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Three Types of Truck Owner-Operators [And How to Choose the Best Path]

May 16th, 2022

Lars Offerdahl

Lars Offerdahl

Lars has been in the trucking industry his whole working life. He started working in the shop when he was just 16 years old. Lars spent about 10 years in operations before moving to driver recruiting. He spent five years in recruiting before joining the ATS team as the vice president of driver recruiting. He currently serves as the vice president of van operations. No day is ever the same in the trucking industry and Lars enjoys the challenge that presents.


Are you ready to own your own truck and operate your own business? 

The good news is that there are multiple paths you can choose to go down as an owner-operator. 

The bad news is that you might not know which path is the right one to take. Which path will help you succeed? Which will give you the freedom or support you need?

As an owner-operator, with great risk comes great reward. That can be equally exciting and terrifying. You want to do everything you can to ensure your success. But you’re in uncharted territory, so you may have no idea what you’re doing or what career path will work best for you as an owner-operator. 

At Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) we have opportunities for owner-operators who want to haul freight for us and opportunities for owner-operators who want to haul freight on digital load boards while still running under our authority. 

We’ll help you understand your options as an owner-operator in the industry so you can make the best decision. 

We’ll list each of these options in order of drivers that receive the most support from a company to the least support. This includes: 

  1. Owner-operators who sign on with a company to haul their freight
  2. Owner-operators who run under a company’s authority but haul freight with digital load boards
  3. Owner-operators who have their own authority and find their own freight

Three Types of Owner-Operators

There are multiple pathways to get you into an owner-operator position. Arguably the easiest way to start your journey as an owner-operator is to research lease purchase programs, lease onto a carrier and eventually purchase the truck. There are many companies out there that don’t require a down payment (or have a minimal down payment) and no credit check. Pay off the balloon payment and you’re on your way. 

Once you’ve purchased the truck, you can continue to haul freight for that trucking company or you can sign your truck on with another carrier to haul freight for them. That’s the most supported path to take as an owner-operator. You can also choose to pursue your own authority. 

If you don’t decide to go the lease-purchase route, you can also secure financing on a truck from a bank and pay off the truck loan that way. Some drivers also outright buy a truck with cash.


1. Sign Your Truck On with a Trucking Company

Many drivers that are just getting their start as an owner-operator decide to sign on with a trucking company and lease their truck to them to haul their freight. This option will provide you with the most support as an owner-operator. 

The company will find loads for you and offer them to you. You’ll have the option to accept or deny loads. In some cases, the company may let you help secure your own loads, but most often you’ll be looking on their internal load board — not external load boards. 

Before you can sign your truck on with a company, your truck will need to meet that company’s truck specifications and it must pass a Department of Transportation (DOT) inspection. There’s certain paperwork you’ll need to provide, you may need to plate the truck in a specific state and you may need to head to the company’s orientation program to sign paperwork and go through some training. 

You’ll also need to follow their operating rules, which means that you’ll have to run with their preferred safety equipment and communication devices.

Make sure, if this is the route you want to go down, you like the company you’re signing on with. You’ll be working with a dispatcher for that company and you’ll be restricted to hauling freight for that company. 

If you don’t like the freight they haul or the freight lanes they run in, the company may not work out for you. Be sure you research this and ask plenty of questions before you sign your truck on to haul with them. 

When you’re this type of owner-operator, you don’t have as much liability or risk. You’re not running under your authority, so you aren’t responsible for all of the paperwork that other owner-operators are. You aren’t running on your own, so you don’t have to worry about your CSA score influencing the customers you can haul freight for, either. 

Not only will you have a dispatcher or planner assisting you, but you also may have access to the company’s fuel and parts discounts and their network of shops. You may have a fleet fuel card to make your fuel purchases. Instead of needing a large cash flow to cover fuel or parts purchases, this money may be subtracted from your settlements.

If you don’t own your trailer, you’ll be considered a “power only” owner-operator, which means that you own your tractor only and you can rent a trailer for a small fee.

Essentially, as this type of owner-operator you’re like a lease operator but without the truck payment. 

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2. Haul Freight in the Open Market

Another option as an owner-operator is to work under a trucking company’s authority but to haul freight from digital load boards. You’ll still have the support of the company, but you have the option to find, bid on and schedule your own freight. 

You may or may not have your own trailer. If you don’t, you can usually rent a trailer with the company you’re contracted on with. Your truck will need to meet the company’s specifications. You may also need to run with safety equipment in your truck and utilize their communication technology. 

While you’ll find your own freight on load boards of your choosing, the carrier acts as a support system. They provide payroll services, safety support and financial support. You’ll likely have access to their discounts on fuel and tires as well. 

In many ways, this can feel like the best of both worlds option for owner-operators. You have company support but you still have the freedom to find your own loads and make your schedule. You’ll still need to be very good at organization, load selection, planning out your schedule and understanding your bottom line. It can be tough to succeed if you struggle to balance both booking your freight and driving.

However, there are potential cons to going down this path as an owner-operator. Not only are you taking more risks by finding your own freight, but you’ll also pay a “fee” for the company support. The company typically takes a percentage of the linehaul on each load. 

However, if you eventually want to haul freight under your own authority, this is a good segway. 

There are not a lot of trucking companies that operate this way, so be sure you carefully research companies to determine which companies will provide this hybrid owner-operator program to you. You’ll also need to have your truck fully financed through an independent party, not the company you’re going to work with. 


3. Haul Freight Under Your Own Authority 

When you're under your own authority as an owner-operator, you are entirely independent. You won’t have any support from a trucking company. 

Under your own authority, you’ll be running your own company, even if you’re the only driver. In fact, this is how many large trucking companies today got their start (including ATS). 

You can choose to broker your freight, find your own line of customers or bid on loads from digital load board apps. You won’t have a company backing you or helping you find freight. However, you have the opportunity to make as much money as you want; you’re limited only by yourself. 

While you’ll still need to pass a DOT inspection, you can do what you please with the truck. There are no limits on how old the truck is, you can do your own maintenance and you can go to whatever shop you prefer. You can choose to have a camera in your truck or you can choose to run without one. You won’t need to have a speed limiter. 

You’ll not only manage the booking of loads, but you’ll need to manage your day-to-day. That means a lot of paperwork and a lot of details you may not have thought of. There are a lot of boxes you must check off, and if you don’t, you can get yourself in trouble.  

Running under your own authority poses a lot of risks. It isn’t just your truck maintenance costs, insurance (physical damage, bobtail, occupational accident insurance) and fuel that you have to worry about. You’ll need to pay annual fees to maintain your authority and DOT number. 

You’ll need your own line of credit if you run into financial trouble (for instance, if you’re slammed with a huge maintenance repair). You’ll need quite the cash flow to cover expensive purchases, such as fuel. You’ll need some type of maintenance or escrow account. You’ll need to pay for everything from plates and permits to tolls. 

You also have a safety score to worry about. When you run under your own authority, you’re subjected to DOT audits and you’ll be assigned a safety score. One minor infraction can significantly hurt your safety score and cause you to lose customers. 

With great risk comes great reward. The sky is really the limit when you have your own authority. You may even decide to hire drivers to work alongside you. 


Apply Now

When considering which type of owner-operator to be, think about how much support you’d like. When you contract with a carrier, you’ll have tons of support. If you want a little more freedom but some support, you can haul freight in the open market. 

If you’d, however, like to run completely on your own and maybe even one day build your own fleet of drivers, secure your own authority. 

At ATS, you can work with us as an owner-operator by signing on with us to haul our freight.

If you’re interested in becoming an owner-operator with ATS, fill out an application today to speak with one of our driver consultants. 


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