March April, 2004

 

 

 

 

Keeping a Steady Eye on the Bottom Line

Keen business sense has made Lowry Trucking the third largest log hauling company in Northern Idaho

By Barbara Coyner

The thermometer hovered around 35 below, and he couldn’t get warm, even in the shower. Holed up in a camper in Clarkia, Idaho, Bill Lowry Jr. remembers well his initiation into the family trucking business at age 18. “I couldn’t wait to go to work, because I knew it wouldbe warmer in the truck,” says the Idaho trucker. “I realized then what my dad had done for years and it was quite an awakening into the real world.” Lowry, who is stepping in to fill some very large shoes belonging to his dad, Bill Lowry Sr., helps operate the third largest log hauling company in North Idaho. The family-owned enterprise runs 16 log trucks, three lowboys, one dump truck and two log loaders, competing in the North Idaho timber scene. With a new shop in Princeton, Idaho, the company has hauled routinely for Potlatch Corporation and Bennett Lumber, with long-term work for Hansen Logging of nearby Harvard. Bill Lowry Sr. got his start in 1951 after getting into his family’s bulk fuel plant at Tekoa, Wash., then into a gas station at nearby Tensed, Idaho. The humble beginnings were as simple as some guy selling him a logging truck, with Lowry growing the company from there. Lowry Jr. points to his dad’s keen business sense as the secret weapon in an ever-changing industry.

Money Management
“The reason we’re successful is that we watch where every penny goes,” says Lowry Jr., who started taking over daily management duties about three or four years ago, allowing his dad to spend part of his year in Arizona in semi-retirement. “We buy in bulk to save and we don’t pay interest on a bunch of credit cards. My dad’s shrewd. He’s a good businessman.” Bill Sr. grew the trucking enterprise bit by bit, with wife Billie in charge of the books up until a few years ago. The family partnership always tried to honor the bottom line, and they broke into trucking more steadily as they were able to cover additional winter hauling. At the high point, the company owned 25 trucks and on occasion operated as many as 40. “It’s never been a matter of what you make but how you spend your money,” says Bill Sr. of his tight rein on finances. “It’s about money management. We always tried to buy new equipment when we could and we tried to always buy at an advantage. We’re keeping equipment longer now because the equipment is better and the roads are better. In the beginning we didn’t operate in winter but as times changed and we got better trucks, we were able to keep the help working nine months out of the year.”

Chad Clausen (left) and Bill Lowry Jr. work on some truck repairs in the Princeton, Idaho shop. Bill Sr. was unavailable for a photo thanks to his extended Arizona vacation!

In-House Repairs
The father-son team knows trucks from plenty of in-the-cab experience. Bill Sr. still drives a lowboy in the summer and Bill Jr. does his share of lowboy driving as well. Both cite Mack trucks for dependability and good running gears, while Kenworth has always fetched good resale value. One change the father has observed of the son is the focus on doing more in-house equipment repair. “He has a few ideas that are different than mine and that’s not all bad,” the senior Lowry says. “He’s different on some of his purchasing. And he tries to do more in-house repairs or he engineers ways of having it done.” True, says Bill Jr., pointing to about 90 percent of repairs done in-house. “All of our 94’s have been rebuilt since we purchased them. Doing things in-house is the only way we can survive. We just can’t always afford to go to the dealerships.”

Lowry Jr. depends on his crew to maintain company trucks and keep a good image on the road, but he looks especially to Chad Clausen for in-house mechanics coordination. “He’s the babysitter,” Lowry says of Clausen, who stays on-call 24/7, answers the phone and frequently keeps the home fires burning around the shop. Clausen also spends some time in the cab. Both Lowry and Clausen fine-tune hauling schedules as well as engines, and as Clausen says of the on-call work scene, “If Willie and I get out of here by 5, it’s a miracle.”

The Lowry lowboy on one of its North Idaho hauling jobs

Quality Employees
With monthly fuel bills in the five digits, insurance costs always on the rise and new regulations constantly creeping onto the books, Lowry Trucking cuts its drivers in at 31 percent, with a health benefits package that covers the driver year-round, plus an option to buy extra insurance for the family. In inspections and claims, the company enjoys an excellent record, and that’s in no small part due to the quality of the crew. Lowry Jr. cites a loyal and long-term crew as a main ingredient in good business and he laments that sandbagged logging prices don’t always allow the company to dole out raises as they’d like. Bill Lowry Sr. established the hiring guidelines early on, explaining, “We always look at the driver for how he conducts himself when he comes to us and how he takes care of his own vehicle and how he drives. We have him go out with one of our fellows to see how he does. We like to get someone interested in staying with us long-term.” Because the Lowry name is stable in the region, most drivers figure on extended employment and over 50 percent of the crew has been on the payroll over ten years. Norm Bell is senior man with those honors, racking up 35 years in a Lowry rig. “Sometimes a guy will think about going out on his own, thinking he can do better as an independent,” Bill Jr. observes. “They think it’s easy money and they can cut a fat hog, but often they don’t make it. You know the old saying about the grass is greener somewhere else. Trouble is, they haven’t checked the water bill for those greener pastures.”

Good Leadership
With his dad easing out of operations management, Lowry knows something about those expensive bills, not to mention all the other hassles of doing business. Connecting with his father by phone when necessary, the 35-year-old son tries to practice business skills honed by his parents. Because of his age, he admits that he has to earn the respect of crewmembers frequently older than he is. “It’s been tough for years because my dad hired a lot of these guys. It’s a boss’s kid type thing, but I’ve been doing some of the hiring now and I work right beside them 24/7. They’re all pretty good guys.” Both father and son watch the crew’s steps, acknowledging that they enjoy a top-notch company driving record, with few safety mishaps. That helps with insurance costs. With business always tethered to the ups and downs of the timber industry, Bill Lowry Sr. says one of the circumstances less easy to control is log hauling itself. The company ties its bottom line to timber and even lowboy hauling is usually connected to delivering logging equipment. “At the present time, we need more federal timber released,” says Lowry Sr. “We’re hitting the private lands too hard and we’re going to come up with a shortage one of these days if the federal lands don’t open up.” As the fortunes of the whole timber industry continue to be politically directed, Lowry Trucking stakes its future on its past reputation and a smooth management transition. Bill Sr. concedes, “I never will get totally out of it.” Likewise, Bill Jr. shows the necessary energy and resolve, noting, “I like to truck. It’s in my blood.”

TW

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004