Trucking industry rebounding from recession

Kristin A. Wilcox, left, and her husband William P., sit inside the cab of one of their trucks at Northern Logistics Inc. in Watertown. Their business is just one of many local trucking businesses that is recovering from the economic recession. Photo by Amanda Morrison.

By Ted Booker
NNY Business

Kristin A. and William P. Wilcox sit in one of their trucks Thursday at Northern Logistics Inc., 23791 Route 342, Watertown. The company is among several NNY carriers combatting the recession.

Carriers in the trucking industry are climbing out of the recession that began in 2009, owners in the north country say, although high fuel prices and state regulations have made the rebound a challenge.

For Teal’s Express Inc., 22411 Teal Drive, which has a fleet of 120 trucks and 11 distribution centers across the Midwest, sales rose about 10 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, Vice President Joseph T. Teal said. As a “less than load” common carrier, the company transports cargo weighing anywhere from 100 to 5,000 pounds, he said, and serves an array of manufacturers in different industries.Sales nearly climbed to where they were in 2008 – about $23 million – with an increase of about $1 million from 2010, Mr. Teal said. He said industrial suppliers with which the carrier does business were hesitant to build their product inventories during the recession but are doing so now, a sign that the national economy is gaining steam.

“That hasn’t been the case since the collapse of the economy,” Mr. Teal said. “Most companies were only ordering what they needed, not keeping an inventory of it, but that seems to be somewhat reversing.”

The number of 18-wheelers driving through New York from Ottawa, Ontario, to major cities south of the border – New York City, Baltimore, Md., and Port Elizabeth, N.J. – also has picked up noticeably, Mr. Teal said.

The increased number of trucks on interstates 87 and 90 has been evidence of the trend. “If you looked back and compared the numbers with 2009, you would see a dramatic increase,” he said. “When you drive down the state freeways and stop at the rest areas, you can gauge it.”

He said that while most carriers stopped operating about 25 percent of their fleet during the recession, “those trucks have begun to roll again.”

Beaver River Distribution, 9612 Route 26, Denmark, a carrier with a fleet of 10 trucks, has increased business every year since the recession, said Louanne Zehr, who co-owns the company with her husband, Lowell V. She said the carrier does about 90 percent of its business in the Northeast, from Ohio to Maine.

Last year “was considerably better than 2010, and amazingly better than 2009,” Mrs. Zehr said.

A carrier with a fleet of five trucks, Northern Logistics Inc., 23791 Route 342, has battled the challenging economic climate, said Kristin A. Wilcox, who co-owns the business with her husband, William P. The majority of the carrier’s freight is shipped to Midwestern states.

“Since 2008, the volume of our freight dropped, and then in 2010 there were signs of freight picking up slightly,” Mrs. Wilcox said. “This last year has been steady – we’ve lost some accounts, gained some accounts.”

Although she’s optimistic that business will pick up in 2012, she said she doesn’t expect a noticeable rebound until the national economy starts showing signs of life again.

“I wouldn’t say we’re rising out of the recession yet, but we’re maintaining what we have,” Mrs. Wilcox said. “We’re going to watch how things progress in 2012.”

Kendra L. Adams, executive director of the New York State Motor Truck Association, Albany, said the majority of carriers in the state are experiencing lingering symptoms of the recession. Fuel prices already were high in 2008, she said, so the recession took a toll on carriers when it hit in 2009.

“We saw a nationwide record of companies close their doors,” she said, adding that those that didn’t close were forced to downsize on staff and equipment. “We’re finally starting to see some growth coming back, but it’s been slow.”

Ms. Adams said New York is the second-most-expensive state, behind Oregon, in which to operate a trucking business. The state is among only four in the country that have a highway-use tax, she said, which makes the environment even more challenging.

Federal and state regulations have added an extra layer of concerns for businesses, Ms. Adams said, as businesses that fail to comply with safety policies face costly fines.

According to a study by Transportation Topics, New York does not have a trucking company that ranks in the top 300 nationwide in terms of size.

“One of the biggest things about New York state is we aren’t truck friendly,” Ms. Adams said. “There isn’t a lot of focus on the importance of the trucking industry for the state’s economic growth. We want to raise the level of awareness.”

Nevertheless, she said, she expects carriers in the north country to fare well in 2012 with gradual growth.