IN 2001, Wayne Kinsey, president of Benchmark Performance Group Inc, and his management team decided that leased tank trailers offered the best solution for handling distribution of the company's proprietary polymer slurries to its oil and gas pumping services customers.
“Relying on third parties to deliver our slurries was just not practical,” Kinsey says. “We couldn't count on other carriers to know the product or appreciate and respond to our customers' needs.
“Once we made the decision to operate our own fleet of transports, we worked with the folks at Southern Tank Leasing to provide transports that would meet our needs. They understand our just-in-time service philosophy and provide the equipment support we need.”
Ultimately, the company established Benchmark Distribution Services LP (BDS) to transport its slurries and operate its fleet of trucks and trailers. The logistics activities of BDS, a common carrier, are coordinated through the company's headquarters in Houston, Texas, and at its manufacturing plant and main terminal in Midland, Texas.
At first, the company transported slurries in 330-gallon tote tanks, securing 18 of them at a time on a flatbed trailer. “We've always done things creatively,” Kinsey said. “But we knew from the beginning that delivering in that fashion was not very practical. The system worked reasonably well for local deliveries, but it was not well suited for longer, over-the-road transportation.
“We initially leased a 7,500-gallon gasoline transport to haul the slurries, but then we discovered that we would have to re-mix the product if it separated before we could get it delivered,” Kinsey recalls. “That was when we knew we were going to have to design a tank trailer to meet our own unique product and service requirements.”
Eventually, Southern Tank Leasing became Benchmark's equipment supplier and helped provide tank trailers specifically designed to address the product's needs, says Michael Miller, senior vice-president. “We run at a very fast pace, so we had to have the right leasing partner to help us quickly address these issues.”
When transportation of slurry from Benchmark's plant in Midland to its customer's location takes three days or more, the product's various components may fall out of suspension. As a result of product stability requirement, drivers must often re-mix the product before unloading it. Since the re-mixing procedure can mean considerable time atop the trailer, it was necessary to provide the drivers a safe place to work.
“We wanted a catwalk the length of the trailer with a stationary railing to protect our drivers,” says Jerry Hamm, Benchmark's general manager in Midland. “The tankers also must have multiple domelids so our drivers can re-mix the product throughout before it's unloaded.”
In order to expedite unloading, Benchmark specified a double-conical tanker with special shape and internal valves.
Most of the company's slurry products go into slurry storage tanks at customer locations. From there, customers transport it to their work sites. “As part of our turn-key, trademarked SlurryService, we also build and maintain the on-site storage tanks for our customers,” says Kinsey. “Typically, we install 8,500-gallon and 10,000-gallon tanks, containment, and related pumping equipment.”
Benchmark's gel-like polymer slurries are used in hydraulic fracturing, a process that enhances the production of crude oil and natural gas. Oilfield pressure pumping services companies are typical customers for the slurries. BDS delivers Benchmark's slurries and other oilfield chemicals to locations throughout the United States, including West Virginia, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and California.
Kinsey has long been familiar with the oil and gas business, having grown up during his father's career in the Oil Patch. After graduating from high school, Kinsey was hired as a service company truck driver. He eventually worked his way into management — learning transportation, procurement, and distribution along the way.
By 1981, he was ready to start his own chemical services and distribution company, primarily to provide custom dry and liquid blending. Surviving two major — and several minor — downturns in the oil and gas industry, Benchmark moved forward, despite losing significant revenue during those lean times. As the business improved and several related companies were acquired, Kinsey realized he could sell more product by converting the polymer powders Benchmark already was selling into the slurry-form his customers actually needed.
“I immediately saw that we would also need to deliver the slurry, and by 2001 SlurryService — our registered trademark for the turn-key fabrication and installation of slurry storage tanks, containment systems, pumps, mixers, and other equipment necessary for on-site storage — had taken off like a rocket,” Kinsey says. “No one else really wanted to do everything it took to service the customer like we were willing to. Before we introduced SlurryService, our customers were field-mixing their own slurries, and they hated it. It was time-consuming and inefficient, and the finished product was hit or miss on quality and consistency.”
Today, Benchmark supplies a full suite of specialty oilfield products for drilling, cementing, well stimulation, and other oilfield applications, as well as a wide range of commodity chemicals. A team of chemists, chemical engineers, and laboratory technicians, working in the company's laboratories in Midland and Houston, not only oversees production quality control, but also conducts new product research and development for the company.
A third laboratory in Rock Springs, Wyoming, provides quality control and quality assurance for the production of slurries manufactured at that facility, while also providing technical support to the company's customers in the Rocky Mountain region.
Most recently, the company developed a suite of environmentally-friendly slurries. The US Patent and Trademark Office has issued trademark registrations for the company's GreenLite, GreenSweep, and GreensKeeper guar-based polymer slurries.
“Today, a majority of the slurry we supply is green,” says Kinsey. “Our customers are increasingly attuned to environmental concerns, and that's led to a significant change in the market for green slurries, which we helped to introduce just over two years ago. We're looking at ways to make some of our other products more environmentally-friendly, too.”
Getting the company's slurries to its customers falls to dispatchers at the Midland terminal, where they also coordinate transportation of other products for the company's terminals in Lovelady and Bruni, Texas; Duncan, Oklahoma; Rock Springs; Grand Junction, Colorado; Patterson, Louisiana; and Millwood, West Virginia.
Benchmark usually has about 100 drivers in its pool. “Fortunately, we've had very little driver turnover,” says Hamm. “We try to arrange our over-the-road schedules to get them home at night as often as possible — and that seems to play a part in their job satisfaction. We look for drivers who have tank and hazmat certification, as well as mountain driving experience. It takes us anywhere between two and six weeks to train a driver to our satisfaction.”
While driver training includes typical topics such as company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling, for some it also includes special instruction on handling the slurry mixing equipment, with special emphasis on fall prevention and other safety issues.
“Drivers can be on top of the trailer mixing the product for significant periods, often in inclement weather,” adds Hamm. “It just depends on the consistency of the product when it arrives at the customer's facility.”
Training material is provided by J J Keller and is included in required monthly refresher sessions. A safety consultant, John Marks of Midland, also provides information for training.
Drivers are trained in tank volume calculation to determine the amount of slurry already in customers' tanks before new product in the tanker is mixed and unloaded. They use a reel gauge to measure product volume in the tank and calculate volume by taking into consideration the gauge reading in conjunction with the height and diameter of the tank.
“It's a tried and true technique, but it's a bit imprecise, so we're looking at new technologies for remote monitoring and reporting through another trademarked system we've dubbed SlurryWatch,” says Miller.
Drivers are issued cell phones so they can stay in constant contact with company dispatchers. “Sometimes they have only about an hour's notice before they are called in,” Hamm says. “We pay good salaries, because you just couldn't operate this way if your drivers were paid by the mile. They couldn't always get the miles they would need with the way we have to schedule.”
Drivers are encouraged to keep their vehicles clean. The company has a special incentive program for drivers who meet the cleanliness standard. Tractors and tank trailers are washed weekly, and more often if necessary.
“The tank trailers have to be steam cleaned between loads of green slurry and diesel-based products,” Hamm notes.
Although most of the products handled by the company are non-hazardous, all company drivers are required to be hazmat certified. All drivers are issued coveralls made from Dupont's Nomex fiber for high heat and chemical resistance protection and all receive safety gloves, glasses, hard hats, and steel-toed boots.
Drivers are dedicated to specific tractors. Benchmark specifies Freightliner power units with Detroit Diesel engines and Eaton Fuller transmissions. Some of the tractors have Roper pumps driven by Chelsea PTOs.
Southern Tank Leasing supplies DOT407 tank trailers with 5,000-gallon capacities that are equipped with Betts domelids to accommodate the remixing procedures that are required. The fleet typically runs Brenner and Polar tank trailers, some equipped with Girard pressure-relief vents and Betts internal valves. Tankers typically have multiple domelids, one near the midpoint of the tank and the others equally spaced across the top. The tankers are also equipped with special storage racks for the hand-held mixing equipment that accompanies every unit. Benchmark specifies a wide aluminum walkway and a tall stainless steel guard rail to protect the drivers while they are on top during remixing operations.
Running gear includes Hendrickson Intraax suspensions, MeritorWabco antilock brake systems, and Jost landing gear. Truck-Lite supplies lighting.
With the specialized fleet equipment in place, Benchmark managers looked for additional ways to improve efficiency. In January 2007, the company implemented the TMWSuite fleet management software. The application allows Benchmark and BDS to integrate real-time data into a single system that includes order entry, dispatch, rating, invoicing and settlements, accounting, and management reports.
“We integrate our internal procurement of chemicals, customer orders, and third party transportation with the TMWSuite solution,” says Miller. “We will be able to pinpoint our trucks with vehicle tracking, ensure accurate trip scheduling, maximize route efficiency, alert customers on departure, interim status, and delivery times, and add a whole new level of customer service and visibility.”
“Technological innovation has always been one of our strengths,” says Kinsey. “Adding this software will enhance our efficiency and further our commitment to customer service.”
With its “service first” philosophy always at the forefront, and a positive economic trend forecast for the oil and gas industry, Benchmark managers are projecting continued success for the company. “We're very confident about the future because we'll continue to exceed our customers' demands by focusing on service and innovation,” Kinsey adds.