ABOUT TWO years ago when managers at Blossman Propane Gas & Appliance began to consider installing product level monitoring systems on customer tanks, they scheduled a trip to the English West Midlands and the Coastal North Sea.
They weren't on vacation.
“We wanted to see how the equipment we were thinking of using was holding up in those tough elements,” says Jessie Johnson, Blossman sales vice-president.
After visiting propane distributors — Calor Gas in Birmingham, England, a unit of SHV Holdings, based in Utrecht, the Netherlands — Blossman managers returned to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, satisfied the equipment would meet their requirements.
Today, 1,000 customer tanks are equipped with telemetry components from Silicon Controls Pty Ltd, North Ryde, Australia, and the propane marketer is in the process of installing them on all tanks in its 100,000-customer network.
“This decision makes us seem like a utility provider to our customers,” Johnson says. “It's much like electricity or telephone service — once customers are online, service becomes automatic.”
Since Blossman's customer base is growing, the automated systems allow the company to handle more accounts in less time than was previously required. At the time Blossman began activating the system, more people were asking for service — setting a new-customer record in 2003-2004. Johnson says installing new tank monitoring systems came at just the right time.
The system operates through a product level sensor on the tank. This sensor is linked through a data receiving box in the customer's home to a telephone line to Blossman headquarters. Data is automatically collected by the company's server. In addition to capacity reports, the system will indicate when tank equipment is malfunctioning.
“Our goal is to be 50% more effective than the way we were handling our customers' tanks before,” Johnson says. “It was all human checking then.”
This move for better efficiency through technology is typical of the company's plans for growth. “This company is not afraid to embrace change,” says Walter Stuart III, corporate development vice-president.
With that philosophy established, the company has upgraded the way it handles customer transactions. Blossman's delivery fleet, both bulk and cylinder, is being automated with TouchStar's Fuelware solution. Drivers use a hand-held computer to automate what were manual processes in the past. The Fuelware application captures the quantity of product delivered, applies it to the customer's account, captures a signature for proof of delivery, and prints out an invoice. The solution allows the company to issue receipts for payments, complete vehicle inspections, trip reports, and regulatory tasks such as leak tests.
The bulk fleet also utilizes the Actaris metering system that includes the Neptune E4000 electronic register which is connected to the TouchStar hand-held device. Collected data is transferred wirelessly into Blossman's enterprise software. The system is paperless, and drivers are no longer burdened with completing handwritten reports.
Like many service companies today, Blossman is making use of the Internet by providing customers with a service section on its Web site at blossmangas.com. Customers can access their accounts, pay bills, order propane, request repair service, and purchase appliances.
All of this technology is quite a change from 1951 when the company was founded by the late Woody Blossman, who began with one truck and one retail store.
The company is 70% percent owned by the third generation of the Blossman family and 30% by employees. It handles about 75 million gallons of propane per year, operates 175 bobtails, and has 73 appliance stores in a service area that stretches across eight southern states from Virginia to Mississippi.
“We are continuing to grow and are always looking for opportunities to expand our business,” says Stuart. “However, we prefer a slow growth pattern that is in keeping with maintaining a high level of customer service.”
The business is divided into about 60% residential customers and 40% commercial, Stuart notes. Commercial accounts include businesses that use propane-powered fleet vehicles, generators, and fork lifts. Accounts also include restaurants, farms and green houses, glass blowers, ski area lodges, airports, schools, and municipalities.
Today's logistics for handling customer supply includes one or two bobtails typically based at each company location. Offices are scattered through Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
Drivers pick up product at the company's 150 bulk storage plants that usually have two tanks with 30,000-gallon capacity each for a total of about 4.5 million gallons companywide. Product also is available from pipelines and rail transloading sites. For-hire carriers supply company storage tanks.
Another mark of efficiency comes from the arrangement Blossman has with Mississippi Tank Co and Ward International Trucks Inc, says Johnson. Blossman has a five-year partnership with Mississippi Tank (which coordinates with Ward International) to build bobtails. Blossman works out initial specifications and then leaves details to the two suppliers.
“This agreement really takes time off our managers who would otherwise be involved in more of the planning,” Johnson says. “Now they aren't tied up with bobtail purchases and are free to devote time to other projects.”
“Any efficiency like this arrangement for our bobtail acquisitions gives us more opportunity to expand our market,” Stuart adds.
The company typically trades trucks about every 10 years. Depending on individual truck use in terrains that are harder on the vehicles, trades may come earlier.
Other than installing meters and pumps, Blossman outsources routine maintenance and leaves major repairs to extended warranties purchased when new bobtails are acquired.
Specifications are designed to give bobtails the capability to work any area in the company's region so that trucks can be interchanged, if the need arises.
Blossman is beginning to specify Allison automatic transmissions in a few of the trucks where terrain and traffic demand a smoother gear transition. “It's an extra $4,000 per truck, but the expense has been worthwhile,” Johnson says.
Most International 4300 Series trucks are standardized with International 225-horsepower engines and Transmission Technologies Corp seven-speed transmissions. Running gear includes International 12,000-pound front and 21,000-pound rear axles. International also makes the front and rear suspensions. Bendix supplies antilock braking systems. Newest bobtails are equipped with Goodyear 11R22.5 tires.
Blossman wants bobtails to reflect a consistent company image, so the company specifies all bobtails with Accuride steel wheels painted white and the International cabs painted red.
For driver comfort, bobtails are equipped with air ride seats.
All trucks have 3,000-gallon Mississippi Tank MC331 pressure vessels with components that include Fisher valves, Hannay reels, and Blackmer pumps.
Handling the trucks are 175 drivers who are trained by four fulltime safety instructors in Ocean Springs. Don Singleton, safety director, oversees the safety program that includes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling.
A 10,000-square-foot training facility has two classrooms, 10 work stations, and an area dedicated to training in plumbing and venting. The center was designed primarily for propane appliance technical training, but also is used for driver training, as well as computer software training, sales training, and a variety of other training programs.
When drivers complete training, they are assigned to the Blossman location where they will be based. Many drivers park their bobtails at home when not on duty, but they typically go into the local office for dispatch instructions before beginning their routes.
Like the company itself, the driver force continues to grow as Blossman expands its market base. One way the company serves its drivers is to cover the cost required for hazardous materials endorsements on commercial driver licenses. With a new federal rule in effect that requires driver background checks, including fingerprinting, drivers face fees and long-distance travel expenses to licensing centers.
“We certainly understand the value of our good drivers,” says Johnson. “We want to do everything we can to encourage retention. They are the face of our company and their interaction with our customers is invaluable.”
As for the company's future, Stuart points out that the Southeastern part of the United States continues to grow, offering more residential and commercial market possibilities for Blossman.
New home owners often choose propane — sometimes for fireplace gas logs, other times for entire home energy use. Customers with an eye for fuel efficiency are turning to tankless water heaters that can provide a cost savings of 30% to 50%. The heaters became a big item for Blossman, recently boosting sales and installation to two per week in one location, Johnson says.
Another example of propane efficiency demands, and a growing market possibility, has been demonstrated at airports where grounds maintenance departments are replacing gasoline-powered lawn mowers with those using propane to reduce air pollution.
“We are involved in these developments,” says Stuart. “And, we want to be ready as each opportunity presents itself.”
With a firm hold on technology and its advantages, coupled with efficient growth and dedicated customer service, Blossman is ready to meet market prospects for the future.