JAMES TIONA, president of Tiona Truck Line, Butler, Missouri, understands what it takes to be a viable tank truck carrier in today's challenging market environment.
“We re-evaluated our customers and the industry, and determined that there is a need to partner with customers who understand what it costs to provide the service they demand,” he said. “Service requirements are getting tighter all the time — complicated by just-in-time deliveries, scheduling problems with loading and unloading windows, and terrible traffic conditions.”
Like all carriers in the industry, Tiona Truck Line contends with rising fuel and insurance costs. The company also struggles with recruiting and retaining drivers. Unable to control much of the rising costs, the company has emphasized expense reduction and customer service in order to succeed.
“We've worked on increasing our efficiency,” Tiona says. “We want to be as lean as we can.”
But carriers also have to take a proactive approach if they are to remain viable. That's not easy in a competitive environment where some carriers are willing to take shortcuts in safety and quality. However, shippers often find that the low bidder on a contract may not be qualified to maintain service, Tiona says.
“The shipper has the luxury of using a low-cost provider while knowing that other carriers will be there as a backup, so there is really no risk to the shipper,” he says. “When we have been underbid by a carrier like that, we have waited it out. Sometimes, we have gotten the business back in six months or a year.”
Tiona Truck Line, a specialized dry bulk carrier owned by Tiona, his mother, Florilla “Frosti” Tiona, and his sister, Diana Jill Tiona, hauls foodgrade or foodgrade-compatible products.
Florilla Tiona seconds her son's comments, noting that the company recently lost a contract after having served the shipper for 25 years. Tiona Tank Line was succeeded by a carrier that bid a slightly lower rate.
“We had the experience of having to close a terminal after losing to the lower bid,” she said. “I think this is typical for many carriers today. This is really the toughest time that I have seen since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Surviving those previous slowdowns, I think, prepared us to weather these ups and downs that the industry is encountering now.”
Helping to weather the ups and downs is considerably enhanced through the use of some of the latest information technology. Efficiency in administrative operations increased with the recent implementation of RapidLog, a driver log software program from Eclipse Software Systems Inc. RapidScan scans driver logs into the program, which evaluates entries for accuracy, points out violations so that the company can step in, and archives the information. The logging software cuts back on paperwork. Drivers are given monthly printouts of the information for review.
Another program, T-Check software, keeps track of driver fuel purchases and simplifies tax reporting procedures. The company runs the programs on an IBM AS/400.
Another example of the company's operation philosophy is in its efforts to recruit and retain drivers. To contend with driver shortages, the company has become involved with two driver training schools, one in Houston, Texas, and the other in Wichita, Kansas. However, word-of-mouth recommendation from current company drivers continues to produce most prospective drivers. The company offers bonuses to drivers who recommend other drivers. The bonuses are based on the time the referred driver remains on the job: 90 days, $250; six months, another $250; and one year, $1,000.
All driver training is conducted at the Butler location and is directed by Donna DeLozier and Kevin Brown, fleet maintenance manager. Training includes company orientation and policies, Department of Transportation regulations, and defensive driving.
After receiving classroom training, new hires continue with on-the-road training overseen by a veteran driver. Because drivers are the most visible company representatives, they are trained to be customer service oriented.
Tom Swarnes in Butler oversees all company dispatchers, but each terminal controls local drivers and trip management.
To offset rising fuel costs, the company has historically included a surcharge in its contracts, another lesson learned from surviving the downturn in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Sometimes our customers question that we include a surcharge in the contract, but we insist on it,” says Tiona.
Another fundamental element of the company's drive for success is its dedication to customer service. There are personnel at each terminal who handle sales and customer service, as well as dispatching, to provide a personal touch at the local level.
“We've always been service oriented and had well-trained and courteous personnel,” he said. “That's an important part of our reputation.”
Efficient management of the company began at its inception in the late 1950s when Florilla and her husband, Jim Tiona, founded the company. Through the years, the company moved from hauling sand for the oil and gas exploration industry to hauling clay for refineries.
After the death of her husband in 1995, Tiona and her two children continued to operate the company, growing it to today's fleet of 95 tractors and 170 dry bulk trailers. The company also uses 35 owner-operators.
Products hauled include flour and other processed grains, sugar, salt, and clay, which is used as a catalyst in the oil refining industry, and plastic pellets. The company generates $13 million in annual revenue and offers its services throughout the United States and Canada, although the busiest areas are in the US Midwest, Southeast, and Gulf Coast.
“We run more in Texas than in any other state,” Tiona points out.
For tractors, the company has chosen Peterbilt Model 378 conventionals with 435-horsepower Cummins engines and Eaton Super 10 transmissions. Drive axles also are from Eaton and have a 3.70 ratio. MeritorWABCO supplies the antilock braking system. Tractors are equipped with Gardner Denver blowers.
Peterbilts come with an extended warranty. Tiona has chosen a six-year trade cycle.
Newest vacuum pneumatic dry bulk trailers are from J&L Tank Inc. The aluminum bulkers are designed for handling low density dry flowable powders and granules. They operate at 14.7 pounds per square inch gauge (psig) and have a 1,600-cubic-foot capacity. Components include Knappco check valves and manholes, Bayco mechanical relief valves, Sure Seal low profile tees, Morris couplings between hoppers, and Sure Seal snap joint couplings for front of tee and rear of rear tee.
Running gear includes Turner Model HT-230 air-ride suspensions, Dana axles, MeritorWABCO ABS, and Truck-Lite lighting.
Tiona service shops handle routine dry bulk trailer maintenance. Shops in satellite terminals handle repairs for their regions. Engine oil and filter are changed at 20,000 miles in company tractors.
Tiona Tank Line operates wash racks at each of its four terminals in Butler; Bainbridge, Georgia; Hutchinson, Kansas; and Pasadena, Texas. The company also operates a rail/truck transfer facility in Greenville, Texas. The decision to add wash racks to the company's operation was made in the 1980s. The Butler facility obtained Kosher certification in May 2001.
Wash racks guarantee control over sanitation and expedite scheduling by being immediately available. The Butler wash rack, typical of the others, is designed for safety and efficiency. The wash rack has a drop-down platform that extends the length of the dry bulk trailer for worker safety. Stairs at each end of the platform save steps. Hoses for exterior cleaning are suspended from the ceiling at intervals along each side of the bay, which keeps them clean, off the floor, and out of the way of workers.
Two cleaning units provide flexibility for the operation. A Kelton system provides high pressure, low water volume capabilities, while a Niagara National vat unit is used when high volume of water is needed.
“As a specialized, but diversified foodgrade carrier, we have to stay on top of customer service in order to compete in this ever-more competitive market,” says James Tiona. “After a time, we can only trim our expenses so much. That leaves us with customer service we can provide as our value-added attribute. We think we do an excellent job. That's why our plans for the future include partnering with shippers who expect the best and understand what quality costs.”