AJA Tanks goes beyond repairs

July 5, 2024
Industry veteran satisfies customers with tailor-made tank trailer maintenance, modification services in Houston

HOUSTON—Mark Holloway dreamed of building an accessible MC-331 demonstration trailer for driver training and emergency response education for 23 years. Augie Quintero, founder and president of AJA Tanks, helped him realize that vision in 2022, custom upfitting a Mississippi Tank Company liquid propane gas (LPG) trailer to create an “awe-inspiring” cargo tank worthy of the showroom floor.

He also surpassed all expectations with singular customer service after the sale.

Holloway, the director of supply chain operations at AmeriGas, last year lined up classes for the Houston Fire Department training academy, Railroad Commission of Texas, and Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service but fell seriously ill and entered the hospital before those events, leaving him unable to attend. So Quintero stepped up to ensure Holloway’s prized tankers didn’t go down, too.

“Augie himself led those trainings because he knew how important they were to me,” Holloway reflected in appreciation.

Individualized attention and special-order spec’ing are only two of the many tank trailer maintenance and repair services offered by AJA Tanks, which Quintero opened in 2017 after a lengthy career with stops at Polar Service Centers, Vantage Trailers, and DSI Transports (now a part of Trimac). The shop, which is R-stamp certified and Railroad Commission licensed, also performs inspections; trials new equipment; replaces frames, axles, and suspensions; provides storage, pickup and delivery; and much more.

“Augie is consistent in his performance, disciplined in his quality assurance, competitive in his pricing, and he stands behind his work,” Holloway said. “And when you’re spending money, it’s not about how much you spend, it’s how you spend it—and if I’m going to spend my money, I want excellent value.”

Quintero’s hard-earned reputation for delivering value across his 45 years serving the tank truck industry allowed him to achieve his dream of owning his own operation—and keep it afloat during a business-disrupting start plagued by Hurricane Harvey’s historic rainfall total only four months after AJA opened, the longest government shutdown in history in 2018, and the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

“Relationships are very important,” Quintero told Bulk Transporter.

“A lot of people will only do business with you because they know you, if they like you, and think you’re a good person, with the honesty and integrity they appreciate, and believe they can take that to the bank.”

Tank truck journey

Quintero, 62, joined DSI’s maintenance operation straight out of high school in 1979. After completing a welding program at San Jacinto College, he went to American Trailer (which Trimac purchased two years later) and Houston Trailer, which changed hands multiple times during his tenure, with Penske, Pentron, and finally Polar Service Centers in control. He moved to PSC’s new building east of Houston in 2000 and served as service manager until 2012, when he left to establish Vantage Trailers’ service department.

That fateful decision proved both unfortunate, and fortuitous.

Soon after he arrived, Quintero learned Vantage nearly closed its doors a year earlier. So when business began to slow down a few years later, he started to seriously consider chasing his dream of self-employment. “I could see the tell-tale signs,” he recalled. “They were having problems.” Only two years later, in April 2019, Vantage declared bankruptcy, and Dragon Products acquired its assets and designs.

But Quintero came out on top with help from family and friends.

“Relationships are important to us because issues are going to arise, and if you don’t have a genuine connection, or emotional bank account, to draw on, it’s tough,” said Taylor Craigen, vice president at Jack Olsta Co.—an AJA customer and supplier—who met Quintero while he was at PSC, now part of Depot Connect International.

“Augie has always done great work for us. That’s why we keep going back to him.”

Entrepreneurial excursion

Quintero takes care of employees, too. So when he shared his entrepreneurial plans with Vantage staff, many were on board. “He got the muster to start his own business, so he asked me if I wanted to go with him,” said Lorenzo Butanda, AJA general manager. “Saying yes was the best decision I ever made.” Seven cargo tank mechanics, including shop foreman Abel Contreras, answered the same way, so they opened AJA Tanks on April 6, 2017, in a leased shop in Northwest Houston.

The new business owner made the anxiety-inducing decision to finance the endeavor with his 401(k), and wife Deborah, who wanted to retire from her job as a criminal defense attorney, worried about insurance coverage. “But she knew how important this was to me, so she gave me her blessing,” Quintero beamed. She also helped file the requisite paperwork and register the name, an acronym for Augie and his sons, Jacob and Austin.

With help from another friend, Quintero obtained a loan through then-family-owned Vision Financial Group (now a division of Civista Bank) and purchased his current 7-acre location on Cutten Road, where AJA moved in February 2019. “It was a fixer-upper,” he said. After renovations and parking lot stabilization, the site now features 13,000 sq. ft. of office and shop space, 12 bays, and a separate building with live-in security. He also installed two water tanks and dedicated plumbing for hydrostatic testing.

“We’re more efficient because we don’t have to move tanks around as much,” he said.

The operation now employs 17 people, but the journey hasn’t been slosh-free. In addition to surviving Harvey and a global health scare, the group had to overcome the stigma associated with Vantage’s demise and reaffirm relationships with key vendors, including parts distributors and trailer manufacturers.

“It’s been exciting,” Butanda said.

“There have been difficulties, but there’s always something different going on, or a task that needs addressing. It keeps us on our toes.”

Specialized service

The shop stayed busy last year, with nearly 500 trailers rolling through, and managers maximize mechanics’ time by keeping plenty of parts and components in stock thanks to direct relationships with OEMs and partners like Jack Olsta, which also sends used trailers to AJA for inspection and refurbishment. “They’re a good group of guys,” Craigen said. “They shoot straight with you, and they get equipment in and out of their shop in a timely manner.”

Holloway agrees wholeheartedly. AJA’s attention to detail, customer understanding, and cost-effective approach transformed his demo trailer into a show-stopping tool that looks like a working MC-331 rolling down the road. “I really wanted to open up the trailer, make it inviting, and have all the working parts visible, so people could touch, feel, and discuss, and you could get out of the classroom and talk about container design, baffles, piping, pumps, or whatever, and use that information to consider mechanical build and integrity, and then, in the next training, emergency response,” Holloway said.

“Augie and his team delivered on that promise in every aspect.”

AJA also pilots new equipment and accessories for Propane Transport International (PTI), the transportation division for AmeriGas, which the company then rolls out to other shop partners. “Aguie’s always been willing to be that business partner who says, ‘Absolutely, we’ll collaborate with you.’” That’s why AJA also is one of a select few shops that assists with PTI’s ongoing refurbishment program, which aims to examine, improve, and revitalize 80 of its 400 LPG trailers every year. And AJA is uniquely qualified to work on all PTI’s propane vessels because of its Railroad Commission license.

“There aren’t a lot of places in the Greater Houston area that can work on LPG tanks,” Craigen confirmed.

AJA was installing a custom heat tube in a new Etnyre asphalt trailer, as well as overfill and telematics systems, on the day Bulk Transporter visited. The DOT-certified shop also provides HM-183 cargo tank inspection and testing, and all manner of vintage and modern chemical, petroleum, and food-grade tank trailer modifications, including jacket replacement, barrel restoration, sandblasting, and painting.

“We do a little bit of everything,” Quintero affirmed.

His shop is the only one that works on PTI’s 18,000-gallon portable storage units, and AJA also domiciles trailers so PTI drivers can drop off tanks for annual inspections and pick up prepped units without delays.

Intimate enterprise

Running a small-scale, family-owned operation with big-job capability comes with benefits and challenges. Quintero was happy to escape the corporate world and secure greater control of critical decisions, including how he takes care of AJA employees with flexible scheduling and open-door approachability. “Bigger companies don’t have the work environment we have,” Quintero maintained.

They don’t deliver the same caliber of service either, customers insist. Large, nationwide operations, where trailers lots often are “stacked three deep,” routinely run at maximum capacity to the detriment of customers, Holloway contended. Quintero understands one size doesn’t fit all, he added, and a small business unlocks the freedom and flexibility to offer personalized service and informed price points.

“We’re very particular about the way we want things done, so we spend a lot of time in shops educating folks on expectations,” Craigen said.

“Augie understands and always meets those expectations.”

He’s also able to keep a closer eye on his people and trailers, boosting quality and safety. Employees probe tanks with gas meters before pulling them into the shop and reroute suspect units to wash racks. Meters are bump tested daily and recalibrated every 180 days, and AJA keeps meter sensors and filters, and personal protective equipment (PPE) in plentiful stock. The shop also purges propane trailers with nitrogen blankets and uses blowers to circulate fresh air when confined-space entry is necessary.

“I tell my guys, I don’t care if your mom told you she checked that tank, you better do it, too,” Quintero emphasized.

Challenges include finding skilled welders, keeping up with large operations on pay and benefits, and managing the escalating cost of business. “We were at about $80 an hour on labor when we started in 2017,” Butanda shared. “But that has steadily increased to cover our operating costs, so we’ll hit $115 per hour in May.” AJA also reports more fleets are handling small jobs themselves, or holding off on recommended services, even if that keeps trailers in the shop longer and delays inspections.

“I get it,” Butanda lamented.

“It’s the economy, and people are trying to save money where they can, so if they have a shop, they’re doing more of that work.”

Keeping the faith

Quintero is optimistic business will pick up after a slow start this year. He typically sees more propane trailer work in the summer, when heating demand decreases, and increased spending after election cycles turn. Growth initiatives include expanding trailer storage through ADQ & Sons, and trailer leasing through Q Tank Lease. His plans don’t include opening new AJA locations. “I want to be able to have my hands and eyes on every trailer we work on,” Quintero said. “That’s very important.”

So is keeping AJA Tanks in the family. Austin now works in the shop, and Quintero hopes he eventually runs the business, with help from Butanda, Contreras, and their loyal staff. “A lot of people count on me,” Quintero said. “They put their faith in me, and followed me here, so I want to take care of them.”

He also intends to keep caring for customers—whatever their needs may be.

“It’s been a fantastic relationship with them, and it all started with trust and integrity,” Holloway summarized.

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.