BECOMING a diversified hauler of bulk edibles has been a gradual process for Keith Hall & Sons Transport Ltd, Burford, Ontario, Canada. It is a process that continues today. Milk picked up at local dairy farms was the first cargo, followed by related products including cream, whey, and condensed skim milk. Next came liquid sweeteners, orange juice, chocolate, cocoa butter, and liquid yeast. The newest addition was granulated cane sugar.
"We're still growing in food, and we believe there are plenty of opportunities still out there," says Brian Hall, president of Keith Hall & Sons. "We're so busy, we're almost to the point of turning down business. The biggest challenges we face are getting equipment fast enough and finding good-quality drivers.
"Even with the challenges, we project 10% growth over the next year. The Canadian and US economies remain strong. We don't want to grow too fast, though. We don't want to take on more than we can handle."
Management has combined a strategy of cautious growth with aggressive pursuit of new opportunities throughout the 34 years that the carrier has been in business, and it has paid off. Today, Keith Hall & Sons operates 60 tractors, 48 tank trailers, five dry bulkers, and 115 dry freight trailers from its one terminal in Burford.
Keith Hall started the company in 1965 by purchasing a milk route and one truck. Brian joined his father a year later when a second tank truck was purchased. Brian's brother Kevin signed on in 1984, by which time the fleet had grown to six farm pickup units.
Thirty-four years later, the carrier is still handling milk, but it has become a much smaller part of the business. "We only have three tractor-trailer units hauling milk now," Brian says. "We've seen a lot of the dairy farms in our area shut down or be bought out."
It was in 1984 that the company took its first steps toward diversification. "One of the dairies we served had an ice cream plant, and we heard that they needed someone to haul liquid sweeteners," Brian says. "It just seemed like something we could do."
For that first sweetener customer, Keith Hall & Sons used a 6,000-Imperial-gallon (7,200-gallon) milk trailer. "We had two tank trailers in the fleet by that time, as well as four tank trucks," Brian says. "We picked up the sweetener loads at a sugar plant in Toronto (Ontario) and hauled them to the dairy plant in Simcoe (about 70 miles southwest of Toronto)."
Sweeteners worked out well, and Brian wasted little time in looking for more loads. "I knocked on a lot of doors, and we began picking up more accounts," he says. "The business grew year by year."
In 1987, a completely new opportunity came along. Kuriyama built a hose plant in Brantford, Ontario, and Keith Hall & Sons was offered the chance to haul the shipments. The carrier transports Kuriyama hose products to distribution locations in Canada and the United States.
The dry freight operation started with three van trailers but has grown well beyond that. The range of dry freight also has grown substantially.
The next big change in the cargo mix came in 1996, when Keith Hall & Sons entered the chocolate hauling arena. Today, the carrier has 10 insulated and heated tanks devoted to that business.
Most recently, management jumped at the opportunity to begin hauling dry bulk shipments of cane sugar for a major refiner in the Toronto area. Redpath Sugar sold off its dry bulk fleet in January after announcing that it wanted to get out of transportation. Keith Hall & Sons bought five of the bulkers, and obtained contracts with five Redpath customers.
"This isn't the end of our diversification by any means," Brian says. "We will continue to look for new opportunities that make sense. Shippers want carriers that can meet a full range of needs. We now offer tank, dry bulk, and van service. Reefers are the only service we lack, and we haven't had any call for that yet.
"Edibles make up about half of our business today, and most of that is regional. Very little of our foodgrade business is longhaul at this time."
With the exception of the dry freight operation, most of the fleet activity is short to medium hauls. Day trips predominate. Sweetener shipments have an average haul of 125 miles, while the maximum for chocolates is 500 miles. "The plants we service tend to have most of their customers within about a 300-mile radius," Brian says.
About 65% of the tank business is in Canada. Other liquid food products are transported to the customers in the eastern United States, and chocolate goes to a major account in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Keith Hall & Sons has been very diligent at building foodgrade backhauls to maximize loaded miles for all of the equipment that is not in dedicated service to a specific customer. Orange juice is among the products backhauled in the sweetener trailers, and the chocolate trailers return with cocoa butter and varieties of chocolate not produced in Canada.
Tank cleaning has always been a major concern at Keith Hall & Sons, but it has become even more of a factor as the backhaul business has grown. Over 95% of the tank cleaning is handled at the carrier's own five-bay wash rack in Burford. Outside tank wash vendors include Gateway Terminal Service Corp, Carteret, New Jersey; P&R Tank Lines of Baltimore, Baltimore, Maryland; and OJ Food Grade Tank Truck Wash, South Kearney, New Jersey.
At the Burford terminal, tank trailers are cleaned in a wash rack that recently underwent extensive renovation. The facility was expanded from two bays, and a sophisticated CETCO wastewater treatment plant was added.
"While we have kosher and Coca Cola certifications, we clean only our own equipment," Brian says. "We built the foodgrade wash system, which can clean two tanks at a time. In the past, wash activities focused on the clean-in-place systems that we specify on our tanks. However, we recently added a Sellers spinner to speed up the cleaning of chocolate trailers."
Tanks are carefully inspected for cleanliness before being assigned to the next load. Dispatchers pay close attention to tank status to ensure that the right equipment is sent to customers. Dispatchers also have a primary responsibility for coordinating communication between drivers and customers. Dispatch operations are computerized, and vehicle locations are updated at regular intervals. All of the tractors have cellular telephones, which simplify the process of contacting drivers.
Selecting the right drivers for the operation has become a more challenging process. "There is a shortage of experienced truck drivers in our area," Brian says. "In addition, we have big difficulties finding drivers who are willing to run in the United States."
He explains that border crossings are a time-consuming hassle, and US regulations are difficult to monitor and follow. "Law enforcement officials seem to watch foreign carriers more closely, and they fine us for the smallest violations," he says. "Some of our drivers have even been cited for sleeping in public rest areas. The truckstop parking lots are full from midnight to around 5 am, but this is a problem in Canada, as well as the United States."
Cabotage (the ability of a foreign carrier to haul point to point within another country) is a joke in the United States, Brian says. "Under US rules, our trucks can operate point to point, but our drivers can't. We really haven't made any progress on cabotage."
Keith Hall & Sons has all company drivers and prefers to hire those with tank experience. They should have at least two years of over-the-road truck driving experience. A few drivers with less experience are hired in the van operation, but that is the only exception.
New hires stay at least a week with an experienced driver. Three to four days is spent just learning about the pumps and other product handling equipment. New hires find out that they have to be especially vigilant with chocolate loads because the product has very narrow temperature tolerances.
Drivers generally are assigned full time to either the tank or van divisions. "We have some movement between divisions," Brian says. "Some drivers like to move back and forth, while others see the tank operation as advancement."
Divisional differences aside, all of the drivers participate in the company safety program. Formal safety meetings are held three times a year, the largest of which is a day-long program in January. Smaller, impromptu meetings are scheduled as needed through the rest of the year.
"We get about 75% of our 60 drivers at the January meeting, and attendance is around 50% at the other two big meetings in the spring and fall," Brian says. "Among other things, we address seasonal issues at the meetings. At the fall meeting, for instance, we stress increased alertness because children are starting back to school."
Keith Hall & Sons participates in the Ontario Transportation Safety Association safety program as a way to encourage safe performance. Drivers receive pins and certificates based on the number of years of accident-free driving.
Consistency in the tractor fleet also contributes to safety. The carrier has been standard on International tractors for many years.
"The local International dealership is nearby, and they look after us very well," Brian says. "Besides, International is a popular truck, and the manufacturer has a lot of service facilities throughout Canada and the United States. Our drivers carry Fleet Charge cards to cover any maintenance work that is needed on the road.
"We have standardized on a single brand because we want uniformity. It's easier to move drivers around if all of the tractors are similar. We also believe that uniformity helps us project a better image to our customers."
The newest units are 9200 conventionals, most of them with 51- or 72-inch high-rise sleepers. The cabs are comfortable to say the least, with Eagle-level interiors and high-back air-ride seats. Webasto heaters help keep the sleepers comfortable no matter how cold it might be outside.
Drivers are given considerable latitude in customizing their assigned vehicles. They can outfit the cabs with televisions and video tape players, microwave ovens, and refrigerators. Outside, they are allowed to add certain chrome enhancements and extra lights.
The tractor fleet is split about half-and-half between Caterpillar and Cummins engines, with a few Detroit Diesel power plants now under test. The Cummins M11 engines are rated at 370 horsepower, and the Caterpillar C12s are set for 410 horsepower. Keith & Sons has gone after even more power with the Detroit Diesel engines, which are rated at 430 horsepower.
Meritor drivetrain components predominate. The Cummins and Cat engines are specified with 10-speed Meritor transmissions and Meritor drive tandems with a 3.90 ratio. In contrast, the Detroit Diesel test engines are running with 13-speed Fuller transmissions and Meritor drive tandems with a 4.11 ratio.
Tremcar Inc has become the primary supplier of tank trailers to the fleet. "We bought our first Tremcar tank in 1986," Brian says. "We believe they build a better tank, and they offer very competitive prices."
Sweeteners are transported in stainless steel tanks built to sanitary standards. Tri- and quad-axle units that are used in Canada have a 6,000-Imperial-gallon (7,200-gallon) capacity, while the tandem-axle trailers that run in the United States hold 5,000 Imperial gallons (6,000 gallons). Payload capacity is 79,000 pounds for the tri-axle trailers and 85,000 pounds for the quad-axle units.
At the rear of each sweetener trailer is a stainless steel compartment that contains a Jabsco three-inch stainless steel pump. Tank hardware includes Betts domelids, SGRM butterfly valves, and a pressure-relief vent that was jointly developed by Tremcar and Keith Hall & Sons.
Subframes are stainless steel for longer life. Trailers are specified with Hendrickson air suspensions and Jost landing gear. "We like the Jost sealed gear unit because it requires much less maintenance," Brian says. "We have experienced no freeze-ups during the winter."
The 5,000-gallon chocolate trailers are insulated with six inches of fiberglass compressed to five and have in-transit heat. They are double conical for easier unloading. Betts hydrolet discharge valves are specified on the trailers. Pumps are powered hydraulically.
The Bedard dry bulkers that were purchased for granulated sugar have 1,800- and 2,200-cu-ft capacities. The 1,800-cu-ft bulkers are tri-axle units, while the others are four-axle trailers.
Every indication is that the fleet will continue expanding in size and variety. The Hall family makes it clear that Keith Hall & Sons still has a lot of growing to do.