Triple hit

WITH DRIVER recruitment and retention near the top of the priority list for most tank truck carriers, F T Silfies Inc stepped up to the plate and hit a triple with the organization of its President's Road Team.

Randy Sheeler, president and chief executive officer of the Nazareth, Pennsylvania, company, says the program appears on the way to a winning season with its starting list of professional drivers on the roster.

“The road team members act as mentors for our new hires for the first 60 days of employment,” says Sheeler. “They are available to them around the clock. This program reinforces our philosophy that rewarding drivers and acknowledging their professionalism is a key method for insuring driver retention. Our drivers are our biggest asset.”

The importance of the team's success is in direct relationship to the carrier's role of providing construction products and materials throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. With highway construction continuing to boom, airport expansions underway, new home development holding steady, and commercial building startups underway, the carrier can't afford to suffer driver retention problems in its just-in-time delivery requirements.

Silfies transports cement, lime, fly ash, glass stone and newcem (byproducts of cement), pebble lime, and kiln dust. (The carrier also hauls bagged cement, brick, block, and other construction forming materials with a flatbed fleet.) Product typically is delivered from processing plants to construction sites (buildings, roads, and airports), steel mills, and water treatment facilities.

“We send 30 dedicated bulkers a day into New York City to deliver cement,” notes Sheeler. “In Brooklyn, we transload cement from barges to trailers and deliver throughout the Mid-Atlantic region.”

Cement accounts for about 60% of the bulk business, lime about 30%, and the remaining 10% represents miscellaneous products. The company has grown in revenue in just over a year from $16 million to a 2006-projected $34 million through organic growth with its current customer base and through acquisitions. The driver pool numbers about 215, up from 85 drivers since early 2005 as a result of the carrier's growth.

Company history

The carrier, owned and operated for 60 years by the Silfies family, was purchased in 2005 by Quantum Equity Partners, a private equity firm based in McLean, Virginia. In early 2006, the company purchased the assets of Gensimore Trucking, another Pennsylvania dry bulk carrier and most recently, Price Trucking of Aberdeen, Maryland.

“With this latest expansion, and more market demand, we've had to recruit new drivers at a fast clip,” says Sheeler. “Many of our new hires have come to us without any experience in handling these products, or without tank truck experience in general, including knowledge of the procedures for pumps, blowers, compressors, and fittings. We don't think this necessarily makes them a bad hire or unqualified. We want to make sure our new hires know exactly what they're in for, and who better to train them than an experienced member of the President's Road Team who does it every day for a living.”

The training program emphasizes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and dry bulk/hazardous waste handling. Members of the road team oversee on-road training and have the authority to disqualify a new hire (or applicant) if they deem them unable to meet the carrier's standards.

“Once we have drivers on board, we strive to make their jobs as efficient and trouble-free as possible,” Sheeler says. “We have spent significant dollars in 2006 purchasing 80 new and late-model Mack tractors that allow our drivers to perform their tasks in comfort, while giving them the much needed home time that most drivers seek. We have increased our communication efforts to let our drivers know just about everything that is going on within the company. Recently, we provided a one week corporate ride-along program so each employee could experience exactly what our drivers undergo every day. It certainly gave our administrative staff a new appreciation for our drivers.”

Driver referrals

In an effort to reward drivers, the carrier set up a program for referrals that includes a bonus of $1,000 as long as the referred driver makes it through the probation period. The driver referring the most new hires during the year earns a Caribbean cruise for two, in addition to the monetary reward.

Another carrier priority, plus driver recruitment and retention, is management efficiency, which included choosing TMWSuite supplied by TMW Systems as the enterprise management platform for the fleet. “ I was familiar with the system from seeing it in use by a previous employer of mine, and the package we chose for Silfies replaces an in-house system that lacked the automation, reporting, and integration capabilities that we need for efficiency,” says Sheeler. “In my opinion, TMW has been one step ahead of the competition with respect to innovative designs.”

With the implementation of TMWSuite, Silfies eliminated several manual processes for dispatch, billing, and settlement, which freed personnel to concentrate on more customer-focused issues. The program also enabled the carrier to integrate its mobile communications and imaging processes into a single system. Another Web-based program from TMW, ResultsNow, is used for determining revenue per mile, loaded mile ratio, and asset utilization. The carrier chose J J Keller's Log Checker to audit driver logs. Logs are scanned into the program, which summarizes hours-of-service, as well as offering violation reviews and noting which drivers are available at any given time.

Insurance program

Another decision by managers was to join the Pennsylvania self-insured workers compensation group (PETRO) to take better control of their worker compensation exposure and operate as a self-insured company with emphasis on safety, loss prevention, and claims management.

“We recently aligned our insurance programs with the bulk trucking insurance markets to include our liability coverage, and our acceptance into the PETRO group was a great fit to allow us to discuss the exposures that we face in our industry with fellow trucking companies that face the same risks,” says H L “Hank” Beech, vice-president of risk management for the company. “The program also provides us with a great comfort level because we're dealing with program administrators who are directly involved with trucking.”

All of this benefits a carrier operation that includes seven terminals: Nazareth, Stockertown, State College, and Evansville, all in Pennsylvania, and Williamsport, Aberdeen, and Manchester in Maryland. The terminals are bases for product transportation as far west as Arizona, south to Florida, Northeast into New England and New York, and across the Midwest.

Dispatchers coordinate the operation and communicate with drivers through the use of PeopleNet's in-cab system that uses a global positioning system (GPS) to pinpoint vehicle location, direction, engine idle time, and speed. The PeopleNet system is integrated with the TMW system to enable data delivery from the cab to the office. Drivers have access to location directions and can enter information after loading, unloading, and enroute.

Sheeler notes that because of the electronic processing, drivers receive their pay quicker. “And more accurately, this is another way to encourage retention,” he says. “We also provide them with e-mail access so they can stay in touch with their families.”

Vehicle fleet

As for the 220 tractors in the fleet, Silfies turned to Mack, for its latest additions. “We've really been happy with Mack's immediate service response, and our drivers are very satisfied with the power units,” says Sheeler. “We're in Mack country, and when I arrived at Silfies I was very surprised to see only one Mack Vision in the fleet, so I called Mack's corporate headquarters. They contacted their local dealer and brought two stock trucks that met our specifications, and we purchased them that day.”

The Mack Vision is a premium truck designed for local and regional haulers. Most of the new units are spec'd with Mack 460-horsepower engines and Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmissions.

The newest Macks are specified with Michelin X One ultra low-profile widebase single tires sized 455/55R22.5. “We chose the wide base tires for weight reduction and fuel savings,” says Stephen “Butch” Wolf, maintenance director.

Silfies recently added nine new Polar dry bulk trailers to the fleet supplied by Hale Trailer Brake and Wheel. The fleet also includes bulkers from Trail King, Tremcar, and Fruehauf. Typical bulker capacity for the fleet is 1,000 cubic feet. Components on the trailers include UltraFlo butterfly outlets, Bayco relief valves, and UltraFlo, Sure Seal, and Solimar aerators. Knappco supplies domelids and Holland Binkley furnishes landing gear. Gardner Denver provides Drum HPD450 blowers that are mounted on tractors.

Running gear includes Hendrickson Intraax suspensions, Consolidated Metco hubs, and MeritorWabco antilock braking systems. Truck-Lite supplies lighting systems. Like the tractors, Silfies is specifying new trailers with ultra low-profile widebase single tires. They are supplied by Bridgestone and are sized to 425/65R22.5. Wolf points out that in addition to reducing weight, the tires are demonstrating lower rolling resistance, which saves on fuel cost.

Maintenance facility

The Nazareth shop has three bays with enough room for tractor and trailer in a pull-through arrangement. Mechanics handle most repairs and maintenance procedures with the exception of warranty work on tractors and vessel repair to trailers.

“Hauling dry bulk materials for the construction industry makes it difficult to keep our equipment looking good, but we think appearance is part of customer service,” says Sheeler. “Our maintenance personnel and drivers see that vehicle exteriors are washed every time they return to a terminal.”

A good maintenance program is another part of the driver retention program, adds Sheeler. “We want our drivers' experiences on the road to be as free from problems as possible. No one likes to see a stranded driver on the side of the highway. In our company, it's completely unacceptable.”

With the driver program in place and the future of the dry bulk business appearing bright, Silfies made several staff changes in 2006, including promoting Silfies family member, Chris Silfies, and Paul Mosser to regional operations manager and director of pricing, respectively. In addition, Jim Niness, a former colleague of Sheeler's, joined the company as chief operating officer. Bruce Donovan was named vice-president, general manager; and Hank Beech was named vice-president, risk management.

“We need this strong leadership in place because we expect to obtain more of the market share and are looking at possible acquisitions,” says Sheeler. “Shippers are reducing the number of various carriers they use and replacing them with fewer ones in order to make their operations more efficient. We think the service we offer can lend itself to their goals. Our experienced staff, including our drivers, and our up-to-date electronic systems, are essential ingredients to meeting those demands.”

That said, Silfies appears to have its team in good shape and ready to take on the competition with a winning season in mind.

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