Excellence maintained

March 3, 2021
Commitment to drivers, equipment upkeep, effective communication make Carbon Express one of 2021’s ‘Fleets to Watch’

Steve Rush was stumped.

He founded Carbon Express back in 1983, after 19 years as an owner-operator, and still considers himself a “blue-blooded” truck driver at heart. So he wasn’t sure how his company, which prioritizes taking care of its drivers—clients are No. 1 and drivers are 1a—failed to make the “Best Fleets to Drive For” list after multiple attempts.

After all, Rush says he’s always looking for ways to improve life for his entire team.

Carbon Express drivers are paid for every hour they work, the company exclusively runs daycabs, preferring to put drivers in hotels—and even fly them home on layovers—and Rush recently sent four drivers and operations director Sean McAllister to a mountain driving training school in British Columbia, Canada, in an effort to improve safety for his people and the motoring public.

The Wharton, New Jersey-based carrier also sent 16 drivers on the “trip of a lifetime” in 2019, hauling petroleum-based drilling fluids from Illinois and Texas to Alaska on a memorable journey that featured a weekend stay at a hotel with log cabins in Fairbanks. And more recently, he sent 25 drivers and members of his maintenance team to a remote cabin in Maine to build camaraderie and discuss best practices. 

So instead of worrying about “the list” for 2020, he stayed focused on improving operations and bettering employees’ lives.

Then a friend at Boyle Transportation, a regular among the Best Fleets to Drive For—which is co-produced by CarriersEdge and the Truckload Carriers Association—since 2015, said they experienced similar frustrations early on, and encouraged him not to give up; so Rush, wanting his voice heard, redoubled his efforts for 2021.

And this time he hit the mark, with Carbon Express landing among the five “Fleets to Watch” that garnered honorable mentions.

“That put a huge smile on my face,” Rush said.

Now the 56-year trucking veteran is using the occasion to again highlight the importance of treating drivers with respect; and emphasize how critical it is for all employees to work together to take care of the equipment and each other, to ensure everyone goes homes safe and happy—and the industry flourishes post-pandemic.

“We are all connected,” he said. “We’re one big family.”

Elite company

Carbon Express is one of only two liquid tank haulers highlighted in this year's Best Fleets to Drive For program. The other, Western Dairy Transport in Cabool, Missouri, also landed in the Fleets to Watch.

Together, they’re the first bulk-focused fleets to make the prestigious grouping since Trimac Transportation was a Fleet to Watch in 2016. And only Trimac and Grammer Logistics have made the top 20—Grammer in 2014, and Trimac four consecutive years from 2011 to 2014.

No bulk transporter has been named overall winner in the large- or small-fleet categories.

“There’s not a lot of tank truck people in there for some reason, but I think that will change,” Rush said.

The Carbon Express founder and president helped change his company’s status by becoming more involved in TCA’s benchmarking efforts, which he says helped draw more attention to their benefits and low turnover. Bill McNamee, one of the American Trucking Association’s 2019-2020 America’s Road Team Captains, never questioned their credentials.

“They’re a well-rounded company that walks the walk, and doesn’t (mislead) the driver,” McNamee said. “This is my 30th year, so I know talk is exactly that. You can advertise and promote your company, but if you’re not living up to what you’re saying to people around you, you’re not doing the best you can for your people.

“(Rush) is a little strange. He actually cares. I feel like I work for an uncle.”

The driver’s voice is a critical component to the competition.

All for-hire fleets operating at least 10 trucks in the U.S. or Canada are eligible, but they must be nominated by a driver or independent contractor. Then, after completing an extensive corporate questionnaire and follow-up interviews with CarriersEdge representatives—in which they’re judged on driver compensation, benefits, operating strategy, career development, work/life balance and more—a minimum number of drivers, depending on the fleet’s size, must complete a survey about their experiences with the company.

“That part is critical,” Rush said. “You can tell them anything you want, but that driver might tell them something totally different. So that was key for us.”

Rush said they have separate surveys for company and owner-operator drivers. The Carbon Express fleet includes 57 company drivers, two independent contractors, and one small fleet operator with five trucks.

“We’re opposite of a lot of carriers, especially in truckload, which employs a lot of owner-operators,” Rush maintained. That distinction is why he’s more determined than ever to make the top 20, and prove to the larger industry his approach works.

“We’re absolutely determined,” he insisted.

“When my competitors hear we have no sleepers, we use company drivers and we pay by the hour, you wouldn’t believe the negative responses we receive. They say ‘Are you out of your mind? Paying a motel bill? What, are you crazy? You pay them by the hour? Don’t you know they’re going to steal time from you? Don’t you know you lose productivity when you pay them by the hour?’ And I just look at them and shake my head.”

Productive meetings

Productivity always is top of mind for Rush, which is why their doubts bewilder him.

To further foster a more productive fleet environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, he instituted weekly group calls that include drivers, mechanics and dispatchers. Initially, he wanted to utilize a newly installed phone system to stay in touch with drivers about health concerns and risks, and reach remote workers. But everyone quickly realized their value in keeping the shop and drivers on the same page, and making sure dispatch allowed time for equipment upkeep, to keep loads moving and avoid unnecessary downtime.

The regular meetings now are a permanent feature of Carbon Express operations.

“It has been a real big find for us, and really, it brings the drivers into the office for the first time,” Rush said. “We get great feedback out of that.”

McNamee deemed the calls “vital,” saying they encourage team building—and discourage finger-pointing when it comes to maintenance.

“If you don’t have a good relationship with your shop, and they’re not reachable, because they’re too busy, it’s tough,” he said. “And that’s a big thing right there. Usually, mechanics stay so doggone busy with fixing equipment and coordinating appointments, and the foreman’s always ordering parts, so you’ve got to leave a voice mail.

“Well, we don’t have to do that at Carbon. We’re always on those calls, so there’s never a gap in communication. If I’ve got something I need to bring up, I bring it up. If they’re seeing a trend with a trailer issue, or a tank issue, or something like a warranty issue or a recall, there’s no delay addressing it. We’re all on the call talking about it.”

Frequent and more candid conversations also build trust between mechanics and drivers.

Chris Peck, shop foreman for Carbon Express, says when a driver who he trusts reports something as simple as a new noise, he believes them, and takes the potential problem seriously. “That’s a big key to our daily routine,” Peck said.

Equipment upkeep

Peck has been in his current position since October. But he’s been with Carbon Express since August 2019, and he previously spent 12 years working on trucks and tank trailers at Prospect Transportation in Carlstadt, New Jersey, where his dad, Donald Peck, has worked for 35 years and currently serves as safety manager.

So Peck grew up in a shop, and understands the importance of connecting with drivers who see the equipment every day. He also knows routine maintenance is critical in keeping them safe—and saving the shop money.

According to a recent FleetNet Benchmarkit report, the average cost of mechanical repairs for commercial trucks reached a record high of $542 during the third quarter of 2020. And while tank fleets fared better, averaging $420 per repair, they also saw the largest number of roadside repairs due to tires and exhaust systems.

To avoid costly roadside breakdowns in a fleet of 64 trucks and 150 liquid cargo tank trailers predominantly used for hauling oils, Peck makes sure all vehicles are regularly inspected and serviced. Every unit receives an oil services at 25,000 miles, and tractors receive a grease service every 12,500 miles. And routine maintenance is more important than ever because Carbon Express didn’t add any equipment last year, due to the uncertainty created by COVID-19, and Rush isn’t planning on ordering any this year.

“Fleet maintenance is absolutely critical,” Rush said. “Going into COVID, we were two-and-a-half years on average on tractors, but we did not make any purchases last year because it was so volatile.”

Carbon Express prefers to handle mechanical repairs at its only “brick-and-mortar” terminal in Wharton, which features two full-length bays. If the vehicle is too far from home to bring back—typically more than a day’s drive—it’s serviced at a nearby Polar Service Center or Heil Trailer-certified facility, or even by the driver, before visiting a customer.

“We’ve got a lot of drivers here with experience, so them doing small repairs on the road is not uncommon,” Peck said. “If they’ve got a taillight out, most of them don’t want to wait in line for hours at a shop. So if I can walk them through the process, and have them check if a wire is broken or it’s just a bad bulb, I do what I can to save money.”

The Carbon Express shop doesn’t have R-stamp certification from the National Board of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspectors, so barrel replacement and repair work is outsourced to a third-party facility. Everything else is handled by Peck and his four-man team, including suspension swaps—they recently put a new suspension on a 1977 Fruehauf trailer returning to service—and HM-183 cargo tank inspections and tests.

Peck and his three full-time mechanics received their HM-183 training at North American Transport Consultants in New Jersey.

“We want to keep costs down, and no one examines a trailer more closely than the owner,” said Peck, who sees each trailer every 60 days, but treats every inspection like it’s the last one he’ll perform that year, preferring not to second guess a maintenance decision, like not replacing a brake chamber that’s approaching the end of its service life. “Every time we see a trailer in here, we treat it like it’s going to get a federal inspection.”

Trailer tires are monitored by the Meritor Tire Inflation System. “We don’t usually have service calls for tires on the road, unless it’s a blowout,” Peck maintained. “Every single one of our trailers is outfitted with an auto-inflate system, so … those tires are going to maintain proper pressure—even with a significant hole in a tire.”

The shop uses Premium Tech Tool, a Windows-based diagnostic application specially designed to test, calibrate, and program engine parameters, for identifying issues in its Mack and Volvo trucks. “That Tech Tool program is pretty good at helping you pinpoint the problem,” Peck said. “And then once you start working through a code, it gives you the steps to follow. So as long as you follow the steps to a T, it won’t let you down.”

Peck said switching to automated manual transmissions has been a boon for the shop as well. In addition to making average drivers better, they’re less costly to maintain, and now backed by a more robust warranty package. “That’s very cost-effective for us—not having to replace clutches, not having to replace a rear differential from a driver slamming in the gear, trying to get a tractor unstuck from the mud,” Peck said.

Carbon Express also is outfitting trucks with pumps that boast reverse capability after a mechanic discovered a versatile coupling system at a tank truck expo. “PT Coupling put out a coupler system that allows the driver to reverse the flow at the pump, but they’re expensive. So what we do is, every time we buy a new tractor, we’ll put one of those pumps on. We’re about two-thirds through the fleet now, and they’ve made our drivers that much better. These systems impress our customer, give our drivers all the confidence in the world in what they’re doing, and help eliminate spills.”

Staying safe

Driver responsibilities include pre- and post-trip truck and trailer inspections, which, for a tank truck driver, also means doublechecking trailer equipment, like latches, pumps and hoses. “We inspect our tank every time it’s washed,” McNamee said. “And we don’t swap hoses, so my hoses on my truck are my responsibility. We’re all required to maintain our hoses and inspect them when we get them washed.”

They’re also required to report any damage that may have occurred. “We don’t want to be sitting at the inspection station with a violation when all you have to do is inspect it, call, get it fixed, and then roll down the road,” McNamee said.

“Then you’re going to stay out of that danger zone with violations.”

Rush contends paying by the hour and running all daycabs also helps keep them out of danger.

Drivers who don’t feel rushed are more likely to conduct thorough inspections, and less likely to push equipment beyond safe operating limits. “By paying by the hour, I’m paying my drivers to go safe,” Rush said. “If you pay by percentage, or by the mile, you’re paying them to go fast, which isn’t necessarily safe.”

By avoiding sleeper trucks, Rush says Carbon Express also is reducing equipment expenses—he maintains the cost of using hotels is roughly equivalent to the cost of purchasing and maintaining pricier sleepers when amortized over an extended period—improving drivers’ quality of life, and keeping them more alert on the road.

And an alert driver is more likely to detect a problem before it’s catastrophic.

“What we’ve learned is sleep patterns are critical to keeping that driver safe and healthy,” Rush said.

Well-maintained equipment also helps keep turnover down.

The Professional Driver Agency (PDA) said equipment and compensation issues again were the most mentioned concerns in the fourth quarter of 2020. “Equipment and compensation issues have been the top two issues for drivers for all four quarters of 2020,” said Scott Dismuke, PDA’s director of operations. “Equipment issues, especially repeat issues, cause frustration and usually compensation issues.

“We’ve seen in 2020 that equipment issues, both for tractors and trailers, are causing drivers to leave, so the condition and maintenance of equipment is important to driver retention.” 

Dwindling pool

Bob Costello, chief economist for American Trucking Associations, said in his most recent comments about the driver shortage that the trucking industry was short 60,800 drivers in 2018, and could be down 105,000 drivers by 2023 and 160,000 by 2028—and that was before the pandemic reached the U.S.

The driver shortage topped the American Transportation Research Institute’s Top Industry Issues list, released in October 2020, for the fourth consecutive year. Experts agree the shortage was worsened by pandemic-induced closures of driver training schools and commercial driver’s license testing sites, stricter drug and alcohol testing mandates, and an older demographic of drivers who are retiring from the industry.

Rush believes older drivers also are leaving because they don’t want to risk getting sick.

A recent analysis by Cottingham & Butler in its 2020 Trucking Benchmark Driver Compensation & Benefits Survey showed the tank and bulk segments fared better than the overall trucking industry in driver turnover, due in part to more home time and more experienced drivers, but Rush says tank truck carriers are feeling the shortage, too.

At its height, the Carbon Express fleet included 72 drivers. They’re down to 57, mostly due to retirement, and with most of the attrition during the pandemic.

To stop the bleeding, the industry needs to find younger drivers—and stop abusing the ones who already are here.

“They want a life, and they want to get paid,” Rush said.

One of the greatest culprits contributing to turnover today, Rush says, is the lease-purchase program, which he argues is designed to pass off the expense of operating a transportation firm to its drivers, who are left with used trucks they never wanted. All they desire is an open road—and a well-maintained company vehicle to drive.

“Lease purchase, in my opinion—after 56 years in trucking—is corrupt, and it must be addressed,” Rush said.

“If all your variable expenses are passed off to a second party, where is your incentive to raise your rates and take care of those people?

“I am so concerned about our country, and our industry almost mirrors our country. The greed at the top has put us in this terrible position. There’s nothing wrong with driving a truck. There’s nothing wrong with that. People who drive a truck generally love driving trucks, especially the over-the-road guys. They love it. I know. I used to do it. You couldn’t send me far enough, and you couldn’t send me to enough new places.”

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