New Equipment Fuels FTS Growth PREMIUM trucks attract premium drivers, and good drivers are invaluable to a refrigerated carrier, says Rob Stephens, chief operating officer of Followthru Transportation Services Inc (FTS), in Guntersville, Alabama.
Started in February 1999 as a logistics company with only one truck, FTS now runs dedicated and for-hire fleets using 33 tractors and 38 refrigerated trailers. FTS continues providing logistics and truck brokerage services.
FTS runs late model Peterbilt Model 379s and Utility 2000R refrigerated trailers cooled by Thermo King SB-III Smart Reefers. Trailers are equipped with Road Warrior TTL temperature loggers to provide separate temperature monitoring systems in addition to the reefer unit controllers.
"A premium truck with extra driver-friendly features costs more than a truck with standard equipment," Stephens says. "Premium trucks sometimes also consume more fuel, but experienced drivers are much more valuable than the additional fuel cost. They know how important on-time delivery is to FTS and our customers. And they have more foresight to anticipate problems than inexperienced drivers. Another added value of premium trucks is a higher resale value."
Experienced drivers played a key role in the fast growth of FTS over the past two years, Stephens adds. They keep customers satisfied with good service and keep FTS management happy by saving on maintenance and repair costs. Savings are realized through driver observation and timely reporting of potential problems such as rapid tire wear, he says.
FTS keeps driver turnover low - only about 20% annually - by offering competitive wages and benefits, Stephens says. "We pay strictly by the mile, not by percentage of freight rates," he says. "Freight rates can vary greatly, especially with produce, for example, and our experience is that widely varying rates causes driver discontent. We pay for both loaded and empty miles on the premise that it is the company's responsibility to minimize deadhead. We don't penalize drivers for empty miles."
Driver Benefits Of FTS' 40 drivers, eight work in teams. The rest drive solo. "We use teams for long hauls and loads that must be delivered quickly," Stephens says. "Our lanes run from the Southeast to the Northwest. We run all the way to Florida, typically stopping at Orlando, but if the pay is good we'll go to Miami. Another lane is from North Carolina to Texas. Our farthest point in the Northwest is Kent, Washington."
Drivers log 13,000 to 14,000 miles per month, on average. An experienced solo driver logging 14,000 miles earns $4,760 per month, or about $57,000 annually. FTS also offers benefits, including health and dental insurance. The company covers 60% of the weekly premiums, with drivers paying the remaining 40%. The drivers' weekly portion amounts to about $25.
In addition to good pay and benefits, FTS offers one of the most popular working environments for drivers: Peterbilt Model 379 tractors with owner-operator specifications, Stephens says. The 379 conventional features Pete's Unibilt cab-sleeper design and a 63-inch raised-roof sleeper.
Unibilt Design The Unibilt system joins cab and sleeper into a single structural unit, designed to provide superior ride while increasing interior space. Peterbilt's dual air suspension for the sleeper damps out vibration and cab motion, controlling body roll and other lateral forces.
"Everyone in the industry is coming to the realization that to get good drivers, you have to have the trucks they want," Stephens says. "If you drive for a living, you want to have a good truck. It's your office and your home on the road."
The cab is designed for driver safety and comfort. It has a steel-reinforced roof, a driver-side door reinforced with a crash panel, and a collapsible steering wheel. It has an ergonomically designed dash placing all controls within easy reach of the driver.
The FTS fleet has two versions of the Peterbilt Model 379 - extended-hood versions with 126-inch BBC and others with 119-inch BBC. Twenty-seven FTS tractors have extended hoods and are used for nondedicated runs. The remaining five are used for dedicated runs.
The tractors are powered by 12.7-liter, Series 60 Detroit Diesel 430/500-hp engines with optimized idle. They have Eaton Fuller 13-speed overdrive transmissions and Eaton DS404 tandem drive axles with a 3.55:1 final drive ratio.
Driver Accommodation "We try to accommodate drivers' choices for lanes when assigning runs," Stephens says. "Some drivers like to run back and forth between Alabama and Texas. Others prefer going to the Northwest."
FTS built up its business hauling for poultry processors and carpet manufacturers based in the Guntersville area. "Our largest customer is a carpet manufacturer in Dalton, Georgia, 60 miles east of Guntersville, across the Alabama-Georgia state line," Stephens says. "We also haul poultry for two customers to locations in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee."
Poultry-hauling is FTS' dedicated business, involving frequent communication between dispatch and drivers, he adds. Managing these runs requires communicating with drivers two or three times a day, compared to communicating two or three times a week with drivers on nondedicated longhaul runs.
"Drivers on regional dedicated runs use cell phones to talk to dispatch," he says. "For nondedicated long hauls, we use a text messaging system from Motorola."
FTS drivers can send and receive e-mail over the Motorola PageWriter wireless two-way pager. It fits in a pouch on their belts. Equipped with a keyboard and message screen, PageWriter uses Motorola's Memos operating platform.
Communication between drivers and dispatch is essential in providing good customer service, Stephens says. Customers demand much more of refrigerated carriers today than just a few years ago regarding on-time service and delivered quality, he says.
"Our food processor customers have HACCP programs in place, and they must document safety practices in the handling of their products," he says. "They hold us accountable for temperature control during distribution." HACCP stands for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. The government requires food processors to set up HACCP plans for their plants.
To satisfy this greater demand for quality and to document load protection, FTS equips new trailers with a temperature monitoring system separate from the Thermo King SB-III Smart Reefer controller. Most FTS refrigerated trailers are 53 footers from Utility, though the carrier runs some 48 footers.
All trailers are being equipped with Road Warrior TTL temperature loggers from Measurement Dynamics, Warrington, Pennsylvania. "The Road Warrior provides insurance for us and verification of load temperature for our customers," Stephens says. "Now 22 of our 38 trailers have these units. Eventually, we will install them on all trailers."
FTS installs the Road Warrior on the trailer nose just below the refrigeration unit. They are battery-operated, measure 8" by 7.5" by 4" and weigh 8.6 lb. They have keypads to set control parameters.
Four Temperature Probes Wired to the Road Warrior unit are four temperature probes installed strategically in the trailer. FTS records trailer temperature every two hours. The units can store about a month and a half of data before resetting themselves. Though previous data is written over every few months, a battery keeps active data intact for up to five years, says Jack Kelly, product manager for Measurement Dynamics.
FTS has three temperature probes installed at 10-ft intervals back from the front wall of the trailer - at 10 ft, 20 ft, and 30 ft. The fourth probe is placed in the evaporator air-return inlet.
"We don't use the Road Warriors' alarm function because we haul both refrigerated and frozen loads," says Stephens. "We simply use the units to record temperature and to print out reports for our customers."
The Road Warrior has a printer to produce a document on the spot, showing temperature data received from the four probes during a run. The driver can activate the printer and provide an instant printout.
"We installed the Road Warriors at the request of some customers who demanded a stand-alone data logger to verify temperature," Stephens says. "Road Warrior is easy for drivers to use, and it shows our data in the event a receiver has a problem with a load."
Late-Model Trailers To ensure cargo temperature control, FTS runs only late-model insulated trailers equipped with heavy-duty aluminum floors and scuffplates. They are 2000 and 2001 model Utility 2000R trailers purchased from Utility of Dallas, Texas. "We recently purchased more 2000R Utility trailers," says Stephens' father, Bob Stephens, FTS president and CEO. "Next year we plan to get the new 3000-series models."
The trailers have aluminum exterior skin and seamless inside FRP liners bonded with polyurethane insulation. Insulation in the sidewalls is two inches, three inches in the roof and floor, and four inches in front wall. The aluminum duct floors are designed for high-volume air flow around the load. Sidewalls are protected from handling equipment damage by 10-inch-high scuffplates.
FTS opted for Utility's stainless steel rear swing doors with a diamond pattern design for safer night driving. The symmetrical prismatic design disperses light to prevent night blinding while serving as a giant reflector for approaching motorists.
With premium tractors and trailers, FTS has the equipment to keep drivers and customers happy, Bob Stephens says.