J & M Tank Lines Celebrates 50 Years of Trucking Success

May 1, 1998
J&M Tank Lines Inc may have reached the half-century mark, but the tank truck carrier still maintains a youthful vigor. The family-owned company continues

J&M Tank Lines Inc may have reached the half-century mark, but the tank truck carrier still maintains a youthful vigor. The family-owned company continues to grow, both internally and through acquisitions.

Based in Americus, Georgia, J & M Tank lines is moving forward under the firm control of an experienced management team headed by Harold A Sumerford Sr, chairman and president. They have built J & M Tank Lines into a $27.8 million carrier running 305 tractors and in excess of 360 tank and dry bulk trailers.

"We're aiming for 10% annual growth," Sumerford says. "We generate most of the growth internally, but some has come through acquisitions. We bought Cates Milk Hauling in Columbiana, Alabama, this year, and we're looking for other opportunities.

"Diversification will continue. We moved into liquid chemicals and edibles in response to customers who were diversifying their own operations. However, dry bulk remains our key focus, and it should continue to lead this company forward into the next 50 years."

Gradual Evolution The company that exists today is far different from the one that was started in 1948 by Jimmy McClinton. He established the company as a flatbed operator, and the focus stayed on flats and vans until 1981. The first dry bulk trailer was purchased in 1958, but six years passed before the company ordered an additional 19 units.

Sumerford joined the growing for-hire trucking company in 1961, when he was hired as bookkeeper. By 1979, he began buying into the company, and he purchased the remainder in 1981.

Sumerford brought his sons, Gene and Peter, into the business. Gene is secretary & treasurer, while Peter is senior vice-president of operations. "This is a family-owned company, and it will stay that way," Harold Sumerford says.

In one of his first major decisions after becoming sole owner, Sumerford sold the flatbed and van side of the business to Builders Transport. "We kept the dry bulk trailers because they were more profitable," he says.

Sumerford didn't completely leave the non-bulk transportation sectors. J & M Transport is a flatbed subsidiary, and Raintree Trucking Co concentrates on refrigerated operations.

Niche Focus The tank truck operation has been successful over the past 50 years by targeting niches: either commodity or region. Many of the tractor-trailer units in the fleet are assigned to dedicated operations. "We control inventory levels for many of our customers," says Gene Sumerford. "It's a value-added service that keeps our equipment busy."

Specialized services such as inventory control have made the carrier a valuable supplier to its customers. The Dow Corning plant in Elizabeth Town, Kentucky, recently gave its supplier-of-the-year award to J & M Tank Lines. It was the third time in five years that the carrier had earned the award.

J & M Tank lines has built a broad customer base and works hard to give each customer award-winning service. The biggest customer accounts for about 17% of the carrier's revenue, and the top 50 generate around 40% of total revenue.

The carrier's primary focus is on dry bulk mineral and construction products, but the mix has changed significantly in recent years. Cement once accounted for about 80% of the business but has dropped to 15%. Cement has been displaced by growth in shipments of a wide range of materials, including clay products, calcium carbonate, recycled plastic, and activated carbon.

"It's incredible how many applications there are for products such as limestone, which is also calcium carbonate," Harold Sumerford says. "We transport as many as 30 different grades of calcium carbonate, and we're now seeing foodgrade versions."

J & M Tank Lines entered the asphalt business in 1987 with the purchase of Fox Transport in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Thirty tank trailers are involved in the asphalt activity. In 1995, the carrier expanded into edibles and liquid chemicals and slurries. Twenty tanks are used for chemical shipments, and 65 are dedicated to edibles.

"The edibles traffic brings some of our longest runs," says Peter Sumerford. "Liquid loads include cream yeast, edible oils, orange juice, and citrus products. We also handle some dry bulk foodgrade loads.

"Edibles have turned into a good niche market for us. We're adding insulated tanks with in-transit heat, and we're exploring opportunities to haul chocolate and related products." The chemical business includes styrene, caustic soda, clay and limestone slurries, and a small amount of plasticizer. Chemical shipments are shorthaul, for the most part, and are handled by the terminal in Chattanooga. The terminal also handles asphalt and dry bulkcargoes.

Dry bulk loads also are dispatched from the Americus headquarters terminal and facilities in Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama. The edibles fleet is based at the Americus terminal, and Peter Sumerford directs the foodgrade marketing.

Trip Distances The foodgrade fleet runs the longest distances, serving customers throughout the eastern half of the United States. Dry bulk shipments, like the chemicals hauling, tend to be short trips. Most runs are within 300 miles of the terminal, and 90% of the dry bulk revenues are generated in the southeastern United States.

"The railroads are our chief competition, and we are most effective against them at distances under 300 miles," says Charles McGairty, senior vice-president of marketing. "Twenty to 30% of our dry bulk business is as a backup to the railroads.

"We have picked up volume due to the Union Pacific problems, but we have had to turn down new business as a result. For the most part, we're simply meeting the needs of our existing customers."

Most of the day-to-day responsibility for working with customers and managing fleet operations falls on the terminals. Vehicles are dispatched by the terminals to which they are assigned.

Terminals have their own maintenance shops and dry bulk wash racks. Cleaning of liquid tanks is contracted out to several commercial wash rack operators, including Mast Tank Cleaning and Philip Services Corp.

Computer System Communication among the terminals is facilitated by a central computer system built around an IBM AS 400. "It works well for us," Gene Sumerford says. "IBM has said it will meet our needs for another five to 10 years. We have done one upgrade, and we're looking at another. We store a lot of data on optical devices."

Innovative Computing Corp has been the primary software system supplier for the past eight years. "It's good software that is relatively easy to modify," Sumerford says. "We had to make significant changes to adapt it to our dry bulk operation. Innovative is working with us now to make Year-2000 changes. We should be Y2K compliant by the end of the year."

Some of the data in the corporate computer system is collected from Qualcomm satellite units in the tractors. The Qualcomm units have brought considerable flexibility to dispatch operations.

Drivers have reacted well to having satellite communications equipment in the tractors, according to Thomas A Spivey Jr, J & M Tank Lines safety director. They like the convenience offered by the units, because they don't need to find a telephone to contact the terminal.

The carrier has worked hard to build a high-quality driver team and has established strict selection criteria. The tank truck fleet currently has approximately 250 company drivers and owner-operators and is concentrating on strategies to maximize retention.

Retention starts with selection. "When we hire drivers, we look for experience and a good attitude," Spivey says. "We look for people who display a professional approach to the job. We reject anyone with more than two motor vehicle violation convictions in the past three years. We don't allow any convictions for driving under the influence in the past five years."

During the first two weeks or so on the job, the new-hire is assigned to a trainer, who has the authority to determine whether or not he meets the J & M Tank Lines expectations. Most of the trainers are million-milers with accident-free records.

"We want to evaluate the newly hired driver's experience level in actual operations, and we want him to get an initial feel for the way we do things at J & M Tank Lines," Spivey says. "Only then do we bring him to Americus for a three-day classroom training program. This gives us an opportunity to focus on problem areas. We can do a more effective job of training."

Safety Emphasis Safe driving is promoted throughout the training and beyond. Quarterly safety meetings are held at all terminals. A number of award programs are in place to promote safe performance.

The effort is paying off. During 1997, the carrier limited its vehicle accident rate to .498 per million miles. That record earned the carrier the grand award in the 22- to 30-million miles class of the National Tank Truck Carriers Annual Tank Truck Carriers Safety Contest. Spivey also was honored for his achievements.

Building a safe operation has a cost. J & M Tank Lines paid out $42,000 in safety bonuses in 1997. Drivers start out earning $250 for each year of safe driving, and the total increases by $50 for each year after that.

The carrier has a strict definition of accident-free driving. A chargeable accident is anything done by the driver that damages equipment and costs money to fix.

A highlight of the safety program is the annual safety meeting and awards banquet. The most recent banquet was January 17 at the Georgia International Convention Center in College Park, Georgia. More than 550 people attended the event.

The banquet included an appearance by renowned trucking industry speaker Dan Baker. Known as a truckers' advocate and humorist, Baker presented a rousing message on the importance of self worth.

More than $28,000 in door prizes were handed out. Drivers earned tickets for the prize drawings by achieving certain performance goals, including safe driving, injury-free work, and customer satisfaction.

Million-Milers Thirty-five drivers were honored for qualifying for the company's million-mile club. Raymond Stewart received special recognition for achieving two million miles of accident-free driving. He is the first, but several others are closing in on the mark.

It is particularly noteworthy that all of the safe-driving mileage has to be earned while working for J & M Tank Lines. The tank fleet doesn't allow any carryover from previous jobs. If a million-miler has an accident, he loses club privileges for the year following the accident. He is reinstated after the next accident-free year.

At the January banquet, Harold Sumerford presented blue blazers with an embroidered company logo to the million-mile drivers. They also earned an all-expenses-paid Caribbean cruise. This is the fourth year for the cruise.

Beyond the individual driver awards, J & M Tank Lines promotes a team approach in accident prevention. Terminals compete with each other for the best safety record, and the winner qualifies for a special banquet. Shirts and caps also are awarded in some instances. If a terminal achieves three million miles with no accidents, the company awards a banquet and gives special jackets to the drivers.

Fleet Equipment Safety also is promoted through the vehicles in the fleet. All are well maintained, and company-owned tractors are no more than five years old.

J & M Tank Lines runs Kenworth, International, and Mack tractors in sleeper and day-cab configurations. Sleeper tractors predominate, and current specifications call for 52-inch or 64-inch sleepers. Tractor wheelbase ranges from around 205 inches to 222 inches.

Mack engines rated at 427 horsepower are specified for Mack tractors assigned to foodgrade operations. Cummins M11 330-370 ESP engines are preferred for other tractors in the fleet. Drivetrain components include 10-speed Fuller transmissions, Spicer drivelines and clutches, and Meritor or Eaton drive tandems.

Fontaine fifthwheels are standard. Among other components are Davco 380 fuel/water separators, Kysor fan clutches, and Chelsea PTOs. Running gear includes air-ride suspensions, Alcoa aluminum wheels, Bridgestone tires, Centrifuse brake drums, Abex brake linings, Haldex automatic slack adjusters, and Meritor WABCO antilock braking.

Tractors in dry bulk service have PTO-driven Gardner Denver blowers for product handling. Those assigned to liquid edibles operations are configured for hydraulically powered product transfer. The hydraulic drive system on the tractor includes a Drum Hydrapak cooling unit and powers a trailer-mounted product pump.

Tank Trailers Most of the foodgrade tanks were built by Polar Tank Trailer Inc to sanitary service requirements. The 6,500-gallon tanks have a stainless steel Ibex product pump in the rear-mounted cabinet.

The newest insulated tanks in the fleet have full-length heating panels. Hose tubes are accessible from the rear cabinet. Tank hardware includes an Olsen vent in the manhole cover.

Running gear includes a Reyco Transpro suspension with composite springs, Alcoa hub-piloted aluminum wheels, National wheel seals with Mobilith synthetic grease, PSI tire inflation system, Centrifuse brake drums, and Meritor WABCO antilock braking.

Heil Trailer International is the primary supplier of aluminum dry bulk trailers to the fleet, but the carrier operates a significant number of J&L Tank and Fruehauf units. Capacities of the Super-Jet-style trailers range from 1,000 to 2,000 cubic feet. A large percentage of J & M Tank Lines' dry bulkers have a 1,040-cu-ft capacity.

Vessel hardware includes Sure-Seal butterfly valves, six-inch aluminum tees, and Solimar aeration. Replacement hardware and parts are supplied by Southeastern Pneumatic Inc in Ellaville, Georgia.

For running gear, the carrier specifies Reyco Transpro suspensions with composite springs, inverted axles, hub-piloted Alcoa aluminum wheels, Centrifuse brake drums, Meritor automatic slack adjusters, Meritor WABCO antilock braking, and Bridgestone 285/75R24.5 tires.

Maintenance Program An aggressive preventive maintenance program keeps the fleet in top shape. The schedule starts with an inspection at 12,000- to 15,000-mile intervals. Oil and filter are changed in the Cummins engines every 25,000 miles and at 30,000 miles in the Mack power units.

"Mechanics check the air restriction gauges during every inspection," says Ken Ford, vice-president of maintenance at J & M Tank Lines. "We have found that this is the most reliable way to determine when air filters on engines and blowers need replacement."

PTO U-joints get a lot of attention from the mechanics. "We have found from experience that PTO mounting bolts on the transmissions must be checked regularly," Ford says. "Lubricant leaks due to loose bolts can result in transmission failures."

Well-maintained vehicles help ensure that J & M Tank Lines will be around for a long, long time. The first 50 years was just the start.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.