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Colorful tractors boost asphalt fleet image

FOUR star-spangled Mack tractors provide visual reinforcement that E Stewart Mitchell Inc is a premier asphalt hauler. The patriotic tractors with their red, white, and blue décor went into service in late 2001, not long after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC.

The four tractors reflect a quality image that was built during more than 60 years of service to the construction industry in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. Based in Baltimore, Maryland, E Stewart Mitchell Inc provides a diverse range of services built around asphalt hauling and application.

“We wanted to do something to honor the memories of the people who died in the terrorist attacks,” says David Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of E Stewart Mitchell. “We also wanted to display pride in America. These four tractors certainly do all of that.

“While the four tractors are probably the most dramatic example, image was important from the very start of this company in 1941. We've always believed that the fleet is our calling card. Even though it takes hard work, we believe it's crucial that our vehicles look their very best.”

David Mitchell's grandfather and company namesake started operations with a single asphalt distributor truck that was used to spray liquid asphalt on road surfaces. From that humble start, the company evolved into a diverse entity that continues to expand into new areas.

Over the years, E Stewart Mitchell Inc hauled asphalt, ran asphalt distributors and road crews, operated asphalt plants, and sold new and used equipment. The company was a key participant in road and highway construction projects throughout Maryland and the surrounding states.

Asphalt transportation is the core focus today, and non-core activities, such as equipment sales, are gone. The fleet has grown to 120 tank trailers and 40 company tractors. Owner-operators provide another 45 to 50 tractors. Seven distributor trucks remain in service.

While the primary cargo is still asphalt, it's no longer solely for road construction. Management has worked hard to broaden the business to keep the trucks busy year-round.

“We have aggressively sought out new customers,” Mitchell says. “We've also expanded into hauling diesel and fuel oil, and we're looking at other liquid cargoes.

“It's not practical anymore to rely on road construction to generate all of our business. The next couple of years look tough for that sector. High state deficits in our two main markets (Maryland and Virginia) mean less money for everything. We probably won't see significant improvement in the public sector until 2004.

“These days, our construction company customers reply more on private projects. There is still a lot of street and parking lot work. New subdivisions and business parks are still being developed throughout this area. However, it doesn't fully replace the reduction in government highway projects.”

Operating area

The pursuit of new business is taking E Stewart Mitchell Inc far beyond its traditional operating area. The company's tractor-trailer rigs now operate as far south as the Carolinas and west into Ohio. Management believes the operating area will continue to expand.

With the fleet running farther, communication has become more of a challenge. The company tried a satellite communication system in some of its newest tractors, but the equipment never quite lived up to its promise, according to Mike Jones, vice-president of operations at E Stewart Mitchell Inc.

The asphalt hauler has decided to go in a different direction for onboard communication and tracking. The company has developed its own system based on the iPac Pocket PC with a wireless modem. The hardware costs about $800 per unit as configured for the E Stewart Mitchell Inc operation, plus another $30 a month per unit for the cellular service contract.

The transition to the new system will begin in the first quarter of 2003. Communication between drivers and dispatchers is the objective of the first phase of the Pocket PC transition. In phase two, the company will add driver log capabilities. The Pocket PC will gain the ability to monitor truck systems in phases three and four. The Pocket PCs also could have signature-capture capabilities to verify customer acceptance of loads, and GPS capabilities could be added in the future.

The Pocket PCs will provide a cost-effective extension of the fleet management system that is already in place. E Stewart Mitchell Inc is a long-time user of the Dossier software package from Arsenault Associates.

Driver team

Important capabilities of the Dossier system include maintaining driver records in key areas such as safety and training. “We put a lot of emphasis into these areas,” says Wayne Totaro, director of health & safety at E Stewart Mitchell Inc. “We make sure that our drivers are fully prepared to handle the challenges of the job.”

The process starts with driver selection. The company prefers to hire drivers with one to two years of tanker experience. Totaro takes a close look at each applicant's motor vehicle report, and anyone with a questionable record is excluded.

“We like as much experience as possible, and we want people who believe in safety as much as we do,” he says. “Due to the overall driver shortage, we are giving more consideration to younger drivers.”

Regardless of experience, each new hire goes through an orientation lasting a week to 10 days. The importance of using personal protective equipment is stressed. Drivers are expected to wear hardhats with face shields or goggles, cotton long sleeve shirts and long pants, and heat-resistant rubber gloves.

Other safety topics covered include trip and fall awareness. Drivers have to climb on top of the tanks during loading and unloading. Right-to-know training is included in the orientation.

Working alongside experienced drivers, the new hires learn about the product they will be handling. They are taught that one of the challenges in hauling water-based emulsified asphalt is that moisture can remain in the tank after a load is delivered. When hot asphalt hits a moisture-laden heel, the moisture turns to steam and causes the asphalt to foam up and flow out of the vents and drain tubes.

“We spend considerable time showing them how to prevent these problems,” Jones says. “It starts with an awareness of the previous cargo and an inspection of the tank interior before loading. Besides being present in a heel, moisture can collect inside at the top of the tank.

“We teach new drivers to flush trailers properly. This will take out most of the moisture. We also have an antifoam solution that we can pour into the trailer.”

Mandatory safety meetings are held three times a year, and training is a key component of these sessions. Safety awards are handed out during the spring meeting. Based on the American Trucking Associations program, the safety awards are part of an incentive effort that includes cash bonuses.

Incentive pay is based on what the company considers to be a perfect day — one with on-time deliveries, no incidents, and all paperwork in order. Drivers earn as much as 5% to 7% of regular pay with incentives, and incentive pay is given out at year-end.

Safety also plays a key role in the fleet specifications. First and foremost, the company runs a fleet of late-model tractors. Mack tractors predominate, but the company recently bought some Peterbilts.

Caterpillar C12 engines were specified in the newest tractors, along with 10-speed transmissions. E Stewart Mitchell Inc is testing Eaton's AutoShift transmission in two tractors, and the initial results are very promising. Product handling equipment consists of a PTO-driven Roper pump.

Air suspensions are standard on the E Stewart Mitchell Inc tractors. Running gear also includes four-channel antilock braking, aluminum hubs, aluminum disc wheels, and 11R22.5 Michelin and Bridgestone radial tires. Retreads are used in the drive positions.

“We use retreads with Bandag materials, and we've had great success with them,” Jones says. “In fact, we get better mileage from the retreads than we do from new tires.”

Duals predominate in most positions, but E Stewart Mitchell Inc has put one tractor-trailer rig on the road with Michelin's new X-One 445/50R22.5 widebase tire. “We're very impressed,” Jones says. “The driver likes the X-One, and we're seeing fuel economy in the 6.9-miles-per-gallon range. That compares with three other tractors in the same purchase group that are averaging 6.1 miles per gallon.”

Asphalt trailers

Asphalt trailers certainly dominate the fleet, but there is variety within that category. Carbon steel trailers have the greatest appeal for dispatchers because they can handle the widest variety of products. Aluminum asphalt trailers have the highest payload capacity, though.

E Stewart Mitchell Inc is constantly upgrading the trailer fleet. The company typically buys three to seven new trailers annually. Eleven were purchased in 2002, and the company ordered three for delivery in 2003.

“I don't know how many additional asphalt trailers we'll buy this year, but this is an equipment-intensive business,” Jones says. “We have to understand our customers' needs, and we must be able to supply the right equipment for specific business applications.

“Aluminum asphalt trailers are attractive because they are lighter and can generate enough additional revenue in a year to cover the purchase cost of a new tank. Aluminum trailers work best with our owner-operators, many of whom run big sleepers. However, aluminum trailers have heat limitations.”

An aluminum tank is good for products up to about 400° F, which covers paving asphalt (320° F) and some asphalt emulsions that are transported at around 120° F. Steel tanks are a must for high-heat products, such as shingle asphalt that is moved at 465° F.

Polar aluminum

The newest aluminum units were supplied by Polar Tank Trailer Inc. The 7500-gallon trailers have a straight barrel and are configured for front or rear unloading. Top loading is through a single Polar 20-inch domelid with a high-temperature Teflon-weave gasket.

Insulation consists of five inches of fiberglass compressed to four inches. Hardware includes a Betts four-inch aluminum asphalt valve at the rear and a three-inch Betts T-style valve on the curbside above the landing gear. An asphalt free-breathing volume vent with overflow drain is mounted in the spilldam.

Running gear includes a Hendrickson Intraax axle/air suspension system, MeritorWABCO antilock braking, Haldex automatic slack adjusters, Webb brake drums, TSE brake chambers, and aluminum disc wheels.

E D Etnyre & Company has been the primary supplier of asphalt trailers over the years, including some 7,000-gallon aluminum units. Etnyre steel asphalt trailers are dominant in the fleet, and the newest ones have a 6,750-gallon capacity.

Many of the steel trailers are tapered for more complete drainage. “Drainage is very important for the more viscous products, such as shingle asphalt,” Jones says. “Shingle asphalt will coat the interior of a tank.”

The single-compartment tanks have two 10-gauge surge plates and are insulated with three inches of one-pound-density fiberglass. Hardware includes a 20-inch manhole cover, asphalt-type vent, six-inch rear discharge valve, and curbside ladder. Running gear includes a three-leaf spring suspension.

Maintenance is a crucial factor, and most of the vehicles in the fleet are serviced at the company's Baltimore shop. Brakes and tires receive close scrutiny. “Brakes and tires are our biggest expense items,” Jones says. “These are safety-related components, and we don't take chances with them. We replace brake linings early in some cases just to avoid problems.”

The fleet gives E Stewart Mitchell Inc the versatility necessary to meet the varied needs of a customer base that has changed significantly during the company's 62 years in business. The fleet also continues to serve as the best means of promoting the company's quality image.

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