Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A truck demos the driving range at the U.S. Xpress Tunnel Hill facility on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019 in Tunnel Hill, Ga.

As it continues to invest in its fast-growing digital Variant fleet, U.S. Xpress finished the third quarter of 2021 with lower operating income compared to the same quarter a year ago, and a net loss of 11 cents per share compared to earnings of 20 cents per share in the third quarter of 2020.

"The decisions and investments that we are making today are designed to position us as a leader in the future state of freight transportation," U.S. Xpress CEO Eric Fuller in an announcement of the results. "Between now and then, we will remain focused on investing in our future with an emphasis on growing Variant's tractor count, and consequently, we expect gradual margin expansion, though our quarterly results may fluctuate until we reach maturity."

Analysts had predicted the Chattanooga-based trucking company would report earnings of 14 cents per share for the third quarter of 2021.

The company's operating revenue grew 13.8% to $491.1 million in the third quarter of 2021 compared to $431.5 million in the same quarter last year. Operating income fell to $6.6 million from $15.8 million in the third quarter of 2020.

Variant ended the third quarter with 1,283 tractors, representing a growth of 149%, which contributed to the company's total tractor count growing sequentially for the first time since the second quarter of 2020.

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Staff photo by Doug Strickland / U.S. Xpress CEO Eric Fuller poses for a portrait at the company's headquarters on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"Our third-quarter results reflect further progress in our digital transformation, which is positioning us for long-term profitable growth against the backdrop of operating in an increasingly tight macro environment," Fuller said. "We remain on track to exit the year with 1,500 tractors in Variant, and we continue to target doubling our revenues over the next four years."

Variant's revenue grew to 17.5% of truckload revenue in the quarter compared to 6.7% of truckload revenue in the third quarter of 2020.

Variant continues to outperform the legacy over-the-road key metrics in turnover, utilization, preventable accidents per million miles, and average revenue per tractor per week, U.S. Xpress reported.

"The most important takeaway from our truckload segment is that our total tractor count has troughed and grew sequentially in the third quarter," Fuller said. "This is an important inflection point for the business as the growth of Variant has begun to outpace the attrition of our legacy [over-the-road] division.

"With Variant growing and our dedicated rate increases helping to attract drivers, we are positioned to close out the year with strong momentum heading into 2022."

— Compiled by staff writer Mary Fortune