If you’re a regular reader of the Trucker Tools blog, you know that we love talking to folks from across the trucking industry, from company drivers and owner ops to dispatchers and fleet owners. We recently had the good fortune to speak with John DeCillo, a flatbed lease operator running out of Jacksonville, Fla. John’s path into trucking hasn’t been a typical one. He spent most of his career working in sales, engineering, management and manufacturing. When the pandemic hit the shores of the United States in 2020, John finally pulled the trigger on pursuing his life-long interest in trucking. He earned his CDL, started running flatbed and hasn’t looked back since. 

Read on to learn more about John’s journey in trucking, including his decision to go the lease owner operator route and specialize in flatbed. 

Why John Got His CDL and Hit the Road

“COVID is responsible for this,” said John. “COVID was the thorn in the butt to get me into trucking. So if I back up to high school, I grew up with a few guys whose dads were owner operators and I always wanted to do it. I just always liked big mechanical stuff. At that time, they talked all of us out of it. They told me I was crazy to get into trucking back then because there was no money in it. My dad was a chemical engineer, so his whole mindset was for me to go to college, but that wasn’t appealing to me, which is how I ended up in the United States Air Force on active duty. Towards the end of my time in the Air Force, I ended up completing an associate degree and an undergraduate degree and that later led to different roles in manufacturing, operations and quality control. I got an MBA in 2010. I also worked at a railroad for about seven years in different roles and capacities. I was in a management position when COVID happened and got laid off. At the time, I was looking for a job, but no one was hiring. At that point, I decided to go get my CDL. My family and friends told me I was nuts and couldn’t make any money doing that and I said, ‘Hold my beer.’”

John completed CDL school in September of 2020 and went to work for TMC Transportation, a flatbed carrier, immediately after. According to John, he got great flatbed training with TMC, a company that he was familiar with because he used to see their trucks running around the Cleveland area when he was in high school. John was attracted to trucking because of the freedom it offers and because he recognized that truckers were in high demand due to the pandemic. It also gave him the opportunity to realize his life-long dream of driving a semi. Today, John runs flatbed for PGT Trucking as a lease owner operator and is due to pay off his truck by October of this year, if not sooner.

How John’s Previous Experience Has Helped Him in Trucking 

“All my previous work experience has helped me out in trucking,” John said. “Even my time as a machinist and a certified welder in the military working on airplanes and just having an affinity for big mechanical stuff. I love cars and motorcycles. I think having a mechanical aptitude is definitely a plus to get into trucking. It’s not a necessity, but it sure helps. All of that experience with quality, operations, balance sheets, profit and loss, customer service and sales have helped me. For part of my time at the railroad, I managed an asset pool of 53 terminals east of the Mississippi. I worked with rail customers transloading bulk products from rail car to truck. Obviously those customer service skills and the constant reinvestment into your assets that make you money have influenced how I run in trucking. I’m always spending extra money on the truck when it goes in for service in the hopes of preventing failure on the road.”

“All my previous work experience has helped me out in trucking,” John said. “Even my time as a machinist and a certified welder in the military working on airplanes and just having an affinity for big mechanical stuff. I love cars and motorcycles. I think having a mechanical aptitude is definitely a plus to get into trucking. It’s not a necessity, but it sure helps. All of that experience with quality, operations, balance sheets, profit and loss, customer service and sales have helped me. For part of my time at the railroad, I managed an asset pool of 53 terminals east of the Mississippi. I worked with rail customers transloading bulk products from rail car to truck. Obviously those customer service skills and the constant reinvestment into your assets that make you money have influenced how I run in trucking. I’m always spending extra money on the truck when it goes in for service in the hopes of preventing failure on the road.”

John sees spending money on his truck as a reinvestment in his business. The truck feeds him and his family and he knows that income as a trucker can be unpredictable. One of the reasons that he decided to specialized in flatbed freight and get a flatbed trailer is that he noticed that the drivers with the nicest trucks often were flatbedders. In addition to often paying more, flatbed loads are more interesting to John. He runs a lot of steel coils, steel pipes and natural gas pipelines that are installed across the country. He also occasionally moves lumber and shingles with PGT.

Trucking: A Path to Semi-Retirement

“This is my path to semi-retirement in a way,” said John. “I’m spending a lot of time away from my family right now. I’ve been out two weeks already and I’m going to be out almost two more weeks, so it’ll be almost a month I’m away from home. My better half, she understands that there’s a prize at the end of this and that the prize is to be a truck owner. What comes with that is the flexibility to do what I want. If I want to go out and work a week and go home for a week, I’m going to do it. I know where to put this truck to make money. I was listening to a Boyd Brothers podcast recently and they were talking to an owner op who’d been with them for like 20 years or something. He explained that what he’d learned over the years was that he needed to put his truck in places where he could be consistent. That’s what I try to do. A lot of guys will come out here and want to chase that big money load, but it doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have anything to get you home or get you back to where you started.”

When it came to deciding whether to lease or buy a truck, John chose the lease operator route because it would get him his own truck in short span of time without spending 25 percent or more on interest, which is what he likely would have paid if he’d bought and financed the truck himself. John shared that he was able to get a much lower interest rate as a lease operator. For folks considering whether to buy or lease a truck, John recommends finding a lease that suits your specific needs, reading a company’s lease agreement in full and asking the lease company questions before signing on the dotted line. 

“A lot of people dog the lease purchase route, but I think it’s a great opportunity,” John shared. “Don’t look past the fact that they’re giving you an opportunity to own a business and if you’re successful, you can take that truck anywhere and go wherever you want or get your own authority. You can make a career. You also have the option to pay the truck off and stay where you’re at. It can be a means to an end. I’m treated very, very well here. I worked hard to put myself in a positive light with PGT and they treat me really, really well. I’ve made some really good relationships here and they keep me busier than I want to be sometimes, but that’s a great thing.”

Stay tuned to the Trucker Tools blog for part two of our conversation with John DeCillo. 

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