A private fleet’s trucks come in many sizes and configurations, filling roles that range from distributing products to delivering services. It’s the tractor-trailer keeping a plant’s supply chain full and the van carrying the cable guy and his tools. It’s the mixer at the construction site and the packer circling neighborhood streets. It’s the bucket truck restoring power after the storm and the tanker bringing you heating oil. And there are a lot of them, with private fleets accounting for roughly three-quarters of all commercial trucks operating in the U.S.
Eleven years ago we decided to shine a spotlight on the size and scope of those ubiquitous but largely unnoticed operations by creating the Fleet Owner 500, a list of America’s top private fleets. Based on the total number of power units operated by a company, the rankings are compiled by FleetSeek, the data arm of our company’s trucking group, which starts with public and proprietary information and then verifies and updates the data through electronic, print and telephone follow-ups. In addition to tabulating vehicle populations, FleetSeek also classifies the identified companies by nine general business categories—service, concrete/cement, construction, food/beverages, manufacturing/processing, petroleum/gases, sanitation, retail/wholesale, and utility.
Since the Fleet Owner 500 is essentially created new every year, I’m cautious about drawing exact comparisons between the annual reports, but I believe you can clearly spot trends if you look at the larger picture. And one trend that stands out is just how strong investment remains in private fleets.
Actually it’s not just strong— it’s grown substantially, at least among the 500 largest fleets. Back in 2004, our Top 500 operated 778,000 power units. This year’s report shows the Top 500 with 1.193 million trucks, which is well over 50% growth in a decade. Trailer numbers, which we report but don’t factor into the rankings, grew by a similar percentage. That says to me that businesses continue to see competitive value in their private fleets and remain committed to those operations.
In line with that commitment is another interesting comparison between the Fleet Owner 500 in 2004 and 2014: There’s been relatively little change among the companies at the very top of our list, and most of what change there is is related to mergers and acquisitions. And when you look at the lists of the five largest fleets in our nine business categories, they are, with one exception, largely populated by the same companies or mergers of those companies. But put aside the one exception (construction, which certainly suffered deep losses in the recession) and that stability says to me that those large, successful businesses see their substantial private fleet operations as essential.
Speaking of the recession, ripples from this last steep economic downturn and our slow recovery are clearly evident when you look at the Top 500 reports for the last few years. After two years of no growth in total power units, that number finally showed some upward movement this year, but only by 1%. And reflecting the unevenness of this recovery, exactly half of our Top 500 showed gains in power units for a robust 16% average increase, while just under a third showed an average 17% decline and 65 showed no change at all.
At least those are some of the things I see, but check out the results for yourself. The 2014 Fleet Owner 500 starts on page 28. And you can find archived versions of the report going back to 2010 online at fleetowner.com.