In The News
Fleet Owner Conversations: Rob Ahlers
Meet Rob Ahlers. Rob is a U.S. Army veteran, a senior program analyst with the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), a logistics officer with the U.S. Army Reserve, and … the president at MSR Transport Services, an Ohio-based expedited trucking firm he founded in 2014 with two other military veterans, with a mission to provide post-military career opportunities for veterans.
Today, as of press time, his fleet includes six tractors with another three to be added in the next few weeks. And this growth has occurred while Rob and his partners maintain their day jobs and operate the fleet as a part-time gig.
So, what led Rob to expedited trucking? How did he get started as a fleet owner? What challenges has he encountered? And what advice does he have for others who may be considering becoming an expedite fleet owner?
EO recently caught up with Rob to learn more about his story. Here are edited highlights from our conversation.
EO: You could have chosen over-the-road or other trucking options, how did you arrive at deciding to get into the expedited trucking business?
Rob Ahlers: When I was growing up, my dad drove over-the-road for North American Van Lines. So, I used to travel the country with him in the summertime when school was out and have kind of always been around trucks. I started driving at 17. And, at 19, I got a job at FedEx Freight as a dock worker, right before I was deployed to Iraq.
When I returned from Iraq as a 21-year-old, I went back to FedEx Freight, this time as a driver, where I was doing both city and line haul. And I was also going to school to study Supply Chain Management at the University of Akron.
Then, in 2006, I was presented with the opportunity to transfer from FedEx Freight to FedEx Custom Critical, since their office is located right there in Akron where I lived. And that's what I did. I transferred to Custom Critical as a customer service agent and worked my way up through dispatch and all the other roles there from '06 to '09. So, that's how I learned about expediting—behind-the-scenes, working for the carrier.
OK. That's 2009. And you started MSR in 2014. What were you doing during those five years that led you to become a fleet owner in expedited trucking?
I left Custom Critical in June of 2009 for a federal position with the Chief of Staff in Logistics for the Army as a civilian. I was also still serving in the Ohio National Guard. And, every once in a while, when I was in Akron, I would see some of the people I used to work with at FedEx. During one of those visits, I was approached by the senior manager of recruiting at the time, and he told me that I should start a fleet because I had access to military drivers, and that's what they wanted. They wanted to find a way to access Guard members, reserve members, active duty guys getting out who had their CDL. He said, “We need veterans in our fleet, and we don't know how to access them."
I sort of brushed it off and talked with him a few more times. At one point, I told him to put some numbers in front of me. And the numbers looked good. I got together with Mike [McIntosh] and Sean [Minor]—we were all commanding units together in Ohio—and we said, “You know, we are already running transportation companies with 60 tractors and 190 soldiers for the military. We can do this in the civilian world.” So, we put together a business plan and did it.
You and your two partners all maintain full-time jobs while managing the fleet. I'm curious. What are some of the pros and cons that come with running this business as a side-hustle?
When we first started the business, my wife and I met with a financial advisor, who said that one of the best pieces of advice he could give us was this: Don't leave your job and don't take any money from the business for the first three years.
That's where so many people fail. They quit their job and then start taking money from the business to survive. They don't build up that nest egg that’s needed. So I think that was one of the benefits that we had was we all kept our day jobs. I'm still in the Reserves, and Sean's still in the Guard. We all have multiple sources of income. So, we have been able to learn and let the business have its ups and downs.
What often happens when you launch a new venture is that you inevitably hit a wall—that point where you think "Man, why did we get into this?" Did you ever reach that point?
We did. It was in 2016, which was a hard year for a lot people in this business. We had seven tractors at the time, and one of our carriers was very hard to recruit for. We could get a FedEx team three times faster than we could get one team with the other carrier. So, I had a truck in my driveway that sat for awhile—a reminder every day when I had to park around it that the truck was sitting there costing us money.
Eventually, we drew a line in the sand and said, "All right. We're not putting in another dollar past this point. Either the business makes it and becomes self-sufficient by then, or we sell what assets we own and do something with the rest." Thankfully, we never had to cross that line.
Beyond finding good drivers, what would you say is your biggest challenge as a fleet owner?
I would say the biggest challenge is running interference between the carrier and the driver so that the driver only has to focus on what they're there to do, and that's drive.
Sometimes drivers are like, "[The carrier] has me running around and picking up three different trailers and shuttling for them. But each trailer has been out of fuel, so we just spent $300 to fill it up to drive it ten miles down the road and drop it off."
We tell them, “Hey, don't worry about it. That's my fight to get reimbursed by the carrier.” I tell drivers all the time, “Don't get into arguments with the dispatchers; don't sweat that stuff. Just give it to me. If you have to buy plywood for a load, and it cost you $200, I'll fight with the carrier to get the money.”
So that's the biggest thing: to allow the drivers to do their core competency—which is to drive—and allow me to do my core competency of running the business side of things.
What advice do you have to give to other people who are considering becoming fleet owners—perhaps as a side hustle themselves?
The best advice I can give is to make your drivers feel like they are appreciated and not just out there as a means for you to make money. We continuously listen to our drivers and solicit feedback from them.
For example, we just updated our bonus program. And the feedback we were getting from the drivers was, "I lost my bonus for this month because the truck was down for four days and I didn't make it." Or whatever the situation. So we looked at monthly goals and combined them into quarterly goals. That’s because you can recover from a week or two down within a quarterly time frame but you really can’t recover from any downtime during a month. So, it's little things like that which can make a big difference.