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Dixon Bros thrives as Rocky Mountain tank truck carrier

An Early spring blizzard battered most of Wyoming, western sections of South Dakota and Nebraska, and the mountain regions of Colorado. Heavy snow and strong winds closed highways and roads across the region and created treacherous work conditions.

For Dixon Bros and its skilled team of employees, it was business as usual. They kept the company's 90 tractors and 260 tank and dry bulk trailers up and running safely throughout the storm. That sort of effort has helped ensure success for the Newcastle, Wyoming-based tank truck carrier for almost 50 years.

“This is just a normal spring for us,” says James H Dixon, Dixon Bros founder. “We roll with the punches as we serve our customers and our market. Our customers know they can count on us to deliver the cargoes they need, but they also know we won't jeopardize safety. We always want to safeguard our drivers, our loads, and our trucks.

“Dixon Bros has succeeded through family involvement, hard work, and a solid commitment to customer service. We have a lot of pride and tradition at this company. We have third generation Dixon family members now coming on board. We still haul propane for our original customer, and we try to treat all of our customers as though they have been with us just as long.

“We've worked hard to build close relationships with our customers. Good communication is the key, and it is absolutely critical in this business. A customer would rather have bad news on a shipment than no news at all. Most of the time, we just pick up the phone and call them, because that's a lot more personal than an email message.”

Half a century

Dixon Bros began serving the mountain west in 1960. Operations grew steadily over the years, and the carrier built a broad customer base with liquid and dry bulk cargoes that include gasoline, diesel, propane, asphalt, crude oil, cement, fly ash, bentonite, and ammonium nitrate.

Petroleum hauling accounts for about 60% of revenue, ammonium nitrate deliveries another 20%, and cement and fly ash the remainder. While petroleum and ammonium nitrate hauls are year-round, most of the cement and fly ash activity is during the summer construction season.

“We're heavily involved in supporting mining operations and oil exploration,” Dixon says. “For instance, the ammonium nitrate we haul is used to make explosives for blasting at mines. We haul fuel loads to bulk plants that serve oil rigs, and we make some fuel deliveries directly to rig sites. Most of our hauling is on-road, but we do have some off-road activity.

“On the petroleum side, we haul out of Wyoming refineries in Cheyenne, Casper, and Newcastle. We also serve Wyoming petroleum pipeline terminals in Sheridan and Gillette.”

Customers are served throughout the northern Rocky Mountain region, and trips range from 50 miles to 600 miles. “Our primary operating area covers the eastern half of Wyoming, western South Dakota, all of North Dakota, western Nebraska, and the middle section of Montana,” Dixon says. “We are steadily increasing the amount of work we do in Colorado, and we serve the customers in that state from our Cheyenne terminal. Cheyenne is one of five Wyoming terminals in our operation.”

The other Wyoming terminals are in Newcastle, Casper, Sheridan, and Gillette. Dixon Bros also has fleet offices in Rapid City, South Dakota; Mandan and Fargo, North Dakota; Sidney, Nebraska; and Bozeman, Great Falls, and Billings, Montana.

Operations also are growing in Canada primarily for propane shipments into the United States. Dixon Bros has provincial authority in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.

Civic focus

Hard work and dedication to customers get most of the credit for the success achieved by Dixon Bros over its nearly 50 years in business. However, some credit also must go the trucking company's civic involvement. The company is very active in state and national associations that address tank truck and general trucking issues.

Dixon has been a Region IV director for National Tank Truck Carriers for many years. Dixon represented Wyoming as an American Trucking Associations vice-president from 1981 to 1991. Since 1998, he served two terms as ATA vice-president at large emeritus. He also served as president of the Wyoming Trucking Association from 1973 to 1975 and president of the Montana Motor Carriers Association from 1993 to 1994.

The civic involvement doesn't stop with trucking associations. For instance, the company and the Dixon family have been strong supporters of the Diesel Power Technology program at Casper College. One reason is that the Dixon family sent quite a few of its sons and daughters to the junior college over the years.

Dixon's daughter Suzette Miller (Dixon Bros office manager/corporate secretary-treasurer) attended Casper college from 1978 to 1980. Son Jimmy (Dixon Bros vice-president and chief executive officer) received his diesel power technology certificate at Casper College in 1983. Jimmy's sons, Austin and Joe, followed in his footsteps and completed the same program in 2003 and 2007 respectively. Jimmy's daughter, Annica, will graduate in May from Casper College with an accounting degree and will join Dixon Bros.

Fund raising

Support for Casper College most recently included helping raise funds for the newly completed 140-seat Sharon D Nichols Auditorium that is connected to the McMurry Career Studies building. Dixon Bros and other trucking companies in the state helped the Wyoming Trucking Association (WTA) raise about $550,000 for the project. Nichols was a long-time WTA managing director, served as director of the Western Highway Institute, and was on the Casper College Board of Regents. The auditorium was dedicated April 21.

“The Wyoming Trucking Association was proud to be a part of this project,” says Sheila Foertsch, Dixon's daughter and WTA managing director. “We've been a partner with Casper College's Diesel Power Technology program for many years, and our involvement started when the school still had a truck driving program. We've helped find jobs for many of the graduates, and WTA serves on the Diesel Power Technology program advisory board.

“This new auditorium was part of the 10-year plan at Casper College, and it will be a valuable asset. The trucking industry will benefit, because WTA holds four to six maintenance seminars at the college each year. The new auditorium is large enough to accommodate a tractor-trailer rig, and the facility offers good visibility and acoustics for people seated around the stage.”

Dixon Bros played an even bigger role in 2008 when the Diesel Power Technology program needed a newer model heavy-duty diesel engine for hands-on training. The training engines on hand at the time predated even the 2004 engine technology.

“I had stayed in touch Harold Wright, who had taught me diesel engine maintenance,” Jimmy says. “We sent some diesel equipment to the college while my son Austin was enrolled in the program. By the time Joe entered the program, we realized the students didn't have up-to-date engines to work on.”

Wright, who has since retired from Casper College, told Jimmy and his father that the college had been unable to find a newer model diesel engine. Having up-to-date training equipment is a critical part of the effort at Casper College to turn out well-training diesel mechanics, according to Wright.

Lead role

The Dixons wasted no time in taking the lead in the effort to find an engine. “I told Jimmy to lean on our Cummins representative and get the ball rolling,” Dixon says.

Jimmy turned to Wayne Lepine with Rocky Mountain Cummins in Gillette; and Lepine worked with Cummins Corp to find an appropriate engine. That effort turned up a 2004 model ISX Signature Series engine that was removed from service and modified for training use.

Cummins provided the engine at a discounted price. Rocky Mountain Cummins covered half of the remaining cost, and Dixon Bros paid the rest.

“We felt it was very important for the school to get this engine,” Dixon says. “The nice thing about the ISX is that the 2004 engine is basically the same as the 2010 model. With minor changes, this engine will meet EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) requirements for 2010. That's a good thing for the students who will train on it.

“Casper College has an excellent diesel mechanic program, and we will continue to support it. We employ a lot of Casper College graduates, especially mechanics. Students get very well-rounded training in the diesel program, and that includes a lot of hand-on instruction. Graduates know what they are doing when they start a job.”

Grooming mechanics

Qualified diesel mechanics have been a critical factor in the Dixon Bros success throughout the company's nearly 50 years. Seven of the carrier's 12 terminals have repair shops, and 80% of the fleet maintenance is handled in-house.

“One exception is that we send out engine warranty work to the dealers,” Jimmy says. “We simply can't justify the cost of the diagnostic equipment at our shops. We do have some diagnostic equipment at our main shop in Newcastle, because we do in-service set up on new vehicles.”

Without question, Dixon Bros has plenty of work for its mechanics. The biggest challenge is finding enough mechanics to keep each shop fully staffed. Even with the Casper College program, the diesel mechanic supply in the Rocky Mountain region has been tight for several years.

“We face a lot of competition for mechanics in this region,” Jimmy says. “Mining and oil field operations pull in a lot of diesel mechanics. Wages at some mine locations are in the $32 to $38 per hour range. Truck mechanics typically make $16 to $23 an hour. While we are somewhat at a disadvantage on wages, we can compete on lifestyle issues. For instance, we can offer mechanics more regular work hours.”

Dixon Bros has taken a number of steps to improve its mechanic supply. “We bring in high school students as maintenance interns,” Jimmy says. “We give them a mix of work, and we pay them a wage. Many of them continue to work with us through the summer. During their internships, we talk with them about their career goals. After high school, we'll pay tuition for those who want to attend the diesel program at Casper College and continue with Dixon Bros.”

Diverse fleet

Mechanics who come to work for Dixon Bros find a diverse operation. The maintenance shops handle projects ranging from routine preventive maintenance to major wreck repair and glider kit assembly. Cargo tank tests and inspections are handled in-house, and the shop in Newcastle has an ASME R-stamp for tank repair and modification.

Mechanics work on a variety of tractor makes, because Dixon Bros runs Mack, Kenworth, Peterbilt, and Western Star products. “Over the years, we've run primarily Kenworth tractors, but we buy other makes when it is justified,” Dixon says. “My first tractor was a 1960 Mack G73, and we are taking a fresh look at the Mack product. We bought four new Mack CH sleeper units in 2008.”

The tractors work hard pulling heavy loads in some very demanding conditions. The fleet handles Rocky Mountain doubles trains with gross combination weights up to 117,000 pounds on interstate highways across much of its operating areas. Gross weights go up to 124,000 pounds on some state highways.

High gross weights call for solid, reliable specifications. The newest tractors in the fleet were specified with Cummins ISX engines rated at 475 horsepower. “That engine provides plenty of power even with the double units,” Jimmy says. “We could go up to 600 horsepower with the ISX, but we haven't needed it. The only other engine we're using in new tractor purchases is Mack's MP8 rated for 485 horsepower.”

Eaton Fuller 10-speed transmissions are standard for all new-tractor purchases. Dixon Bros also specifies Meritor 40,000-lb-capacity drive tandems on most of its tractors. Roll stability is being ordered as standard equipment on new tractors.

Hot shift PTO

Chelsea PTOs with hot shift capability are standard for the Dixon Bros fleet. The system is an extension of the tractor cruise control and allows the driver to control product pump and blower operation from the ground. Tractor-mounted product-handling equipment includes a Stac Mfg hydraulic system, Blackmer compressors, and Gardner Denver blowers.

Most of the tractors are outfitted with AliArc tough aluminum grille guards. Running gear includes aluminum disc wheels and Goodyear, Michelin, and Bridgestone tires.

“Tires are important in our operation, and we want the best product we can buy,” Jimmy says. “We want maximum miles, excellent retreadability, and a competitive price. We need tires that can perform well in a demanding environment.”

Mine roads can be particularly tough on tires. Many of these roads are topped with scoria, a sharp glass-like material produced when lava cools. “These roads are very abrasive,” Jimmy says. “Ordinary tires get pitted, and rocks drill the casings.”

Tires have to work hard even on paved roads. Tractor engines generate plenty of torque to move fully loaded double units. “We see a lot of torque scrub on tires even on the open highway due to our high gross weights,” Jimmy says.

In addition, ambient temperatures can range from below zero degrees in the winter to more than 100° F in the summer. The temperature extremes, combined with the heat buildup from highway travel, punish the best of tires.

Dixon Bros bought 15 new tractors in 2007 and eight in 2008. The carrier also purchased some used vehicles. “We bought five used trucks a year ago with Eaton's AutoShift transmission,” Jimmy says. “They have performed well in local delivery operations, and we may look at more trucks with semi-automated transmissions in the future.”

The carrier also found glider kits a cost-effective means of overhauling some wreck-damaged equipment. “We bought three glider kits in 2008 to replace trucks damaged in mishaps,” Jimmy says. “Doing that was more cost-effective than buying replacement trucks.”

Tank trailers

The tractor fleet works with a variety of tank trailers. Petroleum trailers predominate, and most were built by Beall Corp and Heil Trailer International. Semi-trailers have a 9500-gallon capacity, and the double units include a two-axle 10,500-gallon lead tanker and a three-axle 5,000-gallon pup.

Most of the petroleum trailers in the fleet have Blackmer product pumps. The newest tankers in the system were specified with the Supertanker package that includes DixonBayco, FloTech, and Betts bottom loading componentry.

Double units for ammonium nitrate consist of Heil and J&L Tank dry bulkers with 1,680-cu-ft lead trailers and 840-cu-ft pups. Propane is transported in tandem-axle MC331 trailers with capacities ranging from 11,000 to 11,600 gallons. Dixon Bros also runs some quad-axle propane trailers that can legally haul 12,500 to 12,700 gallons of LP-gas.

Meritor axles predominate in the trailer fleet as do spring suspensions from Hutch and Reyco Transpro. “Spring suspensions work better with double units on the roads in the west,” Jimmy says.

“We've built a good, solid fleet that will help us continue to grow into the future,” Dixon says. “Our mileage and cargo volumes will continue to grow. Trucking will always be important in this region, and we plan to be a part of it.”

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