May 1, 2005 12:00 PM
RHETT Butler Trucking Inc isn't just another pretty face, although you might think so by looking at a couple of the company's special tractors.
With colorful depictions reminiscent of the movie, Gone With the Wind, that decorate the vehicles, the tractors are eyecatchers with likenesses of the film's hero and heroine, Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara.
But in contrast to the old antebellum theme, one of the tractors boasts some of the newest transportation technology available today.
Rhett Butler Trucking is a viable bulk carrier providing just-in-time (JIT) transportation for both chemical and dry bulk products throughout the United States and into Canada.
The real-life Rhett Butler, president and chief executive officer of the River Falls, Alabama, trucking company has a lifelong knowledge of people's reaction to a familiar theme.
“People seldom forget my name,” Butler says, laughing. “A lot of times when I call, they hang up when I say who I am. But, when I get through to the person, and then call back later, they always remember me.”
In addition to personal recognition, Butler knew the value of company branding. As a result, he took advantage of the famous name his aunt chose for him when he was born — and extended it to company advertising.
Butler's son, Ashley, also received the name of one of the Gone With the Wind characters. He is active in the business, serving as vice-president. Butler's wife, Lynn, recently retired from longtime administrative participation. His other son, Dustin, was with the company until leaving to start a construction business.
Butler senior began his career in 1965 when he bought a truck to haul products for his father's agriculture supply business. In 1991, he acquired Dependable Tank Lines with 28 tractors and 40 tank trailers to haul resins and adhesives for a local chemical plant.
“It was a good step for us as it allowed us to diversify our operation,” Butler says.
In the two-decade interval between the first truck and the current 100-plus tractor fleet, Rhett Butler Trucking was involved in truckload services with vans and flat bed trailers. The decision to move to bulk services was primarily prompted by chemical companies approaching Butler, he says. Other opportunities to handle dry bulk products arose, so Butler bought a few pneumatic trailers and then acquired more when he purchased a dry bulk company in Mobile, Alabama.
Entering the dry bulk business proved difficult, Ashley says. Competition was intense for carriers handling products such as cement, lime, and fly ash, and it took special effort for the Butlers to market their services.
But unlike the movie heroine, Scarlett, they didn't wait for tomorrow to come along with a better opportunity. The carrier met the competition head-on and by 1998 had a terminal in Mobile, Alabama.
The carrier typically supplies cement plants with product picked up at intermodal facilities, including barge and rail.
When the chemical and dry bulk side of the business continued to grow, Butler settled on those segments while reducing the truckload service. Today's 90-plus chemical tank trailers and 30-plus dry bulkers operate out of terminals in River Falls, Mobile, Winfield, Louisiana, or Stanford, North Carolina.
North American operations
The company is licensed to operate in the United States and two Canadian provinces, but 95% of the business covers the eastern United States. Of the US business, about 85% of the chemical side is handled in local runs and almost all of the bulk trailers provide service near their terminals in Mobile and River Falls.
Butler describes the company as a specialized carrier, noting that 95% of the chemical shippers receive dedicated service.
“The number one thing is to keep the customers happy,” says Butler. “We guarantee a clean trailer and keep our schedules flexible so we can respond quickly. At times, we can have a trailer loading in the rack 15 minutes after we are contacted. It's a challenge, but it's part of our service.”
If driving distances to shippers require two drivers to meet the hours-of-service rules, the carrier puts on a team and keeps the wheels rolling.
“We keep equipment available so we can call on it when we need it,” Ashley points out. “That includes renting trailers and tractors if we have to. We have to be prepared to operate a just-in-time service.”
“The word, ‘no’ is not in our vocabulary,” Butler adds.
Filling the gap
When the driver schedule gets tight, it's not uncommon for Butler or one of several of his managers, as well as one of several of the company mechanics, to climb into the cab and fill the gap. They all hold commercial driver licenses and stay current with the company's service demands.
“Rhett often appears in my office and says, ‘We need a couple of drivers and it looks like it's going to be you and me,’” adds Lester Brooks, safety director, one of many managers who holds a CDL.
To coordinate the operation, all dispatching is handled at individual terminals through the company's networked McLeod LoadMaster system, an integrated dispatch and accounting fleet management package, says Lewis Davis, operations manager.
Dry bulk drivers also have company-provided Nextel instant communication cell phones/two-way radios.
Meeting the just-in-time demands requires a fleet that is up to the challenge. The carrier runs Brenner, Walker, and Krohnert chemical tank trailers, some of them spec'd with in-transit heat capability and all insulated. Although they are typically stainless steel, a few of the tanks are aluminum with oversized domelids required to handle methanol.
Chemical trailers are specified with 5,000- to 7,000-gallon capacity, have rear and side unloading capability, and can be toploaded or bottomloaded. About 50% of the tractors are equipped with Roper pumps.
“Our specifications give us the capability to meet just about any shipper loading requirements,” Ashley says.
On the dry bulk side, the carrier chooses trailers from Heil Trailer International and J&L Tank with capacities of 1,040-cubic feet to 1,600-cubic feet. Most are fitted with Gardner Denver or Drum blowers.
The Kenworths and Peterbilts are specified with Caterpillar 365- to 600-horsepower engines, the majority in the 475-horsepower range. Eaton supplies 10-speed UltraShift transmissions, as well as 10- and 18-speed manuals. The tractors have Eaton Spicer axles and MeritorWabco antilock brake systems. All are equipped with OmniTRACS satellite mobile communications units from Qualcomm.
One of the Kenworths is the pride of the fleet and is handled by Larry Weaver, an employee who not only steps in when drivers are needed, but sees to it that the company and its vehicles receive nationwide attention at truck shows and Gone With the Wind publicity events. Weaver's tractor is testing high-tech equipment for several vendors.
Alpine Electronics provides a navigation system for instant mapping and a navigation monitoring system that surveys areas around the truck and trailer. SafeTrac alerts the driver if he becomes drowsy. Also on the tractor is an Eaton Vorad collision warning system.
Although the company has embraced high-tech for many years (it was one of the first to sign on with Qualcomm), managers recognize the importance of the human factor.
“Drivers are our first line of defense,” says Butler. “Their importance in meeting our just-in-time service demands can't be over emphasized.”
Like many carriers today, he is in the process of organizing measures to see that all the veteran drivers meet new Federal Bureau of Investigation-based security background requirements when they renew their CDLs.
“We think it's going to cost about $100 per driver for the fingerprinting,” he says. “That's plus whatever it takes for us to get them to the license center. Right now, they will have to go to Birmingham and that's about 190 miles from here. But it doesn't make any difference. We will provide whatever is necessary.”
All prospective drivers must be at least 23 years old, have CDLs with tank and hazmat endorsements, and have at least two years of over-the-road experience. Some of the drivers are dedicated to certain tractor/trailer units, but all must have hazmat and tank endorsements even if they may be assigned to non-hazmat and non-tank trailers.
“That's just one more way we stay ready to meet our just-in-time bulk requirements,” says Ashley.
Training covers company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling.
The carrier uses films, tests, and other training programs provided by JJ Keller. With new hours-of-service rules in effect, the training emphasizes the use of log books.
“To encourage safety, we present an annual driver of the year award,” Brooks says.
Drivers qualify by having a no-accident record and no log book violations, but the decision also includes a final vote by all employees.
Drivers hand over vehicle performance reports to gate attendants when they return to a terminal after completing a run. The attendants confer with the drivers and then do a walk-around inspection. The reports are forwarded to the maintenance department where action is taken as necessary.
The eight-bay maintenance and repair facility at River Falls has areas dedicated to welding, exterior vehicle cleaning, a machine shop, and tire bay. A separate, adjacent building houses a two-bay body shop.
Tractors receive 10,000-, 20,000-, 75,000-, and 250,000-mile maintenance inspections, in addition to normal preventive maintenance. The work ranges from routine checks to full service. The shops handle all repairs, with the exception of tank trailer vessel welding.
Chemical tank trailers are washed out daily, usually at shipper locations, but also at the carrier's terminals, if necessary.
Having the capability to provide almost all of its maintenance requirements is just one more way the carrier emphasizes its ability to meet tight schedules. It also means that the company is poised for future growth.
“We've always been determined to control growth to avoid over-extending our capabilities,” Butler says. “But we see promise as the economy continues to improve. We're anticipating better rates and more business in hazmat transportation. We're geared up to handle that.”
All of that is to say that where shippers and services are concerned, the real-life Rhett Butler is different from the character in Gone With the Wind — frankly, this Rhett Butler DOES give a damn.
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