Smooth sailing at Fleet Transit Inc results from well-organized crew

May 1, 2004
KEVIN McNeil, owner of Fleet Transit Inc, is an avid sailor, which may partly explain his management tactics for operating the Baltimore, Maryland, company

KEVIN McNeil, owner of Fleet Transit Inc, is an avid sailor, which may partly explain his management tactics for operating the Baltimore, Maryland, company that transports petroleum products, asphalt, and cement. Knowing the responsibilities of being at the helm, he also recognizes the importance of a well-organized crew.

“That's what the culture is in this company,” he says. “It's all about people. Without drivers, mechanics, dispatch, and accounting as a support team, trucks are just hunks of iron.”

With that philosophy firmly in hand, McNeil prefers to delegate authority to the company's managers for marketing, safety, dispatching, maintenance, and administration.

Bill Tracey, maintenance director, agrees with the management style. “Our people are the key to what we do,” he says.

To keep the company sailing with the wind at its back requires acumen in the hiring and training of employees, McNeil says. It also is another example of McNeil preferring to place control in the employees' hands.

For example, when a prospective employee is considered, he or she is interviewed by several people in the company, typically by those who will be working closely with the person who may be hired.

“When we are interviewing drivers, we have at least three people in on the interview,” says Craig Eldridge, safety director.

“Just about everything we do is in teams,” adds McNeil. “Before we started this team interviewing, I tried all sorts of programs — industrial psychologists and other personnel consultants. We finally settled on the in-house process.”

The technique has paid off. McNeil points to employee retention, with few exceptions, for the 25 years that he has operated the company. Today, in addition to other personnel, there are 65 company drivers for the company's 40 tractors and 25 owner-operators hauling about 140 tank and bulk trailers.

However, it wasn't that way when McNeil first set sail. At that time, his father was running four units and a few lease operators as Fleet Transit. By 1979, the son had graduated from college, and McNeil senior wanted him to join the company. “I planned to give it an honest five years, see what the situation was, and decide if that was what I wanted to do,” McNeil junior recalls.

“We had well-used trucks, 11 trailers, and a couple of lease operators. I was doing the maintenance. It didn't take me long to figure out that maintenance was not my forte.”

Fortunately, Ken Glover came along and loved to do maintenance, so McNeil moved on to marketing. “I started driving around looking for customers. I tried to put myself in their place and ask, ‘If I was buying this service, what would I expect?’ ”

Before too much time passed, he realized he was beginning to like the business. “I won a contract to supply a power plant with one million barrels a year of residual oil.”

The challenge of moving 30-40 loads per day, seven days per week encouraged him further. That was when the company started operating 24/7, a practice it continues today.

In 1982 his father retired and passed the helm to his son, who has been steering ever since.

To keep up with the demands of further business, more vehicles were purchased. Prospective customers started calling, wanting gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and jet fuel services.

Carrier purchase

In 1993, McNeil bought an asphalt carrier to complement the business, which had grown to service the construction industry. Construction service eventually led to supplying cement and the addition of dry bulkers to the fleet.

Today, the company runs 60 petroleum tank trailers, 55 asphalt trailers, 12 dry bulkers, and 13 tank trailers dedicated to hauling fuel oil to bulk plants. The carrier typically operates in the Mid-Atlantic region.

The carrier focuses on meeting service demands in a timely and accurate manner. “We never take on an account that we can't service up to our standards,” says Bob Thrasher, who handles marketing.

He emphasizes the importance of interacting with industry associations such as the National Tank Truck Carriers, National Asphalt Association, Maryland Motor Truck Association, and Maryland Asphalt Association.

“Just about every day I get a phone call from someone asking for information,” he says. “Having the associations for reference really pays off for us. We attend meetings and participate in industry functions.”

Answering questions from customers is part of the service the carrier supplies, McNeil says — whether directly related to the job or not.

A part of logistic planning is finding customers that support trailer utilization rather than customers that would require several stops for one trailer.

“We try to pick businesses that fit us,” McNeil adds. “Everything in this business is planning. You have to stay a week or two ahead of yourself on an operational level and a quarter or two or three on a business development basis.”

Bhavana Desai, the carrier comptroller, sees to it that McNeil is apprised about the company's accounting. “We talk about the numbers all the time so that we can see how we can bring down costs before they escalate,” she says.

A big part of cost control is related to the efficiency in coordinating drivers, the managers say. Six dispatchers, led by David Long, handle drivers and customer orders. Operating 24/7 means that there is always a dispatcher on duty in the office. Most orders come in by e-mail and fax, but a few customers continue to place orders over the phone.

“Some people say they have 24/7 service, but that really means that on weekends and at night they have people on standby to respond to customers,” Long says. “We emphasize the importance of having someone here on duty around the clock — it's one of the services that we market to our customers. It's also good for the drivers because a dispatcher, as well as a mechanic, is always here if they need something.”

Drivers stay in contact with dispatchers via cell phones. Local drivers typically pick up paperwork at the office before beginning a shift.

“We continually cross-train drivers to handle multiple products to meet the diversity of our customer demands,” says Eldridge.

“Our goal is to keep 75 percent of our trucks on the road at any given time,” Long says.

Local service

Local service includes transporting petroleum products to service stations, bus companies, military installations, bulk plants, power plants, and fleets. Cement and asphalt go to manufacturers to be mixed with aggregate.

Prospective drivers have to be at least 23 years of age and have a minimum of three years' driving experience and two years of verifiable tractor-trailer driving experience. The company will consider drivers without tank certification, providing the training if they are hired.

“We explain to them that this is a whole new driving career,” Eldridge says. “We only want to hire the best drivers. We will train them to handle the product.”

Driver training includes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling. Fleet Transit uses the training program from Smith System.

New hires with tank certification receive two days of classroom training before they move on to training under the eye of a driver instructor, says Eldridge.

“They stay with the driver instructor until they have mastered the job,” he adds. “Once they have been on the job, they go back to the classroom so we can verify they have learned what they need. The trait we look for most is to be sure they understand what products they are handling and the mentality of safety they need to be successful.”

Safety meetings

Safety meetings are conducted every third Thursday of the month, and attendance is mandatory. For those on the road at the time, Eldridge schedules one-on-one sessions when the drivers return. Failure to attend a safety meeting will result in loss of the driver's quarterly bonus.

Driver recognition includes seasonal safety programs that result in gifts of raincoats, work boots, and winter coats. Rewards are based on incident-free performance.

Driver records are maintained by administrator Lorna Snowden and entered into an in-house-designed database where they can be analyzed. She and Eldridge work closely in using the data to review activities. They produce a weekly summary report that is distributed to all personnel. It lists the types of incidents and the monetary cost to the company. The report also calculates the cost of driver absences or interruptions in the schedule so drivers can see the fiscal impact on the company.

Every incident is reviewed by a three-member team and the driver within 36-48 hours after the occurrence.

Fleet Transit adopted a program to increase security throughout the operation soon after the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. The program is designed to raise driver and employee awareness.

“Delivering gasoline in the Washington DC area creates added precaution,” says McNeil. “It's not unusual to have a unit stopped three or four times per shift by security personnel in the nation's capital.”

Fleet Transit personnel, including drivers and terminal employees, meet with shippers to review cautionary measures.

One shipper has installed emergency units on equipment for tracking that is linked to the OnStar System. The carrier also contracted with a security reporting company that supplies a toll-free number for employees to report suspicious activity anonymously.

Other security procedures include encouraging drivers to vary routes and to minimize downtime while en route.

Maintenance department

Security and safety also are a priority of the maintenance department, says Tracey. Before moving to maintenance, he directed the Fleet Transit safety program, so he has an especially keen awareness for making sure vehicles are operating in top condition.

All vehicles receive a daily preventive maintenance inspection in a shop bay dedicated for the Safety Lane procedure. “It usually takes about 20 minutes,” says Tracey. (Fleet's main terminal includes the three-bay commercial shop operating as Fairfield Truck and Tank Center Inc. The maintenance facility operates 24/7, as well.)

Mechanics look for indications that might lead to problems on the road and correct them, if need be, before the vehicle is released. Checks include safety equipment, lights, mud flaps and placards, tires and hubs, brakes, and hoses and fittings (typical of Department of Transportation roadside inspections). The daily procedure has worked well for the carrier, reducing on-the-road downtime and increasing customer service benefits.

Other preventive maintenance is scheduled at 5,000, 15,000, 25,000, and 50,000 miles. Fleet Transit runs tractors for 800,000 to 900,000 miles before replacing them.

Mechanics are trained by Tracey, who includes subjects such as first-aid, respirator use, confined entry, fork lift, and hazardous materials.

Mack tractors

Fleet Transit specifies Mack tractors supplied by Baltimore Mack Trucks Inc. The newest tractors are equipped with Mack 450-horsepower engines and 10-speed transmissions.

Running gear includes Meritor steering and drive axles and MeritorWabco antilock braking systems. Aluminum wheels are from Alcoa, and tires are from Bridgestone.

The newest Heil Trailer International petroleum tank trailers are equipped with MeritorWabco's roll stability support systems. The systems help prevent against rollover.

“We were one of the first operations to spec this equipment after it was released to the market,” says Tracey.

By monitoring trailer wheel speed, lateral acceleration, and pressure from the air suspension (required for system operation), the system is able to determine when a trailer is moving toward a rollover threshold. If the threshold is approached, the system applies the brakes just enough to slow the vehicle.

The DOT406 four-compartment petroleum trailers have 9,506-gallon capacity. Other equipment includes Civacon air-operated sequential-opening vents and Knappco domelids. Betts supplies pressure vents for the vapor line located away from the loading area, as well as heavy-duty four-compartment cable operators.

Trailers are spec'd with Truck-Lite light-emitting diode (LED) lighting and Binkley landing gear.

Dry bulkers in the fleet also are from Heil. The three-hopper, 1,040-cubic-foot trailers are equipped with SureSeal aeration systems and butterfly valves.

Heil supplies heavy-duty domelids that are positioned over front and center hoppers. The trailers also have two Knappco swing spring check valves.

The carrier specifies 7,000-gallon Etnyre asphalt trailers with a 500F rating. Hardware includes Etnyre six-inch rear discharge valves and four-inch front pumpoff valves, and domelids. Eagle supplies landing gear, and Stemco provides hubodometers.

All the trailers have Hendrickson's Intraax air suspensions and MeritorWabco ABS.

Fleet Transit continues to add new tractors and trailers to the fleet as the business grows. The company's success has prompted McNeil to buy 21 acres of nearby property and begin construction on a new corporate location.

Plans call for new offices, shop, paved driveways and parking areas, and additional buildings that will be leased to other carriers for terminal use.

To put it in maritime terms: With construction on the new flagship underway, the captain at the helm, and the crew ready for the voyage, the forecast for the carrier seems to indicate smooth sailing ahead.