Rusty Rush: Not a cliff, but trucking is slowing Aaron Marsh/Fleet Owner

Rusty Rush: Not a cliff, but trucking is slowing

The chairman, CEO, and president of $4.7 billion Rush Enterprises believes U.S. Class 8 sales have “caught up to replacement demand” and will trend down in 2016

SAN ANTONIO. W. M. "Rusty" Rush – chairman, CEO and president of Rush Enterprises – believes U.S. Class 8 sales are slowing and will continue to slow into 2016 as the freight markets keep softening.

Yet he retains “all the confidence in the world” that trucking is not falling off a “cliff” but is rather returning to the more cyclical up and down patterns that characterized the industry’s past.

“We’ve caught up with the replacement cycle of the last couple of years; the age of the [Class 8] fleet is now as low as it was in 2005,” Rush explained in a wide ranging interview with reporters here at the 10th annual Rush Truck Centers (RTC) Technician Skills Rodeo. “It’s not a cliff, but sales are going down; I felt it coming this summer and [the trucking market] is ending up where I thought it would be.”

He expects U.S. Class 8 retail sales will end up around 269,000 units for 2015 and trend down to 230,000 units or below next year.

“We were hoping for a 15% [drop] but now I don’t see any way [sales] will be off less than 20%,” Rush said. “Cancellation rates [for Class 8 orders] started this summer and we’re seeing manufacturers cutting back on production. If you look at freight, it’s soft, with spot rates off 20%.”

Yet he stressed that things didn’t start “going in that direction” overnight and would gladly take a U.S. Class 8 retail market of 200,000 to 210,000 units in 2016.

“And you know 200,000 units is not a bad year. In the past, the industry averaged 190,000 to 200,000 units in good years,” Rush said. “People have gotten caught up thinking the sun is going to shine [in trucking] every day; it’s a cyclical world.”

However, Rush emphasized that he thinks Rush Enterprises' overall business won’t be off more that 10% in 2016, largely due to rising Class 4-7 medium-duty truck sales and steady parts and service business.

Rush noted some of those trends in the company’s third quarter earnings report back in October, pointing out that aftermarket services accounted for approximately 64% of its gross profits in the third quarter this year, with parts, service and body shop revenues increasing by 5.9% as compared to the third quarter of 2014 – contributing to a quarterly absorption ratio of 116.2%.

"Continued demand for repair and maintenance of vehicles in operation, with particular strength on the East and West coasts, fleet and natural gas vehicle modifications and mobile services were the primary drivers of aftermarket revenues in the third quarter," he said back in October.

Other observations about the U.S. trucking market Rush shared with reporters this week include:

  • The oil and gas industry “won’t be back” until 2017, as most companies in the energy sector have already cut back their budgets for 2016.  
  • Rush continues to experience strong demand for trucks from the refuse sector and for medium-duty units from the construction industry. “We’ll see how that [construction demand] works out on the Class 8 side,” he added.
  • The company will continue to work towards a goal of making 50% of its heavy truck technician workforce “mobile techs” in the years ahead. “About one third on the Peterbilt side are mobile techs; it’s not as high in our Navistar division but we’re working on it,” Rush noted.
  • The company right now expects greenhouse gas (GHG) emission mandates may increase the cost of Class 8 trucks by $10,000 to $12,000 per unit.
  • The demise of the owner-operator/small fleet segment continues to be exaggerated. “How many decades have we been saying the small guy will not survive? Yet you look at the growth in truck sales this year and it’s been coming from the small fleets,” Rush stated. “They have prospered.”
  • Rush remains “extremely confident” in the future of natural gas-powered trucks but said due to the low price of oil, adoption rates by fleets have slowed and will continue to slow. “Right now, with oil at $30 to $35 a barrel, some folks will take that short term deal; that’s to be expected,” he said. “But natural gas in the future will remain cheap because we [the U.S.] have so much of it. I’m very confident in it; we’re just in a little bubble [of low diesel prices] right now.”
  • Rush remains committed to becoming “a big player” in the U.S. Class 4-7 truck market and will leverage its national network of dealerships accordingly. “The more diversified your revenue stream, the better you can weather this industry’s ups and downs,” he said.
  • Truck sales data over the next three months – December through February – will give an indication of where the market is truly heading. “November through February are always the toughest months” for truck sales, Rush noted. “We always get seasonal slowness. Let’s get through the next three to four months; then we’ll see where we are.”
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