All during the time he was attending Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, Steve Skinner was involved in a tractor leasing business. He was not only studying college business courses, he was learning how to satisfy customers. After graduation, the logical thing to do was to join his father's Freightliner dealership in Austin, Texas, and continue to practice leasing expertise.
As a natural progression, tractor leasing led to the tank trailer business through a customer who operated an asphalt transportation company. After the truck dealership was sold in 1990, he was ready two years later when an opportunity arose to purchase an asphalt carrier. It was then that he established Skinner Transportation Inc.
"I bought nine tractor-trailer units and I had another 16 tractors that were coming off lease," Skinner recalls about how he began to establish the fleet.
Once again, the lessons about customer service learned early on while operating the leasing service in college, and afterwards, paid off for Skinner when a prospective customer approached him with another opportunity.
"I was asked by a bulk lime processor if I could provide transportation for him," he says. "He knew me when I was in the leasing business. I added the bulk lime service with 10 units in January 1993."
Today, the fleet numbers 54 lime and 35 asphalt tank trailers divided among the headquarters terminal in Austin and three other terminals in Texas. There are 80 Freightliner tractors that are used interchangeably with the trailers. The corporate headquarters and home terminal are in Austin serving Austin White Lime Inc, while the three satellite terminals are in Cleburne for Texas Lime Co, Clifton for Chemical Lime Co, and New Braunfels for La Forge Texas Lime Inc. Repair and maintenance facilities are also based at the terminals.
Success came as a result of Skinner's focus on customer service and listening to the advice of his staff, he insists.
"We've built customer relationships so that we're the carrier our customers prefer to use," he says. "And, I surrounded myself with intelligent people who have taught me a great deal."
Coupled with customer service and expertise is the bounty provided by the booming lime and asphalt markets, adding up to a 32% increase in company revenue in 1998 and an additional 10-15% predicted for 1999. The boom has been driven by increases in commercial construction.
"Last year was a tremendous year," says Skinner. "Lime production is better than it ever has been."
Dry Bulk Units Skinner Transportation Inc has dry bulk units on the highways of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas delivering lime for use in highway and industrial construction, paper and steel mills, and water purification plants. Dispatchers coordinate shipments and drivers from the terminals.
"We can provide delivery for industrial, road construction (belly dump), slurry, and boot out," says Skinner.
Most shipments are short hauls, except for those dispatched to New Mexico. "Trucks are usually back on the same day, some in just a few hours," says Skinner. "Generally, it's a distance of about 200 to 400 miles round trip. When we are delivering to New Mexico, we try to find backhauls."
The company transports hot asphalt, cut black asphalt, and all types of emulsion from refineries to customers in Texas and neighboring states.
Asphalt transportation is coordinated from the Austin office for loads moving from refineries in Corpus Christi and Baytown, Texas, and El Dorado, Arkansas, to emulsion plants in Texas. Some units are dedicated to Ergon Asphalt and Emulsion Inc at Mount Pleasant, Pleasanton, and Waco. About 20% of Skinner Transportation's customers are in the asphalt market.
Product Specialization Both asphalt and lime require careful handling. Wet weather impacts the delivery of lime; therefore, the ability to adjust schedules is very important. "If it is raining, we may have to wait at the delivery site, or bring the load back to the terminal," says Skinner.
"You can't have worn-out equipment, and you have to be on-time with these products," he adds. "For example, if we are delivering to a highway construction site where a road stabilization base is being prepared, equipment and employees are ready to do the job. They can't accept delays caused by equipment failure."
Shipment orders come into the terminals via telephone calls. Dispatchers contact on-call drivers with company-provided pagers. Drivers pick up shipment orders at the terminal. "The driver can usually select the loading time in advance," says Skinner. "They like having that option. We think that is one reason we have such good driver retention."
Although new drivers are hard to find, those selected remain with the company. "About 20% of our drivers have been with us since the beginning," he says.
While they are not required to wear uniforms, drivers are offered shirts with the company name. They are responsible for laundering their shirts. "About two-thirds of our drivers wear them," says Skinner.
Employment Qualifications Drivers considered for employment must be at least 25 years old and have a commercial driver license with tank endorsement. The one-week company training program emphasizes customer service by teaching drivers communication skills. "They represent our company," Skinner says. "We explain that the customers are really the way a paycheck is provided. We want our drivers to understand the importance of on-time service and professionalism. There is so much competition in this market that rates can't be the only criterion. Success gets right down to service."
The company employs 80 drivers. Of those drivers, seven part-time, semi-retired drivers are called in as needed. For the most part, drivers are dedicated to either lime or asphalt trailers. Those hauling asphalt receive special instruction in the handling of elevated-temperature hazardous materials.
"We don't just give them one day of on-the-job training," says Skinner. "We see that an experienced driver conducts the first delivery while the new hire watches. Then, the second time, the new person conducts the procedure with the veteran driver supervising."
Drivers receive annual awards by years of safe driving service. "Skinner Transport Inc drivers are recognized for their safety, dependability, and courteous service," says Skinner. "We are proud of our high customer satisfaction - a direct result of a quality-oriented work force."
At the company's shops, service schedules include 5,000-mile tractor preventive maintenance inspections and oil change at 15,000 miles. Trailers are lubricated at 5,000 miles and at 15,000 miles. Major engine or transmission repairs are sent to outside vendors, as are tank repairs.
The 15,000-square-foot Austin facility is similar in size and arrangement to the other terminals. Austin has three bays- two for maintenance and repairs and one for exterior washing. The other terminals have two shop bays.
Parking Space The five-acre Austin facility provides plenty of room for parking tractors and tank trailers. The newest J&L Tank dry bulk tank trailers were supplied by Southwestern Pneumatic of Kyle, Texas. The 1,600-cubic-foot tank trailers have Sure Seal butterfly valves and Knappco dome lids. Running gear includes Meritor Wabco ABS brakes, Hendrickson Intraax suspension, Budd hubs, and Alcoa aluminum disc wheels. Skinner specifies Firestone tires.
Most of the 7,000-gallon asphalt trailers are from Fruehauf Trailer Services and were built by LBT Inc. The steel vessels have aluminum jackets over enough insulation to maintain product heat at 350-400 degrees F. They have Homir valves and Bayco dome lids.
Temple Freightliner of Temple, Texas, supplies Skinner Transportation Inc with Freightliner conventionals powered by Caterpillar's newest model engines rated for 370-430 horsepower. Drivetrain components include Meritor drive axles and 10-speed transmissions. Brakes also are from Meritor. PTO-driven Gardner Denver blowers and Blackmer MTE pumps are mounted on the tractors. Skinner prefers to buy new tractors every five years.
In addition to the tank trailer fleet, Skinner has three flatbed trailers used to transport 2,000-pound bags of lime to the Port of Houston.
"Skinner Transportation was established as a specialist carrier in Texas for construction and industrial related services," says Skinner. "We've expanded the fleet of new trucks and trailers to satisfy our customer needs.
"We take great pride in quality performance. This will continue to be evident in the attitude of our people and the appearance of our equipment as we deliver both product and customer service."