ST John Truck & Trailer Service’s original location, which opened in 1946 as a small corner gas station and repair shop, sits between loading terminals owned by Marathon Petroleum, CITGO Petroleum and Buckeye Partners.
That leads to an abundance of tank truck traffic in their area—and plenty of opportunity.
By identifying their fleet needs, then doing everything possible to fill them, including tank trailer refurbishment; US Department of Transportation-certified inspection and repair; and refined fuel and propane meter calibrations; St John’s business is booming, and its Michigan footprint continues to expand.
The company now boasts 32,000 square feet of service space at its primary site near Muskegon, plus an 8,100-square-foot welding and fabrication shop that opened in 2017, and a second location 20 miles east in Coopersville.
“It’s a combination of the dedicated employees we have here, and a lot of really good customers and their dedication to us—and as they continue to grow and expand their fleets, we grow with them,” said Brian Noppert, president of St John.
“One guy (fab shop supervisor Ron Krehn) has been here 43 years now, so we have some great, long-term employees.”
Ivan St John started the business 73 years ago.
He expanded into heavy-duty truck repair soon after opening the shop and remained the sole owner until 1984, when Noppert’s father, Nick Noppert, bought the company, and it remains in his family today.
Brian Noppert started with the company while in high school in 1987 and worked with his dad until he retired in January 2018, when Brian became president. St John now employs about 40 people between its locations in Norton Shores, a suburb of Muskegon, and Coopersville, where the shop operates as Exit 16 Fleet Repair.
While the second location handles primarily truck repair, the original location features eight truck bays for general service and repairs, an alignment rack, six bays for trailer service and repair, one for hazmat tank inspections, another for calibrating petroleum and liquid propane (LP) meters, and a commercial truck wash.
The wash bay is for external truck cleaning but the facility also features a steam rack for steaming and degassing tanks.
That’s all on top of the fabrication shop, which includes a shear and brake machine that can handle sheets of steel up to a quarter-inch thick and 10 feet long, an ironworker and drill presses for the shop’s team of welders.
“(Diversified service) is a big part of our success,” Noppert said. “We’re able to do everything here in-house that needs to be done, so if they bring a truck and trailer in for service, and repairs or testing, we can do it all here, and they don’t have to take it to multiple different places to get everything done. We have a one-stop shop.”
In addition to the larger fleets, like Marathon’s, for which St John provides services, many local fleets turn to Noppert’s experts and ASE-certified techs for help, including Blarney Castle Oil Company, Crystal Flash and Wesco convenience stores, and one of the most important services St John provides today—thanks to the new fab shop—is tank repair.
St John obtained its National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors ‘R’ stamp to work on tanks certified by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1992 and began offering full tank trailer refurbishments 20 years ago. St John refurbishes all types of tanks, including dry bulk, chemical and milk, but the bulk of its works is on petro and LP tanks.
That part of the business has grown exponentially in the last several years, with an unlimited amount of work available because of the harsh chemicals used in Michigan for ice control that are extremely corrosive, causing mild steel trailer frames to rot out much faster than the tanks they were built to transport.
“In Michigan, the frames on these trailers will rust out in 10 to 15 years, so we fabricate new stainless steel subframes for the tanks,” Noppert said. “So we’ll fabricate a new frame, then put the suspension on it, run all new plumbing, and then lift the barrel off the old frame (using overhead cranes) and change it over.
“We minimize the downtime for the customer by doing most of the work ahead of time, and then the trailer only needs to be down for a few weeks.”
The new stainless steel frames, and other trailer components, including new cabinets, fenders and landing gear, are impervious to the effects of the salt and brine covering Michigan roadways in winter, adding another 15 years of life, Noppert said.
“Once we do it, we won’t need to do it again,” he maintained.
For the new suspensions, and the air disc brakes Noppert says are growing in popularity, St John turns to SAF-Holland—a global commercial vehicle supplier and manufacturer of chassis-related systems and components for trailers—which has its corporate headquarters for the Americas in Muskegon.
St John has been a SAF-Holland dealer for more than 30 years and works closely with its engineering and sales staff. It’s currently installing SAF CBX air-ride suspensions with P89 air-disc brakes on its stainless steel frames.
“They have good, heavy-duty suspension hangers that can handle the loads here in Michigan, where a trailer typically has six axles, and a truck-trailer combination will gross out at about 130,000 pounds,” Noppert said.
St John also is a dealer for Canadian tank manufacturer Advance Engineered Products (AEP), which has been building petroleum, chemical, dry bulk, food grade, water and vacuum tanks since the 1980s. They partnered up more than a year ago, when AEP contacted St John in an effort to revitalize its presence in the US market.
“They’re a great company,” Noppert said. “The quality of their work and the craftmanship are what really drew us to them. And it’s a good fit because Michigan tanks are quite similar to Canadian tanks, in that they are built for large volumes and with multiple axles.
“We want to sell (customers) a new tank, too,” he joked. “But sometimes it makes more sense to refurbish the old one, depending on the age of the trailer and how good the barrel is.”
St John is certified for HM-183 cargo tank inspections, which it began conducting in the late 1980s when regulations first were introduced. Services include LP tank repair and testing (MC330/331); petroleum tank repair and testing (MC306/406/412); VK visual and leakage testing; VKIP internal and pressure retesting; five-year hydrostat, pump and valve repair; hose repair and assembly; and tank steaming and purging.
“Back in the day, there were some growing pains,” Noppert said. “Fortunately, everybody was learning at the same time.”
St John also offers refined fuel and propane meter calibrations that are certified by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, typically done for delivery trucks, at its main facility and in the field with a mobile unit.
And if a customer can’t make it in, St John even has a driver for pickups and deliveries.
“The relationships are extremely important,” Noppert said. “We really value our customers.”