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This is the twenty-fifth in a series of informative monthly articles for North Carolina businesses from PNC in collaboration with BUSINESS NORTH CAROLINA magazine.
PNC leaders reflect on the trucking industry’s contributions to the N.C. economy and the business opportunities and challenges unique to this regionally significant sector.
Few industries drive North Carolina’s economy — both literally and figuratively — as profoundly as trucking. According to the North Carolina Trucking Association, the state is home to more than 44,000 trucking companies, with the sector accounting for nearly 240,000 — or 1 in 15 — jobs. And few regions nationwide exemplify the vital infrastructure and nexus of trucking, logistics and manufacturing as deeply as the Triad, with its access to four interstate highways and a rich network of strategically located distribution centers and hub facilities.
Driving the trucking industry forward in the Triad, which boasts one of the largest concentrations of trucking firms on the East Coast, and beyond is an entire fleet of partners, including financial institutions that form part of the axle of this essential sector.
For Donna Perkins, who leads PNC Bank’s Commercial Banking business for the Western Carolinas market and has served as a trusted advisor to several local trucking companies during the course of her nearly 30-year career, being an effective banker in this space is about much more than fulfilling the obvious function of equipment lending. It’s about financing growth opportunities, helping owner-operators plan for the future of their companies, understanding the unique challenges facing the industry and offering solutions to help deliver on these challenges, including employee recruitment and retention – all against the backdrop of accelerated innovation and technology adoption within the industry.
“The trucking industry is evolving right in front of us,” says Perkins, a longtime member of the North Carolina Trucking Association and the Women In Trucking Association. “From advanced technologies that are making trucking more efficient, safe and environmentally sustainable, to the futuristic prospect of driverless vehicles, there’s no question this industry is on a course of significant change.”
The implementation of new and emerging technology and operations capabilities comes at a cost, of course. To that end, Perkins and her team collaborate with PNC Equipment Finance colleagues to structure loans and leases that can help companies stay on the cutting edge of technology while controlling infrastructure costs, leveraging working capital, preserving cash flow and effectively managing equipment obsolescence.
The imperative to invest in business-critical assets and equipment is playing out as the industry confronts the reality of an aging workforce — and the daunting projection that the sector will need to hire nearly 1 million drivers nationwide by 2030 in order to meet the pace of industry growth and replace drivers as they retire or exit the industry, according to data from the American Trucking Associations.
North Carolina’s trucking companies are not insulated from the industry’s worker shortage, a challenge that often dominates discussions between Perkins’ team and their clients. “There’s no doubt that hiring currently is the No. 1 challenge for many owners and operators of trucking companies,” says Chad Weatherford, a Greensboro-based Commercial Banking relationship manager on Perkins’ team. It’s a predicament that impacts more than the bottom line. “Paying off the debt on a truck that is sitting idle because there is nobody to drive it is a major source of frustration for these companies,” he says. “As an advisor, we want to understand and help address the workforce challenge, and we work closely with companies to help deliver competitive employee benefits that can ultimately help them recruit and retain workers.”
To empower trucking companies – and employers in a wide range of industries – to deliver these benefits, Weatherford and his colleagues offer the PNC Organizational Financial Wellness program, which allows businesses to provide enhanced employee benefits, a measure that gives credence to a 2022 American Transportation Research Institute survey’s finding that expanded benefits represent the second-most important retention practice among younger drivers — those aged 18-25 — for small fleets.1
To implement this program, PNC Organizational Financial Wellness consultants collaborate closely with companies’ human resources decision-makers and benefits managers to design custom programs that meet employees’ financial wellness needs, such as Health Savings Accounts, online financial education, retirement plan services and personalized banking solutions. Additionally, PNC continues to innovate new payment options that companies can offer workers, including 1099 contractors and employees with the desire to access earned pay prior to payday.
The age dynamics, together with other external factors, also are driving consolidation within the industry — a trend Perkins and Weatherford have observed with increasing frequency following the onset of the pandemic, which amplified the industry’s vital role and value proposition in commerce and brought along a host of challenges and opportunities.
“When we reflect on the past 20+ years, there have been three major inflection points that have impacted the trucking industry in a significant way: 9/11, the Great Recession and the pandemic,” says Perkins. “That is more than enough for any owner-operator to endure. Add to that the intense competition and business opportunities in this space, and more than a few have made the strategic decision to sell or pass down their business.”
As the trucking industry continues to evolve, Perkins and Weatherford are optimistic about the substantial role it will continue to play in driving the economy in the Carolinas — and in PNC’s ability to meet the wide-ranging needs inherent in this space, from structuring a company’s first loan to engaging in business succession planning discussions. Says Perkins, “Trucking is here to stay, and PNC will continue to support this industry with the consistent counsel that has helped local companies grow and thrive amidst economic environments of all types.”
1. Alex Leslie and Danielle Crownover, Integrating Younger Adults into Trucking Careers, American Transportation Research Institute (July 2022).
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