Comcar exits, but its trucks keep rolling

Comcar exits, but its trucks keep rolling

Comcar's bankruptcy will have a negligible impact on trucking capacity. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

Comcar Industries will soon be no more, but most of its tractor-trailers and drivers will likely stay on the road. The Chapter 11 bankruptcy of the diversified truckload holding company will remove a venerable name from the US trucking industry, but it won’t diminish rampant overcapacity in the sector because the company’s five subsidiaries are being sold, rather than dismantled.

When it comes to the potential loss of trucking capacity, the fate of many much smaller trucking companies over the next three to six months will be more consequential in cumulative terms because they represent a larger portion of the total market.

Many small, undercapitalized trucking operations are expected to go bankrupt amid the COVID-19 recession, but the extent of that loss and its impact on overall capacity is as yet unknown. Even when companies shut down, many assets are sold and remain in circulation, which means physical capacity is transferred more often than eliminated. 

At least some of Comcar’s drivers also may hope to keep their jobs under new ownership, too, and be available to haul freight as US businesses start to reopen and the economy begins to revive in coming months. One of Comcar’s aims in selling its subsidiaries, rather than liquidating and auctioning off its assets, is to preserve as many jobs as possible.

Comcar, which on Sunday filed for bankruptcy protection with the US Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, is not a small operator; the holding company’s four carrier subsidiaries operate 717 trucks, with 610 drivers and 950 employees in total, according to Comcar’s bankruptcy filing.

Ninety-nine percent of all active motor carriers have 500 trucks or less, according to FMCSA data, which places Comcar in the top 1 percent of firms by fleet size. In terms of revenue, however, Comcar is not among the top 50 US truckload carriers tracked for JOC.com by SJ Consulting Group. The smallest carrier in that group had $276 million in revenue in 2018.

By comparison, Celadon Trucking, a company that went bankrupt in December, had $762 million in trucking revenue in 2018, when it was the 18th-largest US truckload carrier, according to SJ Consulting Group data. But even a carrier Celadon’s size was a drop in a big truckload bucket. The 25 largest truckload carriers alone had $32.4 billion in revenue in 2019.

Comcar’s woes precede recession

The demise of Comcar, founded in 1953 by the late Guy Bostick, can’t be tacked solely to the current recession. The company has been shrinking in size, both physically and in terms of revenue, for more than a decade, receiving a serious blow during the 2008-09 recession. 

In 2010, when Comcar ranked 47th on JOC.com’s list of Top 50 Trucking Companies, it had $373 million in revenue. In 2008, Comcar’s revenue was $535 million, according to SJ Consulting Group. Comcar dropped off the Top 50 Trucking Companies rankings in 2011.

Comcar’s revenue dropped severely in 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession had spread to the United States. In December, revenue dropped 26 percent year over year across all of Comcar’s business units, the company said in its bankruptcy petition. The four trucking divisions collectively lost $25 million in 2019, according to the petition.

Those losses continued in 2020, totaling $6 million through March 27. At that time, Comcar had total assets of $66.7 million and $85.6 million in liabilities, according to the petition. The company said it owed long-term lenders $64.8 million. 

Among the 30 largest unsecured claims against the company were more than $120 million in disputed legal claims involving 18 litigants, according to Comcar’s bankruptcy petition. Large accident claims and awards are not uncommon in trucking, increasing pressure on carrier finances.

As a flatbed and bulk liquid trucker, construction materials and chemicals are among Comcar’s key shipments. The industrial slump of 2019 weakened the company before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused consumer demand for non-essential goods to plummet, choking off even more of its business. That left the debt-heavy company little room to maneuver as the market for its services collapsed in April.

Rather than shutting down and auctioning off its assets, Comcar will keep operations running while it pursues the sale of its subsidiaries. “Our decision to file Chapter 11 was to better enable us to find homes for our customers, people, and assets,” Comcar said in a statement. “We determined that a sale of all companies would be the best path forward to maximize their value.”

Through separate agreements, flatbed construction products hauler CT Transportation will be sold to PS Logistics; bulk chemical hauler CTL Transportation will be sold to Service Transport; and refrigerated and dry-van carrier MCT Transportation will be sold to White Willow Holdings. Comcar has entered a letter of intent to sell CCC Transportation, its original company.

The arrangement will hopefully preserve jobs for the company’s 950 employees at a time when the US has lost 88,000 trucking jobs in April alone. But Comcar’s bankruptcy also could be a harbinger of a wave of bankruptcies and failures for trucking companies that are under-capitalized, debt-heavy, and highly dependent on already weakened sectors of the US economy.

The COVID-19 crisis “is an unprecedented event that is definitely separating the good carriers that had no fundamental problems from those that do,” said Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting Group, a Pittsburgh-based transportation research firm. “If you didn’t have the right business model and were not operating it correctly, you’re in trouble.”

Contact William B. Cassidy at bill.cassidy@ihsmarkit.com and follow him on Twitter: @willbcassidy.