Reliability and durability are key attributes that Ferrell North America looks for when it specifies tractors and trailers. The equipment must be able to live up to expectations under some very demanding conditions.
For one, the propane transport fleet is busiest during the coldest months of the year, supporting retail propane operations across the United States. For another, the fleet's 145 tractors and 300 trailers are scattered over 29 states with just one or two rigs per location. Unscheduled downtime can be a major inconvenience for the far-flung fleet.
“The chief objective of Ferrell North America is to ensure that our propane customers never run out of product, and the truck fleet plays a critical role in helping us meet that goal,” says George L Koloroutis, vice-president of Ferrell North America. “We've built what we believe is a very successful commercial fleet operation, and we measure our performance against other for-hire trucking companies in the business.”
A division of Ferrellgas Partners LP, Ferrell North America was established in 1977 to provide trading and distribution services to the parent company. Ferrellgas has been in business since 1939 and has emerged as the second largest propane marketer in the United States. It also became the largest provider of propane by portable tank exchange after acquiring the Blue Rhino operations in 2004.
Headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas, Ferrell North America purchases, trades, sells, stores, and transports natural gas liquids and refinery feedstocks in conjunction with major oil companies, petrochemical manufacturers, gas processors, and other retail propane companies. In all, Ferrell North American handles more than one billion gallons of propane annually.
While railcars haul about 75 million gallons of the total, trucks are Ferrell North America's main source of propane transportation. The division supplies more than 600 Ferrellgas retail locations, along with other propane marketers.
Transportation operations are directed by an Overland Park-based management team that includes two rail coordinators who oversee about 100 tankcars, eight truck schedulers, and four fleet safety representatives. Leading the team is James Ainsworth, Ferrell North America director of transportation.
“We manage 100% of the transportation services provided through Ferrell North America,” Ainsworth says. “Our own fleet equipment handles 75% of the Ferrell group's transportation needs. If we accept a freight contract, we will take whatever steps are needed to honor it. We don't divert equipment from one customer to another once we make a commitment. It's up to us to manage our operation so all obligations are met.
“One way we do that is with for-hire carrier partners. We have relationships with more than 100 common carriers. We have found that some geographic areas favor common carrier service. These fleets handle our overflow during the winter, and we work with them to take on their overflow at other times of the year. It's a win-win arrangement, because we want to keep our drivers busy throughout the year.”
Most of the locations served by the Ferrell North America fleet are in the Upper Midwest, Midwest, South, and Southwest. The transport division relies on its for-hire carrier partners to handle service to customers in other regions of the United States and Puerto Rico.
While the primary focus is on propane, 15% to 20% of Ferrell North America's truck transport revenue comes from other cargoes. Cargoes include butane and other liquefied petroleum gases, anhydrous ammonia, biofuels, and asphalt.
“We run 20 MC331 trailers that are dedicated to anhydrous ammonia, and we only switch propane trailers to anhydrous service if there is enough business to warrant the change,” Ainsworth says. “We don't routinely move our MC331 trailers back and forth between propane and ammonia service. We also pull anhydrous ammonia trailers that belong to our customers.
“We have a few asphalt trailers, and we've recently added some petroleum trailers for the biofuels, which is new business for us. We pull dry vans for the Blue Rhino operation. We also use flatbeds to transport storage tanks and various equipment used in the Ferrellgas operations.”
To haul the growing variety of cargoes, Ferrell North America runs a company fleet of Kenworth T800 tractors. “We have developed tractor specifications that balance safety with weight and cost,” Ainsworth says. “On the safety side, our newest tractors have the Bendix roll stability system. Tare weight typically is in the 13,000-lb range.”
Ferrell North America standardized on Kenworth tractors because they have good driver acceptance and resale value. “We run our tractors five to six years, and we get a very good price when we replace them,” says Kevin Kane, Ferrell North America fleet operations-Midwest.
He adds that the company usually follows a well-defined replacement schedule. However, the company bought no tractors with 2007 engines this year and may buy just a few new tractors between now and 2010.
“We're looking at refurbishing some of our older tractors, because we've found we can do that for about one-fifth to one-fourth the cost of a new tractor,” Kane says. “We put one refurbished unit on the road in the fourth quarter of 2007, and we want to see how that tractor performs.
“We expect three years of additional service from the refurbished tractors. We're using a Kansas City-area truck shop, and the mechanics do a complete overhaul on the tractor. Among other things, they replace engine components including injectors, water pump, and turbocharger. Inside the cab, they install new seats, interior panels, headliner, dash, floor mats, and sleeper mattress.”
Daycabs and sleepers
Ferrell North America runs both daycab and sleeper tractors. “We have more sleepers than daycabs, and sleeper size ranges from 38 inches to 62 inches,” Kane says. “On our newest daycab units, we specified Kenworth's extended daycab. Drivers like the extra room and improved side visibility.”
The fleet has standardized on a powertrain with Caterpillar C13 engine rated at 435 horsepower, Fuller 10-speed transmission, and Eaton drive tandem with Kenworth's Air Glide air suspension. The fleet currently is testing six automated transmissions from ArvinMeritor.
Product handling equipment on the tractors consists of a Muncie PTO and a Thermaflow hydraulic drive system from Stac Inc. Kane says the Stac system is preferred because of the welded stainless steel tubing that provides good reliability and lower maintenance.
Ferrell North America has begun specifying Minimizer plastic half fenders on the tractors. The plastic fenders are less expensive than metal fenders, according to Kane, and they deliver a long life.
Aluminum disc wheels help hold down weight. Also contributing to weight savings on some tractors are Michelin X One widebase single drive tires.
The newest of the MC331 propane tanks that dominate the trailer fleet have an 11,600-gallon capacity and were built by Mississippi Tank Company. Product handling hardware includes Fisher valves and vents and Blackmer pumps. The passive shutdown system is from DJT Products Inc.
“The mechanical-over-air system is durable and much simpler than the electronic units on the market,” Kane says. “It is a proven design, and we've specified it on our trailers for quite a few years. The system performs reliably with up to 40 feet of hose.”
Wiring harnesses and lighting are supplied by Petersen and Grote. Trailers also have Betts work lights around the product handling areas. The fleet has standardized on Jost two-speed landing gear that offers greater ease of operation.
For running gear, the trailers are specified with Meritor axles and Hutchens CH9600 no-hop spring suspensions with Lite-Flex composite springs. Hutch spring suspensions are preferred because they are easier to maintain. The composite springs offer weight savings of 60% to 80% of steel.
A cadre of veteran truck drivers operates the trailers and tractors. With just one terminal (Dickinson, North Dakota) in the Ferrell North America system, drivers are widely dispersed and must be able to work with minimal supervision. Most are based close to Ferrellgas retail markets and primary loading terminals.
“In our operation, we need self-motivated and self-starting truck drivers who can show that they are real professionals,” says Mike Abrams, Ferrell North America fleet operations-West. “We treat them like professionals in every way. We show that we respect our drivers and recognize that they are the key to our success.
“We only hire a handful of drivers every year, and we work hard to make sure they want to stay with us for the long haul. We have just a 4% to 5% turnover for truck drivers with us for less than a year, and our overall driver turnover is around 20%.”
Good drivers and proven vehicle specifications. These factors have given Ferrell North America the ability to provide outstanding service as one of the premier propane haulers in the United States.