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NTTC Chairman Dean Kaplan makes drivers, industry advocacy key objectives

May 5, 2015
IT IS almost an understatement to say that Dean Kaplan is passionate about truck drivers.

IT IS almost an understatement to say that Dean Kaplan is passionate about truck drivers. He used his year as National Tank Truck Carriers (NTTC) chairman to significantly raise the profile of tank truck drivers.

Driver recognition topped the short list of objectives Kaplan announced during his chairman’s acceptance speech at last year’s NTTC annual conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. The other two key objectives were increasing industry advocacy and boosting the membership commitment to the NTTC Political Action Committee.

“It was a tremendous honor to be selected as NTTC chairman, and it has been a great honor to give back to the industry I love and care deeply about,” says Kaplan, who is also chief executive officer of K-Limited Carrier Ltd, a regional chemical hauler based in Toledo, Ohio. “I felt that the objectives I chose are critically important to this industry. We need to continually raise the bar for our truck drivers, and we need to recognize them as the true professionals they are. We’re doing that with our new Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year program. Groendyke Transport’s James Starr was the first driver honored with this award, and we will add a second name at this year’s NTTC annual conference.

Dean Kaplan, Chairman NTTC Inc

“We also continued to build on our advocacy efforts over the past year and greatly strengthened our NTTC PAC at the same time. Both efforts were critical to our ability to effectively address the most pressing challenges facing our industry today. The bottom line for advocacy in Washington DC is that you have to be seated at the table. I learned from the late Don Smith, former Ohio Trucking Association president and association legend, that you can’t ever buy a vote, but you can rent an ear.”

Kaplan has been one of the most hands-on NTTC chairmen in many years. For example, he traveled more than 100 days over the past year to promote NTTC activities and represent the association.

“I spent a lot of time on association business for a number of reasons,” he says. “It was how I wanted to fulfill my role during a year of transition for the association. It was critically important to put our industry’s face out front. I went to Washington DC eight or nine times in the past year. These weren’t just the traditional Calls on Washington that many associations do. In many cases, these meetings were more roundtable open discussions with key players in government and industry.”

Kaplan has been a part of the trucking industry virtually all of his 62 years. He was born into it and grew up in the industry—first as part of his family’s trucking company (Freightway Corporation) and then as co-founder of K-Limited Carrier Ltd with Kim, his wife of 30 years.

“I really started working in my dad’s company when I was eight or nine,” he says. “I was counting trailers, picking up trash in the yard, whacking weeds, washing trucks, and whatever else they asked. I did it my dad’s way.”

Kaplan’s brothers managed the freight carrier after their father passed away in 1967. Kaplan held various positions in the family company—mechanic in the tractor and trailer shops, professional truck driver, and a host of other functions.

“I was the only one of four brothers to drive a truck,” he says. “I have more than 500,000 miles of truck driving under my belt, and I still have a valid commercial driver license. I would never let it go. You just never know when you might need it. I learned to drive moving tractors and trailers in and out of the same shop that we now occupy as part of K-Limited Carrier.

“I had a chance to move inside, and one brother told me that if I didn’t take that chance I would remain just a driver. He moved me inside, and I started developing our safety department. That is one reason I am so engaged in our safety efforts at NTTC and at K-Limited.

Kaplan says trucking is the only thing he ever wanted as a career. “I just love the business of trucking,” he says. “When I finally left Freightway in the early 1990s, I had a couple of flatbed operations that grew into a company called Freight Resources, which was private trucking.”

Dean met Kim when she worked for Freightway before moving on to Refiners Transport & Terminal Corp, first under Leaseway Transportation Corp and then BMI Transportation Inc. Kim spent 14 years as a dispatcher at Refiners.

When BMI failed in 1996, Dean and Kim knew the end was coming and developed a game plan that was initially intended to carve out a small niche operation with five drivers and five acid transports.

“We started what we now know as K-Limited Carrier at the end of 1996,” Dean says. “Fast forward to today, it’s grown beyond our wildest dreams. Among the five drivers joining us from Refiners was the father of Ron Hawkins, our driver who was selected as an America’s Road Team Captain in 2009-2010. He was also selected to join the first group of champion finalists for the NTTC’s Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year.”

Dean and Kim obtained tank trailers on short notice through industry connections, and they had their trucks on the road hauling sulfuric acid in short order. “We were able to move quickly by becoming the first Chemical Leaman Tank Lines affiliate,” Dean says. “They provided us tanks and some older Chemical Leaman tractors that had been parked for several years. Shortly afterward, we acquired 10 International tractors that were actually built originally for BMI.”

K-Limited Carrier started in rented office space in Toledo. The Kaplans later purchased the old Freightway terminal, which is now K-Limited’s corporate headquarters and largest terminal.

What was the transition like from freight hauling to tank truck operations? “It was kind of a shock to see how much tank fittings cost,” Dean admits. “I’d never seen $700 fittings, so there was some sticker shock. Because Kim knew the tank truck side, I was able to focus on key functions that I knew best, such as corporate structure, finance, risk management, safety and human resources. I didn’t really need to fully grasp all of the tank truck business initially.”

The years as a Chemical Leaman affiliate were strong. “We were a pretty good affiliate, and we were making it financially,” Dean says. “We had our own customer base and our own equipment, which made a big difference.”

When Chemical Leaman and MTL Inc were combined in 1998, the Kaplans decided it was time for a change. They withdrew from the Chemical Leaman affiliate arrangement and joined with Manfredi Motor Transit Co as a subsidiary. “Ultimately, we bought back our company and took off on our own,” Dean says. “We always had our own operating authority. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for the people at Chemical Leaman and Manfredi who worked with us.”

The Kaplans became more involved in NTTC not long after forming K-Limited Carrier. “I probably started attending meetings around 2000 by myself,” Dean says. “We kind of knew about the association through the years, and we really jumped in during our time with Manfredi Motor Transit. Rich Manfredi was very involved in NTTC, and he told me we could ride on his coattails for a time. We did that for a while, but we knew we had to become involved on our own.”

He adds that industry association involvement was drilled into him at the family’s fleet. “It was important that you get involved in an association,” Kaplan says. “You don’t just sit back. Associations are where you foster the lifelong relationships with solid companies that are your peers.”

Involvement brought a desire to move into the association’s leadership. “I saw how involved Steve Rush was, and he runs one of the smaller tank truck carriers (Carbon Express Inc),” Dean says. “It was an inspiration. During one of the NTTC meetings, I approached Steve and Barbara Windsor (Hahn Transportation Inc) and mentioned that I was interested and wanted to get more involved. From that time, I went to all of the meetings and educational seminars.”

Meeting attendance and the gradual move into leadership roles were solid networking opportunities. Dean’s selection as NTTC first vice-chairman in 2013 marked the beginning of a very busy two years that culminated with his year of service as chairman.

However, he entered the job as well prepared as anyone has been. The primary reason: Changes in the leadership structure made during the chairman’s tenure of Greg Hodgen, Groendyke Transport Inc.

“It was agreed that all of us involved in the association’s governance would begin meeting more frequently, especially during the summer and winter board meetings and the annual conference,” Dean says. “Among those included in these meetings were past chairmen, vice-chairmen, and our treasurer, who at the time was Tom Connard (Trimac Transportation) and who did a great job of keeping the group focused and on task.”

It was an important change, and today the organization is much stronger because of it, according to Kaplan. “When I took over the chairman’s position in Las Vegas, I hit the ground running,” he says.

That more expansive orientation gave Dean a greater sense of pride in the staff that operates the NTTC offices in Arlington, Virginia. “It doesn’t take long to see that we have a small but very talented and motivated crew in the NTTC offices,” he says. “We have a solid leader in Dan Furth. These folks put together an incredible success with the launch of the driver of the year award last year. Going forward, we plan to match that intensity for the Outstanding Safety Performance Award and the highly-coveted Heil Award in Boston with a new video production. After careful consideration, we’ll recognize two winners this year—a large carrier and a small carrier.”

It’s not likely Dean will disappear at the end of his term as chairman. “The man following me is a phenomenal guy, and I admire him immensely, but it will be tough for me to just turn my shoulder away from our drivers and our advocacy efforts,” he says. “It will be very difficult. I will stay engaged.”

BT: How would you characterize the state of the tank truck industry today?

Kaplan: I think it is pretty solid. During my time, we’ve seen strength in almost all of the traditional tank truck markets. We always should remain mindful of the varied cyclicality within those unique markets.

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BT: What have you seen in terms of specific tank truck activity?

Kaplan: Last year we invested in an econometric study of the tank industry authored by Bob Costello at the American Trucking Associations. He did a fabulous job. NTTC paid for this, and it just told us so much about our industry.

The study shows us that tank truck operations account for about 11% of the trucking industry. There are about 160,000 tractors in the tank truck sector. I had no idea there were that many. By tonnage, fuels account for half of the cargoes hauled in tank truck, but those loads are handled by a relatively small number of tractors.

BT: How does the tank truck industry compare to the economy as a whole?

Kaplan: The tank truck sector has done reasonably well despite a slow economy. At K-Limited, our chemical hauling activity has been quite strong. We’ve also had a small amount of specialty business going into the oil and gas shale areas in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

The Obama Administration has been in place for the past six years, and it really hasn’t been the most business friendly environment for industry in general. In the history of our country, we’re living through one of the slowest economic recoveries from recession ever.

BT: Have you seen a benefit from the lower fuel prices that came with the drop in crude oil prices?

Kaplan: We are benefitting, but that trend could change next week. I don’t think it will in the short term, but fuel prices do fluctuate and it’s tough to today’s global energy markets. We still have a fuel surcharge, which is necessary.

BT: Where is tank truck capacity right now?

Kaplan: Capacity remains tight. It’s not an equipment issue; it’s a lack of drivers. Drivers are the most important component today, and that is why we must keep them front and center.

BT: What would it take to get enough drivers?

Kaplan: If I had the answer to that, you and I could parlay that into something that would make both of us very wealthy. In our company, we never take the foot off the pedal when it comes to driver recruiting and retention. We’re always looking for good drivers, and we put considerable resources into the effort.

We have an aging driver population, with many saying the average age is in the high 50s. I personally think it’s up in the low 60s.

BT: Will the Congressional fix for the hours-of-service restart provision help improve driver morale and productivity?

Kaplan: Absolutely, but don’t lose sight of the issue here. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration failed to do a proper study as was required. You can’t regulate on whim. The Congressional action was just a temporary reprieve.

BT: What was NTTC’s role in getting a broader hours-of-service exemption program for fleets hauling heating fuels during the winter?

Kaplan: At Dan Furth’s request, I made an emergency trip to Washington DC during the 2013/2014 winter. We met with Ohio Congressman Bob Latta, and it was NTTC’s effort to get that fuel moving right now. We’re in a good position now. It wasn’t just for Ohio. We did it for all impacted states. That was an initiative by NTTC to help people in trouble. That’s where you really see the benefits of building relationships.

BT: What are other key issues for the tank truck industry?

Kaplan: The Hazardous Materials Transportation Act reauthorization, with our number one goal in that being uniform permitting. We believe the cargo tank wetlines issue is still alive.

BT: Wasn’t the wetlines issue finally put to rest?

Kaplan: We thought it was on numerous occasions. We put a lot of our advocacy efforts into that issue. Dan Furth and I have discussed this issue with a number of Congressmen over the past year. We’ve also had discussions with Senate leaders. PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) is still pursuing it. It won’t be dead until Congress passes legislation killing it. That is the only way it will go away. We don’t want to celebrate in the end zone too early on wetlines.

This is one reason we need a strong PAC for political advocacy, and this is why we are focusing more attention on advocacy than NTTC has historically. We believe we (NTTC and ATA) have positioned ourselves well to get our messages out on these issues.

BT: What other issues are critical?

Kaplan: I’d say that credentialing is a critical issue for our industry. Hazardous materials background checks and TWICs (Transportation Worker Identification Credentials) pose real problems from many angles. There is so much duplication in the background check requirements. Any progress in reducing the duplication in the background checks would be welcome. A single ID card for the hazardous materials endorsement and for the TWIC would be good.

We still have problems with FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program. We want a level playing field. CSA was supposed to give us a level playing field, but it didn’t. What about the intrastate carrier that doesn’t fall under FMCSA’s rules? At K-Limited, we pay close attention to the program, because we believe that some good things have come out of it. It makes us a better company.

Finally on my list of industry issues: minimum insurance levels for carriers. We think the minimum level will be increased by FMCSA. I think many of us in our segment believe chemicals and petroleum should be at the same minimum levels.

BT: What are your thoughts on the latest Environmental Protection Agency proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from trucks?

Kaplan: It will make trucks more expensive. We bought our first tractors for $60,000 apiece in 1997. They cost $130,000 now. Frequently we are seeing that the new technology is changing so fast that mechanics are having a very difficult time keeping up.

BT: How important is it to be involved in state and national trucking associations?

Kaplan: I find value in both. I found it amazingly beneficial to be involved in the Ohio Trucking Association and work with the state legislature to address state issues. At the same time, my becoming chairman of NTTC brought a sense of great accomplishment and great pride in Ohio and in the Ohio Trucking Association.

BT: What is the relationship between NTTC and ATA?

Kaplan: It is better today than at any other time I can remember. We have built very good relationships with key ATA officials. From an advocacy standpoint, we have to be united. Where we have common issues, we will work together. We’ll step out on our own for issues—such as wetlines—that are specific to the tank truck sector.

BT: Looking over the past year, how would you characterize your term as NTTC chairman?

Kaplan: It was a tremendous honor and an equal honor to give back.

BT: What were the core accomplishments?

Kaplan: I had three key objectives that I wanted to accomplish—continue raising the bar and the professional recognition of tank truck drivers, increase industry advocacy, and boost our commitment to the NTTC PAC. I think we made progress on all three objectives.

BT: After 70 years, what is the state of National Tank Truck Carriers?

Kaplan: I think the state of the association is as solid and positive as at any time in the past. The proof of expanded engagement can be seen in the educational programs we’ve conducted and the attendance at our events. I think 2014 Tank Truck Week was the icing on the cake. More members are participating in the programs.

We want to continue growing our membership. We have to continue communicating the value-added benefits of belonging to NTTC. We have a solid message that we are putting out there, and we have a lean, mean staff that is getting the job done for the membership.

Our members are protecting our operating environment by doing it right. Without sounding arrogant, I believe we are the best in class in trucking based on the dangerous commodities we haul. Our efforts in our image campaign were on target and right alongside ACT1 and ATA. We’re also on very level ground financially.

We have some very good initiatives underway. One that stands out is the Liquid Products Database that was rolled out during my tenure. We’re very excited about that.

BT: What was the driving force for that project?

Kaplan: It started a few years back at the chemical carrier roundtable that was part of the market segment breakout groups meeting during the NTTC annual meeting. We were all fighting corrosion issues, such as the pitting of tank trailers. It was, and is, a big problem. We partnered with one of our own members—and obviously a brilliant man—John Cannon (of The Walker Group) and brought in Battelle to work on this project. We just want to develop a comprehensive library of chemical products and the tanks that can haul those products.

The database is just rolling out now. We have had good participation from our core members in building the informational data.

BT: What did NTTC do to strengthen its political action committee?

Kaplan: We developed the Centurion Campaign, and we met our key goal—to raise over $100,000—and we did that in short order. The stats are pretty impressive when you think about it. In 2008, we raised $12,670 from just 33 donors. Last year, we were able to raise nearly ten times more from 80 industry leaders who see the value. With those proceeds, we’ve been able to rent quite a few ears.  ♦