Frio Express Delivers Produce to US Border

Ramon Medrano Jr, president of Frio Express in Aguascalientes, Mexico, started his career 20 years ago as a produce buyer. Today he runs a thriving refrigerated truck line specializing in cross-border produce hauls to the United States and processed food moving back to Mexico.

In 1980, Medrano purchased and arranged for the shipment of frozen strawberries from central Mexico to the US. He became so frustrated with the lack of efficient transportation between the US and Mexico that he bought two tractors and refrigerated trailers to ensure good condition on arrival.

"Service was lousy," Medrano recalls. "I didn't know when the product would get to destination or if it was kept at the right temperature. The service was so poor that I sought the advice of my father, who was in the bus transport business. He had the idea of starting a trucking company and helped me buy good trucks and get good drivers."

With his employer's approval, Medrano purchased two 1980 Kenworth W900s and two refrigerated trailers from Roccsa, a Mexican trailer manufacturer. Eventually, Medrano quit his job with the produce company to devote full time to his fledgling truck line.

Frio Express was founded as a family business. Medrano's father, Ramon Sr, is chairman of the board. Two brothers are vice-presidents, Gerardo, chief financial officer, and Javier, chief operating officer.

Frio Express has grown steadily for the past 20 years. It now operates 99 tractors and 85 refrigerated trailers. It has fewer trailers than tractors because of equipment-sharing with US carriers delivering in Mexico.

The primary partner for cross-border trade is Prime Inc, of Springfield, Missouri. The two carriers share equipment for delivery of Mexican produce to the US, and meat and processed food in Mexico. Frio Express pulls Prime trailers into Mexico and returns with produce. They have terminals in Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, the busiest truck crossing on the US-Mexico border. Both carriers are teaming up with United States Cold Storage in Laredo to launch an LTL logistics program supplying stores in Mexico with just-in-time inventory from the US.

Nuevo Laredo Terminal Though Frio Express is based in Aguascalientes, it uses the Nuevo Laredo terminal extensively. It handles 20 to 30 trucks daily. Besides parking, it has a lunch room and sleeping quarters for drivers.

Outbound from Aguascalientes, Frio Express primarily picks up produce from northern and central Mexico. Loads are delivered overnight to Laredo and exchanged for southbound cargo.

"Our main routes are from Laredo to Mexico City and Guadalajara," Medrano says. "We also deliver to Monterrey. Our trade area is mainly within an area called the golden triangle, formed by the three major industrial cities in Mexico. After delivery, we look for outbound produce from Bajio, the vegetable-producing region in central Mexico."

Frio Express also picks up strawberries from Zamora, plus other produce, including asparagus, mushrooms, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as fruit from the Gulf and Pacific Coasts. Most loads are fresh, though Frio Express also handles frozen foods, such as prepackaged guacamole.

On average, Frio Express tractors travel 120,000 miles per year, many of them on rough roads, Medrano says. Most of the 107 drivers work solo. Frio Express assigns drivers to a tractor permanently.

To ensure reliable service and to keep drivers happy, it operates newer tractors that are replaced on a four-year cycle. Frio Express mainly runs Freightliner FLD 120 conventionals. The newest are Columbias with 70-in raised-roof sleepers. The company also recently purchased two Volvo VN 610s.

"Good drivers are scarce, and keeping them is not as easy as it used to be," he says. "We communicate constantly with drivers. We want to hear what they have to say. They are our warriors on the road. We listen to any suggestions they have to make us more efficient."

Driver safety and comfort are primary considerations in tractor specifications. The 20 new Freightliner Columbia tractors are driver-friendly, aerodynamically styled, low-maintenance vehicles, Medrano says. Front suspensions combine leaf-and-a-half springs and tuned shock absorbers. Air suspension is specified for the drive axles and for cab mounts.

Frio Express buys Bostrom Hi-Back seats with four-chamber air suspension and lumbar and articulating upper-back supports. They buy additional cab and sleeper insulation.

The tractors are powered by Series 60 Detroit Diesel engines rated at 430 hp driving through the Eaton Fuller RTLO-14610B-T2 transmissions. Engine controls limit maximum highway speed to 63 mph. All tractors are equipped with Qualcomm satellite-tracking and communication.

Trailers are Utility 2000Rs equipped with Thermo King SB-III Smart Reefer Whisper units. "We are currently purchasing 53-ft trailers to add to our fleet of 48-footers," Medrano says.

Frio Express has an open-air shop at its 237,000-sq-ft headquarters in Aguascalientes. The shop operates seven days a week. Mechanics do oil changes at 8,000-mile intervals, and they perform a full range of other repairs and preventive maintenance.

Communications Company Regular fleet maintenance and driver-friendly tractors are key factors behind Frio Express" growth. Just as important to the company's success is good communications, Medrano says. "We're a communications company," he says. "We seek information from our shippers, receivers, and warehouse partners to make our operation more efficient and effective."

An important communications tool for Frio Express is the Internet. Customers use the company web site (www.frioexpress.com) to check the progress of their freight. "We give shippers and receivers a customer code that they can use to access the Qualcomm system to see what's happening with their loads," Medrano says. "Qualcomm helps us communicate with customers as well as drivers."

Another growth factor, of course, is NAFTA, allowing Mexico to sell more to the United States and have more access to US and Canadian products, as a result of the reduction of duties. "NAFTA really means a lot more business for us," he says.

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