Photo: Gordon Food Service
Gordon Food Service Tractors

Fleet uses COVID-19 downtime to ramp up maintenance

June 24, 2020
Before COVID-19 was deemed a global pandemic, Gordon Food Service was experiencing substantial growth. But as the food distributor’s normal business came to a halt at the height of the crisis, GFS had to figure out how to maintain its idle equipment.

For Wyoming, Mich.-based food service distributor Gordon Food Service (GFS), preventive maintenance (PM) is key when it comes to maximizing fleet uptime. But when COVID-19 hit the U.S. and was deemed a pandemic in March, GFS’ business halted overnight, which meant changing the pace of maintenance practices.

One minute GFS was experiencing exponential growth, then schools and restaurants closed, universities sent students home, and movie theaters, malls and all the food distributor’s normal business began to shut down. On the maintenance side, GFS was tasked with figuring out what to do with all of its assets that were now sitting idle.

“We had to go into a different mode,” said Jason Derby, fleet manager, North America at GFS. “We brought trucks and trailers in if they were due for a PM. We would make small repairs and make sure everything was still good. Then we would mothball them—so we would park them in a safe corner of the warehouse parking lot, disconnect batteries, and just make sure they were protected and ready to go back into service.”

Now, as GFS’s customers are beginning to reopen in certain areas, the fleet has been putting 20 to 50 pieces of equipment back to work on a weekly basis. That has meant hooking battery cables back up, checking fluids, and firing up the trucks, Derby noted.

“Even though they sat for three months, because we parked them properly, when we fire them now, they are ready to go back to work,” he explained. “COVID-19 was a concentrated effort to make sure that we parked our equipment properly so that when it came back, it would be ready to go.”

GFS, which serves the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest regions of the U.S. and nearly coast-to-coast in Canada, has its own garages and technicians who work around the clock to ensure trucks and trailers stay up and running. 

In the U.S., GFS has 14 locations, 11 of which have their own fleet maintenance shops. GFS contracts out maintenance with Penske for three U.S. facilities and across its entire fleet in Canada.

“For us, having our own, vested technicians onsite 24 hours a day is just huge when it comes to uptime,” explained Derby. “We have our own GFS employees vested in the company’s equipment and supporting GFS drivers. It’s just a hard combination to beat. At two in the morning if a driver goes out to make a delivery, and he’s got a light out, a flat tire, an air leak, or what have you, the fleet shop lights are on, it’s well-staffed, and we have factory-trained technicians there waiting to serve him. That’s tough to beat.”

Along with GFS’ PM program, Derby noted that the company is religious about bringing tractors in every three months, or every 25,000 miles. Trailers come in for maintenance every four months.

GFS utilizes a program by AssetWorks called FleetFocus, a fleet management software aimed to minimize downtime, which GFS leverages to track work orders, parts, costs per mile, costs per repair, and maintenance times.

GFS has roughly 3,000 tractors that operate across North America — 2,000 Class 8 semis run in the U.S. and about 1,000 operate in Canada. GFS also has 3,500 trailers in both countries.

Paul Cigala, commercial vehicle lubricants applications engineer for ExxonMobil, pointed out that it is important for fleets to conduct any kind of used oil analysis, especially for longer oil drain intervals. He also noted that fleets should consider using extended life coolants and greases to help extend service intervals and urged fleets to take advantage of OEM recommendations for oil drain intervals.

“A lot of these small and medium fleets tend to be more conservative in their service intervals,” Cigala explained. “In these times, knowing what the OEM recommendations are could help them have their technicians focus on making sure their trucks are being utilized to their full capacity.”

“Used oil analysis is a tool that we use to unlock what potential there is for oil drain intervals and to identify what is happening in the equipment,” he added. “For instance, fuel leaks or head gasket leaks can be caught very early if fleets are doing used oil analysis on a regular basis.” 

Through the course of the pandemic, Cigala also emphasized the importance of truck sanitization and following the proper safety guidelines and procedures. Recently, he said more fleets have employed part runners so technicians can remain in their bay and don’t have to worry about contamination.

In the current economic climate, as fleets age, more fleet owners and managers are looking to extend the life cycle of their assets. This is where trucks being inspected, serviced and used oil analysis really come into play, Cigala explained.

“In this current environment, there are opportunities for fleets to maybe hold onto that equipment and squeeze in more from the equipment,” he said. “They are making sure that any repairs that need to be done are taken care of so they are not worried about a breakdown, a tow bill, or a loss of equipment for a prolonged amount of time.”

GFS, for instance, has delayed investing in new equipment right now.

“I foresee us buying equipment again, but it’s somewhere off on the horizon,” Derby said. “Right now, we just have to see as our business comes back, what our capacity is and what we need. There are obviously places in the U.S. where business is coming back ferociously because some states opened sooner. So our business is coming back quicker in certain areas.” 

As GFS is getting back to making deliveries to customers, the food distributor has been able to move assets from state to state as needed.

“Luckily for us, we have a common spec,” Derby said. “We order one spec tractor for all of the United States, so in a situation like this, that really behooves us because now we can take a tractor and put it where it’s needed. The same goes for our trailers.”

“Right now, we are just looking at how the business is coming back, and we will move equipment for different needs,” he added. “That is what is keeping us from buying anything new.”

About the Author

Cristina Commendatore

Cristina Commendatore was previously the Editor-in-chief of FleetOwner magazine. She reported on the transportation industry since 2015, covering topics such as business operational challenges, driver and technician shortages, truck safety, and new vehicle technologies. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut.

Sponsored Recommendations

Reducing CSA Violations & Increasing Safety With Advanced Trailer Telematics

Keep the roads safer with advanced trailer telematics. In this whitepaper, see how you can gain insights that lead to increased safety and reduced roadside incidents—keeping drivers...

80% Fewer Towable Accidents - 10 Key Strategies

After installing grille guards on all of their Class 8 trucks, a major Midwest fleet reported they had reduced their number of towable accidents by 80% post installation – including...

Proactive Fleet Safety: A Guide to Improved Efficiency and Profitability

Each year, carriers lose around 32.6 billion vehicle hours as a result of weather-related congestion. Discover how to shift from reactive to proactive, improve efficiency, and...

Tackling the Tech Shortage: Lessons in Recruiting Talent and Reducing Turnover

Discover innovative strategies for recruiting and retaining tech talent in the trucking industry during this informative webinar, where experts will share insights on competitive...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of FleetOwner, create an account today!