Intermodal diversity

Dec. 1, 2009
Ventura Transfer offers transloading, ISO containers, trucking

DEVELOPING custom logistics solutions for clients helped Ventura Transfer Company emerge as one of the largest liquid and dry bulk intermodal operators on the West Coast. It is a business model that the company has followed for much of its 140 plus years.

Based in Long Beach, California, the company provides customers with a diverse range of services, including truck/rail transloading, tank container drayage and storage, packaging, and warehousing. Ventura Transfer works closely with its clients to develop the right mix of intermodal services to meet very specific customer needs.

“We don't just take products from point A to point B,” says Brian Oken, Ventura Transfer president and chief executive officer. “We work with shippers of all sizes, and we provide intermodal logistics services that others don't. This business is becoming more complicated by the day. We do much more than just operate tank trucks or deliver tank containers. We believe we are at the heart of the liquid and dry bulk supply chain.

“We have become very skilled at meeting customer needs, and we believe we are well positioned for the future. Our business activity was down about 25%, and we're definitely hoping for an upswing in business in 2010. Customers say they have hit bottom and are rebuilding inventories.”

Oken adds that he believes February 1, 2010 could be a benchmark point for intermodal operations like Ventura Transfer. That would be about the time that chemical companies and other shippers served by Ventura Transfer should be looking at springtime production levels.

Long history

While this past year was tough, it certainly wasn't the first time Ventura Transfer had faced economic difficulties, including the Great Depression of the 1930s. The operation that evolved into Ventura Transfer started as a freight hauler in the late 1860s with horses and wagons. In the 1880s, the company moved into petroleum hauling and has specialized in liquid and dry bulk cargoes ever since.

Ventura Transfer continued to expand its petroleum-hauling operations during the first half of the 20th century, and the company was one of the first run aluminum petroleum tanks in the West. However, plastics and petro-chemicals began replacing refined petroleum in the 1960s, and the company began a steady expansion into truck-rail transfer of cargoes. Ventura Transfer opened its first transloading facility in 1963.

“Innovation has always played a critical role in this company,” says Randall J Clifford, Ventura Transfer chairman. “We believe a company has to keep remaking itself to build long-term success. We were on the leading edge of transloading long before the railroads saw the value of the service. We believe demand for transloading will continue to grow for a number of reasons. Consolidation of manufacturing plants is one reason, and the rising price of oil is another.”

Packaging and warehousing were added for bulk shippers during the 1970s, and Ventura Transfer expanded into tank container operations in the 1980s. The company relocated to Long Beach and built a headquarters complex that combines transloading with a full-service tank container depot. The facility is adjacent to the Alameda Corridor, a 20-mile railroad expressline that connects the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the transcontinental rail network.

“We've grown with our customers, and we believe we are right where we need to be to serve them best,” Randall Clifford says. “This location helped us assemble a diversified customer base and develop a very broad range of services.

“We have gained a reputation for our willingness to take on special projects. For instance, we work closely with the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to handle overweight containers by transferring excess bulk cargo to our own trailers. These are primarily inbound container shipments from overseas.”

Transload dominance

Transloading dominates the service offering and accounts for well over 80% of Ventura Transfer's business activity. Tank container drayage and depot services provide another 15% of activity, and warehousing/packaging makes up the remainder.

The intermodal diversity offered by Ventura Transfer has been a strong selling point over the years. It's certainly a service feature emphasized by the company's five-person national sales force.

Service diversity was a key attraction for one chemical company that needed a cost-effective method for quickly moving product from its Midwest plant to California. The client required delivery on demand, and the product had to be transferred from Gaylord boxes to pneumatic dry bulk trailers.

Ventura Transfer met the challenge by developing a multimodal plan that allows the customer to ship product to the Long Beach terminal, according to Diana Cuesta, Ventura Transfer marketing manager. Gaylord boxes are transferred from containers to Ventura Transfer's warehouse. When deliveries are scheduled, product is vacuumed from the Gaylords directly to the pneumatic trailers and offloaded into silos at the receiver's site. As each shipment leaves the warehouse, the customer is notified and billed.

Another chemical company and its logistics provider also turned to Ventura Transfer for transloading, storage, and distribution of bulk and packaged chemicals. Tank containers also are part of the transport mix. The specialty chemical company was in the process of closing a West Coast plant and needed an efficient means of serving customers in the region from plants in the eastern United States. The West Coast plant shutdown and the transition to Ventura Transfer went smoothly with no interruption in service for the chemical company's customers.

Product range

With its variety of services, Ventura Transfer can handle a wide range of products. On the transloading side, the liquid product range includes polyols, glycols, glycerin, lube oils, cleaning agents, plasticizers, amines, fuel additives, solvents, and intermediate chemicals. Plastic pellets and powders account for the overwhelming majority of dry bulk cargoes that are transloaded.

“We transload many different hazardous products, such as flammables that flash above 100°F, corrosives, oxidizers, marine pollutants, and limited poisons and pesticides,” says Steve Clifford, Ventura Transfer transloading & engineering manager. “While we cannot transfer hazardous waste from one mode to another in California, we can offer a solution working with companies that have waste containers that can be loaded and unloaded directly from railcars.

“Tank containers are a different story, though. We have no restrictions on the hazard levels of chemical cargoes in the tank containers that come through our depot. We're even working with containerized hazardous waste shipments right now, and that has turned into a good piece of business for us.”

Ventura Transfer has the capacity to handle 350 railcars at four transload locations in the Los Angeles area. Included are 50 car spots at the headquarters terminal in Long Beach. Two sites in Commerce can hold up to 160 railcars, and the Wilmington location can hold 68 railcars. The company also has transload sites in San Diego (20 car spots), California, and Phoenix (60 car spots) and Tucson (22 car spots), Arizona.

Transload services include product sampling, scales, portable vacuum conveyors, portable pumps, product heat, and nitrogen service. Tractor-mounted pumps, compressors, and blowers also are used to transfer products from railcars to tank trailers and pneumatic bulkers.

“We've installed nitrogen in microbulk tanks at our transload locations,” Steve Clifford says. “Nitrogen is supplied through a manifold system to the railcars. The microbulk tanks have worked out very well for our operation. Our vendor has fitted the tank with a remote monitoring system that makes it possible to automatically schedule refills. We use nitrogen or compressed air to transfer most liquid cargoes, because we believe it is more efficient and more environmentally friendly.

“We're using portable boilers to provide steam at most of our transload sites, and we can heat most tankcars in six to eight hours, depending on the product. We assemble the portable boiler systems ourselves, and they have been ideal for our operation.”

Ventura Transfer mechanics mount a 25-horsepower Parker boiler on a small flatbed trailer. The system includes a small generator set and propane tank to fuel the boiler.

Container depot

The tank container side of the operation includes storage space for up to 400 containers at the Long Beach headquarters terminal. Containers arrive at the depot via rail or truck, and are shipped out the same way.

“We handle both domestic and international tank container shipments,” Oken says. “Our tank container depot services include cleaning and maintenance. We have top lifts to handle both empty and loaded containers.”

The four-bay chemical wash rack at the Long Beach terminal has hot water, steam, detergent, and caustic available for cleaning. Two bays are dedicated to internal tank cleaning, one is for dry bulker washouts, and the fourth bay is for exterior cleaning.

Ventura Transfer's maintenance shop handles most tractor, trailer, and tank container reconditioning and service.

Fleet support

Transloading and tank container drayage are supported by a company truck fleet that includes 26 tractors (most supplied by owner-operators) and more than a hundred trailers. About 70% of the trailers are tanks and 30% are high-cube pneumatic dry bulkers. Twenty-one are drop-deck tank container chassis, almost all of which have tilt capability.

The fleet provides service to mostly the 11 western states. Many loads are delivered locally, and the average trip length is 42 miles. Tank container drayage is especially shorthaul with quick trips to and from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles predominating.

The company selects only experienced truck drivers, with at least three years doing the same sort driving they will be assigned to at Ventura Transfer.

Regardless of experience, all drivers go through the three-to-four-week training program at Ventura Transfer. Instruction addresses driving skills, customer issues and requirements, and safety factors, including pretrip inspections and personal protective equipment. Training includes plenty of on-the-job practice with transloading and tank container equipment.

“We make sure that every newly selected driver is ready before we put him to work,” says Jim Cheney, Ventura Transfer safety, compliance & environmental manager. “We believe the training program played a critical role in helping us build and award-winning driver team.”

The company was recognized for its safety achievements with awards presented at the American Trucking Association's annual Safety and Human Resources National Conference in September. Ventura Transfer was awarded a first place award in the Tank Truck/Local/Unlimited Miles category. The company earned a second place award for Miscellaneous/Local/Unlimited Miles for port intermodal and drayage operations.

Earlier in 2009, the carrier received the first place award for Intermodal Safety from the California Trucking Association (CTA). This was the second year in a row that Ventura Transfer won the CTA award.

“Safety always has been and always will be the number one priority for us,” Oken says. “We're building a safety culture to ensure that we do the job right and don't take shortcuts. That is part of what we do to ensure superior service for our customers. That — along with a willingness to develop innovative services — has helped Ventura Transfer to become a bulk intermodal leader on the West Coast.”

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.