FUEL COSTS IN SPOTLIGHT AS TRUCK OFFICIALS MEET

FUEL COSTS IN SPOTLIGHT AS TRUCK OFFICIALS MEET

When America's 3,000 or so top trucking executives gather in Orlando today for the annual meeting of the American Trucking Associations, they will look forward to more than just hearing Gen. Colin L. Powell regale them with tales of the Persian Gulf war.

But they may pick up some pointers from the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff-turned-author on the battle for business on the home front when he speaks to the ATA Wednesday morning.Although many major trucking companies are doing slightly better financially this year than in the last two, new challenges - most recently the cost of diesel - threaten the financial survival of the industry.

While countless small trucking companies from the nation's estimated 47,000 merged or folded over the year, the ghosts of four major ones will hang in the midst of this year's ATA meet, which began on Halloween. They are St. Johnsbury Trucking Co., Standard Trucking Co., Be-Mac Transport Inc. and Jones Transfer Co.

These business failures pumped nearly $500 million in revenue into other carriers' coffers, pushing up the profits of Overnite Transportation Co., TNT Red Star Express Inc., and many others.

But many thought the post-deregulation game of musical chairs was over for trucking executives, who have had to scramble since 1980 to make sure they had a seat behind a desk when the music stopped.

Shades of this year's issues were alluded to at last year's New Orleans meeting, mainly the prospect of new federal fuel taxes to balance the Clinton Administration budget. While a 4.3 cent-a-gallon diesel tax was enacted, few executives anticipated that "clean," or low-sulfur diesel would jack up fuel costs by more than 40 cents in some regions.

"The hot issue is fuel availability and fuel costs. I get calls on that day in and day out," said John Collins, the ATA's senior vice president for government relations.

Prior to Oct. 1, truckers could take comfort in knowing that as long as America heats their homes with oil, there would be enough distillate to go around for truckers, who used the same fuel.

But the game is changed with refiners apparently more interested in supplying No. 2 fuel oil for homes than low-sulfur diesel for truckers, and spot shortages and high prices have wracked the industry.

Many trucking bosses, while worried about a nationwide owner-operators' shutdown threatened for Nov. 11, predict fuel prices will drop soon, allowing them to concentrate on longer-term issues like those to be outlined at the ATA meeting.

They include the inequities of the North American free-trade agreement, highway construction, economic regulation, intermodalism, the driver shortage and union labor contracts with the nation's 41 Teamsters-represented trucking companies.

While factions within the ATA are likely to clash over some issues, as last year's feud over how much the ATA should support driver hours-of-service changes, executives downplayed such divisions.

"I think differing points of view can fit under one ATA party. We're like the Democratic Party. But we all have the same general objectives," said Fred Mertz, executive vice president of Prime Inc., a Springfield, Mo., motor carrier.

Issues aside, however, new products are of particular importance to executives who can check out hundreds of new products at dozens of exhibits.

"I spend lots of time in the exhibition hall looking at new products," said Mack Dove, president of AAA Cooper Transportation Co., the Dothan, Ala., less-than-truckload carrier. "It's very important to meet with suppliers."