LTL seafood builds West Coast carrier

After almost 37 years of experience, one of the best fishing holes for seafood wholesalers, retailers, and restaurants remains about 80 miles inland from the Pacific Coast along Interstate 5 in Chehalis, Washington. That's where Sorenson Transport set up shop in April 1970 to provide reliable LTL service for seafood vendors in six western states.

Actually, the choice for seafood users is to fly in product from the fishing grounds of the world or to rely on Sorenson Transport to provide delivery at least twice a week. As the company has grown to a fleet of 102 tractors and 134 refrigerated trailers, seafood has dropped as a percentage of total volume to just below 50% in contrast to Sorenson Transport's early years when seafood dominated. While no longer the primary thrust of the operation, seafood remains the largest single segment of Sorenson's business.

Concentration on LTL service makes Sorenson Transport a profitable business. In the past full calendar year, the company generated more than $21 million in gross revenue and posted an operating ratio of 82.1 “We're not growing quite as fast as we used to, but we're still getting bigger,” says Darrell Sorenson, president. “Until recently, we were doubling the size of the company every five years.”

High-value service

Handling small shipments for demanding receivers places Sorenson Transport in a niche that few truckload carriers want to enter. “Anybody with a refrigerated trailer can haul a full load of frozen seafood,” he says. “In contrast, we provide a high-value service that earns the higher rates that LTL freight commands.”

Sorenson Transport's service area follows the Interstate 5 corridor from the Canadian border to Mexico with spurs running east to Spokane, Washington; Boise, Idaho; Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada; Salt Lake City; and Phoenix. In general, equipment used for the off-line routes returns to Chehalis with freight for the next cycle of LTL deliveries. However, the company does run some frozen potato products from Idaho and eastern Washington directly into California. Traffic into California follows population density with roughly one third of deliveries in the Bay Area and other northern parts of the state with most of the remainder funneled into the area around Los Angeles and south. California's central valley receives service as well with trucks making dedicated routes for receivers from Sacramento to Bakersfield.

As the product mix has changed to include beef and pork as well as assorted frozen foods, shipment size has increased. Where once a trailer bound for the Los Angeles basin might be loaded with as many as 30 or more stops, loads now average eight to 10 stops. Mondays and Thursdays are the heavy delivery days in Southern California, with each Sorenson Transport driver making an average of one trip weekly.

Load sorting in Chehalis

Although the number of outbound stops has dropped, Sorenson Transport still moves almost all southbound freight across its dock in Chehalis. Shipments are too small and origins are too diverse to try to pick them up in delivery order, especially when frozen product is thrown into the mix with fresh product. “If we tried to use a load-to-ride system, we'd be a week running back and forth between Oregon and Washington picking up shipments,” Sorenson says. “We just bring everything to our dock, sort it, and consolidate it into loads.”

Company headquarters is located in Chehalis for a reason. It is halfway between Portland and Seattle, which places it in the middle of the pick-up area for southbound freight. That pick-up area stretches from Blaine, Washington, on the Canadian border south to Eugene, Oregon. Freight picked up by 6 pm can make it back to Chehalis the same evening and be consolidated into a southbound load leaving the following morning.

Southbound seafood comes from a wide array of origins with most of the frozen product coming out of cold storage warehouses in Seattle and Tacoma. A lot of that arrives by air or by container brought down from Alaska by barge. It's not uncommon for one of the warehouses to tender a number of shipments, each for a different receiver in California. Fresh seafood comes from a number of packers along the coast from the mouth of the Columbia River and north to the Puget Sound.

Changing product mix

Fresh product is an ever-changing market, both in terms of seasonality and categories. “Remember, we are talking about a business that is dependent on catching wild creatures,” Sorenson says. “A few years ago, we hauled a lot of fresh thresher shark that was caught just offshore from Astoria, Oregon. Then, suddenly, that traffic declined. The animals moved or over-fishing took its toll; we don't know, but the shark haul dropped. The same thing seemed to happen with scallops. We had a booming traffic in fresh scallops for about two years, and then it dropped off. These days, we handle a lot of crab and shrimp.”

Orders for frozen product are much more stable with just a few seasonal changes. In general, frozen seafood orders rise in winter, while late summer and fall mark the peak of the fresh seafood season.

The way seafood is packed has changed almost as much as the product mix. At one time, fresh seafood was packed in ice with a 100-lb carton of fish weighing in at 180 lb counting the ice. Sorenson is still an advocate for packing seafood in ice, because it helps protect shipments from freezing as well as keeping the product moist and cold. “With all that ice in the boxes, we probably could not have frozen a load if we tried,” he says.

However, shippers and receivers have changed to dry-packed seafood with only oysters routinely packed in ice. Apparently, they didn't like dealing with all the melt water associated with ice packs, Sorenson says. Ice is not hassle-free for Sorenson Transport either. “It made us get into the habit of flushing trailers with cold water after every load, a practice we still follow,” he says. “We still think that is necessary for sanitation and equipment durability. The fluids in seafood combined with melting ice are extremely corrosive to trailer floors.”

Increased northbound LTL

Earning a reputation for moving LTL southbound has generated northbound traffic as well. Earlier in company history, Sorenson Transport relied on full loads of produce to reposition equipment for the LTL routes. Now produce has disappeared from the product mix. Instead, the company moves back north with LTL shipments about 60% of the time. The northbound pattern looks much the same as southbound — just reversed. The LTL shipments go into Chehalis for consolidation with other freight. Equipment dedicated to local receivers makes the delivery before picking up shipments for southbound moves.

With such specialized freight, loads on Sorenson Transport tend to be repetitious, sometimes with the same driver making the same drops week after week. To reduce time and mileage between stops, the company divides the Los Angeles area into delivery quadrants. Drivers make the entire trip from Chehalis before starting delivery. Essentially the same procedure is used for the off-line points. Receivers in Phoenix require three to four trailers a week, always on Monday. Those in Las Vegas get the choice of two deliveries weekly. Most of the Las Vegas stops are at wholesale warehouses. “However, we do make direct delivery to a couple of the big casinos,” Sorenson says. “Those places are so big, they might as well be considered warehouses.”

The company puts almost as much freight into Reno as to Las Vegas. Equipment on the Reno route reloads with return freight in Sacramento and the central valley.

Southbound scheduling is based on 24 hours to the Bay Area or 36 hours to Los Angeles. Nearly all trips rely on solo drivers. The actual driving time to Southern California is 20 hours plus required breaks. Once at destination, delivery takes all day. For the return load, Sorenson Transport plans on half a day to pick up freight for a truckload or a full day if northbound LTL is involved.

Peterbilt standard fleet

With two exceptions, the Sorenson Transport fleet is built around Peterbilt Model 379 highway tractors. The two exceptions are Kenworth W900 longnose conventionals. All tractors are powered by Caterpillar C15 engines rated at 475 horsepower. The fleet is split between tractors with 13-speed transmissions and those with Roadranger Super 10s. “We had quite a few Super 10s previously and then listened to a truck dealer who convinced us that 13-speeds had better resale value,” Sorenson says. “We will probably lean more toward the Super 10 in the future, because drivers like them and know how to operate them.”

Within a few months, Sorenson Transport will phase out the last of its 48-ft trailers, leaving a whole fleet of 53/102 refrigerated vans from Utility Trailer. Refrigeration units are Thermo King SB-310 high capacity systems, because the company hauls a lot of ice cream in its freight mix. The SB-310 units even allow the company to haul ice cream in the trailer nose, put a bulkhead in the back, and fill the trailer with fresh product. “We don't do that often, but we have the capacity for that application when needed,” Sorenson says.

A careful look at the fleet would reveal at least two major differences from most highway equipment. First, tractors and trailer don't have the conventional number of tires, running on only 10 instead of the traditional 18. Running on wide base single tires improves fleet fuel mileage by almost a full half-mile per gallon — between 6.0 and 6.2 mpg with a road speed of 64 miles per hour.

Sorenson says drivers love the single tires, because they provide a good ride and are easier to chain-up than a pair of duals. The company enjoys a weight advantage with single tires as well. A tractor/trailer combination with single tires weighs 1,200 lb less than a combination with 18 wheels and tires. That translates to a legal payload of 46,000 lb with singles compared to 45,000 lb with duals. “That's important,” Sorenson says, “because no one has ever accused us of running light weight tractors.”

In fact, tractors are heavier than they have to be, because they carry 440 gallons of fuel in four 110-gallon tanks. “We buy fuel in bulk and keep it in two 20,000-gallon tanks at our terminal,” Sorenson says. “Our bulk price can be 20- to 30-cents per gallon lower than truckstop pricing on any given day. The big fuel load on our tractors gives us the capability of making a complete trip to Los Angeles and back without buying fuel.”

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