FIND OUT what the customer wants, and work hard to meet those expectations. Repeat the process every single day.
In a nutshell, that is Denny Hammonds' strategy for building a successful tank truck fleet operation. The approach has worked very well for nearly 25 years for his company — D F Hammonds Inc. During that quarter century the foodgrade hauler firmly established its position as a primary carrier at the Memphis, Tennessee, plant operated by a major corn sweetener processor.
“Even with the recession, we had a very good year in 2009, and 2010 has started well for us,” says Denny, founder and owner of D F Hammonds. “We credit our success over the past year to hard work and a constant determination to give all of our customers — large and small — the very best service.
“We listen to our customers, we tell them what we can do to meet their needs, and we perform to the best of our ability. We take responsibility for our performance, and we fix problems immediately. We have a small management team, and customers know that every phone call will be answered by a manager who can make a decision. Our drivers and tank cleaners are some of the best in the industry, and they get much of the credit for making this company successful.”
That personalized service brought steady growth for the regional tank truck carrier. Hammonds started as an owner-operator and bought his first tractor in 1979. The company was incorporated in 1986 and currently operates 28 tractors and 31 tank trailers.
Throughout D F Hammonds' 24-year history, the carrier was focused exclusively on liquid sweeteners. Going forward, the carrier is exploring opportunities to diversify into other foodgrade cargoes, including edible oils and dry bulk food products.
“We do a very good job of hauling sweeteners, and our business has continued to grow,” Denny says. “We have been working with one primary customer in Memphis for the entire time we've been in business.”
In fact, Denny cites the strong relationship with that primary customer for his decision to uproot the company from what had been its home base in Wynne, Arkansas, and move it about 50 miles to Memphis in 2007. “We wanted to get closer to our customer's plant,” Denny says. “At least 80% of the loads we haul go east or south from Memphis. We seldom had shipments that sent our trucks through Arkansas toward our terminal in Wynne.”
That became more of an issue as diesel prices started to climb. D F Hammonds tractor-trailer rigs faced a 100-mile roundtrip shuttling between the Wynne terminal and the customer plant in Memphis, and the diesel used for those deadhead movements was not covered by a fuel surcharge.
The solution was to move the terminal and fleet offices closer to the customer, and that is what the carrier did. D F Hammonds sold its facility in Wynne and bought a new property on Presidents Island on the southwest side of Memphis.
“A friend found an existing truck terminal that was being vacated by the truck fleet that owned it,” Denny says. “We bought it before it was even listed.”
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Developed in the 1960s, the 2.2-acre location served as a terminal for a number of truck fleets, including tank truck carriers. An existing building on the property contained offices and a small maintenance shop and what had been a one-bay chemical wash rack.
The facility got a thorough makeover before the D F Hammonds operation moved in. The offices were refurbished and repainted. Construction workers completely gutted the existing shop and wash bay and replaced them with a two-bay foodgrade wash rack.
An environmental company cleaned out sumps and drains to remove chemical residues. Workers replaced the existing piping and waterlines with stainless pipes and poured new concrete flooring. They installed new galvanized mezzanines and rewired the wash bays.
Most importantly, D F Hammonds installed a new Peacock high-pressure, low-volume wash unit. “We bought the largest Peacock unit that was available at the time,” Denny says. “It has a 2.5-million Btu capacity and is more than enough for our operation.”
Denny adds that the wash rack project was overseen by Ben Kelley, who was instrumental in designing the original tank wash system that is currently manufactured and marketed by The Peacock Company Inc.
“Ben Kelley is the only person I've ever dealt with for tank wash equipment,” he says. “I chose his Kelton wash unit for my first wash rack in Wynne after seeing an ad in Bulk Transporter.
“I wanted a single-pass wash system because it is less complicated and less expensive to operate than a recirculating vat unit. In addition, vat units offer more potential for contamination. As a foodgrade carrier, we are very concerned about ensuring food safety.”
The Peacock unit serves both bays at the D F Hammonds wash rack, but only one trailer at a time can be cleaned. Spinners from Spraying Systems Inc do a good job of removing product from the tanks.
The cleaning rack averages 18 tank washes a day and is operated by a four-man crew. Depending on shipment volumes, cleaning operations can be conducted virtually around the clock at D F Hammonds.
Workers follow a rigorous cleaning procedure. The process starts with verification of the security seals when a tank trailer arrives at the wash rack. Virtually the only time a D F Hammonds trailer is without security seals is when it is being cleaned.
The domelid is opened, and the gasket and vent are removed for cleaning. The rear cabinet is opened, the pump face is unbolted, and outlet fittings are removed. Product hoses are pulled out of the tubes and are connected to the wash system.
Most trailers can be cleaned in 35 to 45 minutes. However, some of the more viscous corn syrup blends can require up to two hours of cleaning, according to Mardell Davis, D F Hammonds director of operations.
Only hot water (at a minimum of 180 F) is used to clean sweeteners from the tank trailers. Clean hot water enters the tank trailer at about 200 F. Cleaning water circulates through the soaking tanks where trailer and pump hardware are cleaned. A chlorine sanitizer is used in the hardware cleaning process.
Once the cleaning is complete, the tank will be dried by a forced-air for about nine minutes. The blower includes a HEPA filter that helps protect against contamination. One drying is complete, the trailer is resealed. While the trailer is being dried, wash operations begin on another tank trailer in the adjacent bay.
The wash rack, which is dedicated to the D F Hammonds fleet, fully meets Cargill requirements for sweeteners. In addition, the D F Hammonds wash rack and the fleet have qualified for the Cargill top loading program, which means a trailer does not need recleaning between multiple loads for 72 hours as long as the same exact product is transported in each load and the loads go to the same customer.
“The top loading program has been good for us and our customers,” says H L “Hank” Hammonds, D F Hammonds co-owner and general manager. “It saves energy in tank cleaning — which is an energy-intensive operation — and improves our equipment utilization and efficiency.”
Sweetener hauling keeps the regional carrier busy. Trips average 300 to 350 miles, and tractor-trailer rigs typically haul four loads a week. Equipment assigned to local operations may haul four loads a day. The carrier preloads and pre-stages some equipment for greater efficiency.
Operations are directed by a lean management team consisting of the two Hammonds and Davis. They oversee 32 truck drivers and two mechanics responsible for routine vehicle maintenance, including oil changes and tire replacements.
“We don't have any excess personnel,” Denny says. “We even contract out safety oversight to US Safety. They manage our driver records, drug testing, and such. They conduct the twice-a-year safety meetings that are mandatory for all of our employees.”
Drivers are a focal point for the tank truck carrier, which was able to keep its driver team intact with no layoffs over the past year. When openings occur, the carrier hires experienced truck drivers, preferable with tank experience.
Newly hired drivers receive detailed training on product handling. “We tell drivers — and wash rack workers — that we do not and cannot cut corners or take chances with food safety,” Denny says. “We treat every shipment as something that our own families will consume.”
Communication is important, and D F Hammonds relies on cellular telephones to stay in touch with its drivers. Drivers buy the phones, and D F Hammonds reimburses them for all work-related calls. Phones must have hands-free capability to be used in the truck.
“We believe cell phones are better than cab-mounted communication systems, because a driver can carry the cell phone wherever he goes,” Denny says. “While we allow voice communication with a hands-free system in the truck, we prohibited texting even before the federal ban. I think texting should be against the law for anyone operating any moving vehicle.”
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The carrier assigns drivers to tractors specified for efficient and environmentally friendly operation. “We've been a (Environmental Protection Agency) SmartWay program partner since 2008,” Denny says. “It has made us more aware of emissions and fuel economy. These are factors that our shippers also are looking at.”
All 28 of the carrier's tractors are International ProStar conventionals, and D F Hammonds Navistar International products for many years. “I have a long-time relationship with Diamond International, our Memphis-area International dealer,” Denny says. “Diamond International was very instrumental in the success of our company.”
Most of the tractors have 51-inch sleepers, which are comfortable enough for one or two nights a week on the road, according to Denny. New tractors delivered at the beginning of 2010 are powered by International's new Maxxforce 13 engine with advanced exhaust gas recirculation emission control. The engine is rated at 435 horsepower and is paired with a 10-speed Fuller transmission.
“The new engine is working well for us, and it has a good weight-to-horsepower ratio,” Denny says. “We were buying Cummins engines for many years, but all of our new trucks going forward will have the Maxxforce engine.”
A number of steps were taken to reduce the weight of the new tractors. This includes specifying Fontaine stationary fifthwheels and selecting as many aluminum components as possible, including air tanks, wheel hubs, and brake drums. The carrier downsized fuel tank capacity to dual 100-gallon tanks.
Weight savings also comes from the tires. The fleet runs Bridgestone and Michelin widebase tires in the drive- and trailer-axle positions. The carrier also is testing a new Continental widebase tire.
On the trailer side, D F Hammonds has standardized on non-code foodgrade tanks from Walker Stainless Equipment Company. “With Walker's frame and cradle support, we're able to spec a 12-gauge tank, which means more payload,” Denny says.
Most of the tanks are straight round, but the fleet does run a few double-conical units. Most have a 5,200-gallon capacity. Tank components include a three-inch outlet, foodgrade Runo pressure-relief vents, and hydraulically powered Ibex product pumps.
“We have product pumps on most of our trailers, but that may change in the future,” Denny says. “Some of our customers now have their own pumps at delivery locations, and we have been able to remove pumps and hardware from some of our trailers. We believe this is a positive development. The pump system weighs about 500 pounds, and we gain that much additional payload with the change. There is also less potential for product contamination.”
Product handling equipment on the trailers includes foodgrade Goodyear hoses with a 150-psi rating. Product hoses have stainless steel fittings. Running gear includes the Hendrickson Intraax air suspension and aluminum wheel hubs, and brake drums.
As successful as the carrier has been with liquid sweeteners, the management team believes some good diversification opportunities lie ahead. The fleet and in-house tank cleaning capability give the carrier significant flexibility.
“We're looking at some dry bulk opportunities, and we see some expansion possibilities for edible oils and other foods,” Hank says. “We have a new website under development that we believe will help us expand our customer base.”