts for the prospective expediter:
*Drive someone else's truck first before making the financial commitment of buying your own. Whether cargo van or Class 8, try it out at an owner's expense before jumping into this business.
*Check out the various expediting companies on the web sites and talk to as many people in the business as possible.
*Be realistic about this business and be aware that there are slow times through the year and that there can be substantial time spent waiting for loads.
*At times it's necessary to stay out on the road in order to maximize income.
*For anyone considering a team operation, the co-driver should be a family member, i.e., spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, etc. The money earned from the truck has to go into a common fund. It's very difficult for one truck to provide two separate incomes.
Terry also tells us, "A team, married or otherwise, should make a conscious effort to separate their personal differences from their business differences. Rene' and I found that it made our "24/7" relationship in the truck much easier."
"Sometimes, one of us would be out of the truck and we decided to establish a policy that whoever took the info on the run was responsible for accepting/declining the load."
"It requires mutual trust and you can't second guess your partner."
Despite the fact that expediting in a time-absorbing business, Terry does have a life beyond the road:" I like to make sawdust. Rene' went out and bought me a bunch of power tools to build things in woodworking."
"I enjoy cabinetry; I've built a two story room addition on the house, a 40 foot deck and an 18 square foot party pavilion. The expediting revenue has given us the opportunity to fix up and improve our home."
Terry is currently running a 2000 Chevy 3500 series van with a 350 gas engine and an aftermarket high-top roof.
This veteran expediter's woodworking skill is on display in this van. The sleeper area contains a bunk measuring 72"x48" and is separated from the cargo area by a wall with "barn door" type doors. With the doors closed, 82 inches of cargo space is available and with the doors open and half of the bunk folded up, 9 feet of cargo space are available with 24" of bunk space remaining.
Terry has finished the inside of the sleeper area including the high-top with foam-backed velour. The area directly over the cabin is sealed with a faceplate in which mounts a 13" TV/VCP that is angled for viewing from the bunk.
Terry has also installed general/reading lighting in strategic locations both in the sleeper and cargo areas alike, with all of the electric items including the Qualcomm taking their power from two deep-cycle batteries.
"We've had a great time in expediting; Rene' and I have met some wonderful people and made some great friends. We've been fortunate in our expediting career to have been associated with a company that is still considered to be the standard by which others are measured: FedEx Custom Critical."
FedEx Custom Critical