Intermodal diversification

IN 1998, K-Limited Carrier Ltd, Toledo, Ohio, purchased 22 drop-frame chassis for hauling ISO tank containers as a diversification in the company's transportation operation.

Today, the carrier is a member of the UIIA (Uniform Intermodal Interchange & Facilities Access Agreement), a standard industry contract between intermodal trucking companies and water and rail carriers, and continues to develop the intermodal side of the business.

“Tank containers are another specialization in the transportation field and one that we felt fit our operation,” says Kim Kaplan, president and chief operations officer. “The overseas shipping history begins with the lifting of a 24,000-liter tank container from any transloading facility, and it ends at a final destination by utilizing our lightweight, drop-frame chassis.”

The tank container segment was prompted by opportunities that began in Detroit, Michigan, with Stolt-Nielsen and Lubrizol Corp. Based on the enhanced market and the need for intermodal transportation in this area, K-Limited opened a terminal in Detroit working with several depot and railhead locations.

The tank container drayage side of the business is growing but remains a smaller part of the operation, compared with the company's main focus on chemical hauling in tank trailers. “We see ourselves as maintaining high-quality service to a niche marketplace,” says Dean Kaplan, vice-president and chief executive officer.

Company history

The company was started in 1997 by the Kaplans, a husband-and-wife team with Kim as the majority owner. Today's annual revenue of $12 million places the company in the top ranks of the nation's women-owned businesses, Dean says.

“We were surprised at how quickly the company took off,” Kim says. “We started with one leased tank trailer, one tractor, and one driver. Within the first month we were handling about 80 loads, and today we are up to about 17,000 loads with 54 company drivers and 15 owner-operators. However, it took us about three to four years to feel that we were succeeding.”

A Midwest regional carrier, K-Limited transports chemicals and lubricants, focusing on a region that includes Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the carrier operates a dedicated fleet for Ashland Chemical Inc. Drivers are based in the area, and a drop yard for vehicles is provided at Brite Clean's wash rack and repair facility in nearby Bensalem. The carrier also offers service in Ontario, Canada, and has qualified for the Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program that allows expedited border crossing to United States/Canada and US/Mexico partnering importers with qualifying commercial shipments.

In 2001, demand for chemical transportation was increasing in the Chicago area, so the Kaplans made the decision to open the third terminal there. “Our base shippers were looking for assistance to handle their products to plants as they had added to their storage capacity,” says Dean.

In addition, K-Limited is a single-source carrier for Sunoco Inc in the Toledo/Chicago/Detroit area. The carrier also provides dedicated services to Shell Oil Products from the River Rouge, Michigan, plant and Jones Hamilton Co in Walbridge, Ohio.

When the company was formed, it was organized as an affiliate with Fleet Transport Inc. In late 1998, Manfredi Motor Transit Co (now Distribution Technologies Inc) partnered with K-Limited in a subsidiary relationship. But in 2004, K-Limited acquired all its own stock and became an independent company, says Dean.

Driver training

From the very outset, driver recruitment and training ranked high on the carrier's priority list. Prospective drivers must be at least 23 years old and have a commercial driver license (CDL). The carrier will work with drivers in obtaining tank and hazardous materials endorsements, but prefers the endorsements be in effect at the time of application.

The carrier offers an incentive for driver referrals that can add up to as much as $2,000. Company drivers earn the bonus in increments, receiving the entire amount if the new hire stays with the company at least a year. Veteran drivers also participate in a mentoring program for the new hires.

John Spurling, vice-president and general manager, oversees the safety department, including driver training, and all operations. Nedal Awanda-Krinas recently was hired as the new safety coordinator. Training includes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazmat handling. After finishing classroom sessions and on-road training, new hires that do not have prior experience in hauling hazardous materials spend about a year hauling non-hazmat products, such as lubricants, before they begin handling hazardous materials.

“We estimate we spend about $3,000 to $5,000 getting each new driver hired, trained, and on the road,” says Dean.

All drivers are required to attend two of four safety meetings conducted annually. Discussions cover maintenance, operations, safety, dispatch, and vehicle condition.

The hours-of-service rules with a 34-hour restart work well for the K-Limited drivers. “It enables them to enhance their productivity,” says Kim. “We're also finding that shippers are making an effort to accommodate our drivers by getting the trailers loaded as quickly as possible, minimizing their delay time.”

Safety and performance are key factors for the K-Limited driver force and operations/maintenance staff, evident in the firm having been awarded the Sunoco Carrier of the Year three times and Jones Hamilton Carrier Performance award two times. At the annual safety banquet, drivers with 500,000 accident- and spill-free miles are awarded $500.

The Kaplans say dedicating drivers to specific tractors appears to play a big role in driver satisfaction, as does emphasis on vehicle maintenance. Tractors typically are traded in five- to-six year cycles in an effort to provide drivers with current models.

K-Limited dispatchers are at all three terminals and coordinate drivers and shipments with the aid of Qualcomm satellite tracking systems in conjunction with Total Mail dispatch software from TMW Systems.

Tractor specifications

Two of the carrier's tractors reflect the friendly collegiate rivalry between owners Kim, a fan of the University of Michigan, and Dean, an alumnus of Ohio State University. One of the Internationals boasts the blue-and-maize logo for Michigan, while another champions the scarlet and gray of Ohio State.

While the rivalry might be lighthearted, specifying power units as workhorses is serious business at K-Limited. Latest power unit purchases are 2007 International Model 9200i conventionals with Cummins ISX engines rated at 435 horsepower. “The Cummins is a lighter engine,” says Paul Gray, maintenance director for K-Limited. “We've gotten good results with it, and we have an excellent working relationship with Cummins.”

K-Limited specifies Eaton Fuller UltraShift 10-Speed transmissions. “We tested the UltraShift last year in a couple of trucks and had positive feedback from our drivers,” says Gray. “Not having a clutch makes it a lot easier on them.”

Tractor running gear includes International suspensions, Meritor axles, Meritor WABCO antilock braking systems, and Alcoa aluminum wheels. Fontaine furnishes fifthwheels.

New tractors are fitted with Michelin 455/55R22.5 widebase single tires that are providing good fuel economy and a reduction in weight, Gray notes.

K-Limited and Hart Industries Inc designed a hose rack mounted behind the tractor cab that is higher and wider than typical units. This design reduces rubbing and friction on the frame, which helps extend hose life.

Quincy compressors and Roper pumps are mounted on the tractors and are hydraulically powered. The carrier uses Stac Inc's Therma Flow and Roper's Ropak hydraulic cooling systems with the product handling equipment.

Fleet trailer

As for the trailers in the fleet, drop-frame ISO tank container chassis with hydraulic lifts are supplied by Chassis King. DOT407 tank trailers (some rubber-lined) are furnished by Polar Corp and Brenner Tank Inc. K-Limited also leases Comptank Corp fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) trailers for corrosives.

Typical tank trailer components include Betts and SureSeal valves, Girard and Fort Vale pressure-relief vents, and Betts domelids. K-Limited specifies Gates 2½-inch product hoses for lighter weight and easier handling, which helps ease driver tasks. Running gear usually includes Hendrickson suspensions and Meritor WABCO antilock braking systems.

Keeping all of the equipment in good condition falls to the maintenance department under the direction of Gray and three mechanics. They work in three overlapping shifts so that work transitions smoothly.

The shop has two full-length bays: one for tank trailer repairs and the other for tractors. Adjacent to the two full bays is a smaller area with a 1,000-gallon storage tank to handle oil changes. Hose testing also is conducted at the facility.

Scheduled inspections

Most tank trailers in the fleet are on a schedule that calls for preventive maintenance inspections at least every 30 to 60 days. Engine oil and filters are replaced at 20,000 miles. Brakes are inspected during every service for both tractors and trailers. Tires receive complete evaluation. Besides considering the overall condition of a trailer, mechanics make detailed computerized notes on each unit for possible follow-up at the next service interval.

As an added maintenance touch, mechanic John Wolf draws a big “USA” in grease every time he services the fifthwheel. “We started doing that after Sept 11, 2001, when we were attacked by the terrorists,” he says. “It's just a small way we continue to remember.”

Future plans

With its vehicle fleet in top condition, a strong driver program in action, and efficient management force in place, K-Limited is looking toward to the future. “We are continuing to search for partner shippers — and marketing our strengths,” says Kim. “We see more growth potential in the Chicago area and are pleased with our record in transporting tank containers, which is another sector we think will grow.”

Dean points out that the tank truck industry is a volatile industry in which carriers traditionally have had to wrestle with a cyclical market. He doesn't expect that to change. “But we want to grow slowly in order to give our customers the service they deserve,” he says. “We like to say that pride, performance, and professionalism define our company. With that philosophy in place we are ready for the exciting and challenging times ahead for our company and the industry as a whole.”

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