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Fleet Owner Conversations: Susan Medlin

By Sean M. Lyden - Staff Writer
Posted Apr 22nd 2019 1:54PM

Meet Susan Medlin. Susan is a former back office software developer for Pilot Flying J Truck Centers, who got into the expedited trucking business as a driver in 1998. She bought her first truck in 2008 and became a fleet owner about 18 months later in 2009.

Today, Susan operates a fleet of 16 vehicles—15 expediter straight trucks and one cargo van—all leased to either Tri-State Expedited Service or Premium Transportation Logistics (PTL).

So, what led Susan to expedited trucking? How did she get started as a fleet owner? And what advice does she have for others who may be considering fleet ownership?

EO recently spoke with Susan to learn more about her story. Here are edited highlights from our conversation.

EO: What led you to start your career in expediting?

Susan Medlin: I can't say anything bad about my years at Pilot. They were fantastic. I learned a lot. I just don't think that I'm cut out for the big corporate lifestyle—and it wasn't fulfilling to me anymore. I had achieved where I wanted to get to, and there was really nowhere else for me to go with the company.

In 1998, my husband at the time was a truck driver, and a friend of mine had bought a couple of expedited trucks. She called me saying, "I have this great opportunity. You all come do this with me and in five years"—you know, the pie in the sky story where we would become partners.

So I jumped in head first, but I learned the hard way that you probably shouldn’t go into business with a friend.

What happened with that friend?

I drove for her for about three years, learning the business, and helping her manage the fleet. And my husband at the time and I drove as a team. But, when it came down to us putting in our time, getting a percentage of the business, and becoming partners, that’s when things changed.

It was a hard lesson to learn. But, by that time, I was so far into the industry and enjoyed what I was doing that we went to drive for another owner for the next five years.

You bought your first truck in 2008 and owned two trucks to become a fleet owner in 2009. What has been your growth progression from that point?

By 2010, I had five trucks. Then we were at eight trucks in 2012, 12 trucks in 2015, and a total of 16 vehicles (including one cargo van) today.

What gave you the confidence that after being an owner-operator for only 18 months that you were ready to take the next step to fleet ownership?

I had managed fleets for other owners for several years. And I finally felt like I had enough knowledge and experience to do it on my own.

You know, it's one thing to sit in an office and tell a driver what you think they should do. But if you've never been down that road, it's hard to convince them that you know what you're talking about. That's why I think that my biggest asset in fleet ownership is my nine years of experience being on the road and that I still have my CDL.

So, when I reached that point where I felt ready to take the plunge, it was scary, but I had a lot of experience to pull from. And I had enough people in the industry supporting me who had more confidence in me than I did.

The more I thought about it, I had already helped three people with their fleets—two of them had started their fleets with me. So I figured, "If I can do that for somebody else, why not do it for myself?"

What advice do you have for other expediters who may be considering fleet ownership?

Be very transparent with your contractors.

What does transparency look like from your perspective?

If you have a contractor in your truck, they have the right to know how much that truck is earning while they're in that truck.

I think that's probably one of our biggest hurdles in attracting good people and keeping them in this industry because not every fleet owner does that.

And when someone drives for a fleet owner who isn't transparent, they get frustrated and leave the industry—and you can't convince them to come back. So, it all comes down to being honest with your people, being adult with your contractors, and being transparent when it comes to the equipment and the trucks.

What are some other lessons learned that could help other expediters succeed as fleet owners?

Keep an open line of communication with your contractors—no matter what. And sometimes you have to sit and listen because we forget that these people are away from home, they're away from their families, and they have things that happen in their lives. We have to remember to take the time to listen to them.

Also, try to promote an environment where drivers are comfortable letting you know when there's an issue. Show them that you have their back no matter what. If the truck breaks down, you have their back. You're going to do everything that you possibly can to get them up and running as quickly as possible. And in the meantime, while the equipment is down, you have to remember that they still have obligations to make. And if it's an issue that's beyond their control and they didn't cause, then we still have to be supportive and make sure that they're okay.

Finally, maintain a very stable cash flow. What I think a lot of people do when they get into this business is that they think there's going to be this massive influx of funds. And there are those good times. But, there are also tough times, like we experienced the first quarter of this year.

Remember that a steady pace for steady growth is healthy growth.

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