Beer Hauler Diversifies: Western Distribution Purchases 50 New Reefers

Almost as soon as Prohibition ended, Western Distribution Company in Denver, Colorado, started hauling beer and liquor in 1933. Over the next four decades, it remained a niche distributor. Today, beer and liquor account for only 5% of Western's traffic, but the company still maintains its status as one of Colorado's top beer haulers.

“We still haul a lot of beer — more than eight million cases a year,” says Dino Guadagni, Western's vice-president. “But we've diversified and grown a lot.”

Western diversified gradually. Originally, it handled outbound loads such as beans and meat to complement inbound liquor. Drivers were paid salary, not by the mile. “In the early years, our trucks left Denver empty to pick up liquor in Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri, or wine from California,” Guadagni says. “Then we'd return and do it all over again the next week. We also hauled beer for Coors in Golden, Colorado.”

Diversification began in 1977, when Western formed a separate division, Western Distributing Transportation Corporation. The company has continued to branch out since. It now has a deadhead rate of less than 9% and serves 48 states. Western's growth rate is about 15% a year.

“Our truck line was formed to handle the transportation needs of liquor and beer warehouses,” Guadagni says. “But now 17 companies live under the parent umbrella. Each is an independent profit center with ties to at least one other company division.”

For example, one division, a small truck line, Frontier Produce, was purchased several years ago. Western acquired 36 tractors in that purchase, and added them to its fleet, which now totals 178 tractors and 204 refrigerated trailers. The transportation division handles logistics for the entire company.

Western remains a family business. Guadagni's grandfather, great-uncle, and father led it in its early years. “Liquor sells well during ski season, and beer sells in summer,” he says. “Of course, we also concentrate on produce in summer. During peak season, we run 60 to 75 trucks a week to California. In this seasonal business we try to keep our trailers loaded all the time. However, we'll do anything for our customers, even if that means deadheading trucks.”

To ensure on-time delivery in good condition, Western runs late-model equipment, serviced regularly at its 26-door shop. On average, tractors are about 2.5 years old. The company trades in tractors at five years and trailers at seven years. In five years, tractors log an average of 450,000 miles.

Western's 38 mechanics work two shifts, from 5:30 am to 10:30 pm Monday through Friday and one shift on Saturday. Mechanics handle preventive maintenance and repairs on company equipment along some outside car and truck work.

50 New Trailers

In 2001, Western purchased 50 new Utility 3000R 48-ft refrigerated trailers equipped with Thermo King SB-200 units. Forty trailers were for replacement and 10 were for expansion, Guadagni says.

“The 3000Rs are much lighter than our previous trailers,” he says. “Each weighs 13,800 to 14,000 pounds with a full tank of fuel. That's 600 to 800 pounds lighter than other 48 footers in our fleet. Our customers all want us to haul more weight, and the new trailers help with that.”

Lighter trailers also offset excessive fuel prices by providing additional payload, Guadagni says. “Fuel costs about $1.42 a gallon — higher than our $1.23 base fuel surcharge,” he says. “We're obviously not covering costs as well as we would like with the surcharge. High fuel prices mean less profit. So we look for more fuel-efficient tractors and lightweight trailers for more payload. With lighter equipment, we can fill up whenever we find fuel at lower prices, without being concerned about potential overweight situations.”

The 3000Rs have better thermal efficiency than the trailers they replace, Guadagni says. Production of the 3000R includes a refined foam-in-place insulation process. Trailers also have additional insulators between the rear frame and the wall lining. Front corners are redesigned to increase the amount of foam. Trailers have four inches of insulation in the front wall, two inches in the sidewalls, and three inches in the roof, floor, and rear doors.

All tractors and trailers have air suspension. It is standard equipment on the 3000R. Western specifies Dana Spicer axles and the Hendrickson HKA-180 air suspension and slider system with 49-inch axle spacing. The slider has 96 inches of travel. “We use sliders to adjust axle loading,” Guadagni says. “If the load is too heavy in back, we move the slider back. If it's too heavy in front, we move it forward. Air suspension provides a smoother ride for loads and drivers.”

Trailers are equipped with Alcoa aluminum 24.5 × 8.25 wheels and Michelin XT-1 tires.

Western hauls mostly single-temp loads. The Thermo King SB-200 provides faster pull-down than previous units, Guadagni says, and it is energy-efficient. The unit is equipped with the MP-VI Smart Reefer controller with OptiSet temperature management and an electronic throttling valve.

Equipment is purchased with drivers in mind. “Drivers treat our operation as if it were their own business, and we treat them as part of our family” Guadagni says. “When we buy a tractor or trailer, we ask what will help them do their job better and that's what we buy. We also allow them to choose from many options for their tractors, such as the type of LED lights, two or four air horns in new square style, or old round ones.”

They want Kenworth W900 and Peterbilt 379 long-nose conventional tractors. Drivers are assigned tractors and don't slip-seat, he says. Eight new tractors were added to the fleet in 2001. Kenworths are equipped with AeroCab Aerodyne 72-inch sleepers. “We buy the cream-of-the-crop and sell them after 450,000 miles,” he says. “Tractors are built with all the features for driver comfort and safety.”

Tractors are equipped with Caterpillar C-15 engines rated at 550 horsepower at 2,100 rpm, Fuller RTLO-18918B 18-speed overdrive transmissions, and Dana Spicer DS404 tandem drive axles with a 3.36:1 final drive ratio.

Western equips all tractors with HighwayMaster Series 5000 cellular communications for driver-dispatch communication. “We use this system quite a lot, especially for produce pick-ups,” Guadagni says. “Shippers may call us and ask that we re-route tractor-trailers to get another pick-up or change pick-ups.”

HighwayMaster is integrated with TMW Systems' PowerSuite, providing sophisticated mapping technology. Equipment can be tracked to street-level locations, he says, and directed to pick-up sites by cell phone.

“We use TMW Systems software for loading, tracking, and billing shipments, and it integrates satellite tracking data from HighwayMaster,” Guadagni says.

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