While following the crowd is the comfortable thing to do, it's not always the smartest move. In fact, sometimes it pays to zig whilst others zag. With that in mind, I'm curious to see how Swift Transportation (NASDAQ:SWFT) performs, since the leading truckload carrier has actually been cutting back on its operating fleet, despite strong shipping demand.

So far, so good, it would seem. Revenue was up 7% in the fourth quarter, though stripping out the fuel surcharge reduces that to just 1%. So the top-line performance was not exactly of the blow-out variety. But that's not the whole story, since operating income jumped more than 17% on substantially better profitability.

Looking at the quick-and-dirty truck profitability measure of operating ratio, we see that Swift improved on a year-over-year basis from 92.2% to 91.5%. Admittedly that doesn't look so impressive when compared to recent results from the smaller (in revenue terms) Knight Transportation (NYSE:KNX) and HeartlandExpress (NASDAQ:HTLD), but improvement is still improvement, and it led to a net result that was comfortably ahead of the average analyst estimate.

What's interesting to me is how the company is focusing on profitability and efficiency. Swift actually shrunk its operating fleet about 7% from the year-ago quarter and yet grew revenue -- the result of which is that you see metrics like revenue-per-tractor-per-week up over 7% and revenue-per-loaded-mile up 6% (after excluding a business that was sold) relative to last year. One other point of note is a recent agreement with Affiliated Computer Services (NYSE:ACS) that could save the company a lot of wasted fuel and hours by using an electronic device to bypass weigh stations and toll booths.

Like almost any other carrier, Swift has to contend with the risks of volatile fuel prices and driver recruitment/retention. And, like many haulers, Swift is also ultimately exposed to the health of retail spending -- fewer shoppers at Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) and Lowe's (NYSE:LOW) will ultimately filter back into their results.

Adding it all up, I don't really get excited about Swift one way or the other. I give the company credit for working to improve the bottom line, but the bottom line for me is that the return on capital and valuation just aren't tempting. Other carriers like Knight and OldDominion (NASDAQ:ODFL) may not be great bargains either, but at this point, I'd still rather ride with them.

Keep on trucking with more Foolishness:

Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).