Miller strategy

June 1, 2007
WINNING its first Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank Truck Carriers annual safety contest was a long time in coming for Miller Transporters

WINNING its first Outstanding Performance Trophy in the National Tank Truck Carriers annual safety contest was a long time in coming for Miller Transporters Inc. The company spent nearly half a century in pursuit of the award, but it was well worth the effort, according to the management team.

Along the way, the Jackson, Mississippi, chemical hauler built one of the most outstanding safety programs in the industry. Not only was this a well-earned win, it was very timely. Miller Transporters is celebrating its 65th anniversary in 2007, and company president Scott Miller will leave at the end of the year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.

Miller Transporters earned its first Outstanding Performance Trophy with a frequency of 0.300 accidents per million miles for 2006. The carrier also was the Grand Award winner in the 29-36 million miles class of the NTTC 2006 Competitive Safety Contest and the Grand Award winner in the same mileage category for personnel safety. The tank truck fleet also earned a 24-year certificate in the 2006 Improvement Contest.

“We've been working for more than 30 years to win this trophy, and I never thought it would take so long,” Miller says. “It is very satisfying that we were able to win NTTC's top safety award before I finished my career as president of Miller Transporters. This is the ultimate honor in tank truck safety.

“Safety was always important at this company. For many years, it's been our policy that no load is so important that its safe delivery in a courteous manner should not take priority over all else. This guiding principle helped Miller Transporters become the success that it is today.”

Very meaningful award

Hal Miller III, vice-president of sales & marketing, adds that winning the Outstanding Performance Trophy means a lot to Miller Transporters, and it took on even greater significance with the company celebrating its 65th anniversary this year.

“Safety has always come first at this company,” he says. “Winning the award underlines the value of the safety program that we built here.”

Agreement comes from Lee Miller, vice-president of quality & corporate support. “For many years, we knew we had a good safety program,” he says. “This award provides validation of our safety focus from the rest of the tank truck industry.”

In addition to the safety commitment, Miller Transporters was guided throughout its 65 years by a strong belief that the keys to success included hiring the best possible people and providing customers with the best possible service. For company founder H D Miller, compromise of those principles was not an option.

The guiding principles were in place from the moment the company commenced operations in 1942 in Mississippi with a single tank transport hauling gasoline. The second office employee hired was a bookkeeper/safety manager. By 1950, the fleet was up to 30 transports.

Steady growth

Growth came steadily as the tank truck carrier added cargoes and expanded into the surrounding states. At its most diverse, Miller Transporters was hauling asphalt, refined fuels, herbicides, cement, fertilizers, acids and caustics, pulp mill liquids, processed, salt, plastics, clay, and slate.

The safety program grew with the company. By the late 1960s, Miller Transporters employed a safety director, several safety supervisors, and driver trainers. The driver-training program had become more formalized. The safety program became even more structured during the 1970s, and the safety department set up its hazardous materials training school in 1981.

The greatest expansion came during the 1980s following US deregulation of the trucking industry. By the time Miller Transporters celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1992, it was providing service across the United States and Canada from 27 terminals in 11 states. The fleet had grown to include 530 tractors, 928 trailers, 100 tank containers, and 60 dropframe container chassis. Annual revenues in 1992 were $83.5 million, and the company was the ninth largest tank truck carrier in the United States.

As the 21st Century approached, Miller Transporters management took a number of steps to refocus operations. The objective was to concentrate on the business sectors that offered the best potential for the future. To that end, Miller Transporters exited activities such as petroleum and cement hauling that no longer fit the operation.

Lean chemical fleet

Today, Miller Transporters has been transformed into a lean, aggressive chemical specialist with a specific ability to handle high temperature products up to 400°F. Revenues in 2006 of $86.1 million were generated by a fleet that consists of 450 tractors and 1,144 trailers. The fleet operates out of 19 terminals in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia.

“We took steps we felt were necessary to ensure future success for this company,” Hal says. “We saw the best opportunities in chemicals. Even with consolidation and overseas relocation by the chemical industry, product shipments within North America will continue, and trucks will haul a majority of the loads. We will continue to grow with our customers.

“We benefit from international chemical shipments with our tank container operation, and we are optimistic about future activity. We're seeing more demand for dedicated road transport of tank containers in the United States because the railroads don't want to handle them.

“We've built a good reputation as a family-owned tank truck carrier. We have a low-key, conservative management style, and we take care of business. We have a great team of managers (both family and non-family) running this company.”

Another strength is Miller Transporter's participation in the American Chemistry Council's Responsible Care Partnership program. “We are currently pursuing third-party certification in the Responsible Care Management System,” Lee says. “We find that many chemical shippers give preference to Responsible Care partners.”

Driver strength

Well-trained drivers with a strong safety commitment also help attract chemical shippers to Miller Transporters. The driver team currently consists of 428 total drivers.

“We're having reasonable success attracting both company drivers and owner-operators,” says Terry Malone, vice-president of human resources & insurance. “Still, the number one safety challenge we face at Miller Transporters is finding qualified drivers. We go through a lot of applications for each person we hire.”

Driver selection starts at the carrier's 19 terminals, but all applications are approved at the main office in Jackson. The approval process takes about five days. Basic qualifications include a minimum age of 23 and at least one year of over-the-road truck driving.

“We have found that we get the best results with drivers who have at least some experience over-the-road,” Malone says. “The more they have, the better it is for us. In the past, we tried a few recent driving school graduates, but that never worked for us.

“The only exception we make is with the spouses of owner-operators. We will accept them with limited truck driving experience if they want to work together as a team with their spouse. That's one way we keep veteran owner-operators.”

Malone points out that the industry-wide shortage of truck drivers prompted Miller Transporters to lower its minimum age from 25. In addition, the carrier previously wanted at least two years of over-the-road experience. Even with the changes, though, the average age of the driver force is 45.

To be selected by Miller Transporters, a driver must have a clean driving record. In addition to a valid commercial driver license, applicants must have current hazardous materials and tank endorsements.

The carrier uses a DAC 20/20 background check for basic verification of employment and criminal status. That is followed by a more detailed check through Van Ella & Associates.

Those who are selected at the end of the initial evaluation process begin a training program that really never ends. This is a key strength of the Miller Transporters safety program. It is a process that has evolved over many years.

For most drivers, training starts with in-cab instruction at the terminal where they will be based. That instruction is handled by a cadre of 57 driver trainers spread across the Miller Transporters system.

Company equipment

Drivers get hands-on instruction with the equipment in the Miller Transporters fleet. Company tractors are International 9900i conventionals, 90% of which have 72-inch raised-roof sleepers. They have Qualcomm satellite tracking and communications, 435-horsepower Caterpillar C15 engines, and Fuller 10-speed transmissions. The newest tank trailers in the fleet are from Brenner Tank Trailer, and many of them have a 400°F capability. Most are DOT407 units with a 6,900-gallon capacity. Tank hardware includes Girard pressure-relief vents and Betts discharge outlets.

From the home terminal, the driver goes on to the New Driver Orientation Safety Training School, a three and a half day program that is conducted at the main office in Jackson. Drivers can't haul any loads on their own until they go through the school, according to Ray Riley, safety director.

The orientation program consists of approximately 20 individual training modules: Company history, Concepts in Quality, working with others, company policies, safety related to customer requirements, drug and alcohol awareness, personal safety and ergonomics, Miller bill of lading, pre-trip inspections, driver logs, trip planning and management, hazard communication, emergency response, safe loading and unloading, defensive driving, fatigue and stress management, tank trailer details, Operation Life-Saver, and pump and compressor operation.

Drivers must successfully pass several tests during the program. First is a 50-question test on Operation Life-Saver, a railroad grade crossing awareness program. Tests also are administered after the hazard communication and driver log sessions. A comprehensive job knowledge test comes at the conclusion of the orientation.

“This is a 100-question test that covers key points from the training program,” Riley says. “Drivers must score a minimum of 75% to pass.”

Owner-operators receive additional training during the orientation to help them become better businessmen. “We recently started a half-day finance program, because we saw that some of our owner-operators were struggling on the business side,” Malone says. “We teach them about money management and point out that they must calculate a salary for themselves. We also discuss record keeping and fuel-mileage tracking. We believe sound financial management and safety go together.

Back at the home terminal, owner-operators and company drivers must handle at least three to five loads in a product class before being authorized to haul those cargoes. The loads are handled with a driver trainer present.

Newly signed drivers begin attending safety meetings that are held monthly. The meetings are conducted by members of the safety department, which includes Malone, Riley, a training manager, and three safety managers.

“We're able to get 88% to 100% of our drivers to attend the meetings,” Riley says. “We plan the meetings well in advance, and we target key safety areas to cover. We begin developing topics when we gather the entire safety department together at the beginning of each year.”

Dispatcher development

Drivers aren't the only ones who undergo an extensive training regime at Miller Transporters. The carrier also has developed a three-tiered career-development program for dispatchers. (A detailed description of the program is on page 29 in the coverage from NTTC's annual Safety Conference.)

“The dispatcher is the key person at the terminal level,” Malone says. “We have two to three dispatchers at each terminal, plus those in the central dispatch office in Jackson. They interact everyday with our drivers, and they have a big impact on driver satisfaction. We believe the dispatcher training program helped us reduce driver turnover from 41% to 29% last year. We also believe the dispatcher training program helped us win the NTTC Outstanding Performance Trophy.

“Dispatchers are our future managers, because we promote from within at Miller Transporters. We groom our dispatchers for advancement.”

When hired, a dispatcher spends several days assigned to a tractor-trailer rig. The new dispatcher also works in one of the nine tank wash racks in the Miller terminal network.

After a year on the job, a dispatcher goes through the Level 1 program. Six dispatchers at a time are in this weeklong program conducted at the Jackson headquarters. They meet with managers from every department in the company. Level 2 follows after the dispatcher has been on the job for two years. This session includes in depth discussions of safety, operations, maintenance, and environmental issues.

Level 3 — the final level — is by invitation only. It includes the NTTC Middle Management Course conducted annually at Purdue University.

All of these training programs are part of a very focused effort to make Miller Transporters the best and safest tank truck carrier in the industry. The carrier also benchmarks its performance against other NTTC carrier members. Management maintains a 10-year running measurement for accidents and incidents.

“We always want to do better,” Scott says. “We're constantly refining our processes. We don't want to just be good. We always want to be better than the industry average. That's what made this company successful over the past 65 years, and we believe it's our key to success in the future.”