The 2015 HDT Truck Fleet Innovators

March 2015, - Cover Story

by Deborah Lockridge and David Cullen

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Steve Rush runs Carbon Express sleeper-less to up truck capacity
and driver satisfaction. Photo: Carbon Express
Steve Rush runs Carbon Express sleeper-less to up truck capacity and driver satisfaction. Photo: Carbon Express

Steve Rush and Carbon Express: Healthy, wealthy, and wise

On the road or in the office, it pays to glance back when you’re aiming to move ahead. Just ask Steve Rush, who freely admits he draws on decades of experience to manage the tank carrier he founded.

After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Rush started trucking as a company driver in the ‘60s. In 1971, he opted to become an owner-operator. In 1983, he obtained operating authority and launched Carbon Express with his wife, Dawn, “in the laundry room of our house.” The company name, by the way, flows from the first haul consigned to the fledgling firm — a load of carbon ink. 

Carbon Express drove on to find its niche as a successful truckload hauler of bulk chemicals. Today, the fleet consists of 46 company-owned tractors and 120 tank trailers, with work supplemented by a handful of owner-operators. Rush has grown within the industry as well. He served as the 2010-11 chairman of the National Tank Truck Carriers association and currently sits on the NTTC board.

Rush kept on “driving a little” until business demands led him to turn in the keys in 1985. But he’s not forgotten what it’s like to drive a truck. Indeed, his years on the road continue to inform many of the equipment decisions he makes.

Case in point is the win-win-win equipment change Carbon Express implemented in 2009. Figuring it would increase per-load shipment weight, Rush replaced every sleeper-equipped tractor with a day cab. The spec change also cut fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating overnight idling. What’s more, it vastly enhanced the view drivers held of the company.

The innovation garnered Carbon Express an environmental award from the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

“Quite honestly,” says Rush, “we were recognized for saving the environment for going away from sleepers. But I told the audience [at the New Jersey award ceremony] that I can’t lay claim to the idea. Having been a driver for close to 20 years, it was something that I always thought would work. Then when the 10-hour break rule came in — which I think was the right thing to do — I said, ‘It’s time to get rid of the sleepers.’”

Rush says going without sleepers slims a stainless steel insulated tanker by 5,000 to 6,000 pounds and takes more than 10,000 pounds off an aluminum trailer. Carbon Express also shed weight by converting to wide-base single tires four years ago. Other lightweight innovations include tractors spec’ed with tag axles starting in 2011 and, this year, with lift axles. In addition, the fleet’s been using automatic lift axles on trailers since ‘09.

“We’re close to running five years now without any sleepers,” Rush says. “While I did it to get more business by providing more capacity, how the switch has affected our drivers is incredible. If you could have seen our drivers before we put them in motels overnight, you’d think they were different people. That’s because now they’re feeling so much better about themselves. The first year we did it I went to Christmas dinner with a bunch of our drivers in Altoona, Pa., and one driver said to me, “You know, this is the first company I’ve worked for where I didn’t have to sleep in a truck. I don’t think I could go anywhere else.’”

Steve Rush, president Carbon Express.
Steve Rush, president Carbon Express.

The impact on Carbon Express itself has been substantial, too. “Our gross revenue has improved about 20% for the last two years because word’s gotten out about how much more we can haul,” Rush says. “So, we’re seeing a double benefit — our drivers and our customers. My management staff will say I shouldn’t be advertising that,” he candidly adds. “I’d say people will talk about it, but not everyone’s going to run out and do it.”

Now, Rush is working at fine-tuning the sleeper-less concept. “We began looking at how we could save money if drivers could spend fewer nights in motels, which also means they’ll get home more nights,” says Rush. “To do that, we’ve been setting up driver relays to offer overnight service on some routes. For example, we’ve been running relays between Chicago and New York for a little over a year now.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising given how much drivers are kept in mind that Carbon Express is “really not having trouble finding drivers.” Rush figures that more fleets will need to start thinking about going sleeper-less, whether via motel stays or relay runs, to attract more drivers.

“One of our old-timer drivers, with the company for 17 years, was in the last of our sleeper trucks back in 2011,” he recalls. “He swore that once we got rid of his sleeper, he was going to retire. But we convinced him to give the new truck a try. Now, he wouldn’t go back to a sleeper truck even if you paid him to do it. He can tell you every good motel to stay in along the routes he runs. He only stays at the motels with the ‘good’ free breakfast in the morning — and he makes sure to have his way with that free breakfast before heading out.”

To help trim the cost of all those motel nights, Rush advises that Carbon Express works with Corporate Lodging Card, a firm that “arranges deals with large motel chains across the country for reduced prices. Now, our drivers carry a CLC card and a listing book so they can always find a place to stay. The drivers are happier with a clean room and shower waiting for them at the end of the day — instead of climbing into a sleeper and lining up to shower at a truck stop.”


  1. 1. Jon [ April 09, 2015 @ 01:54PM ]

    Panther was not purchased by ABF, Panther was purchased by ArcBest.


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