The Pursuit of Freedom on the Road: David Manley
If your goal is to become an expedite owner-operator, most wise folks in the industry will advise you to first drive for a fleet owner for at least six months or so. This way, you can test the waters and learn the business without taking a significant risk.
And that’s the advice mentors had shared with David Manley, a former maintenance technician for two decades with Frito Lay.
Says Manley, "I'm like, ‘Nah. I've had a boss my entire life. I want to do this on my terms. How hard can this be?' Man, was I ever mistaken."
David and his team partner and son, Madison, bought their first truck through Expediter Services—a 2015 Freightliner Cascadia—in early 2018 and became owner-operators with FedEx Custom Critical that April.
A year later, they have achieved remarkable success as new owner-operators. Yet, Manley would be the first to tell you that if he hadn't put himself in a strong financial position to withstand the challenges they would encounter those first few months, they wouldn't have made it to their first anniversary in the business.
So, if you’re considering taking the fast-track to owner-operator, here are three lessons from Manley's story on how to improve your odds for success.
Lesson #1. Research. Research. Research.
Manley researched the expedite industry and the business for two years before he took the plunge.
His research began in earnest when he stopped by a truck stop in West Memphis. "I went in there to see if there was any literature, and that's where I found one of those ExpeditersOnline mini books [Expedite Now magazine]."
In that issue of the magazine, he came across an article about veteran expediter Linda Caffee. “I'm like, ‘Hey that's a neat looking rig that she's driving.’ I had never seen anything like that. And I started researching FedEx Custom Critical. And I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this is what I want to do.’”
When he sat down with Danny Vernon at Expediter Services before buying his truck, Manley says that Vernon asked him what his plans were and how much research he had done.
Manley recalls, "I told him, ‘I started researching this about two years ago. Here's what I have found out and here's my whole business model I have laid out. I figure it's going to cost me about this much upfront and this much to run everything. And I have zero [personal] overhead.'"
By the point that Manley felt like he was ready to buy the truck, he had done everything he thought possible to ensure the business and lifestyle would be a good fit.
“I actually taped off a section in my bedroom—eight foot by ten—and put a twin mattress in there. I wanted to duplicate the interior of my truck to make sure that I could handle living in a space that small,” says Manley. “We also started going to West Memphis and eating at truck stops. I didn't want any surprises.”
Lesson #2. Reduce risk.
“I don't like taking risks. So, I reached out to Linda [Caffee] and told her what I wanted to do and if she could share with me a risk-free situation to where I could enter this business as an owner-operator and make a go of it,” says Manley.
Caffee's advice, according to Manley: "You're going to have weeks where you're not making anything. You need to plan for those weeks and have money set aside, or you're going to wear yourself to death."
Manley's response: "I started making preparations and paid off everything I had. I had zero bills. And now I have at least a six-month cushion. I can turn the ignition key off on this truck for six months, and all my obligations will be met. That is why it took me so long—I wanted to mitigate all the risks."
#3. Be a student of the business.
Looking back a year later, what would have Manley done differently?
“If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have begged some fleet owner to take a chance and hire me with no experience to learn this business,” says Manley. “When you don't go to work for somebody, you don't have that wisdom to fall back on. You don't get to learn from all of their mistakes.”
One aspect of the expedite business that Manley wished he learned much earlier is how to choose loads.
“We got to a point with our business around New Years [January 2019] where I’m like, ‘We've got to do something. We’ve got to make a change here. We were up in New Jersey, and I ran into Frank Rebelo [who with his wife, Stephanie, run the popular Youtube channel ‘The Trucking Couple’]. Frank invited me over to sit down.”
What did they talk about?
"I said, ‘Man, we can't break over this certain threshold. I don't know what I'm doing wrong.' And I told him everything I had done up to that point. He goes, ‘You're your own worst enemy.' I'm like, ‘Why?' And he says, ‘Patience. When you think about hitting the Accept button, call me.'"
"Frank was right," says Manley. "I was sitting there. A load came up that I would have normally accepted. It paid okay, but it was a short run, like five or six hundred miles. I waited. Two days later, I started getting really, really nervous. Then boom! A load pops up leaving from New Jersey going all the way to California—an easy drive that pays three times the money. I took it. And on my way there, I got an offer for a load going right back from there to Chicago."
Since making that change in January to be more patient, Manley says his average load has increased from under 500 miles to about 2,000 miles, which has made a significant impact on his bottom line.
“I was making mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake. And things really started falling into place for us at the beginning of this year when we started learning from our mistakes,” says Manley.
The Bottom Line
Manley's advice for aspiring owner-operators: "Unless you have a lot of money you want to waste as I did, go to work for somebody who's already doing it. Do not do what I did. If I had not eliminated all of my bills, I would have been in trouble."