Joseph B. Atkinson knew trouble was coming when Schneider National leaped into the regional truckload business in 2008. “My competition is Schneider, and all the big guys,” Atkinson said in an interview.
Schneider isn’t the only major truckload carrier pushing into the Northeast, a market Atkinson Freight Lines pulled out of this month after more than 130 years. U.S. Xpress Enterprises is expanding its regional foothold in the Northeast, working from a regional base in Shippensburg, Pa.
As more of the large truckload carriers regionalized operations and began to move into the Northeast, AFL saw more of its Fortune 500 customers — the majority of its shippers — start to slip away. “We lost some long-standing customers from the 1970s and ’80s — Hershey Foods, Kimberly Clark, Georgia-Pacific,” Atkinson said. The size and scale of those national carriers worked against AFL, he said, which in the end couldn’t afford to drop rates to match competing bids from much larger companies. “It’s a changed world,” Atkinson said, one in which a company such as his can no longer trump lower price by claiming better service.
AFL’s long regional run came to an end this month when the company, founded in the 1870s or 1880s as a horse-and-wagon fleet in Philadelphia, ceased operations. Atkinson, who also owns and runs the Bensalem Travel Plaza, in Bensalem, Pa., said he would keep the truck stop running and expand it.
As a Teamsters carrier, AFL had to deal with rising pension and health care costs, and paid higher driver wages than the national average.
But Atkinson said that was a good thing. “I’m competing with guys who aren’t paid a fair wage,” he said. “Ten years ago, my drivers were making $75,000 a year. Now they’re lucky to get $55,000 to $65,000. But I’m competing with guys who are paid in the $30,000s or $40,000s. I talk to these guys all the time at the fuel desk. They’re treated like slaves.”
The average wage for a tractor-trailer driver in 2010 was $39,450 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a Labor Department agency.