Blue Bell Expands to Four Plants for 13 States

Blue Bell, the little creamery in Brenham, keeps getting bigger, so big in fact that it now operates four production locations and sells its premium ice cream in parts of 13 states. That's quite a change for a company that still promotes itself as a small town business selling a locally produced product. "We eat all we can and sell the rest," one of the company's favorite marketing slogans says.

Founded in 1907 as the Brenham Creamery Company, Blue Bell began operation making butter. In 1911, ice cream for local consumption began production. Ice cream distribution was limited to the small town of Brenham in the Brazos River country of south central Texas about 70 miles west of Houston. As transportation improved, distribution expanded. The company name was changed to Blue Bell Creameries, in honor of a Texas wildflower, in 1930. A reproduction of one of the first route trucks, a 1932 Ford, sits outside company headquarters.

Although demand for its product has always been strong, Blue Bell has pursued a conservative growth strategy. It waited until 1972 to build its second production facility. The original plant in central Brenham still produces frozen snacks. The second plant is on the eastern edge of town. As late as 1992, Brenham was the sole source for Blue Bell ice cream.

Third Plant in Oklahoma In 1993, the company built a third plant in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, and in 1996 it purchased and began renovation of an ice cream plant in Sylacauga, Alabama, southeast of Birmingham. With four plants, Blue Bell now has sales in 13 states, operating from 35 distribution branches. This is up from only 12 branches as recently as 1986. These branches range from Atlanta to Kansas City to Big Springs, Texas. They range in size from 41 trucks at one of the two distribution branches in Houston to 10 trucks in Kansas City and nine trucks in Harlingen, Texas.

The new plants give Blue Bell the capacity to serve a trade area from eastern New Mexico to the Florida panhandle, and from Kansas City south through Missouri to Memphis, and across Mississippi and Alabama to Atlanta. It sells throughout Texas except for El Paso in the far western corner.

In its core distribution area, which includes Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio in Texas, Blue Bell is the dominant ice cream producer. Market share hovers around 60 percent and has been as high as 72 percent. The company is just as successful in other markets. For instance, in a little over two years distribution in Memphis, Tennessee, Blue Bell is the number one ice cream brand with a market share of 20 percent. Distribution started in Atlanta in 1998 where Blue Bell now is the third best-selling ice cream brand using three distribution branches with 15 trucks each.

Educational Advertising Entering new markets is aided by the job Blue Bell does in its home market. Retailers have heard of Blue Bell, and major store chains already have experience with the product. They know it will sell and that Blue Bell will expend the effort necessary for promotion. Once Blue Bell gets a foothold in the ice cream case, the company embarks on a campaign of advertising to educate consumers about Blue Bell and its traditions. Selling the Blue Bell story outside Texas takes more time, but the image of the little creamery in Brenham remains the key to promoting ice cream.

With the addition of new plants, the route truck fleet has grown to match, more than doubling to 770, up from 305 in 1986. With four plants to serve, the tractor fleet has expanded to 73, up from 35 in 1986. Blue Bell has four times more trailers, 124 now, up from 32 before the new plants went on line. The company also operates 337 administrative vehicles in a fleet that includes automobiles, vans, and light trucks.

The company clings stubbornly to direct store delivery as the best way to reach consumers. Warehouse sales are not part of the business plan. Blue Bell moves the majority of its ice cream from production plants to distribution branches with its own transport fleet. Route trucks make almost daily calls on stores to ensure proper stocking and rotation of ice cream. At big customers, someone from Blue Bell is in the stores an average of twice a day. Route drivers stock retail cases in the morning. Later in the day, a territory manager will check the cases and move additional ice cream from the stock room if needed. The fleet runs five days a week with Wednesday and Sunday off.

Fully Stocked Branches Blue Bell makes sure that branches remain fully stocked. The larger branches get at least one load a day. Branches such as Houston with 41 route trucks may require two or more loads a day. Even the smallest branches are supplied every other day. Most branches serve stores within 100 miles. The exception is in West Texas where the sparse population is more scattered.

The average trip for transport trailers is 300 miles. This is possible because the four plants can fill most needs of the surrounding branches. The Brenham plants make all Blue Bell's volume items plus all the specialty products. Broken Arrow and Sylacauga produce the volume items as well. When trades between plants are necessary, loads are relayed instead of making single trips. For instance, a load from Broken Arrow to Brenham will be dropped in Dallas for relay so that both transport drivers can get home without a layover. Blue Bell runs an average of 200 trailer loads a week. The 73 tractors are divided among the plants. Trailers move around the system as necessary.

Straight Trucks with Plates Just as Blue Bell believes that direct store delivery is the best way to sell ice cream, the company believes that straight trucks with holdover plate refrigeration in heavily insulated bodies are the best way to deliver ice cream. Many of those bodies are 15 to 20 years old. Blue Bell thinks that truck bodies should remain in service for 20 to 25 years. The company just sold two bodies that entered service in 1964. They had been on six chassis each.

The only way to tell the difference between a new body and one that has recently been refurbished in the Blue Bell body shop is to look at the registration plate. Truck body length is another indication of age. The standard Blue Bell route truck was 14 ft long prior to 1985 when 18 ft was adopted as the company standard. The company still has a number of 14-ft bodies in daily service.

In the past 20 years, Blue Bell has purchased truck bodies from only three vendors. The company has 300 bodies built by either Hackney Bros or Murphy Manufacturing. Since those bodies were purchased, Hackney has been acquired by Kidron Inc, and Murphy was sold to Supreme Corporation. With a fleet count of 470 bodies in service, the company standard is now purchased from Johnson Truck Bodies.

Heavy Insulation Route trucks are built with five inches of foam in the walls and six inches in the floor and ceiling. This heavy insulation serves two purposes, says Wayne Winkelmann, Blue Bell's fleet maintenance manager. It ensures proper temperature maintenance in the heat of a Texas summer, and it holds up better through the long life required of the bodies. Thinly insulated walls tend to deteriorate faster than thick ones, he says.

All route trucks are equipped with eutectic plate refrigeration. Truck bodies are equipped with six -18 degrees F Dole holdover plates. Older 14-ft trucks use a single compressor to freeze the plates. The newer 18-ft bodies use two compressors with three plates-two on the ceiling and one on the nose-plumbed to each compressor. Like the truck bodies, refrigeration is designed for low maintenance and long, trouble-free life. For that reason, Blue Bell uses only manual defrost. Frost is swept off the plates daily. Every five weeks, trucks are unloaded completely and plates are defrosted with hot water to ensure total removal of any ice buildup. The defrost schedule is accelerated during hot, humid summers on the Gulf Coast.

Compared to the truck bodies, Blue Bell replaces truck chassis with relative frequency. The company evaluates route trucks three times a year-January, June, and September, picking out the 20 worst chassis for replacement each time. Replacement decisions are made based on chassis condition and operating costs. In general, the trucks are eight years old and have logged 200,000 miles. While eight years or 200,000 miles is the average, trucks actually selected for replacement may range from six to 11 years in age with mileage from 150,000 to 325,000, Winkelmann says. "We try to trade chassis before they require a major overhaul," he says. "Their location determines the mileage. A truck based in Houston may only run 10,000 miles a year, while one from our West Texas branch in Big Springs may log 50,000 miles. The fleet average is about 28,000 miles a year."

Bids from Dealers Blue Bell asks a group of International and Chevrolet dealers to bid on the replacement trucks. The purchasing decision is made strictly on price. Several dealers may be involved on some deals, while a single dealer gets the whole order at other times. In the fleet of 770 route trucks, 482 are from International and 288 are from Chevrolet.

The selling dealer arranges for the new chassis to be delivered to Brenham. At the same time, Blue Bell transfers the used trucks to Brenham to remove the bodies. The stripped chassis are then shipped to the dealer.

All trucks are placed in service in Brenham. Blue Bell has two buildings dedicated to reconditioning and remounting refrigerated truck bodies. The system turns out three new chassis with reconditioned bodies every two weeks. "We can rebuild a body in a week, but it usually takes longer. We work on about 10 trucks at a time, and a body and new chassis are usually in Brenham for about two months before it is returned to its assigned branch," Winkelmann says.

In-House Body Remanufacturing For all practical purposes, truck bodies are completely remanufactured during the remount process. They are given a thorough inspection before any repairs are started. Worn or damaged exterior body panels are repaired or replaced. Doors get new gaskets, and door frames are repaired or replaced as necessary. Worn hinges and locking hardware are replaced. Insulation is refoamed as necessary following body panel repair. Old decals are stripped off; the body is sanded, prepared, and repainted. New decals are installed before the chassis and body are returned to service. Upon return to the assigned branch, a reconditioned body looks identical to the newest equipment in the fleet.

"We stress high quality appearance," Winkelmann says, "because this fleet delivers directly to our customers. The trucks must be a reflection of a great product."

Blue Bell distribution branches can withstand loss of a vehicle for the two months taken for reconditioning, because the company maintains an extensive fleet of spares. Most of the large branches have at least three of the 100 spares spread throughout the company. A small branch without an assigned spare can always borrow one from a nearby branch, Winkelmann says.

International and Chevrolet Blue Bell will replace about 70 trucks in 2000. New International chassis will be powered by International 444E engines rated at 230 horsepower. Chevrolet chassis use Caterpillar 3126 engines with equivalent hp. The company still has some Caterpillar 3208 engines in service and a lot of Cat 3116 engines. Since 1985, the Blue Bell route truck fleet has been equipped with Allison automatic transmissions. New chassis use the MD-3060P six-speed automatic. Not only are the trucks easier to drive, Winkelmann says, but the expense of frequent clutch replacement experienced in stop-and-go route service will quickly pay for the extra cost of an automatic transmission.

Tractors are evaluated for replacement once a year after the summer rush is over. That gives dealers a chance to get new tractors delivered by the following spring, Winkelmann says. Tractors selected for replacement are usually at least seven years old and have logged 700,000 miles or more. Vehicles from the 1993 model year will be considered for trade in 2000. Blue Bell has begun buying conventional tractors to replace its International COEs, which pleases drivers greatly.

Trailers are replaced as needed. As long as the unit functions and the box holds temperature, Blue Bell keeps trailers. In fact, the company has been known to remove an older narrow format unit, cut a larger hole in the trailer nose, remount a new unit, and put the trailer back in service. Trailers and refrigeration units are purchased on separate bids.

Like the truck bodies, trailers are heavily insulated with four inches of foam in the sidewalls and five inches in the floor and ceiling. The fleet contains a mix of vans from Great Dane and Utility. The newest purchases are 53-ft refrigerated trailers from Wabash National.

Until the mid-1980s, Blue Bell purchased trailers from one source and had them finished by another. "When Murphy was building our bodies, we would purchase trailer shells and send them to Murphy for completion," Winkelmann says. "The body builder would foam the insulation and install steel plate flooring. At that time, most trailer builders did not want to install steel floors. When we switched to aluminum flooring, we began buying complete trailers from Great Dane, Utility, or, now, Wabash."

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