Creation of Leader Transport Inc Brings Longtime Dream to Fruition

Oct. 1, 1999
FOR MANY years, Dan Hensley wanted to own his own petroleum distribution business. In December of 1997, the dream finally came true. That was the date

FOR MANY years, Dan Hensley wanted to own his own petroleum distribution business. In December of 1997, the dream finally came true. That was the date he founded Leader Transport Inc of Birmingham, Alabama.

Hensley spent 10 years employed by Transport South as regional vice-president. Before that, he was employed by Triangle Refineries and Red Wing Carriers Inc. When Transport South was acquired by Kenan Transport, he recognized the time was right to step out on his own.

"I elected to follow my dream," he says. "I had learned what the customer wants - never to run out of gasoline and to have it in the tank and not on the ground."

To get started, Hensley leased six tractor-tank trailer units. "The liability was tremendous," he recalls. "I had no customers. I just began soliciting accounts from people I knew. The strategic plan was to be at pipeline terminals, which I felt would put the company in a position to grow."

First Account The first account came from a Huntsville, Alabama, business, Campbell and Sons Oil Co Inc, which remains Leader's largest customer. Gradually, more companies selected Leader Transport as their distributor of choice. Hensley developed a business plan and found an attorney to handle the legal side of transportation.

"The main thing I wanted to do was to create a professional environment," he says. "My initial goal was to have 18 units by the end of the fifth year. After the first year, we were operating 20. Everything grew much faster than I had expected. I had planned to add a second terminal in Mobile within three to four years. We were there in one."

Companies in Montgomery, Alabama, also are served by Leader Transport as are some in Mississippi and Florida. Distribution occasionally reaches as far west as Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The fleet consists of 25 tractors and 25 trailers, but they are operated on two shifts, providing a service that runs as if it had twice as many vehicles, he says. About 20 million gallons of product are delivered monthly. Product includes diesel, kerosene, and three grades of gasoline. Leader picks up product from all available terminals, with about 50% coming from Texaco and Shell facilities.

The Leader Transport office is open seven days a week, 8 am until 5 pm, and the weekends have proven to be the busiest days. Managers share off-hour duty to assure customer satisfaction.

Soon after the company was founded, Anthony Marino Jr joined Hensley and serves as vice-president and chief financial officer. His expertise with financial matters was added to Hensley's, contributing to the unexpected growth.

"This is the prudent side of the business - to have in-house accounting and to stay on top of the finances," Hensley says, adding that an outside audit of financial accounts is also part of the strategy.

First Employee Sheila Thompson, operations manager, was the company's first employee and played a major role in the startup. Other employees include Randy Sartain and Kevin Nichols, who oversee the dispatching center; Tim Delong, accountant; and John Lyman, sales manager.

"I surrounded myself with the people who would make a strong operations and financial team," Hensley says. "I realize we are a small company, but that allows us to give specialized service."

Specialized service is apparent in the handwritten notes Hensley sends to people with whom he is associated. He sees the effort as just one more way a small company can demonstrate its ability to deliver exclusive service. Hensley believes that customer service is directly related to community service.

"We're safe and responsible business people in the community," he says. "It's our obligation to be good citizens." The company helps support Camp Smile a Mile, a recreational area for children who are cancer victims. Marino serves on the organization's board of directors. In addition, the company sponsors the Oilman of the Year award for the Alabama Oilmen's Association.

But it's in the office where one-on-one interaction is deemed top priority. Hensley prefers to interview and hire drivers personally. He looks for qualifications that fit the company's profile. "I want us to have a personal relationship with our customers," he says. "And I want everyone in the company to have the same goal. The big thing with us is the personalities of the drivers - pleasant, good demeanor, and the ability to interact positively with the customer. They've got to care about the customer's business as if it were their own."

Hensley doesn't stop with the hiring. He makes a special effort to get to know the drivers' families. These efforts have paid off. After 1 1/2 years in business, Leader's driver force numbers 51. Of those, 22 have been on board since the first trucks started rolling.

Having committed to such a strong relationship with the drivers, Hensley focuses attention on what they have to say about their jobs and the company. "I learned very quickly to listen to their legitimate complaints," he says. For example, he agreed with drivers that tractors should have the appropriate power, cabs should be comfortable, and ladders should be mounted on the front of the tank trailers for safety and convenience.

He rewards drivers with a monthly performance bonus for safe driving and good customer service.

Loyal Customers Trying to do the right thing has gained Leader Transport loyal customers. The company serves Marco Petroleum Inc, Hollar Oil Company, H L Martin Distributor, Racetrac Inc, West Oil Co Inc, Wavaho Gasoline Company, Price Oil Company, and Campbell and Sons, major customers in Birmingham, and 25 other smaller firms. Mobile customers include Herndon Oil Company, Max Oil Company, and Minute Stop Inc. Two tractor-trailer units are dedicated to Price in Montgomery.

All orders are coordinated from the Birmingham main office. Dispatchers stay in touch with drivers via two-way radios. Drivers based in Birmingham pick up their orders at the office or receive assignments over the radio. In outlying areas, assignments may be faxed to their homes or they can pick them up at the terminals.

In addition, the company has the flexibility to step in and issue assignments if emergencies occur.

Remembering his goal to see that customers don't run out of fuel, Leader provides inventory management at 200 locations where fuel levels are monitored daily. For other customers, Leader Transport responds to orders on a timely basis. Some of the convenience store customers have installed a Veeder-Root automatic monitoring system that provides a printed capacity report both before and after the tank has been filled. Stick measurements also are made by the driver, who also checks tanks for water contamination.

Operations call for specific drivers as driver trainers. Before new hires climb into a cab, they receive classroom training in hazardous materials handling and defensive driving. Drivers are steeped in company policy and employee guidelines.

12-Hour Shifts Once on the road, drivers work 12-hour shifts for five days and then are off duty for two days. They are assigned to specific vehicles. "Each trailer is married to a tractor," says Hensley. "The drivers feel as if they are owners and have a lot of pride because they always have their unit."

To make paperwork less trying, Thompson designed one form to cover all entries. Starting with a standard invoice, freight information and driver pay based on destination were added. Drivers fill out this form with each delivery.

All of the emphasis that the company puts on drivers does not mean that quality equipment and maintenance are not a high priority. The fleet includes Mack CH 600 tractors and DOT406 tank trailers from Brenner and Heil. The tractors are leased from Suttles Truck Leasing and the tank trailers from Southern Tank Leasing.

Tractors have Mack 427-horsepower engines and Meritor nine-speed transmissions. The Meritor drive axle has a 4.11 ratio. Leader Transport specifies Bridgestone tires.

The five-compartment aluminum trailers are equipped with Scully overfill protection, Betts and TruckLite lights, and EBW vapor recovery systems and valves. The trailers have Holland landing gear.

Hensley prefers standardizing on equipment and parts as much as possible.

All tractor and tank trailer maintenance is conducted by outside vendors, including Summit Sales & Service, Gulf Coast Mack, and other distributor service departments. The hoses and fittings used by Leader are purchased from Summit Sales & Service.

Hensley says his future goals will continue to emphasize specialized service. "I will not change that venue," he says. Plans are to expand into Tennessee and Georgia, and increase the business in Mississippi and Florida. However, he emphasizes, he doesn't want to spread out too far. "I don't want to be too far from my employees and customers because I don't want to lose that personal touch."