Best of times
Oct 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Charles E Wilson
WYNNE Transport Service Inc is experiencing one of the best economies it has faced in decades, according to Donald F Swerczek, president and chief executive officer. The good times show no sign of ending anytime soon.
Even in the face of some serious market challenges, the Omaha, Nebraska, tank truck carrier expects to grow by at least 10% during 2005. Swerczek and the other managers at the fleet believe demand for bulk transport service should be just as strong in 2006.
“After 40 years in this business, I truly believe that we in the tank truck industry are in the best of times,” Swerczek says. “Even with all of the headaches, we have more control over our destinies right now. We have more flexibility in pricing, and we're getting many of the rate increases we need to build for the future.
“Customers continue to request more transportation service than we can provide. At our company, we're adding capacity where it is justified and where we can. However, we do not have any extra equipment or drivers at this point. Most customer loads are getting moved; just not always on their schedule.
“We plan to keep a tight rein on fleet size for the foreseeable future. We want to make sure the equipment we buy will have plenty to do.”
Wynne Transport's 140 tractors (plus 70 owner-operator and lease-operator units) and 350 trailers are kept busy serving a diverse customer base. General chemical and agricultural chemical loads account for about 58% of the business. Petroleum hauling is another 32%. The fleet also hauls asphalt (5% to 6%) and propane (3%).
General chemical loads include petroleum additives, acids and bleaches, surfactants, and water treatment products. On the agricultural side, the carrier hauls herbicides and some fertilizers.
Operations are conducted in the middle part of the United States from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. The fleet stays east of the Rocky Mountains. “We also try to keep off the East Coast,” Swerczek says.
A few loads go into Canada. Mexico is a different story, though. Through the efforts of David Cannon, a lease operator in Brownsville, Texas, Wynne Transport has seen steady growth in shipments from the US Midwest into Mexico. Wynne Transport interlines Mexico-bound loads with Transportes Sal-Ave.
With the exception of the international shipments, Wynne Transport operates primarily as a regional tank truck carrier. Petroleum hauling is concentrated in Nebraska, Iowa, and a small portion of Colorado. Chemical shipments include a lot of peddle runs, and the longest hauls are under 800 miles.
“On the gasoline side, trips don't exceed 120 miles, and drivers are home at the end of each shift,” says Henry Albrecht, Wynne Transport vice-president of operations. “Even though the longest hauls are no more than 800 miles on the chemical side, some of the drivers assigned to those loads remain out on the road for two to three weeks at a time. We want to get to where we can bring those drivers home each week, but we still have a lot of work to do on that.”
Fleet operations are directed by dispatchers at the Omaha headquarters and at locations in Geneva and Sidney, Nebraska. They manage drivers and vehicles dispersed between two terminals (Omaha and Geneva) and two satellite locations (Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Pasadena, Texas).
Making the fleet management task easier is TL 2000 software from TMW Systems. Coupled with satellite communication capabilities in company tractors, dispatchers have instant access to a majority of the Wynne Transport drivers.
“Many of our lease operators are using Nextel cell phones with two-way capabilities, so we also have good communications links with them,” Albrecht says. “We started installing Qualcomm satellite units in our company tractors 10 to 12 years ago in response to a customer request. We looked at cell phones first, but the satellite system had a better payback. Satellite communication helps boost productivity, speeds up delivery verification, and has a big safety plus. Wives of drivers actually called us to find out how soon the satellite units would be installed in their husbands' tractors.
“We've been using TMW's software for fleet management since 1998. TMW did quite a bit of modification to the software to handle shorthaul gasoline shipments.”
Without question, the sophisticated communication capabilities are playing an important role in keeping driver seats filled. That's important in the trucking industry today, where driver shortages have become the norm.
Swerczek stresses that the driver shortage is the biggest factor in meeting customer needs, and Wynne Transport is limited in the action it can take on that front. In addition, the remaining driver pool is aging at an alarming rate. A survey of the Wynne Transport driver force shows that just 30% of the company's drivers are below the age of 45. The overwhelming majority are 46 years old and above.
The situation is complicated by a growing number of truck drivers who are allowing their hazardous materials endorsements to expire. That is a serious development with long-term ramifications for the industry as a whole.
“We've had fair success finding drivers for Wynne Transport, but it's tough,” Swerczek says. “In recent months, quite a few driver applicants have told us they don't want to bother with the fingerprint-based background checks that are required for a hazmat endorsement. They say they would rather work for a fleet that hauls non-hazardous loads.”
Money tops the list of what it will take to fix the problem, according to Swerczek. Lifestyle issues, such as getting home more often, rank second.
Swerczek describes a recent informal salary study he did that highlights the driver pay problem. Using a pay scale from 1979, he did a comparison with today's wage levels. He found that driver pay today would have to be 50% higher to be on par with the buying power of the wages paid in 1979.
“It gives you a good idea why we can't get enough truck drivers today,” he says. “We need to be able to pay a premium wage for hazmat drivers. That would help make the tank truck industry an elite operation once again. We can't solve the problem overnight, but we can begin making improvements.
“At Wynne Transport, we raised driver pay earlier this year. Our guarantee now is $750 a week, up from $300. A driver can earn $60,000 a year with us if he's willing to work at it.”
Applicants are coming in the door, and those that meet the Wynne Transport requirements are being hired. Qualifications include 23 years old minimum, two years of over-the-road truck driving experience, and a commercial driver license with valid hazmat and tank endorsements.
“Applicants already need to have a hazmat endorsement because it takes so long to go through the background-check process,” says David Dailey, Wynne Transport safety director. “We have a fingerprint collection point in Omaha, but it still took one driver five weeks to get the results back.”
Initial training for a newly hired driver takes two to four days, depending on experience. Training is conducted at the Omaha headquarters and combines classroom instruction with videos. Newly hired drivers get plenty of opportunity to work with the satellite communication system and cargo tank hardware.
A computerized driving simulator from JJ Keller is being added to the training program to enhance and expand classroom instruction. “The system tracks driver activity and reaction,” Dailey says. “In addition to new driver orientations, we'll use it for ongoing and remedial training.”
New hires receive a thorough orientation on the tractors they will be driving. The carrier runs primarily Kenworth T800 conventionals and a handful of Peterbilt 378s. Tractors in chemical service run 110,000 to 120,000 miles a year, while those hauling petroleum typically average less than 100,000 miles. Chemical tractors are replaced at around 700,000 miles, and petroleum tractors are on a 500,000-mile trade cycle.
“We run a lot of late-model tractors, and we usually buy 25 to 30 vehicles at a time,” Swerczek says. “We've had great results from the PACCAR products, and they are our fleet standard.”
The newest tractors have 475-horsepower Cummins ISX engines, Eaton Fuller Lightning model 10-speed transmissions, and Dana drive tandems rated at 46,000 pounds capacity. “We're doing some engine testing for 2007,” says Marty Owens, Wynne Transport maintenance director.
Tractors are ordered with Muncie PTOs that have a low-weight aluminum housing. Specifications also include a Holland sliding fifthwheel with secondary lock for safety and Bridgestone 11R24.5 tires with aluminum disc wheels.
Forty of the newest tractors were outfitted with a ProHeat auxiliary power unit. “Fuel price motivated us to give it a try,” Owens says. “We had to cut engine idling. This gives us a cost-effective way to run the air-conditioner and provide electrical power when the driver is in the sleeper.”
All tractors carry spill kits that are assembled in-house. The kits consist of two tractor-frame-mounted plastic buckets, one of which contains absorbent pigs and pads and granular material to spread over a spill.
Chemicals are hauled in a variety of tanks, but most were built to MC307 or DOT407 code. Average capacity is 7,000 gallons. Most are double conical to ensure more complete unloading of product. “We want to minimize heels as much as possible,” Owens says.
Polar Trailer Inc has become the primary supplier of tank trailers for the fleet. Chemical trailers are specified with Betts stainless steel domelids and discharge outlets and Girard pressure- and vacuum-relief vents.
All of the chemical trailers are fitted with Blackmer pumps and compressors that are powered by a prop shaft connected to the tractor PTO. Agricultural chemical trailers have Liquid Controls and Micro Motion delivery meters.
On the petroleum side, the fleet includes a large number of MC306 and DOT406 transports. The four-compartment trailers have Tiona-Betts domelids, Emco Wheaton bottom-loading adapters, Civacon overfill protection, and Blackmer pumps.
While the average capacity is 9,200 gallons, Wynne Transport also runs four-axle, 10,000-gallon-plus petroleum trailers in Nebraska. Gross combination weight for the Nebraska trailers is 94,000 pounds.
Much of the fleet maintenance is handled in-house, and that includes cargo tank inspections and tests. Code shops are used for cargo tank repairs. Tractors are scheduled for preventive maintenance service at 10,000-mile intervals, and tank trailers are on a 5,000-mile program.
“We do 90% of the tank testing at our Omaha shop,” Owens says. “The rest goes to third-party shops across our operating area.”
The Omaha shop has a single-bay wash rack that handles a small amount of the chemical tank cleaning for the fleet. However, a wide range of commercial wash racks are used for most of the cleaning. Facilities include CBSL Transportation Services Inc in Pasadena, Texas, where Wynne Transport also leases office space. Herbicide trailers are washed out by vendors approved by the shippers, who want to control heel disposal.
Swerczek is confident that Wynne Transport will keep the wash racks busy throughout the company's operating area. After all, the fleet continues to roll with the best of times.
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