SUPPLYING construction projects with cement and fly ash is the main focus for Texas Stretch Inc, a Houston, Texas, dry bulk carrier. A B Brewer, company owner, says the boost from highway and commercial construction projects in the Southwest for the past five years has been especially fruitful for the company.
“We've been busy in Houston hauling cement to ready mix companies for construction on highways and housing,” says Brewer. “All the construction that has been going on at the airport here also has kept us busy. They have a portable plant, so we haul the cement directly to them.”
Although the local economy has been profitable for the past few years, Brewer predicts a downturn on the horizon for his services. To compensate, he will seek business farther away from home base. However, for cement haulers a range of more than 400 miles becomes less profitable because of the lack of backhauls, he adds.
In addition to cement services, the company transports fly ash, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants, to cement producers and construction sites where it is added to cement as a stabilizing ingredient.
The transporter also supplies companies with a white cement used in stepping stones, swimming pool construction, tile, blocks, concrete ornaments, and other specialty projects. Five bulkers are dedicated to this product that requires careful handling to preserve its pristine nature.
Texas Stretch, officially established in 1988, received its name because of the carrier's determination to handle all of its customers' needs. Because of just-in-time requirements related to supplying cement, the operation stays on the move in order to meet varying demands.
Houston to San Antonio is one route that keeps the company busy. For operating efficiency, Brewer added a terminal and repair shop midway on the route that helps offset vehicle downtime.
As a diversification to its dry bulk business, the company has 10 flatbed trailers to haul bridge beams and pilings and 67 dump trailers for gravel. A vacuum trailer also has been added to the fleet for a new wastehauling account.
Despite the company's growth in the past 20 years, Brewer says the beginnings weren't as rosy. As a young man he spent a good many years learning the trucking industry by trial and error. In his early 20s, he drove a truck for a milk distributor, but before long the fledgling entrepreneur began to look around for other opportunities.
“I bought my first Peterbilt in 1966 — to lease,” he says. “I was going to get rich. It worked all right for a while. Then I decided I would be an owner-operator. There I was, owner of a truck with no experience. Nobody would hire me.”
Like most young men with chutzpah, he ignored the negatives and rushed on with little contemplation — finally persuading a broker to place a load of rice with him to deliver to San Francisco, California.
“I picked up the rice and headed out,” he recalls. “I couldn't even shift gears properly, but God looks after fools and children — and I was no child.”
After plenty of stops, starts, and jerks, particularly while crossing mountain ranges, Brewer arrived in California. However, he had neglected to consider the economics of the return trip to Texas. “That's when I learned that you can't come back empty and make any money. When I got home, I owed the broker more than I made.”
Feeling wiser, if poorer, he decided the road to high finance lay in eliminating the middle man, so he purchased some produce himself and was on the road again. “I lost $900 on that load,” he says.
In trying to make up for all the mistakes, Brewer found himself in the cab almost constantly — when he wasn't under the truck working on it. Things were grim, and he was learning the road to success was filled with potholes. Finally, he let the truck go back to the bank and got a job hauling gasoline for Texaco.
Then there was that truck show in Oklahoma City. His wife, knowing he wasn't happy working for someone else, urged him to visit the show. The result was the purchase of a Peterbilt, which eventually led to a job hauling produce to Alaska.
By this time, Brewer had benefited from his experiences and was learning how to operate a business. His dreams, though, were going to have another setback, a tragic one. On one of the trips to Alaska in 1977, his wife was riding with him when the truck's brakes failed, and they careened off the side of a mountain. His wife was thrown from the truck and killed.
For eight months after the accident, Brewer was unable to face the future. Finally, a banker friend called him and insisted he purchase a gravel truck and get back to work. The banker's efforts prodded him enough so that he returned to trucking. Sobered from the tragedy and wiser from the business experience, Brewer launched his company with the truck.
“I put used oil in it that I got from my brother who owned a service station,” says Brewer. “I worked on the truck at night so it would run the next day.”
He eventually was able to buy an aluminum dump trailer and a new Ford tractor. Having learned to eliminate the middle man earlier, he tried to purchase gravel directly from pit owners. “Most of them wouldn't sell to me because I was too small,” Brewer says. “But I finally found one that would.”
Once again, there was a hitch. The Texas Railroad Commission refused to issue a permit for him to handle gravel independently. Not being a man of unlimited patience, Brewer hired an attorney and challenged the commission's decision. The case rocked on for several years until deregulation of the trucking industry ended the permit policy. Finally, he was free to build the company's business.
During the standoff with the commission, Brewer had bought a Heil cement trailer. The decision proved to be one that would put his company on a sound foundation as a dry bulk carrier. By 1982, he had purchased 10 new Ford tractors and added to the trailer fleet. “That was my first major investment,” he says.
All of this time, Brewer was still driving one of the tractors and working in the shop to help keep vehicles in good condition. Nevertheless, he began looking around for some diversification. In 1991, he joined Cliff McWilliams in Vantage Trailers that supplied bulk trailers. Later, Brewer left the company to devote full time to Texas Stretch.
By 1993 Brewer had six dry bulk trailers. In 1996, he had enough business to add 15 new Peterbilt tractors to the fleet.
Another opportunity presented itself in 2000 when Brewer and Donny Smith formed a separate carrier, Bulk Services Transportation in Midlothian, Texas. Also a cement and fly ash hauler, the carrier operates 55 dry bulk trailers and 14 tractors, plus additional tractors from owner-operators.
Today, Texas Stretch, with 55 dry bulk trailers, hauls cement from plants in the Houston area to various construction projects in a region ranging from Houston south to San Antonio, west to Arizona, north to Kansas, and east to the Mississippi River.
Texas Stretch is a family-run company with Brewer directing operations and marketing. Coordinating dispatching are Brewer's two sons, Alvin and Roger. His brother, Butch, oversees safety and driver programs.
The company employs 54 drivers for its fleet of 55 bulkers and 57 Peterbilt tractors. Driver retention has not been a serious problem for Texas Stretch, says Butch Brewer. Applicants are usually obtained through word-of-mouth by company drivers. They must be at least 25 years old and be qualified to handle tank trailers. Tim Moore, a veteran company driver, supervises training.
The carrier operates Monday through noon Saturday with on-call service also available at other times. Drivers receive orders by calling in before 5 pm for the next day's assignments. They carry Nextel telephones for communicating with the office while they are on the road.
The dry bulk fleet includes trailers from Heil Trailer International, Walker Stainless Equipment, and Vantage Trailers. Newest dry bulk trailers are from Heil, distributed by The Jack Olsta Co. The 1,000 cubic-foot trailers are equipped with SureSeal aerators, and butterfly and product valves. Knappco supplies check valves.
Running gear includes integrated Intraax suspensions and axles from Hendrickson and MeritorWabco antilock brake systems. Aluminum hubs are from Conmet. Alcoa supplies aluminum wheels. Lighting is from Truck-Lite.
To keep trailers as light as possible without sacrificing strength, Brewer specifies aluminum crossmembers for the steel frames.
As for the Peterbilt tractors, Brewer purchases them from Rush Truck Center, Houston. All of the Peterbilts have sleeper cabs with deluxe appointments. “Our drivers spend a lot of time in the truck,” says Brewer. “It's pretty much their home, so they need to be comfortable.”
He orders tractors in a rainbow of colors that has become the company's image.
“I also specify a 265-inch wheelbase for the tractors,” he says. “We seem to get better performance out of it.”
Caterpillar Model C15 engines are rated at 475-horsepower. Tractors are specified with Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmissions. The running gear includes Dana Spicer 40,000-pound-capacity drive axles and a 12,000-pound steer axle. Brewer specifies Peterbilt's light-weight Flex Air tandem air suspensions and MeritorWABCO's antilock brake systems.
Brewer also specifies aluminum wheels for the tractors. Truck-Lite supplies LED lamps. PTO-powered Gardner Denver blowers are mounted on the tractors.
To maintain vehicles, Brewer chose Robert Burns to oversee two shops, one new three-bay in Houston and another three-bay at the satellite terminal in Sealy, Texas. Shops handle preventive maintenance and repairs on both tractors and trailers.
Tractors receive oil changes at 15,000-mile intervals, and typically are traded after 400,000 to 500,000 miles of use, says Burns. Used tractor sales are handled directly by the company rather than using them as trade-ins.
Dry bulk trailers used to haul white specialty cement and cement used in sand blasting receive interior washouts after every load. They are cleaned with a high-pressure hose and spray.
Understanding the maintenance requirements comes easy for Brewer, having learned throughout the years what it takes to keep tractors and trailers operating. For Brewer, the early experience paid off in that he was able to apply the lessons for the company's benefit. However, Brewer sees success in a different light.
“I think I have a little angel over my shoulder,” he says. “And, I've just been at the right place at the right time.”