Service And Safety Drive Illinois Hazwaste Hauler

In today's customer-driven market, truck operators are feeling the stress to refine their operations as the waste and transportation industry becomes more high-tech and sophisticated.

While owner/operators, who tend to offer lower prices, are still influential in the industry, fleet-based businesses like Fort Transfer are emerging. The Morton, Ill.-based company employs its own drivers and offers many services beyond transportation to compete with cheaper alternatives.

Fort Transfer transports bulk commodities, chemicals and hazardous and industrial wastes. The regional truck carrier operates a fleet of 80 Kenworth tractors, 90 semi-dump trailers, 50 tank trailers and vacuum tankers, as well as a growing fleet of vans and flatbeds. The company's 22,000 square-foot terminal also houses a 2.5 million-gallon bulk storage facility which is used for agricultural products.

One of the company's biggest marketing challenges is educating its customers on the need to track their overtime hours as they compare to the actual transportation costs, said John Klimala, Fort Transfer's director of marketing and sales. If contractors or remediation companies can keep overtime to a minimum through the support of their transportation company, they can afford to work with more full-service providers such as Fort Transfer, he adds.

"The decision should be based on the cost of the load minus the operational efficiencies gained because Fort works by appointment and schedules interval pickups for efficiencies. One simply must look beyond the price per load," said Klimala.

For instance, the Advance Environmental Technology Corporation's (AETC) policy requires on-site audits of the companies it plans to hire to supplement its fleet. "I don't feel we get the consistency and quality of service from owner/operators as with company-employed drivers," said Tom Baker, AETC's transportation and insurance manager. "That may be a mix of perception and reality, but we feel we have better control using a company with its own drivers. We find the driver to be more responsive to us if he is employed by a company."

An excavation crew may cost up to $3,000 a day to keep on site during a clean-up effort, according to Klimala. If a contractor commissions a transportation company like Fort to send in the first truck at a set time with a pre-determined series of trucks to follow at 20-minute intervals, the clean-up process can be more manageable and cost effective. On the other hand, when a contractor hires a transportation source, a fleet of 20 trucks may show up all at once, and they may be late. This wastes time and money and hurts community relations.

"During a clean-up effort, the general public is angry, scared and irrational," said Keith Shay, president and chief operating officer of Fort Transfer. "When Fort goes in to assist, the person who contracted us looks good and the community's anxiety is eased."

Fort began as strictly a delivery company in 1925 and was one of the first companies to be granted Illinois Intrastate operating authority with two distinct operations-farm-to-market and local freight drayage. Fort broadened its operations to include hazardous material transportation in 1965.

The Company's Evolution The company experienced several growth spurts in the '70s when it began hauling propane and anhydrous ammonia to farmers. In the late '70s, Fort bought more ammonia trailers to better compete, then expanded again in 1984 to include hazardous waste removal. The storage facility opened in 1987.

As Fort Transfer moves into the '90s, its new area of growth is hauling industrial liquid wastes such as chemical waste that needs to be recycled or properly disposed. This growth makes up 2 to 3 percent of the company's current business.

Currently, 65 percent of the company's revenue is generated from hazardous and special waste removal, including contaminated soil, debris and liquid waste. Another 30 percent is generated from transporting virgin chemicals, and the remaining 5 percent stems from moving construction-related work. Fort transfers chemicals for national chemical companies including Du Pont, BASF Corporation, Ciba Corporation, American Cynamid and Sandoz Crop Protection.

Engineers and contractors make up 80 percent of Fort's customer base. Some of Fort Transfer's other clients include Chrysler, Texaco, Riedel, General Electric, Westinghouse, Amoco, BF Goodrich and the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture also has worked closely with Fort Transfer in a collaborative effort to write safety codes and regulations for its agricultural storage facilities based on Fort's model. After touring the company's agricultural chemical storage facility in 1987, the Illinois Department of Agriculture decided to adopt its safety practices.

Because timing is as critical to customers as safety, Fort has weeded the bureaucracy out of its organization to ensure that the crew and fleet are ready to move at a moment's notice. "In times of downsizing, our customers need us to be able to mobilize for them and provide experienced laborers and management," said Shay.

In 1984, the company participated in its first Superfund cleanup effort in Rockton, Ill. The cleanup, which took nearly a year to complete, was Fort's first venture into hazardous waste removal.

Last year, during the Midwest floods, Fort Transfer mobilized a fleet of 30 units to help repair the railroads. In January, Fort sent 30 units to Hattiesburg, Miss., to help transport loads to North Carolina propane customers during the critical period when the Dixie Pipeline was out of operation.

The company's staff has grown 24 percent for the past three years to 110 employees. In the past 10 years, Fort has averaged a 25 percent increase in revenues annually to a 1994 estimate of $12 million.

Propane hauling is an-other area of significant growth for Fort Transfer. Propane transport revenues increased from one to 9 percent in one year. Shay attributes this in-crease in part to his contacts in the liquefied pet-roleum gas industry dur- ing his days with Ferrell-gas, the second-largest propane marketer in the United States.

Shifting Gears Despite its success so far, Fort Transfer faces numerous challenges. "The whole waste industry is in transition. People expect higher levels of service every day," said Shay. "It used to be a hog-and-haul industry where people could make money in spite of themselves. Now companies have to be smarter and perform better. Fort won't take on a job haphazardly. It may cost more up front, but we will save our clients money in the end."

To continue increasing its customer base, Fort Transfer is exploring opening other facilities and purchasing satellite locations. One of Fort's biggest weaknesses, according to Klimala, is its single terminal. "We're extremely competitive in a 500-mile radius, but when we get out in the fringes we begin losing our edge because of the cost associated with the drive. Our customers want to pay us to take something from point A to point B. They don't care where we start from as long as the price is right," he said.

Partnering with disposal companies is another strategic initiative for Fort Transfer. Fort can work well with all disposal facilities because it is not in direct competition with them nor does it have a conflict by being co-owned by a disposal company like some of its transportation counterparts, said Klimala.

The company is exploring becoming ISO (international standard of operation) certified, in which the entire staff goes through an extensive two-to-three year training and audit process. Certification lends international recognition as a business that is in the forefront of the chemical industry.

Fort Transfer offers on-site audits and gives 200 to 300 facility tours each year. "I was quite impressed with Fort's quality and the way it maintains its fleet is second to none," said Baker. "The company's files were in order and its staff members were knowledgeable and responsive to my needs and questions."

"Our shop is as clean as a Mercedes dealership," says Shay. "People say it looks like we painted our fleet just for them."