AFTER spending five years in the US Army as a mechanic and another six years in a maintenance department at Exxon, James Theriot wanted to become independent and buy his own business.

One day in 1997, he received a telephone call from Bob Jackson, the owner of Slade's Industrial Service Inc in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The three-bay cargo tank repair shop was for sale.

“Most of my family said I'd better stay with Exxon,” Theriot recalls. But his wife, Karen, wasn't one of them.

So together the couple decided to take the plunge into business ownership.

The decision proved to be the right one. After buying the company, Theriot expanded the parts inventory and added truck and tractor repair services. To enlarge the shop's market and raise its profile, he joined some industry associations and began participating in trade shows.

Today, the shop bays echo with the sounds of repair work. “This year (2004) was a real good year for us,” he says. “We have a very loyal customer base.”

The shop handles an average of about 100 repair projects each month. Compressed gas trailers are among the only cargo tanks not worked on by Slade's mechanics.

Longtime employees

In addition to the loyal customer base, Theriot's long-time employees, David McDonald and his wife, Brandi (the former owner's daughter), have been with him since the purchase. David, as the shop foreman, oversees the work, shares training duties with Theriot, and is an ASME-certified welder. Brandi is in charge of administrative duties.

The shop's three bays are spacious enough to contain two tank trailers each. One bay is dedicated to tank welding while inspections and repairs are handled in the other bays.

There also is room for IBCs. The IBC service includes pick-up and delivery. All IBCs are taken next door to a QualaWash facility for cleaning before work on them begins.

Cargo tank services at the 10,000 square-foot-shop include external and internal visual inspections, leakage testing, vapor recovery equipment testing, thickness testing, bottom loading equipment conversion, overfill protection system service, major barrel repair, hydrostatic pressure testing, tank changeouts and degassing, and custom fabrication. The shop has a National Board “R” stamp. Four employees are certified to conduct inspections.

A machine shop nearby is used if a job requires shearing or material bending.

Tractors and tank truck services include brake and suspension repairs and scheduled preventive maintenance. Slade's also modifies new trailers for customers' specifications.

Customers typically come from the Louisiana, mid-Mississippi, and Texas areas, but occasionally from as far away as Canada, Theriot says.

The fenced and gated four-acre shop site has room for parking customer trailers.

Customer service

Theriot oversees sales and works directly with customers as part of his philosophy for personal customer service. He makes sure customers have his cell and home phone numbers so they can contact him at any time.

Standard operating hours for the shop are 7:30 am to 4 pm Monday-Friday, but emergency services are available at other times.

“Our goals are to be available for our customers, do an excellent job, and get the vehicles out in a timely manner,” says Theriot.

When a work order is generated, Brandi posts the information on wall boards in the parts area where mechanics log repair time and parts usage. She adds the information to a BusinessWorks accounting program from Best Software that also manages the $50,000 parts inventory.

The computer program also contains data that is used to keep customers apprised of upcoming required test dates and preventive maintenance schedules. Theriot also updates customers on new regulations.

Slade's is a warranty shop for Heil Trailer International (including J&L Tank and Trailmaster) and Hendrickson International, as well as for products from Scully Signal Co, Civacon, Dixon Bayco Ltd, and Hendrickson International. The shop also is a distributor for Hendrickson Intraax suspensions and products from Scully, Dixon Bayco, and EBW Inc.

Four mechanics work in the shop, in addition to McDonald. Theriot keeps his hand in whenever he is needed.

Theriot says that finding qualified mechanics is difficult. “It's hard to find someone who has tank trailer experience,” he says. That means that he and McDonald do a good deal of the training when a new hire comes on board.

However, taking part in the training is one of the reasons Theriot enjoys running the business. “It's not the same thing going on every day,” he says.

In addition to technical training, new hires are taught Department of Transportation regulations, tank entry safety, and fork lift handling. More recently they have been trained for retrofitting chemical tank trailers with vapor recovery systems.

Future expectations

As for the future, Theriot is optimistic because of an upswing in the US economy and subsequent improvement in the tank truck industry. Business has been up by about 25% in the past year, which prompted him to hire an additional mechanic.

Anticipation by the tank truck industry that a rule will eventually require wetline retrofitting is expected to boost the shop activity even more. Theriot expects to be handling jobs that will include installation of evacuation and purging systems, modification to discharge lines, inspections and testing of internal valves and seats, installation of accessories to purging system (air valves, solenoid and controls, LED displays, optical sensors), for automatic systems, and automatic systems that will require welding on the tank trailers.

Meanwhile, operating in the current market appears to bode success. Theriot gives credit to the mechanical training he received in the Army and the budgeting expertise he gained while working at Exxon.

“That was vital experience,” he says.

With experience in place, the company appears ready to meet the opportunities expected to come as the industry continues to grow.