Southwest Truck Service uses technology and innovation to master specialized business niche
Feb 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By David A Kolman
Based in Watsonville, California, Southwest Truck Service is a privately owned business that has become one of California's dominant truckload refrigerated carriers. It has accomplished this by concentrating on value-added services, with a commitment to dependability and reliability.
Specializing in overnight service of produce movement, the carrier primarily serves California and Arizona with an all-refrigerated fleet. It also serves Nevada, Utah, and Texas for certain customers, plus handles all just-in-time highly perishable product shipments for all the major grocery chains in California.
Watsonville, which covers about seven square miles, is in the heart of the Monterey Bay area, some 95 miles south of San Francisco. It's a good place for a refrigerated carrier, as the area produces a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“Basically, our traffic lanes are between Northern and Southern California,” says Robert Spear, company president and owner. “The major distribution points in California are in the San Francisco Bay area and the LA (Los Angeles) Basin, and all of the major grocer chains have distribution centers in those areas.”
Seventy-five percent of Southwest Truck Service's business is hauling fresh produce. The remainder is moving products that are chilled, frozen, or dry, in either direction. All loads are palletized so the drivers “bump the dock” rather than having to unload. Rigs average about 100,000 miles each year.
By design, the fleet is composed of 30% company owned, and 70% belonging to independent carriers.
“Having independent carriers gives us the flexibility to move the size of our fleet up and down, depending on demand, especially during the ups and downs of our seasonal business times,” Spear explains.
When it comes to spec'ing equipment, Southwest Truck Service is on the leading edge of technology. “We're always looking for ways to better manage and operate,” says Spear, whose father John started the company 45 years ago driving one truck. “We were the first company in California to use 45-foot trailers, then 48-footers, then 53-footers.”
The carrier is continually testing new products and components. It works with both Utility Trailer Manufacturing and Carrier Transicold to help them with their real-world testing. “We have long-standing relationships with both of these companies,” notes Spear.
By way of example, Spear, who at age 12 started working for his father by helping on the dock, references helping Carrier Transicold incorporate SmartAir technology into its product line. The technology was developed to manage the ripening of bananas during transportation.
Southwest Truck Service operates only late model equipment. Tractors are traded after four years of use; trailers after five years. All maintenance and minor service work is done onsite at the company's two-bay shop.
It always has been an all-Paccar vehicle fleet, switching between Kenworth and Peterbilt tractors. Most recently, Kenworth T800 86-inch Studio AeroCab sleeper tractors have been the company standard. However, the fleet is transitioning to the more aerodynamic Kenworth T660 tractor, also with an 86-inch Studio AeroCab.
“The T660s get better fuel economy and have greater maneuverability,” says Spear. “The cabs are larger and the interior is more driver friendly.”
Several Kenworth T800 daycab tractors in the fleet are used for short runs back and forth to produce processing companies.
All trucks are spec'd alike, with 450-hp Cummins diesel engines backed to Eaton Fuller 10-speed manual transmissions. Drivers are assigned to trucks “because they take better care of them, and there is more accountability,” Spear says.
With its latest equipment purchases, the company is going “green.” The newest batch of tractors, 2009 model T660s, have “Certified Clean Idle” Cummins ISX engines and Kenworth's Clean Power no-idle system.
A Certified Clean Idle engine is one that emits 30 grams or less of NOx (nitrogen oxides) per idling hour.
A California Air Resources Board (CARB) regulation that went into effect in January 1, 2008, limits idling of diesel trucks to five minutes in California. Trucks are exempt from this requirement if their engines are Certified Clean Idle.
Such trucks receive a Certified Clean Idle sticker that is placed on the vehicle's hood. “These are pretty valuable items,” says Spear. “We've already had one stolen from one of our tractors.”
The Kenworth Clean Power system uses a dedicated, advanced deep-cycle battery-powered climate control system with the capability to provide engine-off heating and cooling, explains Spear. It also provides 120-volt power for “hotel loads,” such as televisions, microwaves, and computers, for up to 10 hours.
Southwest Truck Service's most recent trailer purchases have been 53-foot air-ride refrigerated Utility Trailer 3000R models with a 16,000-pound capacity rated floor, built in thermal breaks, and Barrier Doors.
The trailers have Carrier Transicold X2 Series 2100A refrigeration units. These were chosen, says Spear, because they have lower noise levels, an aerodynamic design, features for enhanced temperature control, and multi-application flexibility.
The reefers are compliant with CARB's Transport Refrigeration Unit (TRU) Airborne Toxic Control Measure (ATCM). The regulation requires that TRU engines meet in-use performance standards.
“Meeting CARB's requirements for refrigeration units hasn't been a problem for us,” he points out. “Our oldest refrigerated trailers are model year 2004.”
The carrier is a member of the EPA's SmartWay Transport Partnership program. SmartWay is a voluntary partnership between the government and freight shippers, carriers, and logistics companies for improving fuel efficiency and reducing environmental impacts from freight transport.
“Being at the forefront of technology and using innovation is a theme that runs throughout our operation,” says company vice-president Noe LeGaspi. “We're always looking at how we can incorporate value-added services as a competitive advantage to serve our customers.”
For example, he says the carrier was the first in California to become involved in bringing fresh produce out of the growing fields to processing facilities under refrigeration. “We put an innovation program together that increased utilization of our trucks and passed the savings onto our customers.”
Southwest Truck Service was an early adopter of mobile phones for communications with drivers, routing software, and trailer tracking. It has settled on Nextel phones, dispatch and operations systems from McLeod Software, and SkyBitz Trailer Tracking to help with fleet utilization and efficiency management.
Whether it's a new piece of equipment or a new software business suite, “we always test it before deciding to make a purchase,” LeGaspi points out.
The carrier devotes a lot of attention to safety and safe food handling practices. This is covered comprehensively in driver and independent carrier orientation, “and safety is reinforced daily by our dispatchers,” says LeGaspi.
“We have an excellent safety record and rating, and we monitor safety very closely.”
Adds Spear: “We operate our company with the philosophy that safety is utmost, and rules and regulations are to be observed at all time. We never ask, nor do we expect, any of our drivers or independent carriers to violate the law.”
“Besides, our drivers feel less stressed and they're more comfortable, and that helps us retain them,” notes LeGaspi.
There is very little turnover among drivers or independent carriers because “we only hire experienced, professional, and safe drivers, pay them well, and treat them right,” he says. “Plus, they like our operation because they get a lot of home time and don't have to handle freight.”
“Plenty of challenges have changed the playing field considerably,” observes LeGaspi. Among the company's biggest challenges now: reducing empty miles, gaining greater efficiencies, and increasing asset utilization.
“We approach all challenges with a positive attitude and take advantages of the opportunities they bring.”
Another key reason for Southwest Truck Service's success, Spear concludes, is that “we're very conservative. To us, a dollar saved is a dollar made.
“Beyond that, we're a strong player, we're structured well, we've got a strong customer base, and we're always working to improve.”
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