Tight Focus on Mission Positions Butler & Company Inc for Success

Feb. 1, 1998
WAYNE CHRISTIAN is a tire serviceman at Butler & Company Inc, but he does far more than check air pressure and fix flats. He also is charged with developing

WAYNE CHRISTIAN is a tire serviceman at Butler & Company Inc, but he does far more than check air pressure and fix flats. He also is charged with developing new ideas on how to make his area of the company more productive and profitable.

Like everyone else at the Vernon, Alabama-based dry bulk carrier, Christian has written a mission statement that outlines his goals and expected contributions. His statement incorporates key elements from the mission statements of his supervisor and of George Newman, the operations manager.

"Through our quality program, we've tried to push the smaller decisions to the lowest levels of the company," says Mike Miller, Butler & Company team leader. "It's remarkable what people can do when they are empowered.

"Everyone in the company is involved in the quality process, and that includes mechanics, tank cleaners, drivers, and bookkeepers. Each employee has written a job-focused mission statement that incorporates George's broader strategies and goals. Performance is judged on how well each employee meets the objectives of his mission statement."

Newman adds that the quality program and employment empowerment have enabled him to spend more time on strategic planning projects. The result is that the company has been able to hone its competitive edge and develop more focused services for its customers.

"This is a family-owned company and the family members used to make every decision no matter how big or small," he says. "We were so busy with minor decisions that we had no time for anything like strategic planning. We realized that we had to change our way of operation if we wanted this company to survive long-term."

The shift in management philosophy is just the latest change for the 52-year-old trucking company. Bernice Butler started the company in 1946 hauling coal and grain primarily for customers in northwestern Alabama.

Newman joined the company in 1976 after marrying Butler's daughter. Bernice's son Tim arrived in 1981, at which time he and Newman were handed the reins to the company. Immediately, they faced some formidable challenges.

"The regional feed mills were replaced by national processors, and this happened very quickly," Newman said. "We had to diversify or shut down Butler & Company. It was a tense time."

Despite having no contracts lined up, it was decided that the company would shift its focus to dry bulk cargoes, and the first dry bulk trailers were purchased in 1984. The first dry bulk contract was to haul clay from Mississippi to Florida.

"We learned about dry bulk hauling on the run," says Tim Butler, assistant manager at Butler & Company. "We used publications such as Modern Bulk Transporter as our textbooks. We worked hard to find new customers. For instance, George would haul a load to Florida and then would spend the weekend making sales calls.

"Why did we select dry bulk? We saw dry bulk freight moving on the highways. It wasn't greatly different from what we had been doing, and we believed we could do it well."

Successful Gamble The gamble and the hard work paid off. Today, the carrier is a dry bulk specialist with annual revenues near $30 million. The last feed trailer in the fleet will be retired at the end of this year.

Butler & Company operates 175 dry bulk trailers and 130 tractors. Sixty of the tractors are supplied by owner-operators. Cargoes include clay, sand, calcium carbonate, and catalyst. Plastics were added in 1990 and have brought some of the best growth opportunities for the carrier.

A big boost came in 1991 when Butler & Company was named the inhouse carrier for the Condea Vista chemical plant in Aberdeen, Mississippi. The contract also covers packaged shipments, and the carrier added 25 van trailers for that.

The fleet operates out of three terminals in Vernon; Cairo, Georgia; and Baytown, Texas. Plans are underway to open a fourth terminal in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"The Baytown terminal has been an outstanding success, and Baton Rouge has similar potential," Newman says. "Opened in April 1997, the Baytown terminal will generate over $10 million. Much of the credit for the quick success at Baytown goes to the terminal manager, Steve Brantley, and his team. He has over 10 years' experience in plastics, and he built a team that hit the ground running.

"To some degree, we have benefited from the Union Pacific Railroad problems in Houston (Texas). We opened the terminal just as the railroad problems came to light. We've been able to supply just about enough equipment, although we have had to turn down some loads.

"Some of the plastics shipments that have come our way in Baytown will be lost once the UP sorts out its problems. However, we are working to make the Baytown terminal a long-term success, and we are obtaining long-term commitments from some of our customers."

In addition to the fleet terminals, Butler & Company is developing a rail transfer facility in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Called Avenue Intermodal, the facility should be operational by the second quarter of 1998.

Dispatch Operations Dispatchers based at the Vernon and Baytown terminals direct fleet operations throughout the continental United States and Canada. Butler & Company has three dispatchers in Vernon and two in Baytown. The Vernon dispatchers also direct trucks based at the Cairo terminal.

One outcome of the quality improvement program was a decision to make each dispatcher responsible for a specific number of drivers. Approximately 25 drivers are assigned to each dispatcher.

"Personal attention has brought an enormous improvement in driver morale," Newman says. "We have provided additional training to enhance the people skills of our dispatchers. All of this has helped reduce driver turnover in our fleet."

Busy Drivers A stable driver force means better productivity. Butler & Company drivers stay busy. Those assigned to the Baytown terminal spend three to four days at a time on the road. Drivers at the other two terminals are out seven to 10 days per trip.

The dry bulk carrier has company drivers, owner-operators, and driving teams. This gives the capability to handleeverything from the shortest runs to the longe st hauls. Owner-operators account for almost half of the company's drivers.

"Owner-operators work well in our operation," Newman says. "We can concentrate our capital investments in trailers, instead of tractors. Owner-operators give us the flexibility to meet changing customer needs very quickly."

Retention of drivers-whether they are owner-operators or company employees-has become much more crucial due to driver shortages in some markets. "It's tough to find truck drivers in some areas," says Terry McAdams, Butler & Company safety manager. "We're approaching the challenge in various ways, and this includes using billboard advertising."

To qualify for Butler & Company, a driver must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of one year truck driving experience. No driving-under-the-influence or reckless-driving convictions are allowed. In most cases, no more than one accident is accepted, regardless of fault.

"We prefer family-oriented drivers," McAdams says. "They are more stable and more safety conscious."

Besides meeting the basic driver selection criteria, owner-operators also have to qualify their tractors. Butler & Company requires owner-operator tractors that are no more than four years old and don't exceed 17,500 pounds gross weight.

Owner-operators must install a blower package that includes a Gardner Denver T5CDL12 blower and Phillips Tempro silencer. Noise restrictions have forced many of the carrier's customers to require silencers at many delivery locations. The total investment for the owner-operator is around $7,000.

Training Program All newly selected company drivers are sent to the Vernon headquarters for initial training. Owner-operators based in Texas are trained at the Baytown terminal. The first day is spent on regulations and company policies and procedures. Driver logs, customer relations, and accident reporting are among the topics that are covered in detail. Much of the training material is on videotapes that were produced inhouse.

Newly hired drivers are given a driver manual that contains a complete set of paperwork samples. They also are issued personal protective equipment, including hardhats, safety glasses, gloves, and ear protection. Nomex coveralls are supplied where required by the customer.

Following the classroom work, newly hired drivers are assigned to a driver trainer for a minimum of a week of hands-on training in the field. The focus in the field is on the pneumatic dry bulk equipment.

Safety is stressed throughout the training and during quarterly safety meetings at the terminals. Safety personnel also hold frequent one-on-one meetings with drivers. "We try to talk with them as much as possible," McAdams says. "It's not possible to talk too much with a driver. It's important to make them feel like they are more than a number."

Drivers with no chargeable accidents, equipment damage, or lost-time injuries qualify for quarterly safety bonuses calculated on a penny a mile. Annual bonuses are awarded to those with no chargeable accidents for the year. Safe performance also is promoted through plaques, jackets, caps, and T-shirts.

Young Fleet Equipment may be one of the biggest driver incentives at Butler & Company. The carrier runs the latest tractors and dry bulk trailers. The maintenance program helps ensure that everything is kept in top operating order.

Company drivers are assigned to Eagle model International 9400 conventionals with 72-inch Pro Sleepers. The tractors provide greater comfort for team operations. About half of the tractors run with teams.

The Internationals are powered by Cummins N14-435 Celect Plus engines with Cummins engine brakes. Spicer provides the five-part drivetrain system that comes with a five-year, 750,000-mile warranty. Drivetrain components in the package include Spicer's 15.5-inch self-adjusting clutch, nine-speed transmission, drivelines, and front and rear differentials. Other components include a Bendix air dryer, Holset compressor, Fontaine air-slide fifthwheel, International inhouse air suspension, and Alcoa aluminum disc wheels.

Dry Bulk Trailers The newest dry bulkers are 1600-cu-ft trailers from J&L Tank Inc and 1625-cu-ft Heil Super Flo units. All of the dry bulkers are less than three years old, and the newest ones are configured for vacuum/pneumatic operation.

Butler & Company has specified a number of special features on the trailers to boost productivity and reduce the potential for product contamination. Cleanability has been enhanced with domelids that fit flush with the vessel, foodgrade interior finish, directional Tees for the discharge piping, stainless steel directional hoses, and flush hose fittings. Clean air is another concern, and the carrier has addressed this by specifying PneuClean filters that can capture particles as small as four microns and stainless steel jumper hoses from the blower to the trailer.

Pneu-Tech air-to-air coolers are mounted at the front of the trailers to reduce the temperature of blower air, which sometimes can melt plastic pellets. Hopper Tees have a clear-flow design that helps prevent pellet disfiguration. Five-inch butterfly valves reduce the resistance of product flow into the Tees.

The angle of the cone at the bottom of each hopper has been increased to 30 degrees from the typical 45 degrees. This provides more clearance for the discharge piping with virtually no impact on product flow rates.

Tank hardware includes 20-inch Knappco cast aluminum manhole covers, Sure-Seal butterfly valves, and Bayco four-inch vacuum check valves. Lighting and wiring are from Truck-Lite. The grip strut aluminum walkway on top of the trailers runs full length and is 19.5 inches wide. Running gear includes Hendrickson Intraax air suspension assemblies, Alcoa aluminum wheels, and Michelin tires.

Maintenance Program The task of keeping the fleet running efficiently falls on mechanics in the two shops in Vernon and Cairo. Five mechanics are employed in the Vernon shop, while the Cairo facility has three. Mechanics in Cairo concentrate on routine vehicle service, while those in Vernon also tackle major overhauls.

The maintenance shops work closely with the dispatch department in coordinating service schedules. Dispatchers provide a daily list of all inbound equipment. Tractors are serviced at 15,000-mile intervals, and trailers are inspected a minimum of every two months.

"We usually see the equipment more often," says Eugene Holmes, Vernon maintenance manager. "We check vehicles every time they stop at one of our terminals. Sometimes they are here a couple of times in one day. Wash rack and fuel island operators also inspect vehicles."

Service histories are tracked by computer, and Butler & Company is using the Cummins In-Site program for diagnostics. Engine rpm and vehicle top speed are a couple of the parameters that can be adjusted inhouse with the program. Cummins has to approve any calibrating type changes.

Major components, such as blowers, are sent out when rebuild is needed. Blower rebuild is handled by Blocker & Wallace Service Inc, Southeastern Pneumatic Inc, and Southwestern Pneumatic Inc.

Minimal Inventory Parts inventories are minimized as much as possible, and the carrier is shifting to barcode scanners for inventory tracking. The system is provided by the carrier's primary parts vendor. "The system should be up and running in the Vernon shop during the first quarter of 1998," Holmes says.

Once the system is operational, mechanics will use a barcode reader to scan the inventory numbers of parts used for each maintenance project. The vendor checks Butler & Company's parts inventory levels by computer everyday and automatically schedules restocking.

The new parts inventory system will fit well with Butler & Company's quality improvement program. Having the right replacement parts in stock will help ensure that the fleet is ready whenever a load needs to be hauled.

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.