REFLECTING back on the past year, John Whittington credited National Tank Truck Carriers with some big achievements on the regulatory side. Wins include obtaining the fuel and propane hauler exemption under the hours-of-service rules and federal preemption of the California meal-and-rest-break rule.
Whittington, the 2018/2019 chairman of National Tank Truck Carriers Inc, says those achievements would not have been possible without the strong advocacy team the association has assembled and the active support and involvement of NTTC members. He says the staff already has a full plate of advocacy work for 2019.
“We know we are on the right track with our advocacy efforts,” Whittington says. “We know that is contributing to our success in gaining new members. We added 50 fleet members last year.”
The past year was also a time of fine-tuning programs that were initiated over the past several years. Whittington says he is particularly proud of the growing popularity of NTTC’s Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year.
“We need more programs like that to promote the quality of drivers in our industry,” he says. “A positive step forward for the program includes a new sponsor—Great West Casualty. We are also working proactively to attract the best truck drivers to our industry.
“Earlier this year, we established a workforce development committee headed up by Greg Hodgen with Groendyke Transport. We’re trying to identify what draws drivers to the tank truck industry and why they stay here. The workforce group recently completed a driver survey, and we are preparing a whitepaper that discusses the issues identified in the survey.”
Whittington says he has a good understanding of what drivers face out on the road. Truck driving was just one of the many jobs he handled at family-owned Grammer Industies Inc in Grammer, Indiana.
“I don’t remember ever not being around trucks,” Whittington says. “The truck fleet operation was started by my father (Charles “Shorty” Whittington) as a spinoff from a local grain elevator that he and my grandfather ran. He started with one truck and expanded.
“He drove a lot at the beginning. I’ve been told that he would drive the mail at night from Columbus (Indiana) to Cincinnati (Ohio).”
Grammer is a suburb of Columbus. It’s a small crossroads in middle America—50 houses, a couple of intersections, and no traffic light. Grammer Industries and Grammer Elevator have been the primary businesses for quite some time.
“My father would haul grain from the elevator to barges on the Ohio River, about one hour away,” John says. “He would haul fertilizer back. He started looking at liquid fertilizer, which paid better. Then he had a chance to begin hauling anhydrous ammonia in MC331 pressurized trailers.
From the very start, he believed you had to operate properly and safely whether you were handling feathers or the most hazardous cargo. And when you do that, you should get paid for it. So that’s how we ended up in such a specialized niche hauling anhydrous ammonia, butane, propane and nitric acid.”
John says he was a part of the company from a very early age. “I was surrounded by it,” he says. “I grew up with it, and it grew up with me. The company grew steadily, and I worked at just about every job in the operation. I worked in the maintenance shop as a co-op student in high school. I spent a lot of time driving a truck.
“I would drive a tank transport that had been converted to haul water. I would take it to school in the morning and then in the afternoon haul water to fill swimming pools. We called it the ‘Swimming Pool Express.’
After high school, John attended Purdue University and studied agricultural business management. It was a perfect fit, because Grammer Industries primarily was hauling agricultural commodities at the time.
Purdue also runs in the family. John’s parents and his sister also went there.
Growing up, John says he always had a desire to work with his father. “I always admired and respected him and his ability to manage people and grow a business,” he says.
Shorty insisted that John work somewhere else for at least a year after graduating from college in 1996. So John went to work for a NASCAR team.
“We had some connections with Dave Marcus, a driver who is now retired,” John says. “The team had just gotten a big sponsorship, and they needed someone who could talk to people, would work for little money, and could drive a truck.
“I hauled the backup car and the show car for Dave Marcus. I kind of filled several roles, and it was a great experience. I enjoyed working for Dave and the travel. I traveled the whole NASCAR circuit for a year.”
A year was enough for that, but John realized he still needed more experience outside the Grammer tent. “It’s easy to grow up with blinders on in a family company,” he says. “It was important to find out what else was out there in the rest of the world.”
John’s grandfather had been involved in real estate and John was encouraged to get his real estate license. “I worked at that for about three years,” he says. “I always stayed in touch with my dad and helped out when needed, especially when the anhydrous ammonia loads were moving during the spring planting season.
“I continued with the real estate until I knew I could do well in that profession. By then it was time to make a commitment to trucking, but I still wasn’t ready to go back to Grammer. I worked for UPS for a little while. I’ve always admired the UPS and Fedex models, and how they could grow as much as they have.”
For about six months, he drove for a temp agency called Trans Force. “That provided great experience and more education than anything else I had done in trucking to that time,” he says. “I was driving a truck every day, but I was also doing a different kind of job every day. I hauled steel on a flatbed, and I hauled groceries. I learned about unions. I had to deal with the same daily challenges our drivers face. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.”
After that, it was time to get serious about returning to Grammer Industries. In 1999, Shorty told John that the company had begun hauling some hazardous waste into northern Ohio. He said he felt this would be a good place for John to cut his teeth and get some experience running a fleet operation. He said John would be there about six months.
“It was probably at least six years before I made my way back to the home office,” John says. “I’m still a little partial to Vickery Transportation, because I have a 20-year history with the liquid waste operation that includes a deep well waste injection site and Vickery Transportation. It taught me so much about the hazmat side of the tank truck industry.
“When I started there I drove almost every weekend. I learned about sales and driver issues. On more than one occasion, drivers would talk about a problem at a pickup site. I would go out and haul a load myself to evaluate the issue.”
In the early 2000s, Grammer Industries was growing steadily and the company had a lot of good things going on. Still, the Whittingtons decided it was a good idea to diversify, so they did not have all of their eggs in one basket. John took the lead on some of the diversification.
The first move was acquiring a storage terminal in Van Wert, Ohio. It included an ammonia storage tank that had been mothballed in the late 1990s. It was on a rail line.
“We felt it was a diamond in the rough and had a lot of potential for transloading and maybe some liquid storage—maybe liquid fertilizer,” John says. “I moved to Van Wirt, and we thoroughly revamped the site and overhauled the rail infrastructure. That terminal is still going strong today. We added a third rail spur last year.
“Each spur is about 2,000 feet long, so we have plenty of transload capacity, and we even have our own 1949 General Electric diesel locomotive, as well as a couple of Trackmobiles. We have a 7-million-gallon storage tank that is used for soybean oil, and a 1.5-million-gallon storage tank that is used for liquid fertilizer.”
Next came the biodiesel plant in Indiana, which grew out of a proposal by a group in California. It quickly became clear that the California group had an idea but no money. The Whittingtons thought it over and realized that with their strong background in agriculture and trucking, a biodiesel plant made sense.
“We had strong connections in Washington DC, and we explored the possibilities with those individuals,” John says. “They told us they were going to work with industry to help biodiesel grow. They weren’t going to leave it with no support for years as had happened with fuel ethanol. Federal tax credits had recently been implemented for biodiesel, and biodiesel was going to get the support it needed to be viable.”
The initial target location for the plant was Ohio, but that changed when the Whittingtons found that Indiana had financial incentives that made a location in that state a better choice.
“We decided we wanted to be close to the feedstock source, and we found a location next to a soybean crush facility in Indiana,” John says. “That also got me back to being within an hour of home. Opened in 2004, it was the first biodiesel plant in Indiana and is still operating.
“I think biodiesel still has a lot of potential as a truck fuel in certain areas and certain applications. The key is quality diesel and quality biodiesel in the correct environment. There are a lot of areas in the United States where biodiesel is a great fit, but there are a few areas where it isn’t.”
With the launch of the biodiesel plant in Morristown, Indiana, the Whittingtons soon found more storage terminal and transloading opportunity. “We were sitting on a CSX mainline with a switch everyday,” John says. “I would look at that track and see a lot of potential. Through our relationships in the fertilizer industry, we struck a deal to put up a 1.5-million-gallon storage tank. That expanded the capabilities of that facility and made better use of the resources.
“We didn’t stop there. We also saw there was demand for storage of biodiesel produced at other locations in the Indianapolis area. We built an insulated and heated 1.5-million gallon storage tank for biodiesel. Now we are a distribution point for all of central Indiana.
With the continued growth and diversification of Grammer Industries, the Whittingtons realized the importance of becoming more active with industry associations, both locally and at the national level.
Shorty began attending NTTC meetings in the mid- to late 1990s. John attended the NTTC Annual Conference for the first time in 2000.
“I’ll never forget that first meeting, because Barbara Windsor really helped introduce me to folks,” John says. “My dad was not at the meeting, and she took me under her wing and helped me meet a lot of people.
“I felt comfortable in the NTTC crowd from the very start. I find it interesting to look out at the crowd now as chairman and still see so many people who were active in the organization long before I became involved.”
Grammer Industries has been active in both NTTC and the American Trucking Associations. The Whittingtons believe both groups have a critical role to play. Shorty was ATA chairman in 2009.
“That was a great role for him as a representative of the tank truck industry,” John says. “I enjoyed living the experience through him. He always said the world is run by the people who show up, and he set the bar for me. I’m blessed to have such a good leader to follow. He’s been a mentor to me.”
John also focused much of his attention on ATA at first, and he rose through the leadership chairs of ATA’s Agricultural Food Transporters Conference. He was chairman of the conference from 2011 to 2016.
“Years ago, we discussed our objectives for association involvement,” John says. “While I was focused on ATA initially, I decided ultimately that I wanted to make NTTC my focus going forward. I was hopeful I could become chairman one day.”
BT: What has the past year meant for you as NTTC chairman?
Whittington: It has been an honor. I have enjoyed it tremendously, and I am proud of the things we accomplished over this past year. I’m proud to have been selected by my peers to help lead this organization.
A real strength of NTTC is the active role played by past chairmen. I’ve leaned on them for advice over the past year.
BT: What were the top tank truck issues in 2018?
Whittington: The top one would have to be the California meal and rest break. It’s been a monkey on our back. It’s one of those West Coast issues that impacts carriers all over the country.
Final implementation of electronic driver logs comes next. At long last, the federal regulation is being enforced. NTTC has wanted ELDs for quite some time. We finally have a more level playing field.
BT: What is the state of the tank truck industry today?
Whittington: If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s strong. Many of the NTTC members I’ve talked with say they are operating at or near capacity. Looking out through 2019, I think the economy is in good shape.
We have a presidential administration that seems to be more favorable to industry. The Trump Administration has eased some of our federal regulatory burdens. It has been a real positive for the tank truck industry.
BT: What were the key NTTC achievements in 2018?
Whittington: Winning the preemption effort over the California meal-and-rest-break requirement clearly was one. The fuel-and-propane-hauler exemption under the hours-of-service rules was another. Yet another was harmonization for background check requirements between the hazmat endorsement and TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) card.
BT: Why was it important for NTTC to take a lead role in the distracted driving issue?
Whittington: Distracted driving has become an epidemic in our country, and we haven’t yet come to grips with it. Trucks are our workplace, and we have to figure out how to deal with the distractions in this space. We need to do everything we can to educate our drivers and the general public. It is critical for all drivers to keep their attention on the road. Our goal is to take it to the next level.
We developed our Zero Distractions Campaign to focus on distracted driving. Our safety group at NTTC did a great job on that. We want to take that to the next level. We’re currently putting together educational material that we can use to train members of the general public, as well as truck drivers.
I was involved with the distracted driving issue at the state level in the Indiana Motor Truck Association at a time when we had our own license plate. License plate sales were struggling, and we decided to focus on the distracted driving issue. The association now sells a plate that says: “Put the Phone Down.” We promote that plate heavily to high school students and their parents. We use the proceeds from the license plate sales to fund training and education programs.
I’m proud that tank truck has been one of the safest segments of trucking. I think the reason is because we’ve got the most to lose. We need to be proactive on distracted driving, as well as other safety issues.
BT: What is happening with regard to merger and acquisition activity in the tank truck industry?
Whittington: This seems to be an active time. The tank truck industry is strong right now, and the numbers are positive. When you are running at nearly full capacity, it draws attention from potential buyers. Owners are earning higher multiples through strategic acquisitions and from private equity groups. We’re getting a lot more attention from the private equity groups. It’s a positive for the industry.
BT: Will this private equity involvement become the new normal for the tank truck industry? Is there still a place for a family-owned tank truck fleet?
Whittington: The answer to both questions is yes. It has always been normal in this industry for companies to grow, for mergers and acquisitions to occur, and for companies to come and go over time. Changes certainly have sped up recently. However, niches still remain where family-owned businesses can operate profitably and successfully. Many successful family-owned tank fleets are still doing very well right now.
BT: Is there still a place in tank trucking for an owner-operator to build up a small fleet and grow from there?
Whittington: I think there probably still is. It is getting tougher, but trucking as a whole always has a place for an entrepreneur. The challenges include stricter regulations and a tighter insurance market. Equipment is more expensive.
BT: What is the future for the remaining shipper fleets on the tank truck side?
Whittington: If you’d asked me that question two years ago, I would have said all of the shippers would have ceased running their own fleets. But with this capacity crunch, we’re seeing some shippers looking for ways to gain more control over the transport process. They might not add to their own fleets, but many are signing contracts for dedicated service. They want the capacity locked in even if they don’t use it.
BT: What do you see in terms of an infrastructure renewal program from Washington DC?
Whittington: I’m optimistic and hopeful that infrastructure has bi-partisan support. We need this program badly. We need repair for our roads, bridges and highways. Waiting won’t make it any cheaper.
NTTC certainly supports an infrastructure bill in Congress. We support an increase in the gas tax to help pay for it. Most importantly, we want the Highway Trust dollars to be spent on the roads.
The cost of congestion goes up each year for the US economy. It is incredible how much time our trucks sit idle due to congestion.
BT: What is the current situation on the driver supply in the tank truck industry?
Whittington: Tank truck seems to have a better record than trucking in general. I’m proud of that. However, it’s not easy to keep the turnover low, and it’s getting tougher. Truck drivers have a lot more choices in today’s job market.
In February, NTTC put together a workforce development committee headed up by Greg Hodgen with Groendyke Transport. We’re trying to identify what draws drivers to the tank truck industry and why they stay here. We want to know what keeps other drivers away from our industry. Overall on average, we have better pay and oftentimes better equipment. We offer more home time.
We’re taking this effort to a higher level. The workforce group recently completed a driver survey, and we are preparing a whitepaper that discusses the issues identified in the survey.
BT: Do today’s drivers see driving a tank truck as the elite side of the business?
Whittington: I believe so. Operating a tank transport takes more skill. In addition, we get our guys home more often than some of the other trucking sectors, and we pay them better. We still need to do more with driver pay, though.
We’ve taken a number of steps to improve the image of tank truck fleets among truck drivers. For instance, we started the Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award six years ago. It is one of our best programs.
We still face challenges in the future. This next generation of drivers will be more challenging when it comes to staying out on the road. We will have to change our operating model to get these drivers home more often.
At Grammer Industries, we’re running daycabs now. We also made a strategic decision on where our Alabama terminal is located based on where the majority of our customers are located, as well as our pickup points. We are doing more relays. We charge for loading on Saturdays and pass most of that money to the driver.
BT: Do autonomous trucks have a place in the tank truck industry when it comes to addressing the driver shortage?
Whittington: I don’t think we can say they won’t have any impact. There is no doubt that autonomous trucks will play some role in the tank truck industry. We’ll see them in strategic locations, specific strategic environments, and specific commodities. I don’t believe we’ll see them hauling hazmat or operating with cargo tanks.
Some of the obstacles that keep drivers out of our industry also will limit the potential for using autonomous trucks. That includes slosh and surge in tanks and loading and unloading conditions that are unique, different and complicated.
I think it would be more likely that we would see driver-assisted systems in our industry. I don’t expect to ever see driverless trucks hauling tanks.
BT: What about the future for electric trucks in tank fleets?
Whittington: I think they could play a role for some of our shorthaul fleets. Grammer Industries has had a long relationship with Cummins Engine, and when I see Cummins getting involved with electric trucks and batteries it tells me these trucks are coming.
BT: What other technological developments are you following?
Whittington: We’ve added some of the latest on-board safety systems to our newest trucks, including collision avoidance and lane departure. It is taking some time for drivers to become comfortable with the systems. We’re doing a lot of coaching. Drivers need to understand why the systems perform the way they do.
Something else that fascinates me is fatigue monitoring. We’re not implementing it in our fleet at this point, but it is something to keep an eye on.
BT: What would you like to see in terms of tax relief from Washington DC?
Whittington: We got the lower corporate tax rate from the Trump Administration, but what I would like to see is relief from the federal excise tax. It was put into place to help fund World War I. It is a heavy burden that our industry pays and many others don’t.
BT: What is the state of National Tank Truck Carriers?
Whittington: I think the state of NTTC is strong. It always helps when our members are having good times. We’re still investing in the staff we need to meet members’ needs. We’re adding members with increased advocacy and increased educational programs through Tank Truck University. TTU has really taken off.
We added over 50 new members to the association over the past year.
We believe we are on the right track with our legislative agenda. In addition to increasing the fuel tax, we are working on railroad grade crossing reform for hazmat haulers.
It you haul hazmat, you have to stop at all railroad grade crossings. This was adopted almost a hundred years ago when we didn’t have a lot of the grade crossing technology that is now available. It concerns me that we have too many rear-end collisions at grade crossings. It’s very frustrating.
We’re trying to gather data on the issue to support a call for reform. My understanding is that in some states, trucks hauling hazmat in intrastate operations don’t have to stop at grade crossings.
We want to require all intrastate US hazmat carriers to obtain a US DOT number. We want electronic shipping papers. Electronic manifests are already required for hazardous waste shipments. Finally, we are looking for petroleum placarding reform to address petroleum/ethanol blends.