Riches in niches

For more than 50 years now, Howell's Motor Freight has been providing temperature-controlled truckload/linehaul, less-than-truckload (LTL), pool distribution, and trucking and warehousing services throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. From its start as a carrier doing LTL cartage and meat deliveries, it has transitioned to specializing in servicing the wholesale and retail food and grocery industry, and its suppliers. Headquartered right off Interstate 81 in Cloverdale, Virginia — a suburb of Roanoke — it also operates several distribution terminals, dedicated and regional operations, and truckload division, along with a logistics division.

The company has grown continually over the years by taking a professional approach to its business, focusing on the fundamentals, hiring top-notch quality people, and developing and providing only the highest quality service to its customers. As a result, it has attracted and maintained a long list of satisfied customers. These include well-known market leaders in the confectionary, meat, refrigerated, and frozen food industries, along with notables in the pharmaceuticals and dry goods markets.

Howell's Motor Freight's fleet is comprised of 257 company-owned trucks, 36 owner operator tractors and 650 trailers. It has six terminals, all but one of which has temperature-controlled warehouse space. They are at the company's headquarters, with 22,000 square-feet of temperature-controlled space; Portsmouth, Virginia, 25,000 square-feet; Raleigh, North Carolina, also 25,000 square-feet; Charlotte, North Carolina, 72,000 square-feet; and in its newest terminal in Atlanta, Georgia, which has 29,000 square-feet of temperature-controlled storage, and 70,000-square feet total storage.

The Charlotte and Atlanta terminals also have dry storage available. Its terminal in Columbia, South Carolina, is a dry-storage-only facility. All terminals accept “drop-in” freight for re-delivery.

The core of Howell's Motor Freight's business had been pooling, cross dock, and dedicated operations. In the early 1990s, the company added a truckload operation as a way to expand its business with its customers. That now accounts for about 50 percent of the company's business.

“Expanding current business is considerably easier and less costly than generating new business, although we continually seek out new customers as well,” company president Harry G Norris says. “Our overall business is up around three percent over last year.”

Basically, pooling is an alternative to less-than-truckload distribution. A customer ships a truckload of freight with multiple orders going to various customers in the area of a terminal. These are unloaded, broken out, and then delivered.

Cross docking is where shipments are delivered to a terminal, sorted, consolidated, and stored until the outbound shipments are complete and ready to ship.

Appointment driven

“One of our advantages is that we are the only temperature-controlled carrier that has terminals and assets in the Southeast,” says Norris. “Another advantage is that we specialize in dealing with the wholesale and retail grocery outlets. We've grown up with the distribution centers in our area so we truly understand how these operations work, and we have long-standing arrangements with many of them.”

About 95 percent of Howell's Motor Freight's deliveries are by appointment. “We're very adept at coordinating appointments, schedules, shipments, and make those deliveries,” he goes on. “That's why a lot of companies see a value in delivering a few stops and then bringing the rest of their deliveries for us to handle.

“Shippers can maximize the cube on their outbound loads and put on any combination of stops and appointments since we're able to split the shipments onto as many different distribution trucks as needed, making the deliveries the next day or on the requested appointment times. Instead of shippers trying to adjust to make appointments work for delivery, they can give us advance notice of the orders.

Norris points out there also are increasing fines placed on shippers for missed appointments or delivery days. “We can help cut this expense through our relationships with the consignees.”

For most carriers, especially those not based in the Southeast, trying to deliver multi-stops to grocery houses and food stores on a linehaul basis can be a “major challenge,” says Bill Sanford, Howell's Motor Freight's vice president of sales and marketing. Uncontrollable variables include delays during customer deliveries, traffic congestion, and hours of service regulations.

“If a truck gets behind and misses an appointment, all the subsequent stops have to be rescheduled, and it's not very likely that they can be reschedule for the same day.

“Three-fourths of the battle in delivering cross dock LTL freight to distribution centers is having a standing appointment to make the delivery, and that's a real advantage Howell's has. Most other companies are fighting to get into a door to get it delivered based on when their trucks may get there.”

“Think of the efficiency these companies gain by shipping their orders to us on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, for us to deliver on Monday and Tuesday,” Norris says.

Typically, Howell's Motor Freight delivers all freight in less than 48 hours from the time it was picked up.

The company isn't in the business of warehousing. Rather, it provides short-term storage, done for pooling and cross dock operations, as part of the company's value-added services. However, its newest terminal in Atlanta has enough storage capacity - dry, cooler, and frozen - that the company is looking into developing a separate, for-profit warehousing operation.

Complementary operations

Each of the company's terminals is responsible for its profitability, as well as the truckload division, which operates from company headquarters. There is co-mingling of the terminal service and truckload business when necessary, to give the company greater flexibility, especially on the truckload side.

“A classic example of this would be where a truckload driver is unable to pick up a scheduled load,” says Sanford. “We send one of our terminal drivers to get that load and have him spot it at the terminal for the TL driver to pick it up later and still make the service. The operations complement one another. Whereas a traditional TL carrier might be based in Kansas and has limited equipment assets and operating ability to do that in our market niche.”

Power People

In addition to services and specialization, Norris attributes the company's success to his attitude that “Howell's Motor Freight is in the people business. We just happen to drive trucks, deliver and store freight, do billing, load scheduling, and all the rest that goes along with transportation.” His focus is on developing his “family,” which is how he refers to his employees.

“Every person has a different style and motivation,” he says. “We make sure we manage that, coaching our family members accordingly. Everybody does different jobs, but our worth as people is equal. And that philosophy has helped us in trying to realize our goals and where we want to go.”

Norris empowers his people to get the job done, which he likens to putting together a giant puzzle without having all the pieces, and not being in control of the game. “I tell my people that none of us gets up in the morning saying: ‘I think I'm going to miss a delivery to a customer and make a shipper mad.’ None of us plan to make mistakes. They just happen, and we need to deal with them as quickly as possible, making sure we satisfy our customers.”

Another company philosophy: “Quality people, quality service, and caring make the difference.”

Planning ahead

All company marketing strategies are coordinated through headquarters, “so we're all on the same page, working toward a common goal,” Sanford says. “Today's war doesn't let you think about tomorrow's battles, so we make the time and effort to look ahead and plan.”

The company has developed a “solid management team with more than 160 years of combined experience,” says Norris. “Plus we have the entrepreneurial spirit that a third generation family brings to the table.”

A couple of years ago, Howell's Motor Freight “planned to capture the niche in our market on LTL refrigerated and frozen business,” he recalls, “in addition to what we are doing on our cross dock operation, the LTL business has been one of our fastest growing areas.”

Drive matters

Howell's Motor Freight is very proud of its drivers and works effectively to keep them. Overall, driver turnover is about 15 to 20 percent, says Timothy Shephard, vice president of safety and risk management. “We have many long-time drivers, some of whom have been with us for more than 25 years.”

How is this achieved? “Naturally, we want experienced drivers with a clean driving record,” Shephard says. “Then we look for someone with a good attitude that has a family. They tend to be more anchored and content and usually do a better, safer job.”

Hiring right in the first place leads to longevity. “Beyond that we do a superior job of training and orientation, because we want to set our drivers up for success.”

All drivers, regardless of years or miles of experience go through the full training and orientation, explains Shephard. “Different companies do things differently, and we want our new drivers, at the end of their training period, to clearly understand what its takes to be successful at Howell's.”

The trucking operation attracts drivers. Truckload tractors are spec'd to appeal to drivers, and drivers get home every week for two days off. On the terminal services side of the business, drivers are home almost every day they work.

Safety emphasis

A strong emphasis is placed on safety with regular training and safety bonuses and awards programs. The company currently has 12 drivers who have accumulated more than one million miles of safe driving with the company.

Another philosophy at Howell's Motor Freight is: “Safety plus service equals profits,” says Norris. “Safety in everything we do is rule number one. That will not be modified or juggled with, because it's way too important to the welfare of our employees and the public.”

He points out that the company “can make more money off safety than we can by hauling freight. Suppose we have one accident that costs $100,000. With an operating ratio of 95 percent, we'd have to make two million dollars of revenue to make $100,000.”

Power Equipment

The company operates three straight trucks, 257 tractors, and 53-foot dry van and refrigerated trailers. The majority of the tractors are Internationals, which have replaced another brand that was being used.

All equipment, purchased through the company headquarters, is assigned, says Price Richardson, the company's vice president of fleet maintenance. “We want our drivers to have pride in ownership. And that's one of the reasons we want them to keep their trucks clean by washing them regularly. It also helps promote a positive company image.”

The TL division uses International 9400i Sky-Rise 72-inch sleeper tractors, mostly 2006 and 2007 pre-emission models, spec'd with an assortment of driver amenities. Power comes from 460-horsepower ISX Cummins diesel engines mated to 10-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.

These 130 trucks operate in 16 states: Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The terminals have International 8600 daycab tractors, purchased new over the past few years. They are outfitted with 435-horsepower ISM Cummins diesels, also backed to 10-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.

Largest terminal

The largest terminal in Charlotte, North Carolina, operates a fleet of 20 Freightliner Business Class 102 tractors, along with a dozen other tractors. The Freightliners have 400-horsepower Mercedes-Benz MBE4000 diesels and 10-speed Eaton Fuller transmissions.

The truckload tractors, upon reaching 400,000 to 500,000 miles, are transferred into the terminal fleet and run for a couple of years before being sold, says Richardson. The length of service for the terminal trucks varies widely, as each terminal logs different annual mileages.

Almost all of the company's 650 trailers are 53-foot multi-temperature trailers with movable bulkheads. Utility Trailer Manufacturing is the preferred provider. Trailers are equipped with air-ride and spring suspensions.

All but 20 of these trailers have Thermo King refrigeration units, which include SB III and Classic models. The 20 trailers have Carrier Transicold Ultra refrigeration units.

Dry van 53-ft trailers from Utility and Stoughton Trailers total 57 units. Ten of these are used in the truckload operation; the rest are in dedicated operations. On average, trailers are used for eight to 10 years before being sold.

Thirty-six owner operators lease their tractors to the company. Mostly all are in the company's truckload division.

“The bulk of these independent contractors have come from the company's lease purchase program,” says Shephard. “The original intent of the program was to retain drivers, and it has done that. It also has helped us recruit some drivers by bringing aboard those who want to become owner operators.”

All of the distribution drivers have Nextel radios. All truckload tractors have Qualcomm OmniTracs two-way satellite-based mobile communications systems. “These have helped increase efficiency and productivity by allowing us to be proactive instead of reactive when problems or situations occur,” Norris says.

Each terminal has a maintenance shop and mechanics. The main shop is in Roanoke, with six fulltime and two part-time mechanics. As with its drivers, Howell's Motor Freight has very low turnover of mechanics.

Long history

The roots for Howell's Motor Freight began in the early 1920s when Harry “Casey” Grubb and his brother, JP, bought a two-bus operation in Portsmouth, Ohio. They grew the business to 60 buses until the two had a falling out in 1928.

Casey then got into the trucking business, forming Grubb Motor Freight in Huntington, West Virginia. Later, along with his wife, Alpha, he formed Keystone Motor Express. Their formula for success in the trucking industry was: “Get a schedule and keep it. The fastest way to lose an account is to ease up on the service.”

Keystone Motor Express grew to three terminals. Alpha and Casey had three daughters, and each daughter's husband ran a terminal. The husband of one of the daughter's was CE Kai Norris, the father of Harry Norris.

Casey died in 1956, and his wife ran the business for another year before selling to Associated Transport. CE Kai Norris then bought Howell's Motor Freight, a small LTL cartage and meat delivery business from Randy Howell.

Harry Norris was seven years old at the time. “I truly did grow up in the trucking business,” he says.

Under CE's leadership, employing the same success formula he learned working for his father-in-law, Howell's Motor Freight grew and broadened into candy and confectionary deliveries. As that industry went through a consolidation, the company expanded into more dedicated and regional operations and then added a truckload division.

Harry Norris was named company president in 1990 when his father became chairman. CE died in 1992.

Future challenges

What does the future hold for Howell's Motor Freight? “There are opportunities in dedicated operations and temperature-controlled transportation,” says Harry Norris. “We've become a member of the Network Distribution Solutions (NDS), an organization of regional carriers networked together to provide a cost efficient single-source for multi-temperature logistics solutions.

“We're working with NDS on distribution of freight out of the Northeast, Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, South, and across the entire country.”

Adds Sanford: “The biggest challenge, long-term, for companies our size is two-fold: finding good people, and developing people who will step into the shoes of the experienced people who are retiring. The trick is figuring out how to pass on that degree of industry knowledge.”

Norris looks forward to continued growth through hard work, dedication, and good people. We're in a niche market that's gone through a lot of transitions. We always endeavor to be flexible enough to capitalize on new market opportunities.”

Howell's Motor Freight at a glance

Location: Cloverdale (Roanoke), VA — headquarters; Portsmouth, VA; Raleigh, NC; Charlotte, NC; Columbia, SC; Atlanta, GA.

Fleet: 257 tractors, 593 temperature-controlled trailers, 57 dry van trailers, 36 owner-operator tractors

Drivers: 250

Truckload deliveries per week: Approximately 400

LTL deliveries per week: Approximately 2,500

Annual miles: 17 million in 2006

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