Many of the characteristics that put Pettis Norman in the Super Bowl as a Dallas Cowboys tight end in the 1970s have enabled him to compete successfully in the tank truck industry. Pressure from business concerns can sometimes seem like facing off against a Pittsburgh Steelers tackle.
Coordinating a fleet of vehicles is similar to a broken field run through the opponent's defense. On a more serious note, many human resources managers agree that participation in team sports does much to prepare people for success in the workplace.
"I know that in business, as in life, you must persevere until you get a breakthrough," Norman says, brushing off the sports career that included the Cowboys' first Super Bowl appearance and ended with his retirement in 1974.
He prefers to discuss his liquefied natural gas (LNG) and petroleum distribution company, PNI Transportation Inc, headquartered in Dallas, Texas. He also owns 10 Best Value convenience stores, and markets batteries and other automotive products. All fall under the corporate umbrella of PNIndustries.
Customers of the transportation company include trucking fleet operations, municipalities, school districts, corporations, transit authorities, and large and small businesses. Taking active roles in the company are Norman's wife, Ivette, in charge of marketing; and two daughters, Shandra and Sedonna, both office administrators.
"Since moving from the football field to the field of business, I've discovered something more gratifying than a Super Bowl ring," Norman says. "That's winning the customer's confidence."
In 1990, almost 20 years after Norman retired from the Cowboys, he formed a wholesale fuel company and used a common carrier to transport the product. However, the arrangement suffered from logistics problems that the common carrier was unable to solve.
"I decided I had to either please the customers or get out of this business," Norman recalls about his decision to start up a fleet. "I had a five-year plan on the drawing board to form a transportation division, but I could see that I had to adjust the timetable."
Norman was no stranger to company operations. From the time he left the Cowboys until 1990, he had owned an apartment construction and management company and three Burger King franchises. He also found time to be in the banking business. After selling the restaurants in 1986, he spent four years researching other opportunities, eventually settling in 1990 on fuel distribution.
By May 1994, Norman hired Mel Ottinger, an experienced operations manager. Three months later, the first PNI Transportation Inc tractor and tank trailer were on the road with Russell Thrasher, an experienced driver recruited from another tank carrier, at the wheel. By February 1995, five trucks were in use. Today, the company fleet totals 16 tractors and 14 tank trailers. Some of the vehicles are leased and others are owned. Ottinger serves as director of transportation.
"Customer growth is more word-of-mouth than anything we've done in recruiting or marketing," says Norman. "I have some pretty simple principles - provide good service, don't spend more than you take in, and be honest."
Reputation and image play big roles in the company's philosophy, says Norman. "I want to elevate the service level. I thought my niche was to get in and be the best." Norman painted the tractors and trailers silver with blue and white stripes reminiscent of the Cowboys' colors. The logo, a large PNI, sits in the middle of a large gray, blue, and white star.
"We get compliments all the time on our trucks from customers and people just driving down the street," says Ottinger. And, he might have added, attention from the people riding Dallas city buses. One of the most recent developments is a contract with Lone Star Energy Company, Dallas, to deliver liquefied natural gas to the City of Dallas for use in its DART buses. PNI Transportation was already hauling diesel for DART when the new opportunity arose this year.
The company supplies liquefied natural gas for 250 new buses that began running in May in a move by Dallas to operate vehicles that are more environmentally friendly. "I think the future will demand that alternative fuels be available. We want to be on the cutting edge of where this country is going," says Norman.
PNI Transportation uses Process Engineering MC338 trailers to transport the gas from Chocolate Bayou, near Texas City, Texas, to Dallas for Lone Star Energy Company. PNI leases the trailers from a Lowell, Massachusetts, common carrier, Transgas Inc. "It's a relationship that has gone so smoothly," says Victor Baur of Transgas Inc. "We knew PNI by reputation. It is very unusual for us to provide trailers to another carrier, but we felt confident in participating in this long-term arrangement."
The heavily insulated cryogenic tank trailers have a 13,000-gallon water capacity and are designed to haul LNG in liquefied state at a temperature of -260 degrees F, says Baur. Internal vessels are made of aluminum with a 70-pound working pressure. The outer jackets are constructed of carbon steel. ACD Inc pumps are powered by electric motors mounted on the trailer.
The MC338 trailers are pulled by Freightliner tractors with factory-converted Detroit Diesel 60 Series engines that run on LNG. The inline, six-cylinder 370-horsepower, 12.7-liter engines have conversion equipment from Minnesota Valley Engineering. The gas is routed through a vaporizer, which converts the gas and then feeds it into the engine.
Although delivering liquefied natural gas is one of the company's newest projects, the backbone of the company is in bulk petroleum products distributed throughout North Central Texas, into East Texas, and as far south as San Antonio. Deliveries also are made to Norman's convenience stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Refinery deliveries are conducted for shippers to other customers, from refineries to refineries, and for other jobbers.
PNI Transportation terminals are located in Dallas, Houston, and Tyler.
The company operates DOT406 aluminum tank trailers from Fruehauf, Heil, and Custom Trailer. Typical tank capacity is 9,200 gallons divided into five compartments. Some of the tank trailers are on full-maintenance leases from PacLease, says Bruce Holmes, PacLease Dallas lease sales manager. PacLease also provides parking at its Dallas facility where PNI Transportation drivers pick up and return the vehicles.
Trailers are equipped with Scully overfill systems, Betts venting systems and lights, Liquid Control meters, EBW vapor return systems, Truck-Lite brake lamps, Scully product level sensor systems, LBT Inc Valves, Knappco manhole covers, and Emco Wheaton discharge valves. They come with Alcoa aluminum wheels to reduce weight.
PNI Transportation runs Peterbilts, Freightliners, and a Kenworth for petroleum distribution.
A 1999 Peterbilt has been ordered and will be leased from Ryder in Dallas, says Duane Pisciotta, Ryder business division manager. The Peterbilt, to be maintained by Ryder in the full-service lease, is powered by a 335-370 horsepower Caterpillar engine. It is equipped with a 10-speed Fuller transmission and Rockwell front axle. The drive tandem has a 3.73 ratio. Antilock brakes are from Meritor WABCO.
The Peterbilts, leased through PacLease Dallas, are designed for the bulk industry with weight-saving components, including Alcoa aluminum wheels and a single 90-gallon fuel tank. Tare weight is 13,437 pounds.
"We sat down and calculated the weight of every item on the truck," says Norman. "We have some of the lightest spec'd trucks on the highway. We can carry more product and, as a result, that means more productivity for our fleet."
The Peterbilts are equipped with a multi-torque, Cummins M-11 engine rated for 330/370 horsepower. They have Fuller 10-speed transmissions, 12,000-pound Eaton steer axles, and 40,000-pound Eaton drive tandems with a 3.70 ratio.
The full-maintenance PacLease program contributes to Norman's yardstick of customer service and eliminates the need of a company shop. "Customers don't understand when we say we can't deliver fuel because we have a breakdown," he says. "They might sympathize, but they won't understand. That's why we want trucks that we can rely on."
Of equal importance with quality equipment are the loyal, uniformed drivers, says Ottinger, who conducts all training. "Many of our drivers have been with us since we started," he says. "All drivers are recertified every two years."
Sixteen drivers are employed by the company. New hires undergo classroom instruction, including training for use of computerized loading rack equipment. A quarterly safety bonus of $750 is awarded to drivers who avoid spills and other accidents. "We think this encourages drivers to keep reaching for excellent performance," Ottinger says.
In addition, Ottinger keeps a close eye on drivers who have minor incidents that may indicate a need for further training to prevent serious accidents. "Our day-to-day operations revolve around the prevention of accidents on the road, as well as safe and accurate product delivery," he says.
Three dispatchers coordinate deliveries. Drivers carry cell phones and pagers. Orders are received in the Dallas office by telephone and fax and relayed to drivers. "We offer 24-hour service and electronic data invoicing," says Norman.
Other electronic programs are under consideration, including computerized mapping systems. "I just see a tremendous benefit from this technology," he says. As for projections down the road, Norman says he plans to expand the fleet to meet market demands, particularly in the North Texas area and San Antonio. Taking into consideration the growth of the company within the past four years and the business acumen of its owner, the plans for the future seem to be within his grasp - something like catching a touchdown pass in the final seconds of a playoff game.