Ventura-Lesbro Provides Single Source For Bulk Intermodal Transport Services >By Charles E Wilson

Dec. 1, 1998
When Chevron USA Inc decided last year to ship catalyst from California to Hawaii in dry bulk containers, logistics managers for the petroleum refinery

When Chevron USA Inc decided last year to ship catalyst from California to Hawaii in dry bulk containers, logistics managers for the petroleum refinery immediately called in Ventura-Lesbro of Long Beach, California. It was an easy decision.

Consisting of Ventura Transfer Company and Lesbro Company, Ventura-Lesbro has become a dominant West Coast player in the liquid and dry bulk intermodal field. The combined operation has assembled an extensive package of services that include rail transfer, rail storage, tank containers, intermediate bulk containers, warehousing, and transportation.

"We have a reputation for being able to give customers personalized service," says Randall J Clifford, Ventura-Lesbro president. "We're flexible enough to meet the individual needs of each customer, and we're very open to new ideas. We're diverse enough to serve the broadest range of bulk customer transportation and storage needs.

"Most importantly, we make safety a key component in everything we do for our customers, which ensures a high comfort level for them. Ours is the only trucking company to have won California's highest truck safety award, the Board of Directors Grand Trophy, two consecutive times. We received the trophy in 1997 and 1998."

Those back-to-back awards demonstrate a safety commitment that goes back more than 130 years. Founded in the 1860s in Ventura, California, Ventura Transfer Co began hauling crude oil in horse-drawn wagons in the 1880s. The first tank trucks were added in 1922. The carrier shifted to liquid chemicals and plastic pellets and powders in the 1960s.

Lesbro Company was founded in 1958 to concentrate on emerging opportunities for storage, packaging, and rail transfer of various chemicals and plastics. >From the outset, the Lesbro Company has worked in close partnership with Ventura Transfer Company, under common management.

Innovation has always been an important characteristic of the Ventura-Lesbro operation, enabling the companies to become a dominant West Coast player. For instance, Ventura Transfer Co trucks participated in a historic Los Angeles-to-New York City transcontinental trip in 1928, one of the first cross-country runs for a commercial trucking company. The carrier played a pioneering role in the development of vacuum-pneumatic dry bulk trailers.

Today, Ventura-Lesbro runs about 55 tractors and more than 91 trailers, most of which are tanks or dry bulkers. The company's nine facilities in California and Arizona include chemical warehousing in addition to rail transloading terminals.

Family Ownership While changing in many ways over the years, Ventura-Lesbro has remained a family-owned company. Clifford family members include Randall, Galen as director of marketing and sales, Steven as director of maintenance and engineering, and Greg as director of operations.

Maintaining the family connection has been important, but the family realized that they needed to reach outside to ensure that Ventura-Lesbro remains progressive and competitive. Several steps have been taken to diversify the management team.

"We started by segregating family issues from the rest of the business," Randall Clifford says. "We also looked for areas where our own management skills were lacking. We identified the marketing and financial sectors as two key areas requiring additional expertise. We have since brought in new managers in those areas.

"Outside talent is essential to the future of this company. We realize that the Clifford family can't do everything by itself. We benefit from fresh viewpoints and perspectives, and our customers also benefit."

Besides strengthening the management team, Ventura-Lesbro has established a board of advisors. Three of the five board members are non-family members. Outside members are appointed for a minimum of two years, and the advisory board meets at least quarterly.

"Our advisory board already has been busy on several projects," Randall Clifford says. "Board membership will be adjusted in coming years to ensure that we have people with the right expertise to help guide our company into the future."

Future Challenges If the recent past is any indication, the future will bring plenty of challenges. Consolidation on a wide scale is one of the biggest challenges facing the nearly-140-year-old company.

"We've seen a lot of mergers and acquisitions in both the transportation and chemical industries," says Jeff McGowan, Ventura-Lesbro manager of marketing & sales. "Consolidation is just part of the problem. A bigger concern is the amount of management turnover that is occurring in the chemical industry. Managers are moving through the distribution positions very quickly, and job functions are being consolidated. We spend a lot more time educating new distribution managers."

Truck fleet consolidation is bringing downward pressure on rates, and it is challenging Ventura-Lesbro managers to find fresh ways to make the company stand out as a competitive carrier with premium services. Pressure is building on carriers in the Los Angeles area to develop commodity-level pricing for handling plastics and other products that take special attention.

"We are taking advantage of the opportunity to differentiate ourselves from the other tank truck conglomerates that are emerging," McGowan says. "We offer our services at a fair and competitive price, and we differentiate ourselves in other areas. For instance, we know that strong safety concerns exist at the highest management levels of our major customers. We have distinguished ourselves as one of the safest tank truck fleets in the United States.

"We're not going to try to be everything to everybody. We'll continue to pick niches that offer us an opportunity to provide outstanding service. We don't want to be just another big carrier."

Railroads pose more challenges. Over the past year, Ventura-Lesbro managers had to contend with the meltdown in the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific rail system. The UP/SP problems had an effect on Ventura-Lesbro in various ways.

The situation is better than it was a year, and even six months, ago, but some difficulties persist. The Ventura-Lesbro management team suggests that much of the rail congestion has shifted to the West Coast from Houston, Texas. Serious delays have hampered traffic flow through the Colton, California, area this year.

As the largest railroads become even bigger, they seem to be showing less interest in intermodal activities such as transloading, according to Galen Clifford. "We get the impression that rail transfer doesn't have as high a profile with the very large consolidated lines," he says. "The Class I rail lines seem to be more focused on the huge volumes of freight that come from unit trains moving coast to coast."

As a result, Ventura-Lesbro now works more closely with shortline railroads, some of which came into existence as a result of the big mergers. "We see the shortlines as a good option for the future," Galen Clifford says. "We see the opportunity for some great relationships. Shortline railroads are much more willing to build an intermodal partnership. They understand the importance of working together to build new opportunities."

The railroad partnerships are important because rail transloading and other intermodal activities remain key elements in the business mix at Ventura-Lesbro. The company's nine transfer facilities have the capability to handle nearly 500 rail cars at any given time.

Transloading Growth Ventura-Lesbro has worked aggressively to boost the capabilities of its transloading facilities. Significant capital investments have been made in improvements to transfer sites in Wilmington, Carson, and Commerce, California, and Phoenix, Arizona. Ventura-Lesbro also has transfer locations in Long Beach and San Diego, California, and Kingman, Arizona.

Improvements made in the Wilmington facility include steam heating for viscous cargoes and liquid nitrogen for pressurizing rail tankcars. At Commerce, the carrier installed a 70-ft digital platform scale with direct communication links to the customer service department. Facilities are fenced for security and most have high-intensity lighting. Spill containment measures are in place to ensure environmental protection in conformance with the Society of Plastics Industry's Operation Clean Sweep.

Warehousing fits well with the rail transfer activities. Ventura-Lesbro has an 18,000-sq-ft warehouse at the Long Beach headquarters terminal and a 38,000-sq-ft facility in Ontario, California. Warehouse services include transfer of liquid and dry bulk products between rail cars and intermediate bulk containers (IBCs), drums, bags, or boxes.

"Besides the typical repackaging activities, we do quite a bit of depackaging of plastics and other dry bulk materials into rail cars and dry bulk trailers for our overseas customers," Greg Clifford says. "For the most part, our warehouses handle plastics and nonhazardous specialty chemicals."

Tank container depot services, a relatively new addition, are provided at the Long Beach headquarters terminal, which focuses on import/export activity. Services include cleaning in the four-bay wash rack at the Long Beach terminal, maintenance and repair, and on-hire and off-hire inspections. Loaded containers can be handled, and steam heat is available.

"This is a part of the business that we are still building," Galen Clifford says. "Customers asked us to add tank container depot services, and we're now working with Stolt-Neilsen Leasing, Bulkhaul Ltd, Dana Transport, Interflow, Miller Intermodal Logistics Services, and others. We also handle box containers used to ship plastics.

"The majority of containers are used in international shipments, but we've seen domestic traffic as well. We have a lift for handling empty tank containers, and we run nine dropframe chassis. For the most part, we shuttle tank containers from the various rail yards and container depots to the Los Angeles area, as well as points in other states."

Shorthaul Carrier Most of the transportation service provided by Ventura-Lesbro is within California, although service to 11 other western states has grown. The carrier holds 48-state authority and handles regular shipments to customers throughout California and Arizona and to Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah, Nevada, and Texas.

"We have only intermittent shipments going into Canada at this time, but Mexico is a different story," Galen Clifford says. "We see tremendous growth potential for Mexico. We have an exemption that allows our drivers to operate our units in Mexico. The drivers speak Spanish and have had few difficulties."

Local Dispatch Truck operations are directed from each Ventura-Lesbro terminal. In addition to the basic dispatch software that was developed inhouse, dispatchers have a variety of tools for monitoring fleet activities and staying in touch with drivers.

"We currently have Teletrac units in all of our tractors, including those belonging to owner-operators," says Richard Wallace, operations manager. "Essentially a cellular telephone system, Teletrac includes locating, mapping, and two-way messaging.

"We're also testing the AMS (American Mobile Satellite) tracking and communication system. AMS combines cellular and satellite communication capabilities."

The dispatch software used at Ventura-Lesbro is a Microsoft Windows-based system. In addition, the carrier operates customers' SAP transportation modules, which makes it easier to share order and shipment data with customers. Route maps and driving instructions are generated for drivers using a mapping program.

Sophisticated data management software and computerized tracking and communication systems all serve one basic purpose: they help Ventura-Lesbro provide customers with very personalized service. However, drivers are the most crucial component.

Despite growing shortages of qualified truck drivers in California, Ventura-Lesbro has maintained stringent hiring standards. Good prehire screening has helped the company assemble a team of award-winning professionals.

To be considered for a driving job at Ventura-Lesbro, an applicant must have a minimum of five years of truck driving experience. The driving experience must include at least one year with tanks. Applicants are rejected for more than two moving violations or one at-fault accident in a three-year period.

The requirements are applied to company drivers and contractors alike. Contractors account for almost half of the 55 tractors in the fleet. "There are definite benefits in our operation to having both company drivers and owner-operators," says Clifford B Rawn, director of safety and compliance at Ventura-Lesbro.

Company drivers bring uniformity and the opportunity to exert greater control over equipment maintenance and repair. On the other hand, owner-operators enable quick growth in the tractor fleet at a low cost. They make it much easier to start up satellite locations.

Driver Training All drivers receive initial training when they join Ventura-Lesbro. The amount of training is adjusted to each driver's needs. Training is a part of the three-hour quarterly safety meetings that each driver must attend.

Accident and incident avoidance are stressed constantly. "Our mission statement provides a clear picture of what we expect from our drivers: doing the job right the first time, every time, and on time," Rawn says. "To work error and injury free is to work efficiently, serve the customer professionally, and to demonstrate excellence in the performance of one's duties."

To encourage that level of performance, Ventura-Lesbro created an extensive reward program. The top award is recognition as Driver of the Year. To be eligible for this award, a driver must qualify for all four quarters of performance excellence during the year, receive a safety excellence award for the year, and have one of the top four point totals. The winner is announced at the annual company Christmas party and receives a cash award, assigned parking space at the terminal, and recognition on a plaque, perpetually displayed in the corporate office.

The Annual Safety Excellence Award goes to drivers who complete the year with no lost-time injury or illness, no preventable accidents or moving violations, no preventable product spills or contaminations, no property damage in excess of $300, and attendance at the quarterly safety meetings. Recipients receive a plaque and a safety excellence belt buckle.

Drivers also participate in the performance excellence program. The cash-award program is based on points, and drivers must earn 60 out of 100 points to qualify each quarter for the annual bonus. A variety of items are given out to quarterly qualifiers.

The program includes an "Extra Miler" quarterly award to drivers who put extra effort into helping the team. Dispatchers make the selection. First-time recipients receive a jacket and a patch. Repeat winners receive additional patches.

The safety program was instrumental in helping Ventura-Lesbro become the only consecutive two-time winner of the California Trucking Association Board of Directors Grand Trophy. A well-maintained fleet also contributed.

Company Tractors All of the company-owned tractors are Peterbilt conventionals. "We like the way the Peterbilt looks," Steven Clifford says. "Drivers also like it, and the tractor is price-competitive."

The newest units in the fleet are Model 385s that weigh 14,000 pounds before pumps, blowers, toolboxes, and platforms are added. Ventura-Lesbro mechanics install Gardner Denver Duroflow blowers and Roper pumps on the tractors.

The carrier specifies Cummins M11 electronic engines with 330/370-horsepower ratings, and the maintenance department reports that the engines are achieving approximately 61/2 miles per gallon. The drivetrain also includes a nine-speed Fuller RT-14709H transmission and Meritor drive-tandem with 3.42 ratio.

To enable air offloading of some cargoes, the tractors have Cummins 30-cfm air compressors. Among other components are Bendix air dryers, Holland fifthwheels, Con Met aluminum hubs, and Alcoa aluminum wheels.

Trailer Fleet The bulk fleet is about evenly split between tanks and dry bulkers. Polar Tank Inc and Beall Trailer Inc supply the tank trailers. Polar is the preferred manufacturer of dry bulk units.

"We have developed a good working relationship with the Polar sales and engineering staff," Steven Clifford says. "They make minor changes in the dry bulk trailers to suit our needs, and the trailers have an attractive tare weight that is right at 12,000 pounds. Polar dry bulkers have no internal obstructions, which means there is less opportunity for product contamination. External rings make the tanks more resistant to exterior damage."

All of the dry bulk trailers are configured for vacuum-pneumatic operation. The newest units have a 1,660-cubic-foot capacity. Meritor inverted axles with a two-inch spring spacer enable a 16-inch ground clearance from the bottom of the manifold to the ground. Rear loading is through a five-inch line. Four-inch pipe and hose are used for unloading, because few customers are able to handle anything larger. Hardware includes SI Lodec on-board digital scales, Sure Seal Tees and butterfly valves, PneuClean filters, aluminum wheels, and Hutch suspension with Winemac two-leaf springs.

Chemical Tanks Ventura-Lesbro runs insulated and uninsulated DOT407 tank trailers. The insulated units are heated and typically carry 7,000 gallons of product. Uninsulated trailers hold 8,000 gallons. Straight barrel tanks predominate, but the carrier has a number of two- and three-compartment units.

Tank trailers, as well as dry bulkers, are specified with four hose tubes. Ventura-Lesbro uses Goodall chemical hose with stainless steel fittings. Stainless steel dry bulk hoses are from Federal and Hose Master. The carrier also uses some Tigerflex plastic dry bulk hose. Included in the trailer fleet are nine dropframe chassis used to transport tank containers. The newest chassis are from Chief and have a 9,000-lb tare weight. A number of design changes have been made to customize the chassis for the Ventura-Lesbro operation.

A 12-inch hydraulic lift at the front helps ensure faster and more complete unloading of viscous cargoes. The carrier plans to design with Chief a 24-inch lift in the future. A drip pan has been added under the container foot valve, and rear decking conceals a toolbox.

Piping includes a three-inch stainless steel pump line that extends from the rear of the chassis to the front to accommodate trailer-mounted pumps, as well as an air line with a moisture filter.

The chassis can carry up to 120 feet of hose. "We need as many as six lengths of hose to make deliveries at some locations," Steven Clifford says.

Carrying plenty of hose helps ensure that Ventura-Lesbro provides the professional service that customers have come to expect. It is one more reason why the company stands out in the intermodal arena.