Right from the very beginning of Tom Meunier's career as an owner-operator, he knew he needed to be a little different in order to make a good living. After working as a company driver for a year, Meunier bought his own truck and trailer in 1983 and went out on his own, hauling the freight he knew best: cars.
“I hauled automobiles from the start in the typical ‘open carrier’ trailer you see on the road,” Meunier says. “But the market was very competitive. I was an owner-operator with one truck, transporting cars to and from automobile auctions. With more and more people getting into that business, I looked for a way to serve a ‘niche within a niche.’ That's why I decided to concentrate on transporting high-value cars.”
But the required enclosed trailers for high-end car transport don't come cheap — his cost was $200,000. So, for a time, he stuck it out as an open-carrier owner-operator with the help of his wife Jan, whom he met in 1986.
In 1989, they purchased their first enclosed carrier and formed Exotic Car Transport. It was a time, however, for “suffering,” Meunier recalls. With a trailer designed to hold six cars, Meunier would have to haul one or two at the “enclosed” rate, while giving up the other spots to cars at the “open-carrier” rate.
That was a tough call to make — especially after spending $200,000 on a dual-deck, enclosed car trailer. The trailers are air-ride equipped, air-tight, and have a full-sized liftgate for loading the vehicles. They also have a unique strapping system that the Meuniers developed, so the cars they haul are cushioned by their own suspension system.
Getting a return on such an investment proved painstaking at first, but hauls began to increase as Meunier spread his “niche within a niche” market net wider to catch different kinds of business.
Gradually, however, the tide began to turn for the Meuniers. In addition to hauling high-end cars for dealerships, they also began transporting cars for government officials, corporate executives, even “snowbirds” — people who move to the southern United States for the winter, then move back north for the summer. The company's business took off five years ago, to the point where it now has 12 of its specialty trailers in the fleet. Exotic Car Transport also maintains a $2-million “all risk” cargo insurance policy to give customers even greater peace of mind.
Meunier firmly believes that owner-operators are the employees of choice in his line of business. “They spend $100,000 on a truck and keep it looking nice; we spend $200,000 on a trailer and want it to look nice,” he says. “They come with a different kind of commitment to the business than the typical company driver, since they are driving their own truck. They come and go on good terms with us.”
Though Meunier prefers driver teams for his business — his trucks are on the road for 30 days at a time and clock 150,000 mi. a year — the realities of the driver shortage limit his options. “We look for teams, but they are hard to find, so we have a lot of solo drivers with us,” he says.
He still keeps a hand on the wheel of his business, occasionally driving what he calls his flagship vehicle, a Kenworth W900L sleeper tractor and trailer combination done up in bright yellow colors.
Image is also a big concern, which is why Meunier invests money in bright graphics for his equipment. “Regardless of whether we're hauling a $600,000 Ferrari or a $20,000 1946 Buick, that car is priceless to our customer,” he explains. “It's critical that our equipment be a direct reflection of how we will care for their priceless treasures.”
This column presents the independent contractor's perspective on working with fleets and fleet managers.
Name: Tom and Jan Meunier, owners, Exotic Car Transport, Ocoee, FL
Flagship vehicle is a 1999 Kenworth W900L with an 86-in. Studio AeroCab sleeper. Fleet's 12 trucks and tractors include four that are company-owned; the rest are leased from other owner-operators.
Building a niche within a niche