So, you finally got that new-to-you truck. You’ve worked hard, scrimped and saved and searched until you found just the right deal on a used tractor, and now, it’s yours.
Unfortunately, it still looks like the fleet truck it once was. It just doesn’t stand out from the crowd in any way. But you’ll change that with a trip to your favorite chrome shop.
Some truck owners do a great job personalizing their vehicles, creating a one-of-a-kind look that draws attention wherever they go. Their pride in their equipment is evident to all who see it rolling down the highway or pulling into the loading area.
There is, however, another side of the equation to be considered.
Unless you purchased the truck for private use, it is now the largest asset of the trucking business you own. Chrome — along with special paint, decals and wraps, non-OEM lighting and other accessories — represents an expense that doesn’t return cash to your business.
An old trucking adage says, “Chrome won’t get you home.” It won’t help you earn a larger paycheck, either, but it might help you earn a smaller one.
Some drivers make the argument that a nice truck makes an impression on customers and can generate additional business. This may be true for some types of trucking, but the vast majority of shippers and receivers couldn’t care less what color your truck is, much less how much chrome you’ve added. All they care about is that it’s pulling the trailer containing their freight.
There’s something to be said for the pride and confidence you have in your equipment, but don’t neglect the pride you’ll feel in taking home a larger paycheck.
When planning cosmetic upgrades to your truck be sure to consider your operating ratio. That’s the percentage of the revenue you take in that you spend to keep the wheels turning, including the amount you pay yourself.
Large carriers typically aim for an operating ratio of 92% or lower. That’s not a very large margin of profit. If you’re able to keep that much after paying yourself, you’ll have a small profit at year-end that you can either use to pay yourself a bonus or reinvest in your trucking business.
If you can do that in today’s tough freight market, it’s close to a miracle.
So, let’s tally up your wish list. That box-end Texas bumper you want is $1,200. Add $160 for those chrome floor pedals. You’ll need lights under the cab, of course, so that’s $125 for each side for the panel ($250 total). No doubt you’ll want to extend those under the sleeper, too, so that’s another $400. Oh, and you’ll need the lights that go in those panels — that’ll be 20 of them at $15 each ($300 total) —unless you want the ones that change color. Then it’ll be more.
In addition, there are lug nut covers, gearshift knobs, visors for the windshield (and windows and headlamps and license plates), custom steering wheels, brake release knobs, mud flap strips, chrome air cleaners and mirror brackets and vent surrounds, and on and on.
If you bring in revenues of $250,000 per year, that chrome Texas bumper represents about a half-percent of your revenue. But if you manage an operating ratio of 92%, that same bumper costs 6% of your profit. If you’re like many owner-operators who are struggling in today’s economy, it might represent all your profit.
Many chrome dealers are friendly enough to help you finance your purchases. However, interest rates are higher than they’ve been in decades, only adding to your expense. Using a credit card can cost even more in the long run.
Now, let’s look at the benefits of that new Texas bumper. It looks nice — and that’s pretty much it. It’s going to require extra time to keep it clean and polished. So will those polished aluminum rims with Tophats and lugnut ring. If you pay someone else to keep them polished, that’s an additional cost.
Also, if the new bumper has more aerodynamic drag than the one you replaced, your fuel cost will go up, eating further into your profits. The same holds true of any other items added to the outside of the vehicle. Hood ornaments, bigger lights and other accessories can all impact fuel mileage.
There may be a safety benefit to adding LED lighting to your vehicle, and items like windshield visors can help improve visibility, so some accessories do provide a return for your investment. There is usually, however, a reason most carriers don’t equip their trucks with the chrome accessories that owner-operators sometimes do: The return on investment simply isn’t there.
Truck owners have many reasons for customizing their vehicles, and there’s nothing wrong with an owner spending their hard-earned cash to improve their driving experience.
Owners who strive to get the most from their businesses will carefully consider the return for each investment they make, choosing options that help them take home more of the revenue they work so hard for. For some, the nicer working environment is worth the investment. Others have a larger investment in their homes and families and prefer to take as much of their earnings home as they can.
No matter what you choose, consider vehicle accessory purchases to be the business decisions they are, making sure those expenses are in line with the goals you have set for your business.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.