Ballard Transfer reaps benefits of personalizing customer service

BALLARD Transfer of Bardstown, Kentucky, is one of those foodgrade carriers that makes the saying “like carrying coals to Newcastle” become a successful reality.

Owners Kurt and Jan Ballard oversee the transportation operation that includes hauling bourbon and wine from Kentucky to California and New York.

“With a small company, you have to be able to do everything,” says Kurt.

Having a small company also lends itself to providing customer service with a personal touch. Because they live in a small town and know so many families, the Ballards are able to reach out in a friendly and familiar way to many of their customers.

“Most of my customers have my home telephone number,” says Kurt. They can call me anytime, and I don't mind that. They also know our drivers — many by their first names.”

It's not unusual to find Kurt on the golf course on the weekend with one or two of his customers. “It seems like someone from each of the distilleries I serve is in my golf league,” he says. “It's a little different from having a salesman calling on them. We know each other's families.”

Milk routes

All of this began in 1994 when the Ballards decided to sell the milk routes they had been focusing on and diversify to hauling alcohol products like whiskey, tequila, gin, bourbon, wine — and vinegar.

A local distiller told Kurt that he had a spot for a new bourbon hauler. After thinking it over, the couple decided to take the plunge.

One reason that spurred their decision was to take advantage of the lighter alcohol products. “The hundred-ninety-proof of some alcohol weighs about seven pounds to the gallon,” he says. That meant that the 7,000-gallon tanks would put less stress on the trailer and meet the highway weight limits.

Of course, the products that are above 24% alcohol require DOT-code tank trailers because of the volatility, which meant the Ballards had to purchase some additional trailers to add to their non-spec vehicles they had been using to haul milk.

Today, they own 11 DOT407 and nine sanitary tank trailers. They prefer to purchase 7,000-gallon, pre-owned trailers that are about five years old. T Davis Sales-Blue Grass Tank & Equipment supplies the non-spec trailers that are typically from Polar Corp and Walker Stainless Equipment Co.

DOT-code tank trailers are supplied by Paragon Trailer Center. These tank trailers include those from Brenner Tank Inc, Heil Trailer International, and Beal Corp — as well as Walker.

“You get a better deal with the used trailers, and you still get a long life out of them,” Ballard says.

The newest code trailers have Betts valves and Fort Vale pressure relief vents while the sanitary trailers are equipped with LC Thomsen valves. Two of the sanitary trailers have rear cabinets.

Two code trailers used for backhauls are equipped with Drum Hydrapak systems. Other trailers are loaded and unloaded by stationary pumps at customer locations.

The Ballards recently ordered six new tractors from Peterbilt. The power units have 475-horsepower Caterpillar engines and 18-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions. Eaton Fuller also supplies drive axles with a 3.36 ratio.

Other tractors in the fleet are from Peterbilt and Kenworth. These 15 tractors have Detroit Diesel and Cummins engines rated at 500 horsepower. They are equipped with 13-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.

Driver force

The Ballards have 14 drivers to handle the routes, about half on local service and the other half running long haul. The routes range from Kentucky to California, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida.

In the Bardstown area, Ballard serves several whiskey distilleries, hauling bourbon and other alcohol products short distances from the plant to wooden-barrel-filled warehouses for aging. The carrier's location in the center of the bourbon capital proved fortuitous, providing efficient short hauls.

Brandy is delivered to Kentucky warehouses where the process calls for it to be aged in barrels that once held whiskey.

On the long hauls, drivers head out to Florida and California. Wine from Kentucky is hauled to California where dairy products and wine concentrate are picked up for the backhaul. Wine, like dairy products, can be transported in a sanitary trailer.

“If we send a code trailer to California, it has to come back with something like brandy,” he points out.

Vinegar, a byproduct from wineries, typically is transported to pickle makers, and is another product that can be hauled in a sanitary tank.

Family philosophy

In keeping with their philosophy of hands-on management, Kurt handles dispatching, and both Kurt and Jan train the drivers and provide customer service.

Driver training includes company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling. Drivers can usually choose local or over-the-road routes, a factor that has proven successful for driver retention, the Ballards say.

In 2003, the Ballards moved into their new 68,000-square-foot building on four acres that houses offices, two bays for maintenance, and one bay for tank cleaning.

A driver who is a computer wizard set up an in-house maintenance program that tracks the job progress and the parts used in each vehicle repair. The shop foreman enters the data as the work moves forward.

Tank trailer preventive maintenance is conducted every 10,000 miles, with checks of brakes, suspensions, tires, as well as tank equipment. Although most of the repairs are done in the shop, code trailers are sent to the Kentuckiana Tank Wash repair center in Louisville for pressure testing and Department of Transportation testing.

Shop bays also are used for repairs and 15,000-mile preventive maintenance on the Peterbilt and Kenworth tractors used by the carrier.

Wash bay

Next door to the shop is the wash bay that the Ballards plan to eventually open for commercial foodgrade service. For now, however, it is dedicated to the carrier's equipment. A MidSouth pressure washer is used for exterior vehicle cleaning.

Plans call for a more specialized interior tank cleaning system with spinners to be installed in 2005.

Wastewater is processed through a Hydro Flo Technologies separation system that can separate oil from water and adjust the pH level. Oil that is captured goes into an intermediate bulk container for disposal.

With their new facility in place, the Ballards say they are looking forward to growing their business and continuing service to their current customers, even when it means being in the “coals-to-Newcastle” mode.

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