Pride in the ride

Michael J. Homiak, founder and owner of Homiak Transport, has a number of strongly held philosophies that have enabled him to expand his less-than-truckload temperature-controlled trucking operation into a successful business that continues to grow. Based in Vineland, New Jersey, the fleet runs regular trips as far north as Maine, as far south as South Carolina, and as far west as Kentucky.

It picks up product from food manufacturers and cold storage facilities and delivers primarily to foodservice distributors, backhauling a variety of food products. Starting with one used stake body truck hauling produce from New Jersey to New York City, the fleet is now up to 12 tractors and 16 refrigerated trailers, all top-of-the-line.

“I'm a nuts-and-bolts guy,” says Homiak. “Ever since I was a kid I've loved to tinker with cars and trucks. When it comes to trucks and equipment, I've always been one to get the latest and greatest. I now operate some of the best equipment money can buy.”

This is one of the things that has helped him find and retain drivers. He specs his equipment for appearance, operating efficiency, and driver comfort.

“One of my most basic beliefs is that perception is reality,” he says. “I want my trucks to present a quality image, so I spec them to be eye-catching, and I keep them clean.” Every truck and trailer is washed at least every two weeks. The interiors are cleaned monthly. Any body damaged is repaired as soon as possible.

“It's all about perception,” he explains. “If my trucks are running around dirty, with dents, scratches, and pieces falling off, what does that say about the kind of carrier I am? It gives the perception that if we can't take care of our trucks, how are we going to take care of someone's freight?”

In addition to fleet appearance, safety is top-of-mind at Homiak Transport. “I tell my drivers: ‘You're the captain of your ship. I depend on you and your good judgment. If the weather is bad and you feel it is too dangerous to drive, park the truck — no questions asked.'

“I have never put anything on any truck that is worth getting somebody hurt over.”

Unlike many carriers, Homiak also tells his drivers: “If you can't make an effective delivery without damaging a customer's building or grounds, or my equipment — and I'm more concerned about that, then we're not delivering.”

He says he is amazed that more companies don't take this attitude. “We're operating $200,000-plus pieces of equipment with the latest technology and some places expect you to deliver to facilities from the Stone Age that are impossible to safely get into. I won't. If more carriers took this stance we wouldn't have to deal with a lot of the things we do.”

Rested drivers

Even though he outfits his trucks with numerous creature comforts and amenities, Homiak doesn't want his drivers to sleep in their trucks unless absolutely necessary. He puts his drivers up in motels so they can relax comfortably and be well rested and refreshed. This is another selling point for finding and retaining drivers.

“I've done this kind of work and I know what it is to put in a long day, making 10 to 12 stops,” he explains. “At the end of the day I wouldn't want to be in that truck.

“I want my drivers in a place where they aren't vibrating because of things running or smelling diesel fuel. Besides, I've never seen anything good happen at any truck stop.

“My drivers represent my company,” continues Homiak. “When they get up in the morning, I expect them to be clean shaven and washed. Most of my customers have never met me. They see my drivers and my trucks. That's their perception of Homiak Transport, and I want my drivers and trucks putting forward a very positive perception.”

Uniform fleet

Homiak Transport is made up of 12 Kenworth sleeper tractors and 16 refrigerated trailers — all spec'd alike. One Freightliner tandem-axle daycab is used for local deliveries. All tractors have Holland 3500 low-lube fifthwheels.

The fleet had been all Ford, Homiak remarks, “because that was my first truck and it served me very well.” Always on the lookout for the most modern and advanced equipment, he switched to Kenworth trucks in 1991, starting with its T600 models. He switched to the Kenworth T2000 for its more spacious interior.

Presently, new additions to the fleet are Kenworth's T660 72-inch AeroCab sleeper tractors. He says these are more maneuverable for the places his rigs have to get in and out of.

The tractors have Caterpillar C-13 ACERT diesel engines rated at 470 horsepower and complete Roadranger drivelines consisting of Eaton UltraShift transmissions, 12,000-pound capacity Dana Spicer front axles, Spicer DSP41 44,000-pound rears, and Spicer Life SPL-250 driveshafts.

“The engines are governed at 70 mph on the pedal and 72 mph on cruise,” says Homiak. “And I can tell you unequivocally, road speed has everything to do with fuel mileage.”

A long-time user of Cat engines, Homiak deals with Rasome Engine, a Caterpillar dealer in nearby Bensalem, Pennsylvania. “My account manager is Bryan Branson, and he's great,” he says. “When I have a problem, I call Bryan, and it goes away.”

The 2002 Freightliner Columbia has a 430-horsepower C12 diesel, Eaton AutoShift transmission, Meritor FF981 front axle, and Meritor RT-40-145 rears. It was purchased to deliver into metropolitan areas that are too tight for its sleeper tractors.

Automated transmissions

All new trucks are spec'd with Eaton UltraShift 10-speed automated transmissions, replacing Eaton 10-speed AutoShifts. The UltraShift is a fully automated heavy-duty transmission that requires no clutch pedal. The AutoShift is an automated transmission where the clutch is used only for starting and stopping. Once the vehicle is in motion, the AutoShift operates like an automatic transmission.

With an eye always on new technology, Homiak got his first Eaton automated transmission in 1999. At the time all his tractors had Meritor 10-speed manual transmissions.

“One of the reasons I wanted to try automated transmissions was because computer controlled shifts are done at ideal engine speed that can boost efficiency and performance,” Homiak explains. “No matter how experienced the driver, at end of a day, his performance isn't going to be what it was at the beginning of his day. Automated transmissions shift the same every time. They don't get tired.

“At some point a driver is going to shock the driveline or bust some teeth in the transmission. Automated transmissions removed a lot of my maintenance issues. I couldn't buy them fast enough.”

Automatic shifting simplifies vehicle operation “and our drivers love them,” adds Homiak Transport's director of operations Ray Cronk. “The transmissions enable us to access a wider pool of drivers and improve driver retention.”

Another reason for going with automated transmissions, he says, is that they allow drivers to focus on driving rather than shifting. “With roadways more congested, especially in the metropolitan areas where we regularly deliver, we want our drivers keeping their eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel.”

That also is the reason Homiak specs the optional Kenworth SmartWheel. It puts the most frequently used controls — engine retarder, cruise control, headlights, marker light flashers, and more — right under the driver's fingertips.

He also has a satellite radio in all tractors so drivers can get local traffic and weather reports, and to keep driver's attention on the road and not on constantly changing channels.

Whenever he makes a change, be it to equipment or company policies, Homiak informs his drivers, telling them the reason for the change and the expected benefits and advantages. This coincides with another of his steadfast philosophies: “I'm not in the trucking business, I'm in the communications, information, and people business. And I operate accordingly.”

Along with keeping his drivers well informed of goings-on at the company, he maintains clear and constant communications with his customers. This is one of the things that has helped him retain both drivers and customers.

Trailer length

Homiak Transport has 16 single-temperature refrigerated trailers that are compartmentalized with bulkheads. All have barn (swing) doors.

The fleet had been all Great Dane, but these are being replaced with Utility trailers. The majority of the trailers are 48 and 53 feet long, 102 inches wide, with Hendrickson air-ride suspensions. There are a couple of 38-footers for local work.

All trailers have Thermo King refrigeration units. The fleet is upgrading to the SB 310 units for its greater capacity, according to Homiak. The units have Thermo King's second generation smart reefer control system with a controller made for easier use, he says. There are two additional temperature control sensors for more accurate temperature to improve load protection.

All trucks and trailers are spec'd with components for reduced maintenance and added durability. “If it's made by man it's going to break, and you're going to need it fixed,” he says. “We try to do this as little as possible.”

Tire choices

Homiak uses Ride-On Tire Protection Sealant in all tires. It is a gel designed to help balance tires and prevent flats by sealing small punctures and slow leaks that cause tires to deflate over time.

“This helps with our tire pressure maintenance program, and it has been a means of reducing vehicle downtime,” he says. “Plus, properly inflated tires that are balanced run cooler and last longer.”

All of Homiak Transport's tractors have been converted to Michelin X-One wide-base tires. New trailers are being ordered with Michelin X-Ones, and current trailers are being retrofitted.

“We tried our first Michelin X-Ones in 2004,” says Cronk. “We did it for weight savings, fuel mileage, and price. They cost considerably less compared to dual tires. We also found we got a better ride quality.”

“With wide-base tires, there is less strain on all suspension componentry when maneuvering into tight spaces,” adds Homiak, “which we do a lot.”

All trucks and trailers have Alcoa Dura-Bright aluminum wheels to help keep the fleet looking sharp. The wheels resist corrosion, are faster and easier clean, and don't need polishing, he says.

The graphics on the fleet are a 3M high-resolution, reflective material designed by Harbor Graphics. It was done for long-lasting appearance and safety reasons.

All vehicle maintenance is done onsite in a two-bay shop by one fulltime mechanic. Trucks and trailers are kept for 60 months — about 400,000 to 450,000 miles — before being sold.

“We get calls year round for our equipment because we have a solid reputation for maintaining our vehicles,” says Cronk. “We can basically have used equipment sold as soon as we get the new equipment to replace it.”

Driver retention

For the most part, Homiak Transport runs regular routes, servicing the same areas every week, with its drivers getting home for the weekend. “This is about as normal a truck driving job as you can get,” Homiak says, “which also helps us find and retain drivers, although we have very little turnover.”

Having been a driver and still making occasional deliveries, Homiak has a very good sense for what it takes for a driver to succeed at his company, “and that's what we want.” With classroom experience as a teacher, he is able to effectively school drivers to become productive and happy employees. “This is always a challenge,” he says, “because I've never met a trucker who doesn't know it all.”

As part of the hiring process, a driver candidate is given an extensive road test, usually by Homiak. It includes a lot of maneuvering. “Anyone can drive straight ahead,” he observes. “For the places we deliver to, a driver has to be skilled at backing and handling tight spots.

“A new driver will ride with somebody for whatever time it takes for him to be ready to go out on his own. And every individual is different.”

Because of routine operations, the company issues drivers cell phones, rather than use an onboard communications system. However, about a year ago, all tractors were outfitted with Networks Cars' Networkfleet GPS Tracking System, an Internet-based tracking system that provides a window in the activities of each vehicle.

“It allows us to see where our vehicles are at any time and view the historical track of a particular vehicle,” Cronk says. “It also has remote vehicle diagnostics that interfaces with the truck's engine computer and transmission ECU (electronic control unit) to provide real-time diagnostics information.

“The system sends an e-mail alert if one of our trucks reports a diagnostic trouble code. That way we can prepare in advance to repair the problem upon the truck's return, saving us downtime.”

All tractors have the Caterpillar Messenger. It is a driver information dashboard display that provides real time, visual feedback on engine performance, and fuel economy. “This helps our drivers keep track of their fuel usage,” says Cronk. “We don't want them buying fuel on the road because it's expensive. Less than five percent of our fuel purchases are made on the highway. The rest is from our bulk fuel tank.”

Homiak says he is looking at adding DriveCams to his trucks. DriveCam is an exception-based video event recorder mounted in the cab that captures sights and sounds inside and outside the vehicle. Unexpected forces such as hard braking, swerving, or a collision causes the recorder to save the time immediately before and after the triggered event.

Analyzing these saved events can be used for driver coaching to improve behavior and mitigate driver risk, he says, as well as for use in reconstructing any accidents.

Company history

Homiak hadn't planned on forming a trucking company. He intended a career as a history teacher. “But when I finished school and began teaching, I found it wasn't what I expected,” recalls the native of Vineland, New Jersey. “In 1972 I went to work for Armellini Express Lines in Vineland, working for a year and half in operations, working all kinds of crazy hours. I figured if I was going to do this, I'd do it for myself.”

He and his wife, Tanya, established Homiak Transport when he had an opportunity to buy a used six-wheel Ford LN800 truck with a wooden stake side body and tailgate and haul produce from the Vineland Produce Auction to New York City every night, Sunday through Thursday. “I was paid by the package, so the more packages the more revenue.”

The Ford truck had a 391 four-barrel gasoline engine and 5-speed direct transmission. “I learned to drive that truck like there was an egg between my foot and the accelerator, or it went from 5 miles per gallon to 2 mpg real quick,” Homiak says. “I ran at 55 mph because if you got above that with that four-barrel, my money went out the exhaust.”

Homiak got a reputation as reliable, and produce brokers would call him on Fridays looking for someone to haul for them to Boston, Syracuse, and Pittsburgh. “I was driving six days a week and doing my maintenance on Sunday.”

It was six years later when “I realized I wasn't going to make it with one truck, so I decided to expand. I bought a new Ford LN8000 with a 3208 Caterpillar diesel, Morgan refrigerated body, and a Thermo King refrigeration unit. I put a refrigerated body on the old truck and hired a driver for it.”

With the refrigerated bodies, Homiak contacted nearby food manufacturers, letting them know he was available to help them with deliveries. Eventually, he made an arrangement with one to handle their trucking operation. “That's how I got into the business of trucking frozen food, and that's when my business took off.” Occasionally, produce is still hauled by Homiak Transport.

Company outlook

Homiak sees continued growth for his business. “I've got great employees and the company has an excellent reputation. My son-in-law (Cronk) and one son, Brad, have come on board with new energy, ideas, and ways of doing things.”

“We've been working to enlarge our footprint,” Cronk says. “We're exploring new opportunities with customers to increase our lanes further west.”

Brad has the fleet's flagship rig, which is used to not only promote the company but as a tool to recruit drivers. “If it can be chromed, Brad has it chromed on his truck. He's always getting compliments from drivers about his truck, and that leads him to discuss employment opportunities at Homiak Transport.”

‘Automated' driving

I'm a gearjammer from way back. The more gears the better. So when Homiak Transport's owner Michael Homiak offered me a chance to drive his flagship rig with an automated Eaton 10-speed UltraShift transmission, I wasn't particularly thrilled.

The UltraShift is a no-clutch pedal automated transmission that provides automatic shifting. Homiak told me computers make the shifts at the ideal engine speeds for improved efficiency and performance. Because there is no clutch pedal needed at vehicle launch, he said, there is reduced drivetrain abuse. (As if I don't know when to shift.)

Since he was my host, and I wanted to be a good guest, I accepted the invitation.

A fully automated transmission takes some practice. I kept stepping on the non-existent clutch and reaching for the stick each time I felt a shift was required, only to have the transmission do it automatically by itself.

As time went on, I finally figured out I could rest my left foot and not grab for gears. I was watching the road more with both hands wheels-on. That's especially nice when sharing the road with New Jersey drivers.

To get started with the UltraShift, you simply release the brakes and push on the accelerator. All normal shifting, up and down, is automatic. The transmission disengages just before the truck rolls to a stop.

A feature I enjoyed was the UltraShift's manual mode. This enables a driver to control his shifts according to the operating conditions or his preference.

All in all, the UltraShift made driving easier and it allowed me to concentrate more on driving.

Even so, I still like manuals. Guess I'm just old school.

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