BACK in August 1999, Guillermo Hicks H made a cold call to Groendyke Transport Inc to see if the US tank truck carrier needed a new partner in Mexico. He believes it's one of the most rewarding phone calls he has ever made.
Chemicals now account for a growing percentage of the bulk liquid cargoes hauled by Trans-Lesa SA de CV. This shift to chemicals was a radical move for a Mexican tank truck carrier that had transported only petroleum and only for Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) since being established in 1952.
“Today, we work with a much larger, and much more diverse, customer base,” says Hicks, president of Trans-Lesa, which is headquartered in Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes. “We started our diversification in 1995, and Pemex now accounts for about 25% of our business. Diversification helps to protect us against fluctuations in the economy.
“We sought international business as a way to generate US dollars. This is a crucial factor in financing our growth. The tractors and tank trailers that we are buying today are priced in dollars, and we must have dollar revenue.”
The Mexican tank truck carrier certainly has been busy buying new vehicles. Purchases include 25 new tractors over the past two years, and Hicks now has turned his attention to the trailer fleet. Trans-Lesa currently runs 95 tractors, 130 tank trailers, and two dry bulkers.
Vehicles are distributed among three terminals — Aguascalientes; Salamanca, Guanajuato; and Matamoros, Tamaulipas. Trans-Lesa also has agents in Cadereyta, Nuevo Leon; Coatzacoalcos, Vera Cruz; and San Juan del Rio, Queretaro. Trans-Lesa shares a Mexico City sales representative with Groendyke Transport.
“We are steadily upgrading our terminal facilities,” Hicks says. “We built a new facility in Salamanca about five years ago, and this is our most sophisticated terminal. Our goal is to add a wash rack at that location in the next year or so.”
All of that capability is a far cry from the five tractor-trailer rigs that Hicks' father, Enrique Hicks Loya, started with in 1952. “We began using 1951 GMC tractors with four-cylinder, 137-horsepower engines,” Guillermo Hicks says. “We hauled gasoline and other refined products in 19,000-liter, carbon steel Fruehauf trailers.”
Guillermo Hicks joined Trans-Lesa in 1964 after graduating from the Instituto Tecnologico de Monterrey with a degree in civil engineering. It wasn't long before he was in charge of the trucking company.
For the next three decades, the carrier put most of its effort into serving Pemex and hauling gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. A national financial crisis in the early 1990s prompted a change in strategy.
“We realized we needed diversity,” Hicks says. “By 1995, we had additional customers, and we were hauling oil, wax, and a few chemicals. We began to transport some cargoes out of the Port of Brownsville (Texas), and we obtained overweight permits that allow gross combination weights up to 125,000 pounds. We focused on Mexican customers at first.”
As part of the effort to attract chemicals business, Trans-Lesa is in the process of obtaining ISO 9002 certification. “We hope to complete this project by mid-year,” Hicks says. “We're doing this because we want Trans-Lesa to be perceived as a leading-edge tank truck carrier. We want to make quality a way of life here to ensure consistency in the operation.”
Involvement with US carriers came slowly. The first step was taken around 1997, when Trans-Lesa agreed to provide drayage services in Mexico for tank container shipments of phosphoric acid that were going to customers in Monterrey and Toluca, Mexico. The shipments from the United States amounted to about 10 loads a month and were arranged by Dana Container.
US activity picked up significantly for Trans-Lesa once the interline partnership was established with Groendyke Transport. That and the diversification into chemicals have enabled Trans-Lesa to post some of its best growth ever.
“I think we will continue to achieve good growth by handling international shipments of chemicals,” Hicks says. “More multinationals are doing business in Mexico, and that's good for Mexican tank truck carriers such as ourselves.”
US Tank Traffic
Traffic between Mexico and the United States has increased considerably since May 2000 for the carrier. In the last six months alone, Trans-Lesa hauled 650 chemical loads in concert with Groendyke Transport.
The overwhelming majority of interline shipments move from the United States into Mexico. “Not much cargo is going north into the United States at this time,” says Rodrigo Hicks Macías, Trans-Lesa vice-president. “Northbound shipments are just beginning to grow and only account for 5% to 10% of our activity.”
For Trans-Lesa, the interline activity starts on the US side of the border. The tank truck carrier uses its own equipment to shuttle Groendyke tank trailers between the US city of Brownsville and its terminal in Matamoros.
“We fully comply with US transport regulations for the cross-border shuttle activity,” Guillermo Hicks says. “Our rigs are checked at least once a week at the border inspection stations run by the US Department of Transportation and Texas Department of Public Safety, and we have been placed out of service less than 1%. One thing that helps is that we send our vehicles through the Texas state inspection process every year.
“While we meet the US operating requirements for vehicle safety, this doesn't mean we have any immediate plans to operate in the United States once the border is opened. One reason is the cost of liability insurance for hazardous materials. We do carry $1 million worth of US liability insurance, and we are insured for one million pesos (approximately $108,283 US) in Mexico.”
The shuttle process can be done in 2½ to 3 hours if all of the documentation is in order. Trips from Brownsville to Mexico City take a day and a half on average. Trans-Lesa also offers a 48-hour expedited service from Houston, Texas, to Mexico City using driver teams.
Mexico City isn't the only destination, though. Trans-Lesa's primary operating area extends from Matamoros west to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, and south to the state of Chiapas. Numerous locations on the western side of the country also are served.
Drivers are out for about a week at a time, and most are home on the weekends. Some drivers do stay out two weeks at a stretch. Driver teams are used in some instances to meet shipper special requirements.
Load tracking has become more of a priority for many of Trans-Lesa's customers, and the carrier has installed Qualcomm satellite communication units on nearly 70% of its tractors. In addition, drivers call dispatch two to three times a day. They are required to report in when loading, unloading, and en route.
Trip data is collected and input into the company's computer system. Computer reports on shipment status are available to all customers via the Internet.
In addition, Trans-Lesa keeps a close eye on customer satisfaction. A service questionnaire is included with the paperwork on each load. Drivers can earn a 10% bonus for each positive report.
Drivers are the key to good service, and Trans-Lesa is very selective in who it hires. Minimum age is 25, and the carrier requires at least five years of truck driving experience. To qualify for consideration, an applicant must have a type E license for hazardous materials, proof that he finished at least the eighth grade in school, birth certificate, proof of home address, and a valid passport with appropriate visas.
In addition to a thorough medical evaluation, the applicant must submit to a detailed criminal background check. Drug tests aren't mandatory in Mexico, but they are required by Trans-Lesa. Random checks continue throughout a driver's employment.
“We test for marijuana, cocaine, and amphetamines,” Guillermo Hicks says. “Drivers receive a 10% bonus with each clean retest. We discharge anyone who tests positive for marijuana or cocaine.”
Training begins even before the hiring process is fully complete. Candidates are given a loose leaf binder containing a comprehensive driver manual, and they begin to learn about Trans-Lesa, its expectations, and its customers.
Over the course of the first year on the job, drivers go through 10 to 12 modules in the training program. “We do one to two modules at a time, and there are a total of 17 in the driver manual,” Hicks says. “We don't think it's effective to present all of this material to a driver right after he's hired. It's just too much.”
Classes are held two days a week at the Aguascalientes and Salamanca terminals, and attendance is mandatory for all drivers present (even long-time employees) on those days. Training combines videotapes with classroom instruction. Drivers receive a diploma after completing each module.
Safety is a running theme of the training program, and the carrier also holds monthly safety meetings that are conducted by Jorge Eudave, Trans-Lesa safety manager. Drivers learn about Trans-Lesa's emergency response capability and its involvement in Sistema de Emergencias en Transporte para la Industria Quimica (SETIQ), which is part of ANIQ, the Mexico chemical manufacturers association. SETIQ serves as a Mexican version of Chemtrec.
Among the policies covered during the training is Trans-Lesa's post-trip inspection requirement. Drivers must list all maintenance issues on the inspection form, mechanics must sign off after repairs are made, and the driver must verify that the work was done.
Government hazmat transport requirements are covered in detail. For instance, pretrip inspections and driver logs are now mandatory in Mexico. “Enforcement of the regulations is much stricter today,” Hicks says. “Government inspectors need to reinforce their commitment, but they are making progress.”
Equipment specifications and operations get plenty of attention during the training. The company has made a significant investment in new equipment over the past couple of years, especially for the chemical operations.
On the tractor side, the newest units are Freightliner Columbia conventionals with 48-inch sleepers. The drivetrain includes 450-horsepower Cummins ISX engines, Fuller 18-speed transmissions, and Meritor drive axles with 46,000 pounds capacity. Engines are set for a maximum road speed of 95 kilometers per hour (59 miles per hour).
Driver enhancements include air-ride seats and air-conditioning. They are allowed to add CB radios, but installation must be performed by Trans-Lesa mechanics. The newest tractors have Freightliner on-board computers.
Antilock braking is specified on tractors, but not on trailers. Among other components are Holland fixed-position fifthwheels, steel hubs and wheels, and Michelin steel-belted radial tires. Trans-Lesa also uses Bandag retreads.
Neither tractors nor trailers carry product pumps. “It's more typical in Mexico for the customer to provide the product handling equipment,” Hicks says.
Tank trailers are from Nacional de Carrocerias SA de CV (NACASA). The carrier runs stainless steel MC307 chemical trailers and carbon steel MC306 gasoline units. Noncode carbon steel tanks are used for products such as asphalt.
Constructed of 316 stainless, the chemical trailers typically have a 40,000-liter (10,500-gallon) capacity. Hardware includes Girard pressure- and vacuum-relief vents. Spring suspensions are standard.
Petroleum is transported in 44,000-liter (11,600-gallon), single-compartment trailers. Bottom-loading hardware, internal valves, and vapor recovery systems are from Emco Wheaton. Tanks also have Scully overfill protection.
Doubles trains are used for some petroleum shipments. Total capacity for these units is in excess of 60,000 liters (15,800 gallons).
High-capacity trailers, state-of-the-art tractors, and well-trained drivers give Trans-Lesa the ability to provide customers with outstanding service. The interline partnership with Groendyke Transport has enabled the Mexican tank truck carrier to take service to an even higher level.