Reinvention gives Liquid Cargo ability to respond to changing times

June 29, 2020
Company fleet stays on the move amid COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring employees are paid, customers' needs are met

For more than a century, the company that evolved into the Liquid Cargo Group found success while overcoming more than a few obstacles and challenges. Not even a pandemic could stop the tank truck carrier.

Throughout the recent COVID-19 pandemic, the Liquid Cargo fleet kept rolling. The carrier kept all but a handful of its employees on the payroll and continued to meet the needs of its customers by providing the best possible transportation service.

From its headquarters in West Palm Beach, Florida, and dispatch offices in East Chicago, Indiana, and Pasadena, Texas, Liquid Cargo operates nearly 40 tractors and a large variety of tank trailers to transport acids, corrosives, cleaning compounds, industrial oil chemicals, and general hazardous and non-hazardous chemicals. US Container Depot, a division of Liquid Cargo Group, provides tank cleaning at its New Jersey location and a full range of tank container depot services at depots in the northeastern and southeastern United States.

“So far, we’ve come through the pandemic in relatively good shape,” says Kevin Jackson, president of Liquid Cargo Group Inc. “One driver was diagnosed with COVID-19, and he was out sick for two weeks. Several others asked if they could park their trucks.

“Our business was off 30% to 40% at the height of the shelter-in-place orders, and we expect to be down 20% overall for the year. Driver utilization will be around 82% for the year.

“We developed a protocol for thoroughly cleaning disinfecting trucks in the wake of drivers being exposed to COVID-19. We also bought facemasks for employees and their families.

“We qualified for some of the federal funding provided through the Paycheck Protection Program. We were able to avoid layoffs, and every staff member received some of the financial benefit. We had no layoffs.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that we remain committed to our customers. In today’s challenging business environment, our company remains strongly focused on delivering high-quality service, backed by safety and competitive pricing. It is also our goal to maintain an operation, beyond reproach, aimed at adapting to our customers’ specific transportation needs.”

Past pandemics

The company is no stranger to pandemics, the first being the 1918 influenza pandemic. Chester Jackson started a small trucking operation in New Jersey in the 1910s called Chester Jackson General Trucking. Chemical hauling was a part of the business from early on.

As the industry evolved over the years, so did the trucking company. In the 1930s, the carrier moved to a location in Kearny, New Jersey and stayed there for 80 years. In 1985, when Mark and Greg Jackson (grandson’s of Chester Jackson) formed Liquid Cargo the fleet had grown to about 20 trucks.

The company grew and diversified strategically over the years and in 2008, Mark Jackson (Kevin’s father) determined that tank container drayage offered a new opportunity to expand the Liquid Cargo transportation operations.

The next significant diversification came in 2009, when Liquid Cargo acquired an affiliate group with chemical hauling operations in Atlanta, Georgia; Allentown, Pennsylvania; Bastrop, Louisiana, and Chicago, Illinois. A year later, Kevin Jackson joined the company after having worked in other businesses for many years.

The fourth generation family member to lead the company, Kevin immediately made a couple of strategic changes in the operation. First, he launched a new division—US Container Depot—to develop and operate a network of full-service tank container depots on the East Coast. Second, he determined that the Liquid Cargo tank truck fleet needed to shift its focus westward from New Jersey.

“We saw this as a natural evolution to position Liquid Cargo for the best growth opportunities in coming years,” Kevin says. “We relocated our Liquid Cargo focus to Chicago and Houston, Texas. However, we still have a critical presence in New Jersey and the surrounding area through our tank container depots. Our tank wash in Newark (New Jersey) provides a full range of cleaning for tank trailers and tank containers.

“In addition to moving the Liquid Cargo operation, we also set up an affiliate arrangement. Tank trailers belong to Liquid Cargo, while tractors are provided through two affiliates—one in East Chicago, Indiana, and one in Pasadena, Texas. We would like to add more affiliates in strategic locations.

“We believe the changes we’ve made are helping ensure that Liquid Cargo Group achieves success as a premier provider of bulk transportation and tank container depot services. We want to achieve excellence in our operation so our customers can focus on growing and expanding their businesses.”

Serving customers

Serving those customers includes hauling a wide range of chemical cargoes, including acids, corrosives, cleaning compounds, industrial chemicals, petroleum products, oils, fragrances, and pharmaceuticals. During the pandemic, sanitizer ingredients accounted for quite a few loads.

Liquid Cargo dispatchers use TMS dispatch software from TMS Digital to manage loads across the system. “We have been using this system for about 20 years, and it has done an excellent job,” Kevin says. “It’s very affordable and customizable. The software is linked to our accounting system. It also tracks vehicle maintenance activities.”

Dispatchers keep the fleet moving, and tractors average 120,000 to 130,000 miles a year. Vehicles based in the Chicago area handle more longhaul shipments, while those in the Houston area have more local and regional hauls.

“There is no specific reason for the differences in length of haul between Chicago and Houston,” says Jeffrey Scarbrough, affiliate owner in Pasadena. “It was just based on the customers we attracted when we opened each of these locations. Regardless of length of haul, we keep our fleet busy. Drivers on the longer runs stay out seven to 10 days at a time. We always look for backhauls, and our rigs are loaded about 80% of the time. That’s our specialty.”

Kevin Jackson adds: “Taking care of the driver is our top priority and that is why we pay a percentage of each load and why we do everything we can to keep our rigs running loaded. We look at each load from the perspective of how it benefits the driver. Does it pay for his time? We build strong relationships with our drivers. We all know that we either make or don’t make money together as a team.”

Driver team

The carrier has a mix of company and independent contractor drivers today. All are experienced, hardworking, dependable professionals with years of truck driving already logged.

Company drivers are assigned to relatively new tractors, most of them Volvo sleeper units. The affiliates bought a relatively large number of new tractors over the past nine years, including a batch just two years ago.

Tractor specifications include Bendix safety systems, Omnitracs on-board computers for driver logs, and the PrePass system for bypassing roadside weigh scales and highway toll stations. For product handling, trucks carry product hoses supplied by Hart Industries and carried in back-of-cab racks and Paragon Tank Truck Equipment Hydrachem units that combine a product pump and compressor in a compact package.

“We’ve been using Omnitracs for driver logs for years because of the manufacturer’s size and stability,” Kevin Jackson says. “Our drivers find it easy to operate the system. We also like the ease of use of Paragon’s Hydrachem unit. The system is compact and doesn’t take up a lot of space on the tractor.”

The primary tank trailer used by the fleet is a DOT407 stainless steel chemical tanker with a 7,000-gallon cargo capacity. Most of the trailers have come from Tremcar, Bulk, and Heil.

Serving customers

Experienced drivers and properly spec’d equipment play key roles in helping the Liquid Cargo team deliver outstanding customer service, which is even more critical today. The carrier works hard to deliver safe, dependable service at the most competitive price.

“One reason we’ve been successful is that we have built strong relationships with our long-term customers,” Kevin Jackson says. “We work hard to maintain our core customer base while ensuring stable prices.

“We’re seeing some pressure on rates right now, but we are having very honest discussions with our customers. We stress the importance of a long-term focus.”

He adds that he believes the pandemic will have some lasting impact on Liquid Cargo Group and the tank industry in general. “We’re at a crossroads for sustaining operations at previous levels,” he says. “More people are working at home right now, and that may be a permanent trend. We may see less business travel and fewer conferences and conventions. All of those changes will impact trucking.

“With a sluggish economy continuing through at least the rest of this year, fleet managers will have to keep a close watch on the bottom line. Carriers that have adequate financial resources will do well. Undercapitalized companies will be hit hard.

“We’re confident that the management team at Liquid Cargo Group has positioned this company for continued success despite the current challenges. We’ve already made it through a century of economic challenges, and we’re not going to let this pandemic get in our way.”

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.