Small trucking companies see federal loans as bridge to better days
Alan Adler FreightWaves 2020 04 02
The opportunity to borrow federal money that may convert to a grant is enticing for small trucking companies, but some would rather see it go to those that most need it.
“At the present time, it’s not something we absolutely need to get by,” Jimmy Nevarez, owner of Angus Transportation Inc., told FreightWaves on Wednesday. “That’s why I’ve been on the fence about applying. I’d like to be able to save the money for people who are being impacted more.”
Small to medium-size trucking companies and owner-operators are among businesses eligible to apply for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans created through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
In some cases, the loans could be forgiven if employers retain their workers during the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.
Details of the SBA program are still being finalized, but it has several provisions that could make it “free money,” according to Randy Hooper, a partner with Katz, Sapper & Miller, a certified public accounting and tax firm.
“It allows companies with less than 500 employees to get a loan from the government that’s based on 2½ months of their payroll,” Hooper told FreightWaves. “Then, in theory, if you go through this analysis on your [full-time equivalent employees] compared to some prior period, then that loan, at least in part if not fully, will be forgiven.”
In addition to covering payroll, borrowing can be used for rent, mortgage, interest and utilities. Hooper has 22 trucking company clients ranging in annual revenue from $25 million to $600 million. Each has called him inquiring about the loan program.
“The ones that are over 500 [employees] have asked what can they do to try to be a part of it, and everyone under 500 across the board has said, ‘Yeah, we want to make sure that we take advantage of it,’” Hooper said.
Owner-operators previously had no access to SBA money. That changed with the CARES Act.
“That is one of the significant changes,” said Prasad Sharma, a partner with the Scopelitis Garvin Light Hanson & Feary transportation law firm. “When you dig into the language, Congress did expand it to cover independent operators.”
Nevarez said that could help two owner-operators he contracts with to haul bottled water and styrofoam food containers from Southern California to Las Vegas. Phelan, California-based Angus also transports PECO Pallets to Bakersfield, California, and Las Vegas.
“No matter what, all small businesses are going to be impacted,” he said.
Stephen Halsted and Sandy Goche, who operate a two-person expedited trucking company based in southern Ohio, applied for a loan because they are refusing loads destined for coronavirus hot spots. Halsted said they have turned down “five or six” loads since last Friday.
“Our safety is the most important thing,” Halsted told FreightWaves.
Bigger firms waiting
The 500-employee limit for loans is standard for SBA loans, Hooper said. As soon as next week, the U.S. Treasury may expand eligibility to companies with more employees.
With 520 employees, Nussbaum Transportation Services Inc. is just over the current application threshold. CEO Brent Nussbaum said the company does not need a loan. If that changes, he would likely tap its banking relationships.
Like Nevarez, Nussbaum would prefer loan money go to financially strapped trucking companies.
“The money ultimately ought to go to those that need it. There is such a huge need. I don’t want to take advantage of federal government money that I don’t need,” Nussbaum said. “It’s debt this country can’t afford in the first place.”
So far, load volumes are holding up from Nussbaum’s largest customers, including Caterpillar and Case New Holland industrial equipment, several major tiremakers, and Pella Windows. All but eight of his 410 drivers are working. Nussbaum said that could change in the next few weeks as the supply chain develops more kinks, but he prefers a different focus.
“What kind of a positive message can we send to the people?” Nussbaum asked. “Can we focus on an upturn? It’s going to come back. We’ll survive and we’ll all come out of it better than we went into it.”
Paper Transport Inc. in De Pere, Wisconsin, hauls that most precious commodity — toilet paper — among its loads. Business is strong for all of the consumer products it hauls.
“As of right now, we’re able to keep everybody,” PTI President Jeff Shefchik told FreightWaves of his 1,100 employees. “We’re not sitting around waiting for the government to do anything. As of right now, we don’t need a bailout.”
Stay Metrics, which conducts driver retention surveys and consults trucking firms, sees the loans as a bridge to the industry’s recovery.
“I lost six customers in three hours last Monday,” said Tim Hindes, Stay Metrics co-founder and CEO. “In a normal economy, we only have 12% customer churn annually.”
An SBA loan will prevent Hindes from laying off any of his two dozen employees.
“What that means for us is I can take a loan out to pay for my labor costs while I’m building up my business to the point it was before,” Hindes said. “Even when the pandemic passes, I should still have cash available. I think that was the design of that program, which was really smart. We see ourselves coming out the other end of this very bright.”