Three Rivers Trucking turns farming into successful bulk hauling operation

April 1, 2004
WINDING north out of Paris, Tennessee, State Highway 69 passes through farm fields dotted with homes and barns. About six miles from town just over a

WINDING north out of Paris, Tennessee, State Highway 69 passes through farm fields dotted with homes and barns. About six miles from town — just over a hill — the scene changes.

Across a wide stretch of fallow land, the rural panorama gives way to another industry — trucking. In the distance are about a dozen dry bulk trailers parked at Three Rivers Trucking Inc, looking like they were a newly planted crop.

“Daddy was raised here on the farm,” says Randy Crutcher, Three Rivers president, explaining the carrier's location on the 1,600-acre farm that used to sprout corn, soybeans, and wheat. “This is where I grew up.

“We started hauling grain gradually as farming became less successful — and the trucking industry was deregulated. Eventually, we set aside the land in a government program. Then in 1985 we switched to clay. Today, we cater to the ceramic industry and haul clay, talc, asphalt sealer, and feldspar in the dry bulkers and clay slurry in liquid tank trailers.”

Crutcher's wife, Janice takes an active role in the trucking operation, overseeing administration. Crutcher, in addition to handling marketing, dispatches drivers. He prefers to have direct communication with shippers as part of the services he offers.

“All of them have my home phone,” he says. “It's not unusual for them to call when they can't reach someone at one of the plants. So I step in and find whoever they are looking for.”

The personalized customer service, as well as the diversification from farming to trucking — and the wisdom to know when to change directions — have proved successful for the company that now dispatches 35 dry bulkers and 12 tank trailers across the United States. About 80 percent are dedicated runs.

In the beginning, Crutcher bought two dry bulkers to serve the clay producers in the Paris area. The region has layers of ball clay that works well for specialty tile products, such as those for bathrooms, kitchens, and other sanitary uses.

“As the clay companies' business improved, and demand called for it, we bought more trailers,” Crutcher says.

Typical of today's operation is the service for Kohler Corp with three plants: Spartanburg, South Carolina; Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and Brownwood, Texas.

Three Rivers Trucking loads clay in the Paris area and transports it to manufacturing plants. The carrier travels to New York to load a product and transport it to Ohio. Because of the specialized product made from the clay, shippers dictate the dedicated trailers, he says.

Company drivers

Handling all of this transportation are 45 company drivers. “Most of them have been with us for several years,” says Crutcher. “They know what to do.”

Marilyn Solberg provides the driver training needed to keep drivers updated, and trains new drivers in company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, and defensive driving.

Local drivers check in with the office twice a day on telephones provided by the company. Over-the-road drivers call in each day at noon.

Crutcher believes that the new hours-of-service regulations for drivers will not negatively impact the operation. “I think it actually helps us,” he says. “Drivers are home on the weekends and then they start a new workweek. However, I think the rules will need some adjustments. Ten hours in a sleeper birth is a long time. I tell my drivers, if they are tired, they need to go to bed.

“I also had discussions about the rule with the drivers,” he adds. “We got on the Internet, looked at the government Web sites with the information, and thrashed out a lot of stuff.”

Fleet maintenance

Fleet maintenance is overseen by Ricky Lewis, shop foreman, who has been with the company since its inception.

Five mechanics and Lewis handle the work in a three-bay shop — one bay dedicated to engine repairs, one bay for servicing tractors and tank trailers, and the third for additional work on either tractors or trailers.

“We try to run the units through every week to check brakes, lights, fluid, and tires,” says Lewis. “Most of the time, we catch something before we have a major problem.”

Tractors are serviced every 15,000 miles for oil changes and other preventive measures.

Newest tractors are from Peterbilt, but there also are Internationals in the 43-tractor fleet. They typically have 425- to 475-horsepower Detroit Diesel engines and nine-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.

“For product handling, we have Gardner Denver PTO-driven blowers mounted on the tractors — some we have had in service for 10 years — and they all give excellent service,” says Crutcher.

As for the bulkers and liquid tank trailers, Crutcher relies on Melvin Collins at Southeastern Pneumatic for advice on purchasing and maintaining the vehicles. “He was a big help to us when we got started in the dry bulk business,” says Crutcher.

The trailer fleet includes equipment from J&L, Heil, Fruehauf, and Butler for the dry bulkers and Bar-Bel Fabricating Co (purchased in 1986 by Brenner Tank LLC) for the liquid tankers. Dry bulkers typically have 1,530- to 1,600-cubic feet capacity while the liquid trailers can haul 4,500 gallons.

Most dry bulkers are specified with Sure Seal butterfly valves and Solimar Pneumatics aeration equipment, says Scott Cobb at Southeastern Pneumatic.

All of these vehicles are kept busy just keeping up with shipper demands, a situation that Crutcher says calls for him to enlarge the fleet.

Future plans

“We are going to have to expand,” he notes. “The phone is ringing off the wall. I really feel like this is going to be a good year. We are finding that rail service is unpredictable, which means we can step in to fill that gap.”

To compete with the market, he is planning to build a new office and shop. “We have just outgrown the shop,” he adds.

A decision eventually will be made whether to move the company into town near a rail site, which would bring new transloading opportunities, or whether to stay on the farm.

Crutcher admits he is leaning toward moving into Paris — and there is that saying: “once they've seen Paree, it's hard to keep them down on the farm.”