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Tribe Transportation refrigerated tractortrailer rig on roadway

Tribe Transportation counters driver shortage with premium fleet, custom features

Driver turnover remains one of the most critical issues facing the trucking industry. Carriers that find a way to contain the churn have a distinct competitive advantage.

With a turnover percentage in the 30s, Tribe Transportation is one of the standouts in the refrigerated transport sector. The Gainesville, Georgia-based fleet has developed a broad driver-retention strategy that includes a variety of driving options, a family atmosphere, late model tractors packed with comfort features, and cutting edge technology.

“Drivers are our best resource, and they have been critical to this company’s success,” says Carla Joy Cain, president of Tribe Transportation. “Besides compensating our drivers above the industry standard for pay, bonuses, and employee benefits, we provide them with the most technologically advanced equipment in the industry, Fortune 100 customers to serve, and an expansive geographical network to increase their miles driven and take-home pay.”

Matt Handte, executive vice-president of Tribe Transportation, adds: “Of the drivers we hired when we started this operation back in 2010, 98% are still with us. It can cost us $2,000 to recruit, train, and orient a new driver. When we have an empty seat, it can cost $5,000 per week in lost revenue. That is why driver retention is so critical.”

Cain and Handte emphasize that the stable driving force is the best recruiting tool that Tribe Transportation has. “They tell other drivers out on the road that this is a great company to work for,” Handte says. “Even when drivers leave, 93% come back.”

Plenty of work

Currently, there is plenty of work for all of the Tribe Transportation drivers. “We just had our best first quarter; and March was our best month,” Handte says. “We believe this year will continue strong, and some of the best years in transportation should be ahead of us.”

Handte adds that rates are trending up, and he believes transport supply and shipper demand are near parity. Two key regulations that could help thin the refrigerated fleet ranks are the electronic driver log rule and the Safety Food Transportation rules.

“We’re ready for both rules,” he says. “We have been running PeopleNet eLogs for the past two years, and we believe we are well ahead of the game for Safe Food Transportation. We started three years ago on the Safe Food Transportation rule. We use Blue Beacon to wash out trailers after every load, and we include the wash ticket with the bill of lading. Our trailers are secured by the Enforcer System from Transport Security Inc, and TracKing telematics on the refrigeration units records temperature data.”

The husband-and-wife team started Tribe Transportation as a 3PL in 2005. Cain, a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, incorporated the company as a Native American woman-owned business.

“We’re pretty unique in the transportation industry,” Handte says. “We only know of one other Native American trucking company in the United States, and it is relatively small. We have a culture based on our Native American heritage. We employ quite a number of minority drivers and personnel as part of our Tribe family as we embrace our Native American. We appeal to a lot of folks.

““Many of the country’s top companies want a percentage of their business going to minority businesses and it’s allowed us to capture some of that work with leading companies, such as General Mills, Mars, Wrigley, PepsiCo, and Unilever.”

Five trucks

The fleet operation was launched in 2010 later with five tractors and 10 trailers. By the end of that first year, Tribe Transportation was running 30 tractors. Today, the fleet runs 440 tractors and 740 refrigerated trailers.

“Scale is important in this business,” Handte says. “We have been on a big growth push for the past six years, and we are approaching the level we believe we need to be. We bought 200 more tractors last year. We’re getting closer to the 1,000-truck fleet size we have targeted.”

Tribe Transportation’s niche in the trucking industry is specializing in deep-frozen (minus 20 degrees) and temperature-controlled transportation with single and expedited driver team service. The company offers LTL and truckload services throughout the lower 48 states and into Canada.

A diverse range of service is provided through five divisions, all of them managed out of the Gainesville headquarters terminal.

Third-party logistics services fall under the Tribe Transportation banner, while company-owned tractors and trailers are under Tribe Express. Cherokee National (the owner-operator division launched about a year and a half ago) currently runs 55 tractors.

Tribe Life Science specializes in serving shippers of high-value healthcare and pharmaceutical products with company team drivers. Tribe Intermodal co-brands with Union Pacific Railroad through UP Streamline to manage a broad range of containerized shipments.

Irregular routes

On the truckload side, Tribe Transportation operates primarily as an irregular-route carrier. Drivers, working singly or as teams, spend two to three weeks at a stretch on the road. Average trip length is 960 miles.

The driver force is spread across the United States, with Georgia and Florida accounting for the largest concentration. Tribe Transportation hires truck drivers as young as 22 but the typical age runs from the late 30s to late 40s.

The carrier offers its drivers a certain amount of choice in the driving they do. “We offer different modes of driving,” says Handte. “We can cater to a driver who wants to pull maximum miles or, if a driver wants to be home more often, we can make that a priority. One size doesn’t fit all. What’s more, our health insurance plan is first rate, and we pay salary plus incentives to our team drivers—many of which are husband and wife, or father-son teams. This guarantees pay and is a bit of a departure from traditional trucking pay structures.”

To help new drivers and retain those already on the team, Tribe Transportation has shortened its trade cycle to 330,000 to 380,000 miles. “We have a shorter trade cycle than others in the industry, so we’re always offering drivers newer equipment to drive—which they like,” Handte says. “And it provides our customers with very reliable equipment, and for us, everything is under warranty. We have a saying that quality attracts drivers, and reliability attracts customers. It’s very true in our case.”

Kenworth tractors

One of the biggest moves the carrier made—and one that had a real impact on driver retention—was the decision to standardize on Kenworth T680 tractors. Tribe Transportation’s T680 76-inch sleepers feature PACCAR MX-13 engines, rated at 455 horsepower. The newest T680s were specified with the Eaton Fuller Advantage series automated transmissions and the new PACCAR drive tandem. Cab features include Kenworth’s SmartWheel steering wheel and Kenworth Driver Performance Center.

Kenworth TruckTech+ remote diagnostics play a big role in the fleet operation. TruckTech+ processes fault codes and provides vital information on vehicle status so fleet managers can make informed decisions on maintenance issues.

On-board safety technology includes Bendix Wingman Advanced—which brings together adaptive cruise control with braking features, collision mitigation technology, and stability control—and Lytx Drivecam video cameras.

In the sleeper, the carrier specified comfortable Kenworth proprietary seats, pocket coil mattress on the liftable lower bunk, and foam mattress on the upper bunk. The T680 sleepers include a drawer-style refrigerator, sturdy rotating table, Kenworth’s TV installation package, and room for a microwave.

EpicVue satellite television has been installed in all of the company tractors. “Based on the way drivers reacted to our decision on the EpicVue installation and subscription service, we believe the system will lower our turnover rate even further,” Handte says.

Reefer trailers

Tribe Transportation also standardized on Great Dane reefer trailers with Thermo King refrigeration. “We believe Great Dane manufactures one of the best reefer trailers available in the market today,” Handte says.

Mounted on the nose of each 53-ft trailer is a Thermo King S-700 refrigeration unit with TracKing telematics. The refrigeration unit can be set as low as -30°F. Solar panels keep the refrigeration unit battery charged.

Trailer insulation includes three and a half inches in the nose and walls and two and a half inches in the floor and roof. Swing doors have three inches of insulation. Great Dane’s Microbond interior liner is tough and prevents contamination. A split air chute provides even airflow throughout the trailer.

Outside, trailers are outfitted with ATDynamics TrailerTails that automatically deploy at 35 miles per hour. Side skirts are from TransTex.

Trailers are specified with Hendrickson’s Vantraax axle/air suspension system and tiremaax Pro tire inflation. Running gear includes aluminum wheels and Continental tires.

“When we started this business, we realized that our drivers and our fleet would do most of the public relations work for our company,” Cain says. “Accordingly, we invested heavily in having the most professional drivers operating the most cutting edge equipment in the industry. That is our brand promise and the foundation of our success.”  ♦

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