Innovation, Hard Work Drive Success at Food Express Inc

Aug. 1, 2000
INNOVATION and hard work built Food Express Inc into a leading transporter of dry bulk foods in the western United States. Success hasn't brought complacency,

INNOVATION and hard work built Food Express Inc into a leading transporter of dry bulk foods in the western United States. Success hasn't brought complacency, though. The trucking company continues to pursue fresh opportunities.

Dry bulk edibles remain the core focus, but the Arcadia, California-based tank truck carrier has expanded into papermill products in the Pacific Northwest. Food Express opened its first commercial foodgrade wash rack in 1998 and is exploring the market demand for additional cleaning facilities throughout its operating area. The company is just beginning to tap the business-to-business potential of the Internet.

"We've always paid close attention to customers, and we are responsive to their needs," says Walter Keeney, one of the founders of Food Express. "We take very good care of them. We provide the most cost-effective service that we can, and we're always willing to explore new options.

"We are proud of our history of innovation, and we're always open to new technology. We operate some very unusual equipment to meet very specific customer needs. This willingness to innovate has given us a clear competitive edge.

"We put together our own web site (, and we are looking for ways to use it to serve our customers better. Certainly, one possibility is to provide current load tracking information."

Considering Walter Keeney's interest in technology, it's not particularly surprising that he was an early proponent of the PrePass weigh station bypass system. His involvement with the program began in 1986, and he is currently vice-chairman of Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate Inc (HELP), the nonprofit operation that oversees the PrePass system.

"This is an outstanding program that saves trucking companies a tremendous amount of time," Keeney says. "It's taking longer than we thought to build a nationwide system, but we're making progress. PrePass is active in 16 states; we've enrolled more than 3,000 carriers, and we have transponders in 129,000 trucks."

Dry Freight Keeney grew up in the West Coast trucking industry. In 1944, his father, Dan Keeney, started Keeney Truck Lines, a dry freight and refrigerated carrier. From the very start, Dan Keeney set the pace for innovation. Photographs from the late 1940s show that Keeney Truck Lines was one of the first to use B-trains.

Father and son established Flour Transport in 1962, taking their first steps into bulk food hauling. Flour was the first dry bulk food cargo, followed by corn starch, sugar, and salt. By the early 1980s, the carrier was operating 39 dry bulk trailers.

"We were one of the first bulk flour haulers in the West," Walter Keeney says. "We were in the right place at the right time, and we transported 100% of the bulk flour in Southern California in the early 1960s. We still have around 90% of the market.

"Economics prompted the shift from bagged flour to bulk. Today, only the smallest bakeries still buy bagged flour. Any bakery that uses more than 30,000 pounds a week takes bulk deliveries. A large bakery will use as much as 250,000 pounds a day, and that equals five loads for us."

Surging Demand By 1983, Flour Transport was scrambling to keep up with customer demand. Rigs in Los Angeles, California, were delivering 26 to 30 loads a day. That year, the carrier began adding 1,600-cubic-foot self-loading bulkers. In an effort to speed unloading times, Walter Keeney designed a rotary unloading system for the trailers. The system used eight-vane rotary valves, a one-hp variable-speed electric motor, and a Gardner Denver blower. The valves were installed at the bottom of each hopper.

Trailers fitted with the system were capable of unloading up to 2,000 pounds per minute through a four-inch line. Average unloading time for a 48,000-lb load was about 45 minutes.

Food Express The innovation continued when the Keeney family started Food Express in 1983. The concept for Food Express was developed by Dan Keeney. Actual implementation was left to Walter, his wife Joanna, and their son Kevin. "It seems like we start a new carrier with each new generation," Kevin Keeney says.

The family operated Flour Transport and Food Express until 1998, when Flour Transport was merged with Keeney Truck Lines. "For a number of reasons, Flour Transport fit better with Keeney Truck Lines," Walter Keeney says. "This gave us an opportunity to really focus on building up Food Express.

The payoff is very evident. Food Express has been growing at better than 10% each year. The carrier operates 110 company tractors, along with a handful of owner-operator power units. The trailer fleet is in excess of 200.

Most operations are conducted in a region that extends eastward to the Rocky Mountains, and the carrier serves customers in Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Terminals are in Arcadia, Maywood, Riverside, and Lathrop, California; and Seattle, Spokane, and Vancouver, Washington. The carrier also has satellite locations with one to four trucks each in a number of places, including Fresno, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Ft Worth, Texas.

"We thoroughly cover the West Coast," Walter Keeney says. "All of our facilities have rail access. Spokane is the only location where we don't do any transloading at this time. Our most elaborate transload operation is in Vancouver, and we can handle dry and liquid there. The transload operation is in the Port of Vancouver.

"We have bagging capabilities with a system that we designed and built ourselves. We can transfer liquids from railcars into tank trailers or IBCs (intermediate bulk containers). For dry bulk, we can use self-loading trailers or belt conveyors. We also have an 80-ft scale that is open to the public."

Wash Rack A second Vancouver location includes a full-service maintenance shop and a foodgrade wash rack. Completed in 1999, the three-bay wash rack is open to the public. Two bays are dedicated to interior cleaning, while the third is for exterior washes.

The wash rack accepts a wide range of edibles, including oils, sweeteners, vinegar, eggs, flour, and corn starch. About 20 trailers can be cleaned during a single shift. The wash system is built around a Kelton unit.

Due to the nature of the business, Food Express rigs generally have fairly short trips. Many drivers average around three loads per shift.

However, the carrier does not shy away from longer runs. Some specialized cargoes take the Food Express rigs to the East Coast. Shipments to Canada and Mexico (a growing part of the business) tend to be some of the longer runs.

International Shipments The carrier has quite a bit of business going into Canada. Mexico seems to be really taking off. Food Express has been serving the western Mexico market for about eight years and is moving 20 to 25 loads of flour a week from US mills or rail transfer locations to Mexican bakeries.

"We expect to be even busier with Mexico in the near future," Kevin Keeney says. "We're finalizing a contract for 12 to 15 loads a week of malt barley for a Mexican brewer.

"We interline with Mexican carriers at three border locations to serve Mexican customers in Tijuana, Tecate, and Mexicali. We've found some very good interline partners, and they have helped reduce border-crossing delays. Still, it can take six to seven hours to clear customs at Otay Mesa (the crossing point for Tijuana). There are just too many trucks."

With the exception of a brief flirtation with liquid edibles shortly after startup, the food focus has been on dry bulk-flour, corn starch, sugar, and malt barley. "Flour is number one, followed by corn starch," Kevin Keeney says. "We haul close to 15 million pounds of bakery flour every day, and it accounts for about 75% of our activity.

"Increasing demand for malt barley mirrors the popularity of micro breweries and brew pubs on the West Coast. We now have two four-compartment trailers set up for multi-stop deliveries. It's a challenging business. The product is fragile so the blowers are set at 5 psi, and some locations are configured in such a way that we need 80 feet of hose." Papermill Products

Food is no longer the sole focus, though. Without losing sight of its core business, the company has pursued some strategic diversifications. The effort is most apparent in the

Pacific Northwest. Papermills in the Pacific Northwest were a major influence on the carrier's decision to diversify. Food Express started out hauling corn starch to several mills and was asked to handle other products, including some liquid chemicals.

With the exception of caustic, products hauled to the papermills are nonhazardous. Papermill cargoes include various industrial-grade salt, precipitated calcium carbonate, limestone slurries, resins, and magnesium oxide.

"For one papermill customer, we now manage all their storage tank inventory for caustic, precipitated calcium carbonate, and corn starch," Walter Keeney says. "Our drivers monitor the levels, and we keep the tanks full. That one customer is taking around 12 loads a day of calcium carbonate and four to six loads of caustic."

Moving beyond the papermills, Food Express serves a shipper of diatomaceous earth that has two plants on the West Coast. Those plants supply demand throughout the United States.

"Because the product is so light, most shipments are by rail," Walter Keeney says. "We're backup to the rail. Shipments take us all over the United States, and we run teams because the customer wants third-day delivery to the East Coast."

Plastic pellets have never been much of an attraction, but Food Express has begun working with Intermodal Container Systems (ICS), Houston, Texas. Food Express is running one of the specialized ICS lift chassis in Tacoma, Washington, and two in Los Angeles, California. The chassis are used to transport 20-ft box containers.

Custom Trailers The ICS chassis are by no means the most specialized trailers in the Food Express operation. Limestone slurry is transported in a custom-built A-train that has two vertical aluminum cargo tanks. A dry bulk doubles train has been modified with a stirring system to haul a limestone waste slurry.

The newest dry bulk trailers in the fleet range in capacity from 1,600 to 2,000 cubic feet.

The carrier runs a number of A-trains and B-trains in the western states with higher weight limits. Washington and Oregon allow gross combination weights (GCWs) up to 105,500 pounds, and the maximum weight in Nevada and Utah is 110,000 pounds.

All new dry bulkers are aluminum pneumatic selfloaders, and the primary suppliers are Beall Trailer Inc, Heil Trailer International, and J&L Tank Inc. Beall and Heil units are purchased factory-direct, but J&L trailers are bought through Kraft Tank Co, Kansas City, Missouri.

Tank hardware includes inline filters, SureSeal valves and aerators, Knappco check valves and domelids, and Bayco pressure-relief valves. Titan foodgrade hoses have PT Coupling fittings.

The carrier has begun specifying Hendrickson Intraax air suspensions on new dry bulk trailers. New B-train trailers have self-steering axles and widebase single tires. "Tire life is much improved with the self-steering axles," Walter Keeney says. "We're seeing 400,000 miles with the super-single tires."

Powerful Tractors Pulling the big loads takes plenty of power. The Freightliner FLD 120s that operate in the states with higher gross weights have 450-hp Cummins ISX engines. Those assigned in other areas are ordered with 400-hp engines.

"We like the FLD 120 for light weight (a 15,000-lb tare) and driver comfort," Kevin Keeney says. "Most importantly, it's easier for mechanics to work on. They have more room in the engine compartment than they do with some of the more aerodynamically styled models."

Ten-speed transmission and tandem-drive axles are from ArvinMeritor. "Meritor put together a very competitive package of transmission and axles," he says.

Due to the shorthaul nature of the operation, daycabs predominate in the fleet. To make it easier to stay in touch with the drivers, most of the tractors carry Nextel cellular telephones that also function as two-way radios.

The carrier has just begun testing the InTouch fleet management system in three tractors. The system includes computerized tracking capabilities that will enable the carrier and its customers to monitor shipments more closely.

For improved safety, some of the tractors that operate through California's San Joaquin Valley are being equipped with the Eaton Vorad collision avoidance system. Drivers praise the system for giving them an extra margin of safety during the times of the year when thick fog shrouds parts of the region.

The search for better ways to operate never ends for the Keeney family. They want to ensure that Food Express remains a leading-edge bulk food hauler.