This has been a tough year for trucking and business in general. Unfortunately, the prospect for the new year is more of the same for at least the first six months, followed by slow recovery if we're lucky and the various stimulus activities gain some traction. Keeping your fleet operation viable until we reach that upturn, whenever it might be, is going to take a realistic appraisal of your operation's strengths and weaknesses, careful planning based on that assessment, and more than a little courage to carry out those plans.
There are plenty of examples around of how not to manage in a downturn. Although it's outside the trucking industry, Circuit City comes to mind immediately. Faced with decreasing revenues a year ago, the company's response was to fire its most expensive store employees, the ones with experience and product knowledge. The move did decrease personnel costs, but also removed the chain's one major advantage over its lower-cost online competitors — trusted advice for consumers making substantial purchases. So despite the short-term improvement in costs, the chain lost in the long run, falling into bankruptcy reorganization last month. Oh, and the CEO who came up with the cost-cutting plan? He lost his job, too.
The disastrous consequences of short-sighted reaction to economic trouble reminds me of the first lesson I learned when I started riding motorcycles. If the radius of a curve unexpectedly tightens, your natural reaction is to focus on the road right ahead of your front tire and what seems to be your suddenly uncontrollable speed. The result is many inexperienced riders do nothing and end up running off the road, or grab the brakes in panic and find themselves and their bike skidding along the asphalt.
The right response, which is far from natural, is to pick up your eyes and look as far down the road as you can to pick up the end of the curve. The momentary panic subsides as things seem to slow down, and you can respond properly, keeping the throttle steady and simply leaning the bike over a bit more to make it safely around the curve. Of course, that's much easier to describe than to do when the weeds seem to be coming up fast and you're cursing yourself for being so careless. That's where the self-confidence bred by planning and experience come into play, allowing you to overcome the initial panic reaction and take decisive corrective action.
Managing any type of fleet in the current economic climate is far more complex than getting a motorcycle through a tight turn, but the basic principles are the same. Don't give in to panic or despair, stay focused on the things you can control, and keep your eyes on the horizon.
Those three attributes are the mark of truly good management, of teams that find a way to negotiate tough economic conditions and emerge strong and ready to take advantage of business opportunities when they re-emerge. Whether you run a for-hire carrier or manage a fleet that supports a business or service, you should approach this difficult time as an opportunity to identify the things you need to do better and the strengths you need to build on as the business cycle makes its inevitable turn upward.