Although the construction industry, like the nation's economy, has been in a painful slump, Dewell Gossett, owner of Bulk First LLC in Louisville, Kentucky, has managed to keep his dry bulk trucking operation in the game.

Bulk First transports cement and fly ash within a 250-mile radius of Louisville. About half of the carrier's customers are involved in the residential sector while the other half supplies the commercial sector. Bulk First hauls cement to ready-mix plants, cement storage and terminaling facilities, and construction sites. The carrier also provides and supplies on-site bulk storage pigs, typically for highway projects.

Gossett acquired Bulk First in 2008, but he isn't a newcomer to the dry bulk industry. As a matter of fact, he is a second generation member, his father having been a long-time employee of a ready-mix company. Gossett also was a long-time employee of a ready-mix company where he worked his way up to general manager. In 2003, the company established Bulk First in Louisville and named him to oversee the operation with eight trucks and 12 pneumatic trailers.

“I came to Louisville with the offer to buy into the company,” he says. “When I had the opportunity to acquire full interest, I decided to take it.”

Before ownership

Before Gossett became the company's owner, he successfully won a 2003 bid that led to a fruitful contract supplying cement for paving Interstate 264, a Louisville highway loop.

“We had heard about the project and decided to bid on it,” Gossett recalls, noting that it's not unusual to obtain leads from information garnered by his drivers or recommendations from current customers.

In 2004 another project got underway at Northern Kentucky Airport in Cincinnati, Ohio, where Bulk First again received a contract. By the time the Cincinnati project was completed, the carrier had hauled 2,000 loads for a total of 55,000 tons of cement.

The projects meant Bulk First was tasked with providing cement and fly ash for the ready-mix plants at the construction sites so work could continue 24/7. Cement was loaded at the Cemex USA terminal in Cincinnati and transported to the airport site while fly ash was supplied from local power plants in the area.

“That was our biggest job so far,” Gossett says.

Although the highway and airport jobs were significant in the history of Bulk First, Gossett has been persistent in marketing his trucking company's services and expanding his driver force and fleet to meet the demands.

Those two contracts, as well as some smaller ones, required expanding the driver force to 45 and the vehicle fleet to 65 pneumatic bulkers and 45 tractors. A terminal was established in Lexington, Kentucky, and dry bulk rigs today are stationed at cement plants in Mitchell, Indiana, and Lexington, Kentucky.

High priority

Keeping customers satisfied is a high priority at Bulk First. Gossett believes he has an advantage because he has been active in the industry for many years and understands its needs, particularly the demands for just-in-time service.

“That's one reason I decided to specify Qualcomm tracking systems on our tractors,” he says. “With Keystone software that interacts with Qualcomm, we are able to respond to those just-in-time requirements.”

Of course, the major responsibility for on-time service falls on the drivers who are taught its importance in their initial and ongoing training, overseen by Dennis Sears, Louisville terminal manager.

Driver applicants must be at least 23 years old and have two years truck driving experience with no violations on their records. Training covers company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, and defensive driving.

After drivers have completed classroom instruction in Louisville, they receive on-the-job training under the eye of veteran drivers in Louisville and at the Lexington terminal, depending on where the drivers will be based. Although bulkers are typically loaded by cement plant personnel, unloading is handled by drivers and requires an understanding of the procedures in what is typically a 45-minute task.

Safety is another priority at Bulk First, says Gossett. “It is an extremely important aspect of any company today,” he adds. “We emphasize that to all of our current drivers, as well as those who are applying for a job with us.”

To encourage safe driving, the carrier offers a bonus to drivers who meet certain standards.

Retaining drivers has been successful at Bulk First, partly because the job allows most drivers to be at home at the end of their schedule. The trucking company typically operates staggered start times from 2 am until 8 am six days per week, but drivers may be called on for unscheduled service.

Drivers are expected to focus on customer service. “Our drivers are the eyes and ears of our company,” Gossett says. “We rely on them to provide excellent customer service and to keep us informed of any issues that might arise so that we can solve them immediately.”

Another important factor in customer service is Reggie Outland, who handles dispatching from the Louisville location. He uses the dispatch software from Keystone to coordinate drivers and shippers. Fleet operations also are monitored by the Internet-based Qualcomm system.

Fleet equipment

The fleet consists of Kenworth, Volvo, Mack, and International tractors with Cummins ISM 370 engines set at 385-horsepower and Fuller 10-speed transmissions. The tractors all have air ride suspensions and Meritor 40,000-pound drive axles. Recent additions have been spec'd with Michelin X-One wide single tires for reduced weight and fuel usage. Gardner Denver blowers are mounted on the tractors.

Newest dry bulkers are from Heil Trailer International. They typically have 1,000-cubic-foot capacity. SureSeal provides SureFlo aerators. Running gear includes Hendrickson Intraax air suspensions, MeritorWabco antilock brakes, and Alcoa aluminum wheels.

A three-bay shop handles routine maintenance and repairs, and a service truck is on hand for road repairs. Tractors are sent out to dealers for major jobs. The Heil repair shop in Louisville maintains and repairs the dry bulkers.

With the fleet in place and well-maintained, Gossett feels relatively confident about the future. He recognizes that the hit to residential construction has hammered some of his customers, but 2009 contracts that involve highway construction and transportation to service local cement plants should offset what otherwise could have been a real blow to Bulk First. He says that the already-scheduled projects for 2009 should keep the hauling operation working steadily for the upcoming year.