Road Haulage Association

Haulage Industry News

Turnover is vanity – profit is sanity…

… I suspect that many people have heard that saying – it’s been around for years. I also suspect that many might think that profit is difficult if not impossible in the current climate, with fuel prices at record levels and customers very reluctant to accept rate increases that pay the higher diesel bills or, for that matter, other cost increases such as wages and insurance.

Having said that, the published accounts for some firms in the industry make interesting reading, with decent levels of profit being reported in quite a few cases. The trade press also publicises success stories as well as the spectacular failure of some high-profile and well-known names. We are now something like 30 months into recession, with no clear and substantial evidence of recovery, so demand for our members’ services is probably at an all-time low, but the number of vehicles available, and the number of businesses competing for the work, have both declined.

We eagerly anticipate the publication of the Traffic Commissioners’ annual reports, as they will show how much of a decline there has been. We know there was a drop of some 3.6% in vehicle numbers from 2009 to 2010, although the drop in restricted licensed vehicles was higher than in standard licences. But how big has the drop been in the past 12 months? In the last six months, my visits to RHA council meetings suggest we are reaching a stage where there are real shortages of certain types of vehicle and, in some markets, bringing supply and demand for haulage into a better balance than has been the case for some years.

Perhaps we are now in the situation where real negotiation can take place rather than customers offering work to operators desperate for business on the basis of ‘that’s the rate, take it or leave it’. Perhaps we are even in the situation where RHA members are able to ‘leave it’, because they know there is enough work out there, and there is no need to accept whatever a customer might be willing to offer.

But, despite being in a stronger position, it is no use getting plenty of work at rates that might seem very attractive if the customers pay when they feel like it. A member once said to me that things were so bad that even the customers that don’t pay had stopped giving him work!

We are not in that position now, but it goes without saying that getting paid is absolutely central to making a profit. It is clear that some members are better at this than others. Get the basics right: agree terms in writing, invoice promptly, chase up overdue payments and check the credit rating of every customer regularly so you get fewer nasty surprises. This is common sense, but is it common practice?

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