Innovation lies at the intersection of invention and improvement. It’s the willingness to use a better, novel idea or method — to change the way you do things, rather than just trying to do the same thing better. For Heavy Duty Trucking’s annual Truck Fleet Innovator awards, we look for fleet executives who represent this notion, who have a track record of leading their industries into new and sometimes uncharted waters.
We aim to highlight a cross-section of the wide variety that is trucking, so this year’s honorees include a large ready-mix fleet, a major expedited carrier, a tank truck carrier and a less-than-truckload fleet. They’ve led the way with innovation in a variety of areas as well, including adoption of natural gas fuel, computer technology, lightweighting, fuel economy, and driver satisfaction.
The winners are chosen by HDT’s editors from nominations submitted by suppliers, fellow fleet executives, associations, drivers and others. They also may nominate themselves, and some are identified by HDT’s editors in the course of their work.
An award presentation will be held during the Mid-America Trucking Show Fleet Forum on March 25 in Louisville, Ky., followed by a panel discussion moderated by HDT Equipment Editor Jim Park.
Rich DeBoer and Ozinga: Growing green by the numbers
Executive Vice President Rich DeBoer knows a lot about what spins the drums at Ozinga. “I’ve been with them for 39 years,” he says. “I worked as a mechanic for 10 years before that. My employment here was hands-on to begin with. Then, as the fleet grew in size, I moved into more of a management role, eventually taking on responsibility for plants, properties and equipment.”
Ozinga was founded in 1926 by Martin Ozinga Sr. as a coal and coke supplier serving the Chicago area. In the early ‘50s, his sons, Martin Jr., Richard, and Norman, responded to the postwar demand for suburban housing by transitioning to ready-mix concrete production. It grew steadily through the ‘60s and ‘70s and the third generation of family owners took the reins in the ‘80s. By 2003, Ozinga ranked among the leading material-supply companies in the Midwest, and the fourth generation of owners — seven cousins — joined the family business.
The company opened a new state-of-the-art dispatch center and renamed its ready-mix business Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete Inc. in 2009. Two years later, Ozinga took delivery of its first mixer truck fueled entirely by compressed natural gas to reduce its reliance on petroleum consumption and help diminish the company’s carbon footprint.
Ozinga Ready Mix currently runs more than 600 mixer trucks as well as some 200 support vehicles. DeBoer says the “anticipated goal is to have our whole fleet of mixer trucks on CNG by 2020 — as long as the economy and work activity allows that to happen.”
Taking a realistic approach to replacing equipment based on economic and business conditions is a hallmark of how Ozinga manages its fleet for the long haul. “Mindful of the additional diesel emissions standards coming into focus, we pre-purchased a lot of trucks in ’06,” DeBoer recalls. “That let us beat the ‘07 EPA standards and helped keep our fleet updated.
“When it comes to vocational trucks, you never know how new engines are going to act or react in the ready-mix concrete realm,” he continues. “That’s because you’re using that engine not only to drive down the street, but also to mix and produce the finished product you’re delivering. And you’re also applying that technology to an on/off-road vehicle.”
Then came the Great Recession. “When the economy took a dive in 2007, we as well as everyone else purchased nothing for five or six years. There just wasn’t any business activity to warrant updating.”
But he says there was an upside to the downturn: “We had a good bit of time to analyze what type of fuel would make for the best way to move forward. In 2010, there was another host of emissions standards coming out and the engine manufacturers were having a lot of difficulty with those engines, in terms of performance and fuel economy.
“So we looked at the alternatives,” he continues, “and natural gas won out. It looked like a very available fuel, right here in the United States. At that time, a barrel of oil was well over $100 and there was no end in sight to diesel price increases. We thought it would be a good opportunity [to switch], even though there were costs involved to investigate before deciding to put natural gas into service.”
Ozinga did its homework and ordered 16 CNG-fueled mixer trucks in January 2011. “At that time,” DeBoer says, “natural gas power was not something that the vehicle manufacturers had completely gotten their hands around. There were long lead times for the engines, for the fuel systems. Everything had to be forecast and planned out well in advance. So, it took until October of that year for us to take delivery, and it was December before the complete complement of vehicles were in place and operational.
“And it worked,” he continues. “We were very satisfied. The engines performed in our vocational marketplace. Because of our weight classification, we were able to utilize that smaller Cummins [8.9-liter] engine, which typically some of the over-the-road fleets couldn’t utilize.”
Ozinga mixers only carry 68,000 pounds, DeBoer says, so “that engine fit very well into the torque and horsepower curve we need. And it provides a weight savings over larger, heavier diesel engines. Plus there’s no DPF and no exhaust filters to maintain — there’s simply a three-way catalytic converter that requires no maintenance.”
Ozinga today is running just over 120 CNG ready-mix trucks, both front- and rear-discharge units. The fleet has also been greening its support vehicles, which now include about 35 natural-gas bifuel pickups, vans and service trucks.
However, the transition hasn’t been just about engines. “We needed fuel,” DeBoer notes. “At the same time we ordered the trucks, we started investigating fueling systems to come up with a good method that made sense for us.
“We decided to build a CNG fueling station on our own premises that had both time-fill and fast-fill equipment,” he continues. “Since then, we’ve added five more dual-capability fueling stations on our properties.” Making the CNG switch even more economical, the Ozinga stations offer fast-fill CNG to other fleets and the general public.
Four years since Ozinga cast its lot with CNG, that decision still distinguishes the fleet as an equipment innovator in the ready-mix market.
“There was a lot of skepticism [within our industry] when our plans were made,” DeBoer points out. “It was a huge change from what everyone was accustomed to. In our own local competitive arena, there really hasn’t been anyone else that’s gone to CNG yet. But from other areas of the country we’ve probably had 15 or 20 ready-mix concrete suppliers come visit our site. Several of them have since made the jump to CNG as well.”
DeBoer is convinced Ozinga made the right move with its innovative transition to CNG right from the start. What’s more, he expects the fleet will keep right on reaping the green.
“Right now, CNG is still a savings over diesel,” he says. “Diesel is close to $3 a gallon, but natural gas hasn’t changed, so we’re still realizing a benefit and will continue to do so. Price stability is predicted, too — the natural gas and petroleum indexes aren’t running together at all. In addition, natural gas is a commodity sourced locally. And they forecast there’s a 200-year supply, even if every vehicle in the country was running on it today. Those numbers are huge.”
John Elliott and Load One: The accidental expediter
John Elliott didn’t plan to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps and get into trucking. And when he started his own trucking company, it wasn’t his plan to become a major expedited carrier. But keeping his mind open to new opportunities and new technologies has brought him success in both.
Like many second- and third-generation truckers, Elliott grew up sweeping out trailers and helping in the shop. But he struck out on his own, went to college and got a degree in aviation management. Two years into his aviation career, his past came calling and he got an offer he couldn’t refuse to get back into trucking.
“It’s just in your blood,” he says.
(The company his grandfather A.J. Pellegrino founded, Transportation Services Inc., is still going strong, carrying freight between Mexico, Canada and the U.S.)
After working in trucking management, Elliott became a small fleet owner leased on to another carrier. Then he added broker to his job description. Pretty soon he decided to combine his fleet and his brokerage business and create his own truckload carrier. That was 12 years ago.
Today Elliott says Load One, based in Taylor, Mich., is one of the top five expedited carriers in the country, and the largest that’s privately held.
But he started out in truckload, not expedited.
“I would love to tell you it was an epiphany, but it was an accidental thing,” he says. A longtime dispatcher, one of his first employees, came back from a stint working at an expedited carrier and convinced him to sign on a hardworking expediter with a van and a straight truck.
Elliott was skeptical, but soon found there was a lot of need in the market for a quality expedite company. His location in the Detroit area, where the automotive industry drives much of the demand for expedited freight, made the expansion a natural.
Handling expedited freight started as a way to offer more one-stop shopping to loyal truckload customers. Along the way Load One added flatbeds, curtainsides, brokerage and air charter.
“Those things really paid off during the economic downturn,” Elliott explains, “because we saw a lot of shippers and suppliers that went from maybe four people in their transportation department to one. They didn’t have time to call 10 different carriers to get something done. So we evolved to more of a solutions company.”
The main focus today, however, is expedited, which makes up about 65% of Load One’s business.
It’s a sector that’s gone through a lot of change, he notes, with a number of mergers and acquisitions, such as Panther being purchased by ABF.
“We’re a little bit of a holdout in the fact that we’re still privately held,” he says. “On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a lot of fragmentation in the small-vehicle market. Those vehicles are not always regulated when you get down to the van market, so a lot of those carriers are not always playing by all the rules. But overall I think it’s still a good industry for quality carriers, and I think the quality carriers have continued to do well.”
Elliott’s willingness to change his plans and try new things has helped him succeed in that changing landscape.
“I think business plans are great, it’s good to have strategies,” he says. “But the way the world has changed so much, sometimes a five-month plan is better than a five-year plan. I think staying nimble or open to opportunities is a good way to go.”
That extends to testing new technologies, as well. “Good or bad, we tend to be little more of a ‘bleeding-edge’ company,” he acknowledges. “My staff cringes when they hear the word ‘beta.’”
Load One was one of the first carriers with Omnitracs to test and roll out in-cab scanning, he says, adopting it “when most people weren’t even considering it.” It tested in-cab navigation for ALK; “we’ve had turn-by-turn in our cabs for years.”
Being an early adopter has its pros and cons, Elliott says. “It can be a competitive advantage, but it also can be a headache when you’re working through those bumps.”
Even though Load One is a major expedite carrier today, that wasn’t always the case, and Elliott said his company needed to find ways to differentiate itself from the competition.
“We found technology was one of the things if we embraced hard, we could use that to compete with much larger carriers.”
One of the technologies Load One recently implemented, starting in 2012, is a retention data analysis service from a company called Stay Metrics. The company collects data using surveys of current drivers as well as exit interviews, then “looks at that data with the eye of a third party,” as Elliott explains it.
Technology focused on driver retention was important because finding qualified drivers is even harder in the expedite industry than it is in truckload, with a much smaller pool of owner-operators to draw from.
So instead of going head-to-head with the competition in a sign-on bonus war, Elliott decided to focus Load One’s money and efforts on retention over recruiting.
One of the programs Load One implemented with Stay Metrics is allowing drivers to rate staff they interact with, such as dispatchers and maintenance staff, so management can address problems that could drive good owner-operators away.
Elliott recalls a survey of the maintenance staff showing that the mechanic rated highest as far as technical ability also scored the lowest in follow-up. It was fairly simple to make that tech aware of the problem and teach him to follow up with the owner-operators.
“The results have been great for us,” Elliott says, as drivers see that not only does the company care enough to ask their opinions, but also that those opinions are changing things. It’s just part of a corporate culture where drivers are treated as part of the team, and Elliott says he’s fairly confident that Load One has the best retention rate of any major expedite company.
“If you try to do the right thing by your fleet, that gives big returns.”
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.’”
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.”
Braxton Vick and Southeastern Freight Lines: From punchcards to prognostics
When Braxton Vick got out of college in 1974 and went to work at Carolina Freight, the use of computers in the trucking industry was in its infancy. In many ways, Vick helped raise that infant to the indispensible and complex part of trucking it is today.
Vick’s career has centered around the concept of using real-time information to make fleets more efficient and serve customers better. It began at Carolina Freight, where he was hired as an industrial engineer to improve processes and increase efficiencies. He quickly realized there were many systems that could be automated, and he began designing applications to automate billing, accounts-receivable and equipment control.
From there, he moved on to lead the industry in areas such as electronic data interchange, bar-coding, electronic logs and more.
“It was being in the right place at the right time to jump on that bandwagon and ride it,” he says. “You cannot run a trucking company today without it.”
Vick will be retiring this year as senior vice president of corporate planning and development from Southeastern Freight Lines, the privately owned less-than-truckload company based in South Carolina that lured him away from competitor Carolina Freight.
Vick’s career has been built around the concept that “moving freight is not enough.” To be successful in a society driven by data and used to constant updates, trucking companies must provide information customers need when they need it.
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, working with the American Trucking Associations’ Transportation Data Coordinating Committee, Vick helped bring EDI to the trucking industry, developing standards that would link shippers, carriers and receivers. EDI slashed ordering and billing costs and remains the cornerstone of customer-to-fleet communication in the LTL sector.
During this same time, Vick also spearheaded work that led to a bar-coding format that would become the standard tool for tracking shipments.
In the early 1980s, soon after the first personal computer, Vick designed one of the first talking computers. “Sally” could provide rate quotes, copies of receipts and tell a customer a shipment’s status over the phone.
When the Internet became a personal and business communications tool, Vick applied it directly to Southeastern’s applications, making it one of the first fleets to allow customers to trace and enter bills of lading.
Vick was also one of the earliest in the industry to realize that computers weren’t just for the office, but also could be used on the truck.
In the early ‘80s, he started looking at on-board equipment, starting out with digital radio for local communications. By 1994 when he arrived at Southeastern Freight Lines, onboard systems had evolved into satellite tracking and communications.
“We have kept improving that process, adding more capabilities to it,” he says. “Today we are able to not only transmit pickup and delivery info in real time to the vehicle, we also can provide, for example, a pickup to a customer that the driver doesn’t know, providing navigation to get the truck to the customer.”
In 2010, Southeastern became the first LTL fleet to use onboard systems to estimate the time of delivery for a shipment within a one-hour window. Vick says this is especially helpful today as e-commerce means more deliveries are going to homes and small businesses that need a time frame for deliveries.
With all this onboard capability, Vick spearheaded the development of electronic driver logs and driver vehicle inspection reports, one of the first to implement this in the LTL industry. The move cut out some 18,000 pieces of paper a day in the network. These technologies are becoming more common today, but when Southeastern implemented them, Vick explains, “we had to build the majority of the stuff, because it simply didn’t exist.”
By building all these systems that integrate with each other, he says, “you just keep compounding the benefits to your customer while you’re reducing your overall cost and gaining more and more reliability in being able to perform excellent service for your customers.”
In 2014, Southeastern revamped its onboard technology for the fifth time in its history, again led by Braxton, and he’s turned his focus to telematics and diagnostics.
“We’re working with PeopleNet to transmit to us a lot of telematics data, so we are working to improve mpg, and we are taking advantage of all the onboard diagnostics so we can predict failures before they happen.”
How does Vick stay on top of the rapidly changing pace of technology? He laughs. “The best you can… it is a challenge! By the time you install something in the truck, within six months there’s something else out that’s bigger and better and cheaper.” So Vick focuses on developing a partnership with the supplier, making sure the manufacturer is headed in the same direction as the fleet, looking five to seven years out on the technology.
As fast as the pace of technology is progressing, Vick says it’s sometimes frustrating to not be able to get things implemented faster. “I’m a driver,” he says. “I’m someone that pushes forward and tries to get things done quick and efficiently. A lot of what I do is four, five and six years out before it’s fully in place and working the way I’m satisfied with it. I’d like bringing a vision to reality faster.”
What kind of technology will we see in the future? There’s a lot of talk about driverless trucks, but Vick says while the technology is well on its way, “there are a lot of legal and legislative hurdles.”
One thing he thinks does have promise is artificial intelligence. “There are some AI call systems out there today,” he says. “It’s like the old automated voice response, except you don’t have to hit any keys.
You’d be hard-pressed to find many fleet executives who know as much about the workings of all the different parts of a large company like Southeastern as Vick does. “Anything that a computer touches, I’ve been involved in,” he says. And these days, that’s everything.