FORT SMITH — USA Truck, the Van Buren-based trucking company, reported its eighth consecutive quarter of improvement Monday, and its most profitable since 2006.

FORT SMITH — USA Truck, the Van Buren-based trucking company, reported its eighth consecutive quarter of improvement Monday, and its most profitable since 2006.


Highlights of the third-quarter 2014 report included significant debt reduction and an earnings per share of 26 cents. This was a 32-cent improvement over the prior year period, USA Truck President and CEO John Simone said in the third-quarter report conference call.


The company had an operating income of $5.3 million compared to an operating loss of $200,000 the same period last year, and an increase in total base revenue of more than 10 percent. Higher load volumes and improved productivity led to the 94 percent improvement in operating income, Simone said.


USA Truck reduced its debt by $11 million this quarter and reached a "key milestone in its turnaround plan," Simone added, by bringing its operating ratio under the 100 mark, a 370-basis-point improvement.


"This is a big accomplishment, and we intend to keep up the trend, although higher employee health care costs have been hurting us in this effort," Simone said.


Health-care costs have increased more than $2 million, he said.


Updating the 2,000 or so trucks has been an ongoing project and the company debt had increased to $125 million earlier this year. With about $15 million down for the year and $26.5 million in the past 12 months, the company has more than $30 million in borrowing availability.


Accounting for a third of USA Truck’s consolidated revenue at about $40 million was the company’s asset-light Strategic Capacity Solutions (SCS).


SCS’ base revenue rose 24.2 percent to $39.9 million while operating expenses net of fuel surcharge increased 17.7 percent. This reflected ongoing "productivity gains" that helped SCS’ operating ratio improve by 480-basis points.


"Our SCS business was the strongest contributor to 3Q’s positive results even as our truckload business continued to experience improvement and turned profitable this quarter," Simone stated in a news release. "We believe the overall freight market’s tight capacity underscores the importance of this strategic aspect of our company’s integrated business model."


Total base revenue for USA Truck increased 10.6 percent to $125.9 million for the recent third quarter compared to $113.9 million in 2013. Trucking revenue increased 3.3 percent to $108.3 million, while SCS operating revenue rose 22.7 percent to $45.3 million.


Driver recruitment and retention has been a "top priority," the CEO added, with salary increases and signing bonuses. Simone said during a question-and-answer session Monday after the report that the increases were 1 cent per mile. Emphasis has been given to owner-operators, he added.


The company reduced its unseated driver percentage, year-over-year, from 6.2 to 5.2 percent in the third quarter.


Fuel-efficiency upgrades to trucks have been in the works, but has led to an increase in miles without loads as trucks are retrofitted. However, USA Truck’s fleet fuel efficiency initiatives produced a 10.5 percent improvement in miles-per-gallon, or $3.2 million, while offsetting higher driver-related costs. Simone said the company believes these efforts, as well as their strategic and operational initiatives, will continue to drive improvement in the truckload business.


USA Truck Chairman Robert A. Peiser said the board is pleased that the fundamentals of the business have remained robust and "the USAK team is continuing to execute well on the company’s operations strategy."


"Our goal is to end the year on a strong note, deliver positive consolidated operating income and positive EPS for 2014, and position USA Truck for continuing operating improvements next year," Peiser said.