Apex Bulk Commodities Inc prospers by honing transportation services

JUST ABOUT any given weekend, approximately 80,000 people in Southern California make the 250-mile drive to Las Vegas, Nevada. In the midst of the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the neon-blazing strip, it's not unusual to find cement bulkers from Apex Bulk Commodities Inc winding their way through the snarl.

“It's really a most awesome sight to see,” says Denny Wyatt, Apex vice-president, discussing the traffic phenomenon and Apex's presence.

The carrier has hauled most of the bulk cement for the burgeoning hotel construction projects in the sprawling city. Under most circumstances, the logistics would be challenging in a place where people never sleep, but Apex must accomplish the feat in the most hectic 12- to 14-hour period, starting Friday nights.

It's not unusual to supply 150 to 200 loads of ready mix that will eventually be mixed into 18,000 cubic yards of concrete for a single placement in a hotel foundation, Wyatt says.

The Las Vegas service is just one of several unusual customer requests for the company that is based in Adelanto, California. That's why in 1991, managers took a hard look at rail/truck transloading facilities as one way to enhance the ability to meet varying market demands.

“We're always trading intermediate business with the railroad,” says Wyatt. “And when they are having problems, we are ready to step in for the customers.”

Transloading site

Not far from Las Vegas, the company operates a transloading facility on a Union Pacific Railroad (UP) line with 10 railcar spots. The site is just one of several that is used to meet a variety of service demands. Apex rail-to-truck facilities vary widely from location to location.

Another transloading property with 28 railcar spots is leased from a third party in Cantil, California, with rail service from UP. Apex also operates a transload site near Napa, California, on the California Northern Shortline.

“We lease property from a third party in Mojave, California, also on the Union Pacific Railroad,” says Wyatt.

These transloading locations (Apex does not provide transloading for other carriers), as well as truck terminals in California and Nevada, augment the carrier's ability to serve customers between points in the United States and into Canada, plus dedicated intrastate services in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Idaho.

To handle the transfer process between railcars and bulkers, the transloading facilities are equipped with enclosed belt-type conveyers from A J Sackett & Co and Compton Enterprises. Some transloading locations have fixed blowers that transfer product, but at other sites Apex uses Gardner Denver tractor-mounted blowers.

In addition, Apex has portable transloading equipment that adds to the carrier's ability to conduct temporary transloading services at many locations across the western United States.

“We are continually challenged by our vision to set in place systems and standards that will offer ever-improving financial backbone for the company,” says Steve Gale, company president. “Apex recognizes the need for a close relationship between rail and truck in the bulk commodity industry.”

Apex divides the commodities it transports into five categories, beginning with food and edibles, including flour, rice, corn, salt, sugar, and brewer's malt. Liquids handled include animal feed molasses, calcium chloride, magnesium chloride, and cotton oil — also hauled in dry bulk trailers.

Chemicals include limestone, soda ash, borax, salt cake, fertilizers, plastics, industrial sands, manganese ore, and gypsum. Construction materials include cement, fly ash, and hydrated and quick lime. A variety of plastics are hauled by the carrier.

A general breakdown on percentage of commodity types hauled includes cement, 36%; limestone, 18%; quicklime, 8.5%; fly ash, 5.8%; salt, 5.1%; and gypsum, 4.5%. The remainder is a variety of miscellaneous products.

An example of one of the services Apex provides is transportation of salt to oilfield locations where steam is injected into formations. Salt softens the water for the boilers. At one site, Apex handles 15 loads per silo or about 15,000 cubic feet of product. These sites require deliveries every day throughout the year.

In other services, Apex hauls about 1,000 tons per day of liquid products, some of it magnesium chloride used for dust abatement on construction and mine sites.

Animal feed molasses provides an opportunity for Apex transloading at rail sites or sometimes from ships in California ports. The carrier then transports the product to dairies. To handle this operation, Apex uses Gardner Denver PTO-driven air pumps and Roper pumps mounted on the tractors.

Transporting a variety of products in states with varying load regulations allows Apex to use doubles and combination trains in addition to typical dry bulk trailers. In Nevada and Utah only, the carrier runs 11-axle tractor/trailer train units made up of a three-axle tractor, a three-axle semi trailer, and a five-axle pull trailer, which has two axles in the front and three axles in the back.

Newest Freightliners in the fleet have 400-horsepower Mercedes MBE4000 engines for hauling up to 80,000 gross weight.

“The big block needs for the LCVs (longer combination vehicles) are 475-horsepower Detroit Diesel series engines,” says Wyatt. “Transmissions are Eaton Fuller 10-speed AutoShift in the 80,000-pound gross weight trucks and Eaton 18-speed in the LCVs. The tractors have Freightliner's airride suspension and brakes are Meritor's Q-plus.”

Trailer identification

To ease vehicle management, Apex has numbered the trailers in series by type and product.

The 100 series indicates a doubles unit used for cement; 400 series, doubles for non-cement product; 500 series, semi-trailer for cement; 600 series, semi-trailer for non-cement; 700 series for all trailers for high cube products; 800 series for non-bulk miscellaneous products; and 900 series dedicated to either customer or product.

Tractors are similarly identified by numerals, indicating number of axles, model years, and sleepers/non-sleepers.

Apex also offers dry bulk portable storage units for additional or temporary storage of dry bulk products. A blower can be added to transfer bulk product from the storage unit to a main silo or production equipment. The standard size has a capacity of 4,100 cubic feet, but a 1,600-cubic-foot model is available.

In addition, Apex provides customers with inventory management, using silo measuring devices by determining weight or by sonic probe.

Latest technology

With the variety of vehicles and products hauled, not to mention both transloading and transportation services available, Apex managers knew they needed the latest technology to help the company run smoothly. They settled on an information system by Innovative Computing Corp operating on an IBM AS400 Model 820 computer program. The software is vertically integrated to include shop, purchasing, safety, employee recruiting, dispatch, billing and payroll, accounting, and customer service.

Apex equips all of its tractors with Qualcomm satellite communication systems. All trucks have full computerization for optimum efficiency. Shops have laptop computers to use with a Fleet Assist program that tracks preventive maintenance scheduling, repairs, and parts inventory.

“Information is critically important,” says Wyatt. “The programs make our diversified services possible. Identifying costs is essential, and the Innovative software has allowed us to coordinate the company units.”

Company history

All of these management elements have evolved from the time brothers Steve and Randy Gale bought Apex in the early 1980s. Today, Wyatt also is an owner. Together, the three men share responsibilities: Steve directs operations, Randy handles maintenance and assets, and Wyatt oversees sales and marketing.

The Gale brothers started the company with 50 trucks and gradually began to acquire small carriers. In 1995, California and Nevada deregulated their trucking industries, which led to many consolidations and acquisitions. In 1995 there were about 200 carriers hauling cement in the region. Today, there are about 10 to handle the 12 million tons produced annually just in California, Wyatt says.

Not all was smooth sailing for Apex, Wyatt adds. In 2000, construction took a hard hit, which reverberated to the carrier that had 70% of its business directly or indirectly in the industry.

“Because of the downturn, we not only suffered a reduction in business, we lost 50% of the trade-in value on our trucks overnight,” he says.

Nevertheless, the carrier recovered and today hauls about 150,000 loads of dry product a year. The fleet operates 608 pneumatic trailers, including 176 sets of doubles. There are 44 trailers used in units for the Nevada and Utah service. Apex has 212 semi-trailers.

Heil Trailer International and Beall Corp supply the newest trailers. Capacities range from 1,040 cubic feet to 3,400 cubic feet. Most of the trailers pulled as doubles are based in California and are 1,140 cubic feet. Semi-trailer units range from 1,040 cubic feet to a maximum of 2,000 cubic feet. Large train units range from 1,600 cubic feet to 3,400 cubic feet capacity.

The Beall California doubles meet the 80,000-pound maximum gross weight for that state. Apex specifies full fenders, Alcoa aluminum wheels, HI-Mount drawbar, Hutch two-leaf-two-stage suspension, LED lighting system, and 22.5 Low-Pro Michelin tires.

Driver duties

Handling the vehicles are 400 company drivers and another 30 owner-operators.

“Drivers are part of the customer team,” says Wyatt. “We believe that a good relationship with customers requires it. And, it gives drivers a feeling of being respected and needed.”

The carrier has a focused driver recruitment program. Recruiters actively seek drivers through newspaper advertising, booths at county fairs, and high school job fairs. The carrier supports local athletic teams and is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and the California Trucking Associations, which are other ways to keep the company's name in front of the public.

Apex hires about five percent of driver applicants. “We are analyzing what we need to do to increase our driver retention,” Wyatt says. “Once they have been with us for a while, they adapt and like the business.”

Drivers typically earn from $32,000 to $40,000 annually. Some veterans earn about $60,000. Wyatt points out that drivers who earn $50,000-plus means the company has about zero turnover.

At the same time, he estimates that driver costs to the company have increased by 30% in the last five or six years, 14% directly to the driver and the rest involved in costs for workman compensation, health insurance, disability insurance, government-required reporting, drug testing, and driver training.

Training requires specific instruction for loading and unloading bulk products, which includes drivers' responsibilities as well as overseeing the process when customers load the trailers. In addition to bulk product handling, the training program includes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, and defensive driving.

All new drivers begin the training process at the corporate headquarters and then continue at specific terminals where they will be based.

“We emphasize the importance of remembering to close the dump valve, to check silo capacities to avoid overfills, and to practice diligence while working on top of the tank, among many other things,” Wyatt says.

He adds that the company's various services mean that drivers must adapt to a variety of situations.

Apex hauled dust-abatement product from California to helicopter pads in Yellowstone National Park where it was used in fighting fires. Drivers were furnished meals, hotel, clothes — and received 23% of what the vehicle unit earned. “Some of our drivers were getting $2,000 per week on that project,” Wyatt says.

In another example, drivers hauled lithium from Silver Peak, Nevada, to a location in Canada because the depth of the snow had prevented railcars from reaching the site. “We had to add special additives to the tractor fuel because of the temperatures, and drivers couldn't turn off their engines,” he says.

Because the carrier's business is so diverse, the future appears bright as it responds to varying demands for both its transloading capabilities and its transportation services.

“Apex expects future growth to continue to come from acquisitions,” says Steve Gale. “We also see the importance in working with the railroads to expand the transload revenues. Often, growth opportunities come unexpectedly and require quick action to take advantage of what might be fleeting. We recognize the limited windows of opportunity and will always endeavor to seize them if we find it will be a financially sound move for us.”

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