FIVE mechanics form the core of the fleet maintenance program at K-Limited Carrier Ltd. Working in a small shop at the headquarters terminal in Toledo, Ohio, they help ensure that the tank truck carrier’s fleet is kept in peak operating condition.
The in-house maintenance team watches over a fleet that has grown to 110 tractors and 220 tank trailers. Much of the tractor and trailer maintenance is handled in-house in the 2½-bay shop. In addition all of the federally required tank tests and inspections are done in-house.
“Good maintenance is even more critical today with the CSA (Compliance, Safety, Accountability) program under FMCSA (Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration),” says Kim A Kaplan, K-Limited Carrier president and chief operating officer. “Our mechanics and our drivers work closely together to make sure our equipment is safe and reliable at all times. They do their utmost to help us maintain the best possible safety rating.
“We have a close-knit family in this company, and good communication is crucial. We have specific drivers at each of our locations who serve as the foundation and our eyes and ears in the field. They check out tractors and trailers that go through their location, and they speak daily with our maintenance and dispatch managers. All departments work closely together. We want to make sure that everyone knows the condition of every piece of equipment. We also want to be able to move equipment as needed to meet changing customer needs.”
Established in 1997, K-Limited Carrier operates as a regional for-hire tank truck carrier primarily in the Midwest. The fleet hauls lubricants, acids, and petrochemicals. In addition to the corporate headquarters facility in Toledo, the company has terminals in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio; Chicago, Illinois; and Detroit, Michigan.
“We believe we are in the ideal location as a Midwest regional tank truck carrier,” Kim says. “We’re at the crossroads of America, which is a huge benefit for providing our customer base effective on-time service.”
Kim started the company with her husband, Dean (who is chief executive officer of K-Limited Carrier and spent the past year as chairman of National Tank Truck Carriers). Both of them already had spent decades in trucking when they decided the time was right to strike out on their own.
“I was a dispatch manager with Refiners Transport & Terminal Corp for 14 years, and Dean had grown up in his family’s dry freight trucking business,” she says. “When Refiners shut down in 1997, one of my good customers asked if I was interested in continuing to haul their loads.
“Dean and I launched K-Limited Carrier with that customer, five drivers, and five acid transports. We still have that acid business today. We have come a long way in the years since. We continue to grow with our core customers. We grow as they move into new locations.
“We have been very fortunate in attracting customers that value partnerships as much as we do. They see the benefits with working with regional carriers. We work with each shipper to ensure that we are both able to succeed and thrive.”
The first loads were sulfuric acid. Today, the carrier also hauls hydrochloric and oleum acid and a wide variety of lubricants and petrochemicals. Many of the acid moves are short hauls of as little as 18 miles. Average length of haul for all cargoes is 200 miles.
“We also handle some longhaul shipments,” Kim says. “We’ll run coast-to-coast and border-to-border to meet our customer needs, which does include deliveries into Canada. On the acid short-haul side a driver can handle up to three loads per shift, and we have two shifts for each trailer. Acid movements continue 24/7, 365 days a year.”
Drivers on the shorter hauls are home after each shift, and others with longer hauls may be out a couple nights a week. K-Limited Carrier drivers have the option of sleeping in the tractor berth or staying at a motel, with the cost covered by the carrier.
“All of our drivers qualify for layover pay if they are on the road overnight,” Kim says.
Day-to-day fleet operations are directed through the central dispatch in Toledo. Three operations driver managers handle the dispatch duties—Tim Lewallen covers the Toledo and Cleveland terminals, Jeremy Bires handles Detroit, and Jeff Cromwell handles the Cincinnati and Chicago locations.
To aid in the fleet management process, K-Limited Carrier runs TMW Suite and has equipped all of the trucks in the fleet with Omnitracs on-board computers. The Omnitracs system includes electronic driver logs.
“We have been 100% on electronic driver logs for about three years, and it has been good for our whole operation,” Kim says. “Our fleet management system is designed to help our drivers be as productive as possible without jeopardizing safety. We’re achieving almost 68% loaded miles with our fleet, and that’s important because drive pay is based a percentage of the load. We also provide an on-time bonus when drivers meet the customer delivery appointment. These are among the factors that help us limit driver turnover to just 11.2%.”
The family environment also helps hold drivers. “This company is still small enough that we know all of our employees by name,” says Dennis Perna, K-Limited Carrier chief financial officer and vice-president. “We see our drivers frequently, and we can give them personalized attention.”
Among those giving drivers a helping hand with payroll, benefits, health insurance, and other issues are administrative assistants Lou Vernier, Kristi Clendenin, and Bobbee Clawson. Even though 90% of the drivers receive their pay through direct deposit, many of them still call in on Wednesdays asking for a pay statement. This is another benefit for drivers.
Even with its low turnover, K-Limited Carrier faces many of the same challenges as the rest of the trucking industry when it comes to finding new hires. However, the best driver leads come from company employees.
“We don’t offer sign-on bonuses or much in the way of advertising to recruit drivers,” says Melanie Feeley, K-Limited Carrier corporate secretary and accounting manager. “We do give driver referral bonuses to our employees. They can earn up to $2,000 for every referral, and they are very involved in helping ensure that every referral becomes a successful new hire. This includes helping with mentoring the new hire.”
To be considered for employment as a driver, an applicant must be at least 23 years old and have a minimum of two years of tractor-trailer driving experience. “We pay close attention to a driver applicant’s safety record and background,” says John Spurling, K-Limited Carrier vice-president and general manager. “However, we don’t require tank truck experience. We can provide the training for that.”
Drivers selected by the carrier start their employment with a three-day classroom orientation at the Toledo terminal training facility. Managers from the safety, maintenance, human resources, and operations departments play a central role in the orientation process. “We give them a full picture of the operation before we send them out on the road,” Spurling says.
The safety department also helps newly hired drivers obtain tank and hazardous materials endorsements and the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC). “We require TWIC cards for all of our drivers,” he says. “Drivers are reimbursed for the cost of these certifications.”
Following the orientation comes over-the-road training with a certified trainer. This lasts a week to a month depending on the skill level of the new hire. This training involved shorter hauls initially and is not cargo specific.
More detailed training continues through the first year of employment. Drivers handling this training serve as coaches and mentors to help ensure the success of the newly hired driver. These trainers are the best of the best in the K-Limited Carrier system. They include drivers like Ron Hawkins, a former Americas Road Team Captain, and William Scott Harrison, a finalist in this year’s National Tank Truck Carriers’ Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year program.
“Kim and Dean believe the driver is our primary asset, and it is critical to give drivers the opportunity to be leaders,” says Candi Wolbert, K-Limited Carrier director of safety & regulatory compliance. “It helps promote professionalism throughout our company. Others see how serious the top drivers are in performing the job safely and professionally.”
The carrier holds quarterly safety meetings, and drivers are encouraged to play an active role. For instance, one driver recently discussed the issue of sleep apnea and how lifestyle changes enabled him to lose 80 pounds and bring his sleep apnea under control.
Safe performance is rewarded in various ways. For instance, drivers receive a gift card for every clean vehicle safety inspection at a roadside checkpoint.
A driver performance bonus—which includes independent contractors--is based on prior year’s earnings and is calculated at a guaranteed rate of 2% with another 1% for no safety incidents during the year. The bonus average can be upwards of $2,400. Drivers also get a years-of-service, or loyalty, bonus that could be as much as $2,000 after 10 years. All K-Limited Carrier employees get the years-of-service bonus.
Feeley points out that one of the most notable aspects of the years-of-service bonus is that a check with a company letter is sent to the employee’s home address. “Our objective is to highlight the employee’s achievement to family members,” she says.
Image is everything
Further promoting professionalism and loyalty, each company driver is assigned his own tractor. There is no slip-seating in the K-Limited Carrier fleet. As part of the process for encouraging drivers to keep their trucks/trailers clean and promote a professional image, the carrier has a contract with Blue Beacon truck washes. Drivers are encouraged to wash their trucks at least twice a month.
The carrier runs daycab and sleeper tractors, including International ProStars and Volvo VNs. The ProStar’s have Cummins ISX12 or International’s Maxxforce engines rated at 435 horsepower and Eaton Fuller UltraShift automated transmissions. The Volvos have either the Cummins ISX12 or Volvo’s D13 and either the UltraShift or Volvo’s iShift automated transmission.
“We tested automated transmissions in 2006, and the results were excellent,” says Paul Gray, K-Limited Carrier director of maintenance. “They are easier on the driver’s knees, and we believe they will extend the driver’s career—factors we believe will help in recruiting younger drivers. They also make it easier for the driver to remain focused on the road.”
Tractor specs include Fontaine fifthwheels, preferred because they are a proven product that simply doesn’t fail. New trucks are being ordered with Bendix roll stability, and the carrier is moving to Bendix air disc brakes. Michelin X One widebase singles are mounted on Alcoa aluminum disc wheels. Gray says the carrier is studying tractor tire inflation systems.
For product handling equipment, the carrier specifies Roper pumps powered directly off the PTO and truck compressors rated at 36 and 38 cfm. Gates product hoses are carried on a rack behind the tractor cab. With the exception of the truck compressor, all of the product handling hardware is supplied by Hart Industries.
“We’ve gotten away from hydraulics with our product-handling systems,” Gray says. “We’re saving on cost and weight, and we are getting away from hydraulics-related problems. In addition to system complexity, the hydraulics simply takes up too much space on the frame rails.”
Seventy percent of the tank trailers in the fleet are general purpose chemical units built to DOT407 code. Supplied by Brenner, Polar, Tremcar, and Heil, most of the stainless steel chemical trailers have a 7,000-gallon capacity and are insulated. The carrier runs double-conical center unload and straight-barrel rear unload DOT407 trailers.
Most are single-compartment, but the carrier does run a few multi-compartment stainless steel tanks. Tank hardware includes Betts valves and domelids and Girard pressure- and vacuum-relief vents.
Running gear includes Hendrick-son’s Intraax air suspension system with Tiremaax inflation. Like the tractors, the newest trailers are specified with widebase single tires and Bendix air-disc brakes.
For acids, the carrier runs various Brenner DOT412 stainless steel and rubber-lined carbon steel trailers. Capacity The fleet also includes 15 fiberglass-reinforced plastic composite trailers fabricated by Polycoat and trailerized by Brenner. Acid trailer capacity ranges from 3,600 to 5,200 gallons.
Primarily for lubricants, K-Limited Carrier runs a number of multi-compartment aluminum MC306/DOT406 trailers with an average capacity of 7,000 gallons and stainless steel DOT407 multi-compartment tankers to assist during the winter months. Most of these trailers were built by Heil and Brenner.
Keeping the diverse fleet running safely takes an in-house maintenance program, according to Gray. “Nobody works on our equipment better than we do,” he says. “We spec it and we install parts. We know our equipment. In a perfect world, all of our maintenance would be done at our shop in Toledo.
He adds that K-Limited Carrier is able to do more than half of the maintenance in-house. “We try to see every tractor and trailer in the fleet at our Toledo shop two to three times a year,” he says. “The regional nature of our business means the equipment comes through here a lot.”
Truck dealerships and Cummins dealers handle power unit warranty repairs. K-Limited Carrier also maintains a solid network of third-party maintenance providers that can be counted on to ensure maintenance is done correctly and in a timely manner. Gray says he visits all of the outside maintenance facilities several times a year to ensure that they understand what K-Limited Carrier expects.
The primary focus in the Toledo shop is on preventive maintenance service and minor repairs, but the five mechanics can, and do, handle much more than that. One technician is fully trained on the latest tractor diagnostics, and two of the mechanics are registered inspectors who do all of the tank trailer tests and inspections.
The tractor preventive maintenance schedule is 20,000 or 25,000 miles depending on whether the vehicle runs locally or in longer hauls. Each PM service includes a change of engine oil and filter and a 200-point inspection.
Drivers play a regular role in vehicle maintenance by reporting problems detected during pre-trip and post-trip inspections. In addition, they are required to operate the product pump every Wednesday for a few minutes to ensure that it is clean and free of contaminants that might cause the pump to freeze up. The company has found this to be an effective way to eliminate potential issues at delivery locations and avoid delays in product deliveries.
“K-Limited Carrier’s tag line—‘Pride, Performance, and Professionalism’—echoes throughout the company,” Dean says. “We believe that every driver directs the success of our company, and it is important that management and every department work together to support our drivers.” ♦