Article

Repairs on the Run

When you're talking OTR service, it all boils down to choices.

February 2006, TruckingInfo.com - Feature

by Tim Barton, Contributing Editor

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Earl Evans is a meticulous man. If you talk to Earl, he'll describe himself even more severely. "Some would call me obsessive compulsive when it comes to servicing my truck," he says.

Evans' spotless, well-oiled machine, a W9L Kenworth, is testimony to his devotion. It is perhaps the most frequently greased truck in America.

"I grease my truck every 2,500 miles, no matter where I am. I keep a journal of all the good spots to pull over when the speedo hits another 2,500 miles – get-ons, Wal-Marts, any secluded spot where I can get into my coveralls, jack it up and grease it."

Evans has a uniform service to supply him with clean coveralls and carries everything from a complete set of brake hoses, and every possible fitting, to an alternator complete with pulley. He carries a complete maintenance file with him wherever he drives.

Evans also plans his work so that he can do his preventive maintenance at the house. Bottom line is he has little need for the maintenance programs offered by original equipment manufacturers.

Not to mention the truckstop preventive maintenance offerings many owner-operators and fleets use when they're on the road.

"I do carry the information for Kenworth's PremierCare call center in my briefcase for times when something happens I can't handle," he admits.

DIFFERENT STROKES

Evans' maintenance mania is a rarity, but it's only one example of how truck owners handle problems on the road.

Petro's David Latimer, vice president of Petro:Lube services, says Petro's customers are owner-operators and the small fleets – particularly those fleets without a terminal system.

"The large fleets make every effort to do preventive maintenance in-house," he says. "We concentrate on fleets that run plenty of new routes and don't have terminals. On the other hand, we are happy to service any truck and do get overflow from large fleets that have trucks approaching their PM mileage limit and are not close enough to a terminal to meet that deadline."

Heartland Express, which has 10 terminals east of the Mississippi, does not use any outside maintenance beyond tire repair, according to Mike Gerdin, vice president of regional operations. Gerdin says a number of factors allow Heartland to do nearly all maintenance and most repair in-house.

"Our terminals are no more than 600 miles apart and are all east of the Mississippi, where our lanes are. This allows us to route trucks through terminals two to three times a week and cuts out any necessity to use outside services." Beyond that, Gerdin says Heartland's Internationals are traded at 350,000 to 400,000 miles and only go to International dealers for warranty work.

At Crete Carrier just outside Lincoln, Neb., maintenance functions were reconfigured about two years ago to integrate Shaffer – Crete's refrigerated division – with the Crete van fleet. The two fleets had been running out of discrete terminals that did not share maintenance functions easily. The consolidation has worked well, according to Bill Houck, fleet/terminal manager at Crete's Macungie, Pa., terminal.

"I can send trucks to the nearest terminal now rather than reroute them, and all trucks are treated equally, so we have good turnaround on repairs and maintenance," he says of the system, which now runs under the name Acklie Maintenance Systems.

Mike Walters, director of maintenance at Marten Transport in Mondovi, Wis., says his 2,400 trucks are almost always routed through one of five terminals for maintenance. But having that many trucks and only five terminals makes it a necessity to have a network of outside vendors.

"We have developed a network of maintenance facilities, including truckstops and other vendors, based upon their level of quality and dependability," he says.

Whether a fleet is made up of owner-operators or company trucks often has a great deal to do with how maintenance is structured on the road. CRST International has a flatbed division with 1,500 trucks, nearly all of which are owner-operator. Two hundred are lease purchase vehicles. Ken Hardy, maintenance director of the flatbed division, notes that he has more control over those lease purchase trucks.

"We have to give the owner-operator who is not in a lease purchase truck more choices about how to do service on the road. They might choose to go to a dealer rather than a truckstop to get their maintenance done," Hardy says.

About 90 percent of the trucks under Hardy's control use outside vendors, since the CRST flatbed system contains only one repair facility. Hardy also uses truckstops to do DOT annual inspections and quarterly trailer inspections. He supplements this system with two other features. One is the NATC Service Locator, a software program that provides a database of service providers. The second is a database of service providers developed in-house through fleet experience, which is used as a backup to the NATC program.

CHANGING TIMES

It's important to realize that how you handle maintenance on the road will likely change as your business does.

NWD Inc. is a 17-truck fleet of Freightliner Coronados based in New Bedford, Mass., which has changed the way it handles maintenance as the company has grown. It began as a fleet of three rental trucks hauling fish from New England to Pittsburgh and has evolved into an operation with customers throughout the Midwest.

Eric DeCosta, son of the founder Richard DeCosta, and the current CEO, has added business yearly. To support this growth, DeCosta has changed the way he does maintenance.

"I couldn't keep my drivers happy in rentals any more," he says. "Our rental guy wanted to keep trucks when they needed service and repair and give us another truck. My road guys hated that."

DeCosta has had the same core drivers for years and did not want to change that mix. He started buying Classic XL Freightliners but switched to Coronados recently when his operation began to require more deliveries in Midwestern cities. He hired three mechanics to do repair and maintenance at his only terminal in New Bedford.

"We used TAs for a long time and chose the facilities that gave us the most dependable service. But I get my trucks home twice a week, so there was no real need to continue that when I got big enough to do my own maintenance in-house. But the TAs did a good job for us."

As NWD has grown, it has seen the need to change its maintenance paradigm, not only to meet growth but to accommodate the factors accountable for that growth. The change from rental trucks to ownership kept drivers happy, for example. As growth continued, and operational needs changed, DeCosta brought maintenance in-house to control costs and keep his just-in-time fleet from encountering delays at outside shops. But he's still flexible when it comes to keeping drivers happy.

"I have one driver who lives in Erie, Pa., and never gets in to New Bedford. He has his truck serviced at a carrier he's friendly with down the street from where he lives."

GETTING CONNECTED

When you can't get a truck in to a terminal for maintenance, you have to have a way to find reliable providers.

Matt Hoerner at NATC admits fleets want to control how often and who they use to do road maintenance. However, his customers use the service locator to find preventive maintenance as well as breakdown services.

"Our customers use us when they need service in an unfamiliar lane or when a truck has reached the mileage limit on a PM cycle and the decision is made not to route through a terminal," he says.

The service locator has a feedback system so that users can rate the vendors used. The database includes major truckstop chains as well as other vendors, and Hoerner claims it is more comprehensive than most call centers operated by original equipment manufacturers.

Original equipment manufacturers' services rely most heavily upon their own dealer networks. While NATC provides a level of quality control through its feedback system, services such as Kenworth's Maintenance Manager Program have advantages of their own. Dick VonLehman, Kenworth national sales marketing manager-service, notes that maintenance can be scheduled through Kenworth's PremierCare service at no extra charge. This service is guaranteed to begin within one hour of the scheduled time.

VonLehman notes that all service is done at dealers unless there is no dealer available, in which case a third-party provider who meets Kenworth's insurance and quality standards is used.

"We call every customer after the procedure is complete to make sure he's satisfied," VonLehman adds. "And we rank our dealers based upon customer satisfaction."

Kenworth's maintenance management program offers a wide range of service levels, from the basic oil change – called the R level – all the way to programs based upon trade or truck life cycles.

This comprehensive service menu includes a year-end inspection called the C service. It is a 147-point inspection including universal joints, frame bolt tightening, air filters and wheel alignment, to name a few features. It takes five hours. Lehman says no matter what level of service is done, it is all documented, ready for when the DOT stops a truck or comes to call. Trucks domiciled in California can have their California quarterlies done as well.

Above and beyond a range of services Volvo offers its customers through its Fleet Maintenance program, an innovative service called Volvo Link gives customers the option of monitoring their trucks' condition through a satellite link.

Greg Holderfield, director of technical support, Volvo Fleet Maintenance, says Volvo is the only original equipment manufacturer offering a satellite link for maintenance support. This link is independent of driver participation in the sense that faults are noted and relayed without the driver having to give input. A message can then be sent to the driver to have the problem looked after. At present this service is available only in Volvo's new VT880. Volvo also is expanding its maintenance program to include more than the present 100 dealers.

Mack's OneCall Complete Care is a 24/7, 365-day-per-year call center that will schedule preventive maintenance and warranty work at Mack's dealers across the country. Luke Baker, Mack's manager of customer service support, notes Mack is ramping up its contract maintenance capabilities and will have a program in place sometime in 2006.

At Freightliner, Jeff Kjose, supervisor of the Customer Assistance Center, says its over the road service is a contract maintenance for which participants must sign up.

Its network includes truckstops and the dealer network, a factor for owner-operators who want to use dealerships and spend long periods away from the barn, where the wrenches are. Independents who do not want to emulate the obsessiveness of an Earl Evans, or owner-operators leased to a fleet who are out on irregular schedules, might find such an option to their liking. Freightliner has partnered with Travel Centers of America to have TAs do express service, minor repair, preventive maintenance, brakes, electrical, heating and air conditioning and DOT inspections as well as trailer repair.

International offers an over-the-road maintenance program called Performance PM. Four levels of service are available at more than 500 International dealerships in the United States and Canada.

Dealerships offer extended hours and excellent availability of parts, according to International. A 30-point quick lube and inspection is available along with an "A" dry 71-point inspection and two wet PMs with 71 and 83 points of inspection.

Fleets with any make of truck can take advantage of this service – a real plus for those who see the need for a dealer PM and are far from a terminal.

Brian Mulshime, manager of service marketing and development, said International's dealer service provides senior technicians with ASE certification. "We are not chasing price with this service. Our goal is quality," he notes.

Peterbilt's Truck Care preventive maintenance service is a 24/7 operation available at Peterbilt dealers. It is a contract maintenance agreement that covers all factory recommended services and inspections.

In addition to excellent dealer service, the maintenance agreement allows members access to managed care, a password-protected online service for managing maintenance and repair.

Truck Care Maintenance Manager allows owner-operators and fleets the flexibility to track and schedule service appointments, update mileages, do cost analysis and help manage maintenance by sending service reminders by e-mail.

Scott Pearson, assistant general manager sales and marketing, adds that customers can use the managed care program to record their entire fleet's maintenance records. "Beyond providing a complete paper trail of all work done at Pete dealerships, the managed care system allows users to download maintenance data as a means of providing a complete one-stop maintenance system," Pearson said. Such a system is ideal for small fleets without a fully vested system of their own. "The owner-operator with three or four trucks is a perfect fit for this kind of service," Pearson added.

EXPANDING JIFFY

Despite the widespread fleet practice of controlling maintenance by keeping it in house, at least one free-standing maintenance facility sees room for growth. Speedco offers a full menu of preventive maintenance services as well as tire repair and sales at its 35 facilities. Speedco is expanding and will have 52 facilities later this year.

"Ninety nine percent of our customer base is owner-operator now," says Katie Schult, manager of communications and marketing. "That's because we offer a 30-minute oil change, and owner-operators like the quick on and off aspect. It is first-come first-serve, but customers do not have long waits. We have three lanes and a team concept that gets people in and out quickly." Schult says

Speedco is expanding its marketing effort to include more fleets and expects that business to grow. "We know fleets want to control maintenance, but we also know there is a need for services when a truck can't get home and is close to its PM mileage limit. This kind of business is fueling our growth."

THE BIG PICTURE

The OTR maintenance picture is straightforward. The use of third-party maintenance providers is limited by the fleets' desire to control costs and maintain service standards. The variety of providers – truckstops, dealers, free-standing facilities – remains a strong and necessary business, particularly for the owner-operator and smaller fleets with few terminals and irregular routes.

But the growth of Speedco, the partnering of truck makers with truckstops, and the continuing expansion of maintenance management programs offered by truck makers points to a continuing need.

For those with that need, planning for the maintenance contingencies involved in OTR work will limit expenses and help ensure proper levels of equipment care.

SHOP'S LOCAL REP REACHES DATABASES

Earl Ryan Sanders owns and operates Semi-Serv Express, an independent truck and trailer repair service, including road service, on I-80 at the Keystone-Buckeye line in Hubbard, Ohio. On a cold day in December, Sanders was dispatching John Perry on a service call in one of his four road repair trucks.

"We do plenty of service calls, but our basic business is the owner-operator who stops in for repair or preventive maintenance."

Sanders believes strongly that a coalition of independent shops would help his business even more, but is happy with the local reputation he has forged over the six years he has been in business.

"We do all the service for the Yellow Freight terminal here as well as service for local terminals of Overnite and Arrow," he notes. "Our basic business is the owner-operator who needs repair or preventive maintenance, and that – combined with what we do for the local fleets – is about 35 percent of our business. But most of the big fleets who run 80 know us and have us in their databases. We do everything except internal engine repair."

Sanders adds his shop carries a deep inventory of generic parts and has direct business with dealers for brand-specific parts.

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