BASED in the major industrial city of Valencia, Grupo Empresarial Fernandez has become one of the largest cement distributors in the central region of Venezuela. The corporation and its subsidiaries are well known to the construction companies that operate in the region.
Three subsidiaries distribute cement - Referca CA, Ferpego CA, and Calferca CA. Transporte Fercon, a fourth business unit, hauls bulk and bagged cement to the three sister subsidiaries, as well as other customers, with a fleet that includes 20 dry bulk trailers.
"We've become a primary supplier of cement in the region because we can deliver the high levels of service that our customers need," says Carlos Fernandez, president of Grupo Empresarial Fernandez and president of the Consejo Nacional del Transporte (National Transport Council).
"When our customers are developing construction projects, we help them find solutions to problems. Most importantly, we make sure that they have the cement they need when they need it. Transportation always plays an important role."
Bulk Focus Bagged cement was the focus when Grupo Empresarial Fernandez was established in 1981 by Eduardo Fernandez, Carlos' father. The first bulk trailers were added a year later. Today, the transport unit handles only a small amount of bagged cement.
In a typical month, Transporte Fercon moves the equivalent of 350,000 bags of cement, with more than 70% of it going to the Grupo Empresarial Fernandez operations. Shipments originate at cement plants belonging to Vencemos and Cementos Vega. Vencemos is a Cemex subsidiary, and La Vega is part of the LaFarge group.
Transporte Fercon hauls general construction cement out of plants in Maracaibo, Charallave, Perdigalete, Barquisimeto, and Ocumare. Most trips are under 300 kilometers (186 miles), with the longest hauls in the 600-kilometer (370-mile) range.
Drivers are paid by the trip, and fleet managers maintain a table of rates for each tractor. Drivers work Monday through Friday.
Driver Selection Transporte Fercon is very selective in the drivers it hires. That can be a challenging task, according to Fernando Fernandez, director of trucking operations at Grupo Empresarial Fernandez.
Despite high unemployment in Venezuela, the pool of outstanding experienced truck drivers is relatively small. "These are the people we want," Fernando Fernandez says. "It's not easy to find these people. There are a lot of people who can drive a truck but just a few who are truly outstanding. We look for motivated drivers who show an ability and willingness to handle the workload, avoid accidents, and take care of the equipment."
His brother, Carlos Fernandez, adds that the Consejo Nacional del Transporte is trying to make it easier to find good truck drivers. The association is building a database on qualified and disqualified truck drivers. Association members will be able to check the database when interviewing driver candidates.
To be considered at Transporte Fercon, a driver applicant must have at least five years of truck driving experience and must be between 30 and about 55 years old. "Younger candidates don't have enough driving experience," Fernando Fernandez says. "In addition, they are too likely to take risks."
Along with providing three verifiable job references, applicants must be able to show that they have no criminal record. Transporte Fercon managers check with police and review each driver candidate's identity documents.
Drug tests are not required under Venezuelan law, and Transporte Fercon has no testing program. Supervisors do monitor driver behavior, and they conduct surprise inspections on the job.
Well Maintained Vehicles Currently, 19 drivers work for the trucking company. The vehicles they operate are well maintained, and the company is in the process of upgrading both the tractors and the trailers. Additionally, the company has plans to expand the fleet by three to four tractors.
The preferred tractor has been the GMC Brigadier, which is assembled in Colombia. They are powered by Cummins engines, and the horsepower ranges from 350 to 500. Fifteen-speed Fuller transmissions are the fleet standard. The daycab tractors are built for rugged use and have 44,000-lb-capacity spring suspensions with tandem-drive axles.
"We've had good success with the Brigadiers, but our next purchase will be for 12 Mack CHs," Fernando Fernandez says. "They will have 350-hp Mack engines and 10-speed Mack transmissions."
Newer tractors have air-ride seats and air-conditioning for driver comfort. Michelin and Bridgestone supply the steel-belted radial tires, which Transporte Fercon still runs with inner tubes. "We feel we need the extra tire protection because our rigs operate around construction sites," Fernando Fernandez says.
Product Blowers Transporte Fercon uses a couple of makes of blowers for offloading cement, and they differ radically from each other in design. The truck fleet recently began a project of switching to Drum E490 blowers. These are PTO-driven and are being mounted on new tractors. The Drum blowers are replacing diesel-motor-powered Batico compressors that are on the dry bulk trailers.
"We have four of the Drum blowers now, and they provide a number of advantages, including lower maintenance and less weight," Fernando Fernandez says. "The Batico blowers weigh almost a (metric) tonne.
"We spend approximately $3,000 a year to keep the Batico blowers running. Belts are a problem, and diesel motor vibration contributes to oil leaks in the blowers that poses a risk of contamination in the air system."
A big benefit with the Drum blowers is faster unloading times. With the Batico blower, it takes 30 to 45 minutes to unload a trailer. The Drum blowers cut unloading time by 10 to 15 minutes.
At this time, all of the dry bulk trailers in the fleet are of the three-pot design. They are constructed of carbon steel by local manufacturers and have a 24-cubic-meter (847-cu-ft) capacity. Maximum payload is 34 tonnes (74,956 pounds).
"Our goal is to add lighter dry bulk trailers of a more modern design in the future," Fernando Fernandez says. "How fast we do that depends on the economy. We are hopeful that we will see an economic rebound in 2001."