More than 97 percent of truck companies nationwide run fewer than 20 semis, and more than 90 percent have fewer than six, according to a 2015 fact sheet from the American Trucking Associations. While no county-level data could be found, George Wise of local broker Wise Transport said the vast majority of the 40 to 50 trucking companies he works with have just a handful of trucks. Some have just one.
“You always get much better service out of a smaller company,” said Tony Garcia, who runs both a brokerage and small trucking company with four vehicles, of the advantages of working with small firms.
“A guy with three or four trucks is always working harder,” he added later.
Brokers and truckers interviewed for this story said that small companies often provide more personalized service, faster responses and more flexible services than those of the large companies operating in Santa Cruz County.
As to the far greater number of small firms, Wise said it’s pretty easy for truckers to strike out on their own once they’ve learned the ropes working for others.
“He’s going to buy his own truck and make that money for himself instead of making it for somebody else,” he said. “If you’ve been doing it long enough, you’ve got those contacts … If you’re doing a good job, (the brokers are) happy to add one more truck to their portfolio.”
“It’s pretty easy to buy a truck and put yourself to work immediately,” said Jimmy Watson, Sr., of JSJ Enterprises, who started one of the several companies he’s been involved with over his career with just two trucks.
However, there are advantages that come with size, and small trucking companies are facing challenges that aren’t as difficult for firms with hundreds of trucks and drivers.
Jimmy Watson Jr., who runs JSJ Enterprises with his father Jimmy Watson Sr., said the nationwide driver shortage has been particularly tough. The ATA estimated that there would be a shortage of 48,000 drivers by the end of 2015, in a report released earlier that year.
For large firms like Swift, which runs its own driver schools, training new employees is fairly easy, Watson said. However, he and other small companies generally have to hire drivers who are already trained and have several years of experience, as required by their insurers, which can be more expensive.
“They make their own drivers,” Watson said of larger competitors.
Breakdowns can also be more difficult to handle, as small companies rarely have extra trucks on hand to pick up stranded loads.
A new and growing challenge for many local trucking companies is complying with new vehicle emission standards in California, where much of the produce that passes through Nogales ends up. In an attempt to improve air quality, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board recently mandated that diesel trucks driving through the state have newer engines or modifications that cut down on particulate matter releases.
To add the necessary filters and other modifications, Watson said it cost JSJ about $12,000 per truck for a U.S.-side fleet of nine trucks.
Low diesel prices in recent months have made things much easier, but if they spike again, business will get tough, especially for smaller companies.
“Anything over ($4 per gallon), it gets really difficult,” Anselmo said.