Dark Gray Freightliner and Mack tractors with handpainted red, white, and blue striping; shiny, low-slung tank trailers with the slogan "America's Best"; blue-uniformed drivers trained in the latest hazardous materials techniques. These are images of quality transportation for the chemical companies served by Suttles Truck Leasing of Demopolis, Alabama.
Providing high-quality service to customers has brought steady growth for the tank truck carrier. Suttles now runs more than 450 tractors and 550 tank trailers and has operations throughout North America. Growth has been generated internally and through acquisitions.
"This business has reached a point where we now have customers worldwide, and they have exacting standards," says James H Suttles, Suttles Truck Leasing president. "We still have our very first customer, and we try to treat each new customer as though they are the first.
"We're optimistic even though we see growing signs of an economic slowdown in 1999. Overseas problems are beginning to be felt by the papermills that we serve in the South. We believe we're prepared, but we will have to work harder. Our growth probably will flatten out."
Impressive Growth Over the 19 years Suttles Truck Leasing has been in business, it has achieved some impressive growth rates and was ranked 20th in Modern Bulk Transporter's most recent Gross Revenue Report with 1997 revenues of $60 million. During the best times, the carrier expanded by as much as 25% a year. Typical annual growth recently has been 10% to 12%.
Acquisitions have helped keep the growth rate high. The most recent deal was concluded in August, when Suttles Truck Leasing acquired the assets of Pan American Tank Lines in Panama City, Florida. Assets included 58 tractors, 94 trailers, and terminals in Panama City, and Bainbridge and Savannah, Georgia. Guy McKenzie, Pan American president, was retained as a consultant.
"Guy's company served with us as a lease operator for the past year," Suttles says. "We will definitely continue to work with him on certain pieces of business."
Including the Pan American terminals, Suttles Truck Leasing now has 19 facilities in 13 states, most of them east of the Mississippi River. Wash racks are in place at seven of the terminals-Demopolis and Creola, Alabama; Houston, Texas; St Gabriel, Louisiana; Grayling, Michigan; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and Columbus, Ohio.
While the terminals are responsible for dedicated hauls, central dispatch in Demopolis controls a majority of the fleet activities. This helps guarantee that customers receive uniform service throughout the system.
Central dispatch also makes it easier to maximize productivity. The fleet stays busy, and the carrier handles more longhaul than shorthaul loads. "We do a lot of 500- to 1,000-mile movements," says Tim Suttles, Suttles Truck Leasing treasurer. "The maximum distance is 3,000 miles."
Chemical hauling takes the fleet all over the continental United States and into Canada and Mexico. Operations in Mexico are coordinated through Border Transfer Service in Brownsville, Texas.
"We've been in Canada for the past 10 to 12 years," Jim Suttles says. "Our customers pushed us to move into Mexico, and the traffic is growing steadily. More and more, we are dealing with customers on a worldwide basis."
With the tractors and trailers scattered so far afield, one of the biggest challenges has been knowing where vehicles are minute to minute. To gather that information, the carrier has begun installing Qualcomm satellite communication units on the tractors. The Qualcomm units will provide location data, messaging, and fuel tax calculations.
"We have ordered our first 50 units, and we have committed to buy 100 units a year for the next two years," Suttles says. "We believe this commitment is one we have to make to remain a leading-edge carrier. Satellite tracking is a tool, and we'll find ways to get the most out of it."
Trailer Specifications Suttles Truck Leasing also had customers in mind while developing specifications for the newest tank trailers in the fleet. The DOT407 tanks can carry an extra 1,200 pounds of cargo, and they provide an extra margin of rollover safety.
Built by Brenner, the trailers are lower to the ground and are longer than typical units. Measured from the top, the 7,000-gallon stainless steel tanks are 11 inches lower. The upper coupler was recessed about four inches to help keep the tank level. Hardware on top of the tank also was recessed. Designers took 51/2 inches out of the bolsters above the subframe. Barrel length was extended two feet.
The Brenner tanks are specified with Betts domelids and discharge outlets and Girard pressure- and vacuum-relief vents. The tanks are insulated and have in-transit heat. Help in lowering tank center of gravity came from Meritor axles with a 102-inch track. The trailers also have Alcoa aluminum wheels, 11R24.5 Michelin tires, and Reyco suspensions with composite springs.
"We've been very pleased with the composite springs," Suttles says. "We haven't broken one in the past five years."
Gray Tractors Tractors also are specified with the customer in mind. The carrier makes selections based on reliability, productivity potential, and image. The newest longhaul tractors in the fleet weigh 16,100 pounds minus product pump systems and fuel.
"We want tractors that project the professional image that we have worked hard to build," Suttles says. "We also want them to provide a high level of comfort to our drivers without sacrificing the ability to haul a competitive payload. We believe we've achieved those objectives with Freightliner's Century Class conventional, and we have over 200 of them now."
The Century Class has a modern aerodynamic shape that appeals to the carrier. Units assigned to solo drivers are ordered with 58-inch mid-roof sleepers. Those running with teams have 70-inch high-rise sleepers and two bunks.
The carrier fills the tractors with a variety of driver amenities, including air-ride seats, tilting steering wheels, powered windows, air-conditioning, AM-FM radio with cassette tape deck, and heated mirrors. Drivers are allowed to add televisions, refrigerators, and microwave ovens if the wiring is done by Suttles Truck Leasing mechanics.
Caterpillar C12 engines are specified in the Century tractors and rated at 430 horsepower. Also part of the drivetrain are Meritor nine-speed overdrive transmissions and tandem-drive axles with a 4.10 ratio.
Cruise control comes with the electronic C12 engines, and maximum speed is set at 65 miles per hour. The tractors also have Jacobs engine brakes, Meritor WABCO air dryers, air-ride suspensions, and plastic bumpers.
Shorthaul operations are handled by daycab tractors. The newest units in the fleet are Mack CH613 conventionals. "We will have 60 of these tractors by the end of the year," Suttles says. "Mack made an aggressive bid to win our business, and these tractors have a good resale value in our area."
The tractors are specified with 427-hp Mack engines and Meritor nine-speed transmission and drive-tandems. Like the Century Class tractors, the Macks have air-ride suspensions, aluminum disc wheels, and Michelin tires.
Behind the cab of every tractor in the fleet, Suttles mechanics have installed a hose rack fabricated from tubular steel. Coiled on the racks are Goodyear chemical hoses supplied by Hart Industries.
Tractor-mounted product handling equipment also includes a 16-cfm air compressor, Roper pump, and a hydraulic drive system with a Drum Hydrapak cooler. "We do a small amount of air unloading with our own equipment," Suttles says. "Most of the plants that want air offloading have their own stationary compressors."
Finding Drivers Keeping drivers in the tractors has become more of a challenge for Suttles Truck Leasing. "Many of the applicants we see today have little or no tank experience," he says. Hiring standards remain high, though. Drivers must be at least 23 years old to be hired by Suttles Truck Leasing. A valid commercial driver license is required, along with a minimum of two years of over-the-road truck driving experience.
In addition, applicants must have a high school diploma or equivalent and be able to read and write English. They must present a neat, clean appearance. No beards are allowed. Suttles Truck Leasing will accept no more than two preventable accidents in the past 36 months on an applicant's driving record. No more than three moving violations are permitted. A conviction for driving under the influence automatically disqualifies an applicant.
Newly hired drivers attend a five-day training program at classrooms in Demopolis or Columbus, Ohio. Classes are held weekly and are limited to no more than 10 drivers at a time. Training is conducted by Jim Blair in Demopolis and John Craig in Columbus.
Eighty percent of the training focuses on Department of Transportation regulations, hazardous materials handling requirements, driver logs, paperwork procedures, and product shipping names. One day is devoted to hands-on training with the equipment. At the start of a training class, each driver is issued a thick manual that was developed by Safety Director Bob Bonich and his safety team. Thirteen chapters cover everything from company history, customer relations, quality improvement program, and controlled substances policy to accident instructions, hours of service and logging requirements, hazardous materials handling guidelines, and terminal location maps.
Safety Meetings Training is an ongoing process that is reinforced at quarterly safety meetings. Everyone based at a terminal attends the first part of the quarterly meetings. General topics are covered, including company policies, changes in regulations, and reviews on handling hazardous materials. Attendance is mandatory.
The second half of each meeting is for drivers only. Topics covered include driver log issues, customer relations, and updates on equipment specifications. Separate safety meetings for mechanics and wash rack personnel are held every other month. General workplace safety is discussed, along with updates on products being transported in the tank trailers, right-to-know topics, and material safety data sheets. Mechanics and wash rack workers receive a lot of attention partly because they play a major role in guaranteeing that equipment meets or exceeds customer expectations. "All of our employees are important," Suttles says. "We couldn't have achieved the success we have without them."
The seven Suttles wash racks ensure that the carrier supplies customers with the cleanest possible equipment. The Demopolis facility is the largest in the system with four drive-through bays. It is open to other carriers and provides cleaning with caustic, detergent, and steam. No poisons are accepted.
The Demopolis wash rack runs around the clock, seven days a week, cleaning about 1,000 tanks a month. Wash equipment includes a Kelton unit and Sellers and Spraying Systems Inc spinners. Wastewater is chemically pretreated before being released to the sewer.
Maintenance Operations The focal point of the maintenance operation also is in Demopolis. Facilities include a four-bay tractor shop and two-bay prep center. Specialists in the prep center paint the red, white, and blue striping on all new tractors. They also refurbish or rebuild vehicles.
"New tractors arrive from the factory painted metal flake gray, and it takes our prep center workers about a day to air-brush on the striping," Suttles says. "The painted striping looks better and costs less than decals. We like the gray primary color because it doesn't show dirt as much as other colors."
While routine trailer service is performed in the Suttles shops, code tank repairs are contracted out to Southern Tank Leasing, which is jointly owned by Suttles and Boyd Duckett. Duckett serves as general manager of the operation, which includes a 12-bay tank repair shop next to the Suttles Tank Leasing terminal in Demopolis. Southern Tank Leasing has a second shop in Nashville, Tennessee. Both shops have National Board "R" stamps.
Mechanics in the shop are experienced at working on all types of tank trailers. Repair work comes in from about a 500-mile radius. To meet the tank repair needs, the shop stocks a large inventory of parts.
"We keep a relatively large number of parts on hand, because we're not close to any major city," Suttles says. "We don't want to wait three to four days to get the parts we need." The leasing side of Southern Tank leasing stays as busy as the repair operations. After seven to eight years of use, Suttles tank trailers are sold into the Southern Tank Leasing fleet, which consists of approximately 300 tanks at this time. The Suttles tanks are thoroughly refurbished and updated before joining the lease fleet.
Chemical plants, many of them served by the Suttles fleet, are among the biggest customers. "Probably 50% of the tanks we lease are used for storage at chemical plants," Suttles says. "This is just one more way that we try to give our customers the very best service. It's part of our effort to be America's best tank truck carrier."