IN THE last seven years, Ergon Trucking Inc, Jackson, Mississippi, has doubled its revenue and added as many drivers as a result of tank truck services that thrive on diversification. Today, the company chalks up 14 million miles annually to meet customer demands.
“We do a good job of anticipating customers' specific needs,” says Jimmy Clunan, vice-president and general manager, discussing the company's growth.
“One reason for our success is our ability to offer diversified services for many products. We pick up lube oil at refineries and take it to processors that use it in such products as paint, ink, and rubber. We handle crude oil, gathering it from wells in the field and taking it to refineries. We haul chemicals from plants to other chemical plants — and to other users such as paper mills. We pick up propane at pipelines for distributors. And we haul asphalt from refineries to construction sites.”
To keep the varied operation running smoothly, the carrier employs 105 company drivers and 78 owner-operators.
“The majority of those are over-the-road drivers,” Clunan says.
Drivers are coordinated from terminals set up in two divisions, northern and southern. In its northern division, terminals are in Newell, West Virginia; Magnolia, Ohio; Marietta, Ohio; Deerfield, Ohio; and Mercer, Pennsylvania. The southern division bases terminals in Vicksburg, Mississippi; Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; Sulphur, Louisiana; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Memphis, Tennessee — and the newest addition in Houston, Texas.
“We had been looking at Houston for about 10 years,” says Clunan. “We had a lot of business going there, and a customer based there, so two years ago we set up the terminal.”
The company's varied services require a varied vehicle fleet that includes 237 tank trailers and 152 tractors. In addition, Ergon uses 25 tank trucks in its crude oil operation.
The carrier operating philosophy is built on personal service, established at its inception in 1973 when it became a subsidiary of Ergon Inc, an energy services and products enterprise that also is based in Jackson.
“What separates our company from others is the way we respond to customers,” says Clunan. “We offer rates immediately. When the phone rings, a person answers — there's no voice mail. Customers get us immediately.”
Another service plus is the company's focus on security and safety. The safety program has garnered the National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) Grand Award, as well as similar honors from the American Trucking Associations and Mississippi Trucking Association. In 2002, Ergon captured the Superior Service Award in the lube oil division from ConocoPhillips.
Taking the lead in directing the safety efforts is David Purvis, who says the company strives to maintain an open and visible presence in the industry, and to promote driver competence and awareness.
“This is a potentially hazardous occupation,” says Purvis. “Maintaining safety awareness is made more important by the challenges associated with the varying climates and product volatility that are always a part of our operations.”
When the company formed its safety procedures it gathered input from drivers, terminal mangers, and others involved in the operation, says Purvis. Each company division is assigned two safety supervisors, who conduct driver training at the various terminals.
“With today's concerns for security, we've become even more diligent,” he says. “We've redoubled our security efforts since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC. In addition to training our drivers to be alert, we have Motorola cells phones in every truck for instant communication. Drivers call in to the dispatcher each time they load and unload.”
Drivers carry in-house developed photo identification cards, required by both the carrier and its customers. Terminals are fenced with locked gates, and guards standby when needed.
During training and retraining sessions, drivers learn about product hazards and regulations, study defensive driving, and are briefed on company policy and procedures, including security.
Aware of new regulations for hours of service (HOS) and Department of Transportation (DOT) driver background checks, he says Ergon is ahead of the curve. Fortunately, the way the routes are set up, the HOS rule will not adversely impact the schedules. As for the background checks, Ergon plans to apply for commercial driver license renewals as early as possible (probably six months in advance, depending on state regulations) in order to avoid bureaucratic delays.
Ergon requires driver applicants to be at least 21 years old and have two years of tank experience. Terminal managers interview applicants and make recommendations with the final decision made in Jackson by Purvis.
Drivers receive Ergon Driver of the Year awards, and are individually recognized internally for their efforts. Awards are based on no worker compensation claims, spills accidents, or out-of-service notices.
Clunan estimates that the company spends $85,000 to $100,000 annually on safety bonuses for drivers who qualify for the award. The company's driver turnover rate stands at 14 percent, a significant result of the driver award program, he adds.
“We think that is money well-spent,” he says. “A product spill alone could cost more than that.”
In addition to in-house awards, drivers compete in Roadeo contests in Ohio and Mississippi each year, often bringing home a trophy, Purvis says. The company's safety awards are copied and sent to each terminal for display.
All of the awards and training play a significant role in the company's reputation that it conveys to customers. But, the carrier has always worked hard to provide specialized services, Clunan says.
Asphalt customers require products to be delivered at high temperatures, some as high as 420 degrees Fahrenheit. Ergon uses insulated tank trailers that retain heat and maintain high temperatures from the loading facility to the point of delivery. Some trailers are heated.
Top concerns for lube customers are product integrity and payload. As part of its lube oil service, the carrier washes out and dries vehicles in order to handle products that are incompatible. For all of its cleaning requirements, the company has set up in-house wash racks in Sulphur, Vicksburg, Houston, and Newell.
When Ergon entered the West Virginia and Ohio crude oil market, a large portion of the operation was handled with 4,200-gallon bobtail trucks. Wanting to add a bigger load, and the area's terrain precluding the use of a tank trailer, the carrier decided to specify a truck designed with a capacity of 5,460 gallons.
Another example of the company's efforts at providing service was its conversion to an in-house designed computerized dispatch system for the northern crude oil terminals. Index cards and hand-written bills of lading were previously used to handle more than 40,000 loadings.
The vehicle fleet consists of Internationals, Macks, and Freightliners. Since 1996, Ergon has specified Cummins M11 370-horsepower or Cummins ISM 400-horsepower engines for tractors except those from Mack. Mack engines have 400-horsepower. The drive train on all trucks are ArvinMeritor products, which are also installed on the tank trailers. Drum hydraulic drive systems are mounted on the tractors.
Trailers are equipped with various components for liquid bulk products, depending on service, including Gerard and Fisher pressure-relief vents, Scully overfill and vapor protection, and Betts and Allegheny valves. For pumps, Ergon chooses Blackmer and Ranger.
Lube oil trailers typically have 7,500-gallon capacity and are supplied by Polar Tank Trailer. Ergon recently specified the Meritor Tire Inflation System (MTIS) by Pressure Systems International (PSI) for the lube oil trailers.
“The PSI system has worked out really good for us,” says Darrell Little, maintenance director. “We've doubled our tire life. We are going to put it on everything from now on.”
The 5,460-gallon bobtail chassis used for crude oil are from Freightliners and Volvo. They have Cummins 400-horsepower engines. Polar supplies the single-compartment tanks.
Brenner Tank supplies 7,000-gallon stainless steel chemical trailers. Asphalt trailers with 7,000-gallon capacity are from Etnyre & Co.
Propane trailers with 11,000-gallon capacity are supplied by Mississippi Tank. The propane trailers have the Smart Hose Technologies passive shutdown device.
Vehicle service calls for tractor oil changes at 20,000 miles for those used on over-the-road service while those used in local services receive the change at 15,000 miles. Trailers are serviced every 30 days.
“We follow all DOT requirements and use for guidance the NTTC cargo tank maintenance manual and the cargo tank hazardous materials regulations manual,” says Little. “We keep track of all maintenance and inspections with the Keller Maintenance Manager software.”
Vehicle maintenance and driver training, and the professionalism of the company's personnel, are a significant part of Ergon that puts it in a good position to continue a successful operation in the future, says Clunan.
He sees the tank trailer industry becoming more consolidated and individual companies becoming large with less personal service. “That means that our niche will continue to grow,” Clunan says, adding “Ergon Trucking will continuously strive to provide our customers safe, reliable service at a competitive price.”