Big jobs

Jan. 1, 2007
MANAGERS at StarTrans Inc emphasize the ability of the cement hauler to take on the biggest jobs with the tightest deadlines.

MANAGERS at StarTrans Inc emphasize the ability of the cement hauler to take on the biggest jobs with the tightest deadlines. They got a chance to prove it in September and October 2006.

The opportunity: Replacement of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport's 37-year-old Runway 8R-26L. The 10,000-ft-long, 150-ft-wide runway had to be removed and replaced on a rigid 60-day schedule. There was no margin for error or delay in the $90-million project, which ultimately consumed about 150,000 cubic yards of concrete.

As the lead hauler for the project, it was StarTrans' responsibility to make sure that the ready-mix plant at the project site had all the cement and fly ash it needed to keep running 24/7 until the job was complete. By the time the new runway was complete, the Holly Hill, South Carolina-based dry bulk carrier had coordinated the transport of approximately 2,300 loads of cement (60,000 tons) and 961 loads of fly ash (25,000 tons).

“This wasn't just the biggest job we've ever been awarded, it was the biggest with the most critical deadline,” says Bob Williamson, StarTrans president. “It was a very high-profile job, and we worked closely with The Kiewit Company (the lead contractor) to make it go smoothly.

“We had some great partners working with us on the transportation. We were assisted on the cement side by Glasscock Companies (Sumter, South Carolina) and Evergreen Transport (Evergreen, Alabama). Helping out with the fly ash were Diamond Bulk Transportation, Shore Trucking, and SEFA — the fly ash supplier that also has a dry bulk fleet.

“We also had a great management team in place to ensure that the transport operation ran smoothly. Galen Murphy, our southern region operations manager, coordinated the cement hauling, and Larry Thibodeaux, Chattanooga (Tennessee) terminal manager, directed the fly ash movements.”

Cement for the airport job came from the Cemex plant in Clinchfield, about 106 miles south of Atlanta. Fly ash was transported from the SEFA plant north of Nashville, Tennessee, a one-way haul of 324 miles. StarTrans relayed the loads through its Chattanooga terminal to keep the shipments moving with minimal interruption.

Big job focus

While the Atlanta airport job was the biggest project landed by StarTrans, Williamson and his partner and vice-president, Vic Thompson, had sought such opportunities almost from the day they established their company in July 2000.

“We have the expertise and the fleet to handle these jobs and meet customer expectations,” Thompson says. “With 409 cement bulkers and 82 high-cube bulkers, we've got one of the largest dry bulk fleets hauling construction materials in the Southeast region.”

Both men already were very experienced in cement hauling when they launched StarTrans. Williamson had been in bulk cement hauling since 1957 and served as president of Santee Carriers from 1989 until 2000 (Santee was owned by TIC United during those years). Thompson was with Santee Carriers for 15 years and rose to vice-president of finance.

By 2000, they decided it was time to strike out on their own. “We developed a business plan that was 13 pages long, including Vic's and my resumes,” Williamson says. “We pledged our homes for $150,000 in cash, which was everything we had at the time. We got a loan from The Associates that gave us enough to buy seven tractors. We leased 10 new Heil dry bulkers and purchased five flatbeds. We also signed up five owner-operators. Our first office was in an old restaurant off I-95. We hauled our first load on July 28, 2000 — my 65th birthday. By the second month, we had made a profit, but Vic and I didn't take a salary for the first six months. We've been profitable every year since we started. We don't want to stop growing. If new business looks good, we'll compete for it.”

Williamson and Thompson worked doggedly to build StarTrans into a solid operation. They convinced Holcim to give them the contract to haul all of the bagged cement from its plant in Holly Hill. They began landing larger and larger contracts from other cement shippers in the region, including LaFarge and Cemex. As more business came in, the fleet grew.

“We bought a lot of repossessed tractors in those early years,” Thompson says. “The recession of 2001 helped greatly in terms of lower prices for low-mileage used tractors. That was the sort of thing that helped us minimize debt in getting this company up and running.”

Revenue growth

Today, StarTrans generates nearly $75 million in annual revenues and has been growing at a rate of 45% to 50% a year. Sister company, Diamond Bulk, will generate an additional $10 million this year. The combined fleet includes 563 tractors, 639 trailers (dry bulkers and flatbeds), and 12 pigs used for on-site storage of cement and fly ash. Cargoes include lime, calcium carbonate, and slag, in addition to the cement and fly ash.

The carrier has expanded steadily beyond the southeastern region where it started. Operations are now conducted as far west as Texas, south into Florida and north to Indiana and Michigan. Some of the best growth opportunities came with the expansion into Kentucky, Michigan, and Indiana.

“We're hauling pulverized limestone to customers in Michigan City and Wheatfield, Indiana, and Sterling Heights, Michigan,” Williamson says. “We're also hauling cement from Chicago, Illinois, to Detroit and Dundee, Michigan. Helping us with the Midwest business are two partners: Diamond Bulk Transportation (an affiliate) and Hill Transport (which runs some of the big Michigan trailers). We have about 50 trailers based in Indiana and Kentucky and more than 40 in Michigan.”

In addition to the headquarters terminal that the company built in 2005, the fleet is dispersed among 12 terminals in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Florida.

Each terminal has its dispatchers, who manage the vehicles assigned to that facility. “We run a hub-and-spoke operation for the most part,” Thompson says. “There isn't a lot of interaction between the terminals. Each terminal is a profit center, and we encourage our terminal managers to think like entrepreneurs and run the business like their own.”

Dispatchers use the dispatch module that is part of TMWSuite to build loads for each tractor-trailer rig. Keeping track of the rigs that are on the road became easier after StarTrans began providing its drivers with Nextel cell phones that have tracking capabilities. Vehicle location is monitored through an Internet-based application.

“We pay $15 per month on each phone for the tracking feature,” Williamson says. “That's a very reasonable price. Our drivers can pay for a per-minute plan that enables them to make and receive personal calls.”

StarTrans currently is testing a global positioning system package that integrates TMW with Nextel tracking. This will allow customers to view truck locations and allow dispatchers to tender loads on the phone display screen. Along with transportation, StarTrans offers third-party logistics management service for its cement shipper customers. Currently, the carrier has assigned three employees to Holcim's Holly Hill plant, and they manage all shipments from that location. “We've been able to achieve a 99.5% on-time delivery record since we took on that contract,” Williamson says.

Dispatchers work closely with the StarTrans drivers, all of them skilled and experienced professionals. The carrier currently has more than 500 drivers on the rolls, and most have far more than the two years minimum truck driving experience that the company requires.

“Experienced drivers have been a key to our success,” Williamson says. “We started with very experienced drivers when we launched this company. All of them had more than 10 years of over-the-road experience, and we knew that they would handle our customers' shipments properly. We have great drivers with excellent on-time deliveries and safe performance.”

Safety commitment

Safety commitment is a major consideration in the selection process. “We look for drivers who can demonstrate a safety-first attitude,” says Dennis Horn, StarTrans safety director. “Safety is a top-down focus at this company, and that helps attract drivers who share our philosophy.”

Safety is a constant theme during the weeklong orientation for new hires. The carrier also holds quarterly safety meetings at each terminal using a Great West Casualty Co program called “Stop Critical Crashes.” Customers also are involved in the safety program. For instance, LaFarge hosted one safety meeting for StarTrans drivers in 2006 at its corporate office in Atlanta.

The safety focus has brought StarTrans plenty of recognition, as well as drivers. The carrier has won numerous annual safety awards from the South Carolina Trucking Association since 2000, including four first-place awards in 2005. It has received three Gold Fleet Safety Awards from Great West.

Another reason StarTrans has been successful in attracting outstanding drivers is that most cement shipments are relatively short-distance. The average haul for StarTrans is 150 miles, and most drivers are home at the end of a shift. Drivers typically haul two loads per shift.

An additional factor is the tractor fleet. Even when it was buying pre-owned vehicles, StarTrans selected tractors with premium specifications and plenty of power. The fleet includes a broad mix of tractors (Volvos, Western Stars, Kenworths, Petes, and Internationals), but that is changing.

“Last year was the first time we had a replacement cycle for our tractor fleet,” Williamson says. “Eighty-five of the 195 new tractors we bought in 2006 were for replacement. We pre-bought another 95 tractors with 2006 engines for delivery in early 2007. We're moving to a five-year replacement cycle. We're also beginning to standardize our fleet on International, Kenworth, and Peterbilt tractors.”

StarTrans runs a mix of daycabs and sleepers due to the nature of its business, which includes a mix of long runs and circle routes. Tractors have premium cab interiors for driver comfort. Safety features include front fender mirrors and extra steps and grab handles.

For the drivetrains, the carrier has selected Cummins ISX (450 horsepower) and Caterpillar C-13 (430 hp) engines, Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmissions, and Dana drive tandems with a 3.36 ratio. Engine cruise control is set for a maximum of 70 miles per hour. For tractor-mounted product-handling equipment, the fleet specifies Tuthill T-850 and Hibon T510 blowers with Chelsea and Muncie PTOs.

“We're trying to keep up with new technology as we refine our fleet specifications,” says Tom Brady, StarTrans director of maintenance & equipment. “For instance, we ordered Bendix stability control systems on all of the new tractors we bought in 2006. We're also specifying larger brakes. We're considering a test in 2007 of Thermo King's TriPak auxiliary power unit on a few of our sleeper tractors.”

StarTrans also has standardized on Michelin's X One widebase tire for both tractor drive and trailer positions. “We've had excellent success with the X-One,” Brady says. “It performs well, and retreads are readily available through the Michelin service network.”

More trailers

The carrier bought more than 100 dry bulk trailers in 2006, and at least 100 more are on order for 2007. The fleet includes cement trailers from Heil Trailer International and Polar Tank Trailer Inc. Cement trailer capacity ranges from 1,000 to 1,040 cubic fleet. StarTrans also owns twelve 4,000-cu-ft carbon steel pigs built for on-site storage by MRMS in Colony, Texas.

Lime is transported in 1,660-cu-ft Polar bulkers, and StarTrans also turned to Polar for at least four self-loaders that will be used in a special operation to serve an Indiana customer. The self-loaders will be fitted with the Automated Cargo Transport System (ACTS) and will be used to haul ground limestone for roofing products.

“We see tremendous potential for this technology,” Williamson says. “We believe it will significantly reduce operating costs related to serving this account. We believe we'll be able to recover our investment cost in about six months. We're already looking for additional customer applications where it would fit.”

The system will enable StarTrans to serve the Indiana customer with just two drivers per shift. They'll be able to move as much ground limestone as five drivers in a typical shift operation. The contract calls for 30 loads a day. The distance from the limestone source to the roofing product plant is 18 miles “We will reduce the drivers and tractors required for the haul from 10 drivers to four and tractors from five to two,” Williamson says.

Automated operation

StarTrans is specifying the ACTS system on Polar self-loaders with a 1,350-cu-ft capacity. Trailer hardware includes automated valves and a control panel that monitors tank pressure, line pressure, and control valve position. The system also will include a stationary blower at the customer location, a silo control panel, and a level sensor with remote monitoring capability in each silo.

The system is almost totally automated and is about as driver-friendly as one could imagine, according to Williamson. Upon arrival at the roofing plant, the driver drops the loaded bulker, connects the unloading hose, hooks up to an empty bulker, and returns to the limestone shipping point.

Product will be transferred to storage silos from the dropped bulker automatically as needed by the roofing plant. No on-site supervision or monitoring is required. However, system operation can be monitored over the Internet by StarTrans managers and their customer.

With few exceptions, dry bulkers in the StarTrans fleet typically are outfitted with a trailer builder's standard hardware package. However, the carrier does plan to test a number of trailers with the Civacon and Pivotal Edge remote operated manlids. About 98% of the trailers are configured solely for air unloading, but a few have gravity-drop capability.

In addition to the X-One tires, trailers have aluminum disc wheels as standard equipment. Hendrickson supplies its Intraax air suspension and Tiremaax inflation management system.

Trailers are on a 90-day service schedule that includes a checkup equivalent to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration annual inspection. Tractors are on a 20,000-mile service interval.

“Our tractors run 110,000 to 120,000 miles a year,” Brady says. “We handle most of the service work on the tractors and trailers in our maintenance shops. We send out major engine work and dry bulk tank repairs. We use code shops for the tank repairs, because we want to know that welds are done properly.”

Across its terminal system, StarTrans has six maintenance shops. The largest is a five-bay shop at the headquarters terminal in Holly Hill. The shops at the other terminals have two to three bays.

With its growing and innovative fleet and expanding service network, StarTrans has the infrastructure needed to continue attracting some of the most demanding jobs. The Atlanta airport-paving project was just the latest example.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.