2015 Fleet of the Year Awards

Dec. 3, 2015
Fleet Owner names winners for annual fleet awards

Each year, Fleet Owner’s editors speak with hundreds of fleets, each with their own unique story to tell. In listening to these stories, some leave us reminiscing for the “good ole’ days” and the way things used to be done. Some provide a glimpse into the mind-set of the modern fleet professional. And some show just how far fleet management has come. It is these fleets that represent the pool, if you will, from which Fleet Owner’s annual Fleet of the Year Awards are chosen.

This year, the 14th time we have handed out our annual Fleet of the Year awards, the winners not only represent best fleet practices and forward thinking, they even represent revolutionary change within the industry.

Take, for instance, our Private Fleet of the Year winner. Just a few short years ago, for all intents and purposes, this fleet didn’t exist. Now, it is a pillar of excellence and plays a crucial role within its parent organization. Or examine our Vocational Fleet of the Year—a fleet that has grown rapidly yet managed each step of the process as smartly and safely as it can. And, finally, our For-Hire Fleet of the Year helped develop a product that many fleets, if they are not yet, will likely be using in the future.

Together, these three fleets (and the fine selection of honorable mentions) represent some of the best examples of innovative thinking and smart fleet management in the industry today.

Nominations are not sought for these honors, and they are not linked to any industry association or influenced by any outside group. Rather, they are chosen by Fleet Owner’s editors from the thousands of fleets we have contact with each year.

In short, each of our honorees exemplifies the innovative leadership that we are proud to salute each year with our Fleet of the Year Awards.

The winners are:


Transport America, Eagan, MN

By Sean Kilcarr, executive editor

The “polar vortex” that struck the U.S. during the winter of 2013-14 provided the spark of technological inspiration behind a new weather alert mapping feature deployed this year by Transport America—one that won’t just help itself, but potentially the trucking industry as a whole. And that’s why Fleet Owner named the Eagan, MN-based TL carrier as its Fleet of the Year in the for-hire category.

“We know this technology will eventually be commercialized and sold to our competitors, but that is okay with us,” notes Tom Benusa, chief information officer. “It helps keep our drivers safe, our equipment and the cargo it carries safe, and the motoring public safe. That is important for the entire industry to have, not just us.”

Benusa says the snow and ice conditions during the winter of 2013-14 led to shipment delays and extremely unsafe driving conditions, putting freight and drivers trying to meet deadlines at increased risk.

Yet trying to keep all of the carrier’s drivers in affected areas up to date on weather conditions required intensive work as “fleet leaders” conducted manual searches of local weather conditions near the current locations of vehicles, then sent the entire batch of information out fleet-wide so every driver received it whether they needed it or not.

“We wanted a systemic way without extensive human involvement to get weather alerts out to both our fleet leaders—what we call our dispatchers—and drivers,” Benusa explains. “We wanted weather alerts automatically overlaid on our routes, providing a heads up if our drivers ended up headed into potentially bad conditions.”

But Transport America could not find a product that did this. “We really needed a better weather response system, but everything we looked at proved very manually intensive; someone had to be monitoring weather and calling/emailing dispatchers,” Benusa says. “There were just too many gaps that way. So we felt, coming out of that horrible weather, we needed to do something new.”

When searching for its solution, Transport America had a checklist of what it wanted the product to do: full automation, cross-reference of projected routes with weather events, and daily customized and personalized weather forecasts for every driver and route.

Eventually, Benusa says the carrier started working with Princeton, NJ-based ALK Technologies to combine specific weather alerts onto the firm’s Maps platform.

The solution pulls in severe weather-alert information from the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including winter storm warnings, wind advisories, hurricanes, and flood alerts. It then categorizes those based on severity, urgency and certainty.

Critical information is then displayed on the ALK Maps platform and color-coded, allowing the carrier’s fleet leaders to quickly see affected vehicles and drivers. In the case of Transport America, weather information is scanned every 20 minutes, and alerts are produced and sent to fleet leaders if conditions change. Otherwise, Weather Alerts produces three automated weather emails per day, again sent to fleet leaders whose trucks may be affected.

By October 2014, the carrier began testing the system and then began implementing it fleet-wide in January of this year.

“There was some concern among our drivers about more Big Brother coming into the cab, but most were really surprised by this technology,” he says. “They found it nice to know we were reaching out with this information and encouraging them to pull over if the weather turned bad.”

And Weather Alerts proved its value quickly, as major blizzards began settling over significant portions of the New England area right after Transport America deployed the program. Storms eventually dumped record levels of snow on the city of Boston.

“Our safety director came in [after the first series of blizzards began] to tell me that every one of our fleet leaders and drivers who could be potentially affected by that winter weather knew about it,” Benusa says.

“For example, we were able to book the appropriate number of loads around the multiple blizzards that impacted the Northeast,” he points out. “This helped minimize a utilization drop because we had the data and insight far enough in advance to work with our customers and make the appropriate and safest decisions.”

That proved especially true for the carrier’s drivers, Benusa stresses.

“If in any case they became uncomfortable continuing the route, they now felt empowered to shut down,” he explains. “Our first priority is their safety and the safety of others. This relieved any stress related to the driver potentially missing a pickup or delivery time. It gave them confidence that we truly care about them and their need to get home safely.”

The technology also allows Transport America to be more proactive with its customers when it comes to weather situations, he notes.

“We could call and say, ‘If we pick this load up today, we’ll have to shut down in 100 to 150 mi. to sit out the storm. Why not delay pickup for a day so we can avoid that weather?’ It proved a surprise for customers to be able to have such discussions.”

Transport America is now working on a variety of enhancements to its Weather Alerts package as its heads into its second winter with this technology.

“We are learning how to use it better,” Benusa explains. “We are now working on alerts being sent to truck drivers every morning, i.e., a macro that will give them the projected weather along their route every day automatically, just like airline pilots.”

Another upgrade is to calculate the mileage impact of having to reroute around storms. That will let Transport America go to its customers for rate negotiations. “We can say, ‘Hey, we can move your load, but it will require us to cover ‘X’ more miles to navigate around blizzards in your area, etc.,’” he notes. “It allows us to refine our pricing, re-plan loads, and above all keep our drivers safe. That’s what is most important.”

For-Hire Honorable Mentions

Smokey Point Distributing, Arlington, WA

With a driver turnover rate of just 16%, Smokey Point Distributing, part of the ever-growing Daseke Inc. family, prides itself on its family culture. From weekly “driver forums” that give drivers the opportunity to provide input directly to department leaders, to allowing drivers to choose their choice of truck color, the flatbed carrier seems to have its house in order.

As one of the safest fleets in America, it has been honored for safe operations by Great West Casualty eight years  running, including winning the Platinum Award seven times for having fewer than one preventable accident per million miles. But Smokey Point Distributing’s real success is with its driver retention.

The fleet of 300 brought its recruiting in-house and hired former driver John Goodin to serve as its driver experience manager. “What we are trying to do with the driver experience program is ... maintain a culture of independence and accountability, where drivers feel more like owner-operators.”

Interestingly, the fleet does not offer hiring bonuses, but instead relies on its family atmosphere to attract and retain drivers.

Bison Transport, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Safety is the key mantra at any trucking company. At Bison Transport, one of the largest carriers in Canada, safety is taken to a far higher level than at most other carriers.

Operating 1,400 tractors and 4,000 trailers and offering full TL and LTL service, logistics, intermodal, dedicated, yard management, and warehousing and distribution services throughout the U.S. and Canada, Bison has been recognized by the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) as one of North America’s safest fleets for the past nine years. The company received TCA’s Grand Prize award for safety in 2015 and received the American Trucking Assns. Safe Fleet Award in 2014. It was recognized as one of TCA’s “Best Fleets to Drive For” in 2015.

The carrier invests heavily in equipment and driver training in order to keep its safety record at a high level. Truck safety specs include collision warning systems, adaptive cruise control, side object detection, roll stability control, and electronic onboard recorders or electronic logbooks.

Professional development is a condition of employment at Bison as well, with ongoing driver training that incorporates work in full motion simulators plus online and instructor-led classes.


Trans Papa Logistics, Louisville, KY

By Brian Straight, managing editor

Every week, Denver Broncos’ quarterback and Papa John’s pitchman Peyton Manning, drives for touchdowns on the national stage. On a different playing field, PJ Foodservice continues to help Papa John’s score on a daily basis. Established nine years ago, Papa John’s built its own private fleet location in Jefferson, IN, to deliver on the company’s “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,” brand promise.

Eric Hartman, vice president-operations support, says that when he joined Papa John’s in 2006, the goal that Papa John’s set was a major undertaking—convert the entire food service division, which included 10 Quality Control Centers (QCCs), over to a private fleet.

Unforeseen circumstances, including the economic downturn, slowed that process. It didn’t really reach its conclusion until this year when, for the first time, all 480 or so truck drivers were team members. The drivers work in teams in the slip-seat operation, which includes a fleet of 155 tractors under full-service leases and 180 customized trailers.

And due to that successful conversion, Trans Papa Logistics, the fleet operation of Papa John’s International subsidiary PJ Foodservice, has been named Fleet Owner’s 2015 Private Fleet of the Year.

“We get to 2008 and we’re slowed down due to the economic downturn,” Hartman recalls. “So we took a pause. We started back up in 2010 and we got involved in a lot of the larger [facilities] and they take time.”

In 2006, Papa John’s private fleet operation serviced two facilities with third-party logistics (3PL) providers handling the remaining eight locations. Hartman says that store operators serviced by the private fleet were receiving a different customer service experience than those served by the 3PL.
“A lot of people who run private fleets will say this, but when you run a fleet in-house, you can influence a different [culture],” Hartman adds. And it was that culture that was important to PJ Foodservice, which knew improved customer service from the truck fleet was needed.

“Transportation, at the time, was not the core of our business,” says Shane Hutchins, senior vice president of PJ Foodservice, “but we also recognize that stores are why we are here. Delivery is a huge piece of that. It is a touchpoint to all of our customers.”

Hutchins says PJ Foodservice realized that if it wanted to improve customer service, it needed to own the transportation network. “We made it very clear to the franchisees that the transition was not a cost savings,” he says, noting that the overall goal was to improve operational effectiveness for the restaurants, and a private fleet was a huge piece of the puzzle.

“We did these road trips with the executive team [to meet with restaurant operators],” Hutchins relates. “The foodservice division and service results were [always] a large portion of those discussions. They were a top five [issue] for the company probably five years ago…but I can tell you it’s not a topic at our meetings now.”

In building the fleet, Hartman says several key people were needed. “A corporate transportation team was needed to assist in the compliance of our private fleet and support our transportation team and delivery specialists, he says.  It also meant bringing on people with specialized skills. For instance, no one inside Papa John’s human resources department had experience recruiting drivers, so a recruitment specialist was hired.  Within the QCC, directors worked to support and assist in the development of the transportation team. QCC directors such as Jeffrey Surran and John Dallas were key in leading the transitions.

The company also brought on two key members, Brian Reed and Cameron Hafer. Reed was a veteran of Papa John’s, but was now being tasked with overseeing transportation as the senior director of transportation. Hafer joined the Trans Papa team as safety and compliance manager. “Both of these guys were ultimately responsible for [helping develop] a plan and putting it in place,” Hartman says.

Part of that plan was creating a driver training initiative (drivers are referred to as delivery specialists). This six- to eight-week program focuses on two core attributes: safety training based on the “space cushion driving” technique and customer service.

The driver pay structure was also adjusted. Drivers are now paid based on the number of pieces delivered, miles traveled, and stops made. The typical driver makes between 13 and 20 stops per route and covers two routes per week. Timeliness, product quality and service are vitally important to the fleet. “We can’t [be late] because we deliver fresh, quality ingredients,” Hartman says. “It’s imperative that we make that delivery experience right. Take a store in North Dakota; there may not be another location for a hundred miles, so if we don’t get that product delivery right, we are really hurting that store.”

The private fleet is now delivering with a high degree of accuracy and on-time deliveries in the upper 90th percentile. “We are in every store twice a week, so we make 6,000 impressions a week,” Hartman says. “We want to make every one of those a good one.”

Like many private fleets, the Trans Papa operation is highly focused on safety and has the full support of the company. “Leadership was explicit in making sure that we didn’t skimp” on safety initiatives, Hartman says. So tractors are outfitted with Mobileye and Lytx (DriveCam) event recorders and electronic logs. The fleet is also studying electronic braking systems and is now spec’ing automatic transmissions. Each trailer is equipped with real-time temperature monitoring systems to help ensure product quality.

In the end, the goal of any fleet is to provide a quality service at a quality price. In the case of the Trans Papa fleet, the support from restaurant owners (about 70% of the restaurants are franchises; the remainder are company-owned) and  corporate managers has helped make that an easy transition.

“At PJ Foodservice, we touch our restaurants more through transportation [than in any other way],” Hartman adds. “Our drivers are in stores every day. Why wouldn’t you want to own [the delivery process] yourself? Our drivers and leadership throughout our Quality Control Centers represent the very best in the industry. Ultimately, we are measured by their performance.”

Private Fleet Honorable Mentions

HSM, Hickory, NC

The private fleet for HSM, which used to be known as Hickory Springs Manufacturing, faces its fair share of challenges delivering 65% of some 100,000 truckloads of goods shipped each year to and from 50 manufacturing plants.

No challenge was greater, though, than finding relevance. Three years ago,  the private fleet was almost an afterthought within its own organization, hauling only 35% of the shipments. Since then, the fleet of 130 drivers and 140 tractors has reversed that trend, experiencing a 300% growth in backhaul revenue along with a 10% reduction in overall operating costs.

A key to that change has been focusing on drivers and capturing more data to make more informed decisions.

“Capturing this data gives us a great competitive advantage over outside carriers and has helped justify and grow the private fleet,” Richard Derian, director of corporate logistics, says. “This greater reliance on the private fleet has helped control costs, give better service, and provide more flexible, dependable transportation solutions as compared to outside carriers.”

Drivers saw reduced paperwork and improved communication with management.

Gemini Motor Transport, Oklahoma City, OK

Gemini Motor Transport is a member of the Love’s Family of Companies and serves as the primary fuel hauler for its travel stops and country stores.

The Oklahoma City-based carrier employs 775 drivers, operates 515 tractors, and accrues roughly 52 million mi. per year. With an out of service rate at an extremely low 3.6% for vehicles (vs. 20.72% national average), 0.7% for drivers (vs. 5.51%), and 0.5% for hazmat carriers (vs. 4.5%), safety is a hallmark.

Just as importantly, the carrier puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to natural gas. The company provides compressed natural gas (CNG) refueling stations at many of its locations—including special 12 “fast fill” CNG locations nationwide, with six more on the way—and began adding CNG-powered tractors to its fuel-hauling fleet.

To date, the carrier operates 50 CNG-powered tractors (both Peterbilt and Freightliner models) and remains a major proponent of this alternative fuel.


Oakley Transport, Lake Wales, FL

By Aaron Marsh, senior editor

For Oakley Transport Inc., a bulk food-grade liquids hauler headquartered in Lake Wales, FL, it’s been a momentous several years. The company grew by about 20% in each of the last three, announcing in early 2015 a number of investments in its fleet, its equipment and its people, and now—though there’s more growth news about to break—it’s time to take a breath.

Oakley recently opened four new terminals and expects it will have grown its fleet from some 350 Volvo VNL tractors and 550 Brenner, Walker and Polar tank trailers around the start of this year to more than 500 power units and “rapidly approaching” 800 trailers by January 2016, says Craig Stevens, director of strategic initiatives. “We’re going to slow down a little bit in 2016 and get our feet under us. With all that rapid growth, you’ve got to stay with it,” he adds, since the goal is “good, profitable growth.”

Ryan Walls, director of human resources, puts it this way: “We want to look at our systems and processes to make sure we maximize efficiencies as a 500-truck fleet vs. a 250-truck fleet.” The company’s conscientious approach will be rooted in its new, finely refocused philosophy that essentially boils down to a word: service.

Because of that growth and Oakley’s approach to ensuring it is not only growing, but growing smartly, Fleet Owner has named the fleet its Vocational Fleet of the Year.

The company is building on its original strategy well: President and CEO Thomas E. Oakley formed Oakley Transport in 1986 to diversify the Oakley family-owned enterprises beyond the citrus agriculture business. Under his leadership, Oakley Groves Inc. —whose operations include everything from grove ownership and management to procurement, harvesting and transportation of citrus products—has become the largest citrus hauler in Florida, and Oakley Transport is taking things further.

“We create trust and confidence by consistently delivering on our promises to all that we serve. When you get all 450 bulk professionals and 150-plus support personnel focused on that, the results speak for themselves,” Oakley says. Walls reinforces that point: “We’ve really become focused on being a service/servant-leadership type of organization,” he tells Fleet Owner, noting that the new service philosophy has four specific measures: safe, reliable, accurate and image.  

It’s applied not only with clients, but “internal customers” who buy in, too—people like employees and drivers, for instance, Walls explains. Having made calculated moves over time to secure a niche as a leader in its space, Oakley is now “painstakingly going through all our processes and building what we call ‘service maps’ on them,” says Walls. “It’s building out the process specifically in the eye of the customer.”

Beyond just price, Stevens says value is a big part of Oakley’s promise to its customers. “Our customers expect us to provide true value.” Serving its clients requires courtesy from drivers, correct invoicing, tight security controls on data, and the assurance that Oakley will protect the integrity of the food-grade products it’s transporting “at all costs.”

Oakley is a Kosher carrier, and many of its customers are Fortune 500 companies “that have very stringent rules and procedures,” Stevens points out. “Over the years, we’ve taken a lot of notes, had a lot of experiences, and gained a lot of knowledge,” he adds. That means never fumbling for needed infomation when the company requires access to historic billing information or faces an audit. “I can electronically produce a copy of a bill for every shipment that went on a trailer in our fleet from the day we put it in service—that’s locked to each trailer’s data for life,” he says.

The company is working to receive ISO certification by mid-2016, Walls notes, and that’s been “a huge undertaking.” With operations reaching across the North American market, the company transports all kinds of food-grade, edible liquids, including oils, sweeteners, juices, milk/dairy products, spring water and distilled spirits, those last considered hazardous materials.

Because of the nature of those goods, Oakley got approved to issue federal TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) certification—required as a post-9/11 measure to enter in and out of ports—following the same application process found in U.S. ports themselves. “All of our drivers are secured and approved,” says Stevens.

Oakley’s investments have been significant. There’s that fleet of Volvo VNL 630 and 730s.  The latter is used for over-the-road hauls, including for driver teams, featuring more space and plenty of accoutrements for driver comfort. And safety is central for all its equipment choices, Stevens points out, noting that the Volvos are designed to drop the engine below the driver compartment in front-end collisions.

Power units are spec’d with Bendix Wingman active cruise and braking/safety systems, which Oakley credits for a few harrowing near-misses with severe accidents. And “we don’t even think about not putting an auxiliary power unit  on a tractor now,” Stevens contends. Because the company uses those devices to shut off trucks when parked to save fuel, it has reduced emissions “fifteen-fold” and reduced noise considerably—all while providing power for climate control and other driver comforts.

Meanwhile, Oakley moved to trailers made of lean duplex, which is stronger and lighter than standard steel, saving some 700 lbs. per trailer. Coupled with a move to larger tanker barrels, that means customers will be “getting more gallons delivered for the same buck,” according to Stevens.

Oakley’s new full-scale, intricately detailed driving simulator accurately replicates the experience behind the wheel of the company’s trucks, Walls contends, and helps onboard new drivers while allowing experienced ones to compete in challenging scenarios. It’s at the company’s headquarters now and will be taken mobile soon.

Top it off with this bit of news: Oakley is about to launch a new division. Fifty new dry-bulk tank trailers will begin rolling out Dec. 1, Stevens says, and the strategy for this new division will be “to serve the same clients we’re hauling liquids for that are also shipping dry goods like granulated sugar.” This is a company that’s carefully positioning itself for success.

Vocational Fleet Honorable Mentions

Dominion Virginia Power, Richmond, VA

One of the many reasons Dominion Virginia Power snagged Utility of the Year honors in 2014 from Electric Light & Power centers on its alternative-fueled vehicle (AFV) strategy. AFV technologies now make up nearly 30% of the company’s on-road fleet, which totals about 5,700 cars and trucks, comprised of electric, natural gas, and biodiesel-powered vehicles.

More than 800 vehicles in Dominion’s fleet are powered by B20 biodiesel fuel  and about 250 run on compressed natural gas. Electric technologies make up a smaller but growing portion of what the utility calls its “fuel-diverse” fleet.

“We are integrating more electric, hybrid, and other AFVs into our operations as part of our ‘Green Fleet’ initiative, which is part of our sustainability commitment to reduce our environmental footprint and invest in the technologies of tomorrow,” the company notes.

Dominion says it invests in AFV technologies to reduce work site noise; provide healthier work conditions; test electric vehicle performance and determine potential impact on electricity demand; evaluate research in emerging alternative energy sources; and assess commercial viability of renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency tools.

County of Sonoma, Santa Rosa, CA

In 2015, NAFA named Sonoma County the number one “green fleet” out of its list of the top 100 green fleets in the U.S.  Sonoma County also received the Clean Air Excellence Award for Transportation Efficiency Innovations from the EPA back in April, which honors organizations that have undertaken the risks of innovation, served as pioneers in their fields, advanced public understanding of air pollution, and improved air quality.

Sonoma County has been at this for 24 years, too. Starting in 1990, the county was one of the first to test a prototype all-electric General Motors van in a daily fleet use application. In June 2006, the county adopted a Climate Protection Action Plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 20% from its on-road fleet before the end of 2010.  The county’s fleet-related emissions have been reduced by more than 1,815 tons of GHG even as vehicle-miles traveled increased by 10 million in 11 of the last 13 years.

The county also operates one of the largest hybrid and plug-in electric vehicle government fleets in North America with a total of 291 battery-electric vehicles, neighborhood electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and hybrid electric vehicles. The hybrid fleet has reduced gasoline and diesel fuel usage by more than 166,500 gals.

About the Author

Brian Straight | Managing Editor

Brian joined Fleet Owner in May 2008 after spending nearly 14 years as sports editor and then managing editor of several daily newspapers.  He and his staff  won more than two dozen major writing and editing awards. Responsible for editing, editorial production functions and deadlines.

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