Flatbedding is one of the most physically demanding jobs a trucker can take on. What makes a trucker endure these challenges? What makes them pull a skateboard, drop-deck or removable goose-neck trailer? What are the benefits and drawbacks of running flatbeds? In this and future blogs, I'll interview real flatbedders of all different stripes to find the answers. In this article, I interviewed Joey Slaughter, Owner at Blue Ridge Transport, LLC in Ringgold, VA.
Advantages of flatbedding over car-hauling?
Abundance of freight, less deadheading, lower maintenance costs (the trailer doesn't have the car-hauler hydraulics), less downtime, lower cargo insurance requirements.
What made you investigate changing?
An older trailer was starting to nickel-and-dime me; hydraulic lines failing, the never-ending battle with rust. To fully refurbish? Between $20,000 and $30,000. I could buy a late-model aluminum step-deck in that same price range. The real epiphany hit when I emptied in Phoenix and had to deadhead to SoCal to get a load.
Steps you took to start?
I talked to experienced open-deck haulers and joined a load board. I already had my authority so I set up as having a 53’ step-deck and started calling brokers. I asked rates on different trailers (flatbed, step-deck), then called about loads in lanes that I normally run. After a few calls, I ran the numbers and had an average rate per mile that freight in those lanes were paying.
Why a step-deck over a skateboard?
Versatility. I have a lot of car-hauler customers I can still serve with my step-deck and ramps. A large percentage of open-deck freight can be transported on a step or flat, so with tarps and ramps, I have a good portion of the market.
Changes in insurance?
My cargo insurance dropped from $250,000 to $150,000 immediately, saving around $700 a year. The brokers I’m working with only require $100,000, so I’ll probably drop down to that. I have a 2008 Chaparral 53’ step-deck, same value as my old 2000 Cottrell car-hauler trailer, so insurance on the trailer didn’t change. Car-hauling involved a lot of liability, and I had to take care of a few damages below the deductible.
How did you find your initial flatbed freight/customers?
I started with a reputable load board and set up to be a carrier with some of the big brokerage/carriers. Word of mouth works well too: I’m working with a small broker/carrier in the NC area I found out about from a friend.
During the change-over, there was a gap with no money coming in. I used my tractor in a “power only” status with a major carrier after I sold my car-hauler trailer, up to the time I picked up my step-deck. This kept a little money rolling in during the transition. After purchasing the step-deck, I had to outfit it: straps, chains, headache rack, tarps and other load securement items.
The biggest, unexpected part?
How hard tarping was! I’ve seen tarped flatbeds my entire life; never thought how hard the job is. I have heavy tarps with 8’ drops; sometimes they get the best of me. I have a new respect for flatbedders!
What's your favorite part of flatbedding?
I like the freight. The open-deck segment, whether flatbed, step-deck or RGN is primarily transporting building and construction materials/equipment. This freight's a direct indication of how well the economy's doing and where it’s booming. Freight's usually loaded/unloaded quickly. As a car hauler, it'd take me at least 2 hours to load 8 or 9 vehicles; much longer if I had to walk to retrieve them from the auto auctions.
Advice for a trucker thinking of transitioning?
If you’re coming over from dry van or reefer, be ready to work, hard. There’s no drop-and-hook or backing to a dock and playing on your computer. You’ll be guiding the loader/unloader and using all your strength to secure loads with straps or heavy chains. Tarping is very hard work and extremely dangerous. When you’re on top of a 10’ load or higher, there’s nothing to hold on to. I have a friend who fell off a tarped load of lumber and broke his neck; stepped in the gap between stacks of lumber, unseen because of the tarp. If you’re coming to flatbed like I did, an O/O not trained by a company, work with someone and learn the trade. Another friend owns a small flatbed company and I shadowed him: learned load securement, how to tarp, tips on staying safe.
If you know a flatbedder who'd like to have their story told on why they do what they do, please send their contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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