With economic uncertainty feeling like a permanent condition these days, every positive piece of news is welcome, and we have a particularly good one this month.
For the last eight years, we've identified the country's largest private fleets with our Top 500 report, ranking them by the total number of power units under their control. And every year up until the 2010 report, the equipment total grew. Last year, though, the numbers reflected the harsh business conditions of the Great Recession as the tractor and truck total for the Top 500 dropped by more than 12%.
This year, the Top 500 have regained their growing ways, not only recouping last year's lost equipment, but pushing beyond the 2009 report totals, if only by 1%.
So why should growing private fleets be seen as good news? The for-hire side of the industry, after all, shrank considerably during the downturn and has shown no real signs of adding back trucks despite improving freight conditions. Truckload and LTL carriers are proving to be very cautious about expanding capacity. Trucking is their primary business, so surely their caution says more about the economy's prospects for the industry, right?
Let's take a step back for a broader perspective. The general uneasiness about the recovery seems to be driven by atypical conditions; for most people it just doesn't feel like a recovery is underway. In past recessions, consumer confidence and spending led the way out. This time, housing and credit problems compounded by stubbornly high unemployment have kept consumers edgy about spending. Instead, it looks like industrial activity, in particular manufacturing, is driving this recovery. We saw it last year with modest freight volume growth and other indicators tracking activity in that area.
Private fleets play supporting roles for a broad array of vital businesses involved in manufacturing, retail, energy and other industries central to our economic activity. As you take a look through this year's Top 500 (page 27), you'll see it includes corporate giants like AT&T, Verizon, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, as well as major regional organizations like PG&E, Oldcastle and Duke Energy. If the general trend among the largest of those private fleets is expansion, that sounds like a general vote of confidence from some of the country's major corporations that we've rounded the corner and come back to a period of sustainable growth.
Since you won't find most private fleets by searching Google for “truck fleets,” compiling the Top 500 is a major research project undertaken by our sister organization, FleetSeek. Using public and proprietary records, they verify the individual fleet counts by direct contact whenever possible backed up by trusted third-party sources.
Given the amount of new information added each year — there are, for example, 70 new fleets in 2011 that haven't appeared in previous Top 500 reports — I'm always cautious about making year-to-year comparisons. In aggregate, though, the report represents 500 major businesses operating almost 1.2 million trucks and tractors, and the strong growth represented by that number is not just a good sign for the health of private fleets, but also a pretty clear signal that better times are ahead.