Finding a niche is often the best way a for-hire trucking company can compete successfully in a competitive industry. Carve out a slice of the market where you have an advantage, focus on delivering unmatched service every day, and dedicate your business to meeting the needs of those customers.
Over the past nine years, Wild West Express has created its niche by hauling temperature-controlled food products into and out of the Southwest markets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas. The Las Cruces, New Mexico-based company has built a profitable business by transporting live plants, frozen foods such as ice cream, meat, poultry, beverages, and fresh produce. For Wild West Express, all roads seem to lead to Las Cruces.
“Our strong suit is inbound freight,” says Danny Crawford, vice- president of the family-owned business. “There seems to be a pipeline for deliveries into Albuquerque and El Paso because these cities serve as major markets in New Mexico and West Texas.”
A large volume of produce is brought in, plus there are a number of large distribution centers in the area, including a major Wal-Mart distribution center in Los Lunas, just south of Albuquerque. Las Cruces and El Paso are important locations for collecting and routing food products for distribution into Mexico. Las Cruces is about 45 miles northwest of El Paso and the Mexican border crossing at Ciudad Juarez and 320 miles south of Albuquerque on Interstate 25.
The business has grown considerably over the years. The company is owned by Crawford, his brother Woody Jr and their father Woody Sr. Family members have developed that pipeline into a $16- million business. Woody Sr's wife Theresa Ann is involved in the company, helping oversee its management. Daughter Lisa works in accounting as comptroller, and a cousin, Tim Wingfield, serves as operations manager.
Using Las Cruces as a base, Wild West Express delivers nursery products and plants, frozen food, and dairy products such as cheese and whey to destinations in many of the lower 48 states. Blue Bunny ice cream, Tyson Foods, Sysco Food Service, and Masson Farms are among the company's core group of about 30 customers.
Wild West Express' trucks delivery dairy or produce to Florida then load frozen orange juice for delivery in Texas. They pick up poultry products in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri and transport them to New Mexico. Trucks also deliver frozen products to Washington and return with apples or go to California to pick up fresh produce for transporting back to the Southwest. For the most part, the runs are done on a regular delivery schedule and are mostly drop-and-hooks.
The challenge is to keep trailers loaded and reduce empty miles. Danny Crawford calculates the company's dead-head ratio at 6% to 7%.
Specs for drivers, performance
The company's far-flung routes give truck odometers a workout. Trucks average 150,000 miles a year, with the typical route covering 1,100 miles one-way.
These trips keep Wild West Express drivers on the road seven to 10 days at a time — and sometimes even longer. The company employs 75 drivers and has contracts with 10 owner-operators.
Wild West Express pays considerable attention to its trucks. “We realize that the happier and more comfortable a driver is, the safer and more productive he will be,” says Woody Crawford Jr, who, like his brother Danny, is a vice-president. “A contented driver is more loyal and can be a good recruiting tool for our company.” Consequently, Wild West Express doesn't skimp on driver comfort and amenities.
The company operates a fleet of 80 aerodynamic tractors: 45 wide-cab Kenworth T2000s with 75-inch Aerodyne sleepers and 35 International Eagles with Sky-Rise 72-inch sleepers. Tractors are spec'd alike with 475-hp Caterpillar C15 diesel engines, and 10-speed Eaton transmissions with 3.08 ratio. Each driver is assigned to a power unit.
Power and durability are key reasons for the choice of engine and transmission, says Woody Jr. The Cat C15 has a five-year/600,000-mile engine warranty. Eaton offers a five-year/750,000-mile warranty on the transmission. “The warranties are in force for as long as we own the tractors,” Woody Jr says.
Reliability is another big issue, he says. “We haul meat, poultry, cheese, and other refrigerated food items for a large base of customers in many of the lower 48 states. We can't afford downtime.”
The Kenworths are purchased from MHC Kenworth/Ford in El Paso, Texas. The Internationals come from Border International Trucks in El Paso, Texas.
“With our drivers on the road a lot, they prefer more room in the cab and sleeper,” says Woody Jr. “We spec our trucks with refrigerators and allow drivers to put in microwaves. Nobody has ever quit because they didn't like our trucks.”
“Our fleet is geared toward efficiency,” Danny says, “and our approach is to get the best fuel mileage we can.”
Its trucks are pushing seven miles per gallon, with some of the more experienced drivers getting even better fuel economy. The company achieves those numbers even when pulling heavy loads that run between 42,000 and 44,000 pounds. “When you compare our mileage with other companies getting 4½ mpg, it's a big difference,” says Danny.
Wild West Express operates 100 53-foot Utility refrigerated trailers with Thermo King SB 300 refrigeration units. These reefers were chosen because they provide faster pull-down, greater capacity, fuel efficiency, and greater service access. Trailers average about 2,500 refrigeration motor hours annually. Starting with its first new reefer, Wild West Express has bought all of its trailers from Hawkeye Utility Trailer Sales in Dubuque, Iowa.
Wild West Express' tractors and trailers are spec'd with Michelin wide-base X One tires. These boost fuel mileage by three-tenths of a mile per gallon, according to Woody Jr. Company tractors are restricted to highway speeds of no more than 70 mph.
To further reduce fuel consumption, tractors are outfitted with Thermo King TriPac auxiliary power units (APU). The unit is mounted on the side of the tractor chassis on the frame rail with the condenser on the rear of the cab.
Truck engines are programmed to shut down after 10 minutes of idling, after which the APU starts to provide climate control, engine block heating, battery charging, and electrical power for the sleeper cab. “We are saving a lot with our APUs,” Danny says. “Before we installed them, we were burning between 100 and 280 gallons per truck monthly in idling.”
Another component for managing fuel costs is the EFS fuel card. It gives Wild West Express access to a wide network from which to access low-priced fuel options.
Leveraging real-time information technology
To enhance efficiency, vehicle utilization, and productivity, Wild West Express uses PeopleNet, an onboard computing and mobile communications systems. Through its satellite-based truck-tracking component, PeopleNet enables Wild West Express managers to keep track of the company's fleet around the clock. For example, the system provides updates on each truck's progress in making deliveries. “If there is going to be a delay in making a delivery, we want to be the one calling the customer,” Danny says.
Along with providing precision vehicle location at any time, PeopleNet also is used for fleet communications, messaging, and navigation It also monitors vehicle and driver performance. The system works in conjunction with the truck engine's computer to monitor fuel mileage, idling time, and other performance measures, which helps better manage operating costs, says Danny.
“We got PeopleNet when we were up to 18 trucks,” says Woody Jr. “I couldn't see operating a trucking company without some type of mobile communications technology.”
In addition to Danny and Woody Jr, day-to-day management of the fleet is handled by an operations manager, three fleet managers, and a logistics manager.
Wild West Express has four mechanics and a tire specialist on staff. Two of the mechanics are Thermo King certified.
Everything except warranty work is handled in-house — no small task for a fleet the size of Wild West Express. Tractors have their oil changed every 15,000 miles, and each rig is given a “once-over” after every trip.
All warranty work is handled by truck, trailer, and refrigeration dealers. Typically, tractors have a four-year lifecycle, after which they are either traded in or sold outright. Trailers normally are sold or traded after four to five years.
New business focus
Wild West Express' focus on efficiency has ratcheted up as the company has changed its line of business. The company didn't begin as a refrigerated transporter. In the 1980s, as an outgrowth of the family farm in Roswell, New Mexico, Woody Sr delivered feed and grain to cattle ranchers in West Texas and New Mexico.
“My boys grew up around trucks and hauling feed and grain in live floor trailers,” says Woody Sr. “They know trucks and trucking from the inside out.”
The trucking sideline soon evolved into a fulltime business — Bulk Moving Trucks. The company relocated to La Cruces, New Mexico, in 1992 when Woody Sr got a contract with Bruce Foods (makers of “Original” Louisiana brand hot pepper sauce) to haul chili peppers.
The feed and grain business is cyclical with peaks during the harvesting season in summer and fall and slow periods in the winter, and that hindered the growth of the company. The Crawfords looked for a way to diversify the company.
They decided to get into temperature-controlling hauling “since there are a lot of seasonal refrigerated type products in our area,” Danny says. The first refrigerated trailer was added in 1998, and the company began hauling bedding plants for a Las Cruces nursery to Florida, Texas, and Colorado.
Over the years, Wild West Express has gotten more contracts for temperature-controlled hauling and gradually moved away from the transportation feed and grain products. The company name was changed to Wild West Express in 1999.
Annual growth rates have averaged 20% in recent years, and it's expected that the company will exceed 20% growth this year. The growth is coming from business in the US and Mexico.
Wild West Express operates a cross-dock facility in Las Cruces where loads bound for Mexico are delivered. Goods are either off-loaded for transfer to other trailers or interlined by Mexican owner-operators.
Woody Sr attributes the company's continued growth to several factors: faith, hard work, dependable people, treating all employees like family, and a dedication and commitment to excellent customer service. “It really is a people business,” he says.
The company has outgrown its current location, which it moved into six years ago when it had only 10 rigs. The main building, which houses dispatch, operations, and maintenance, has been supplemented with several mobile trailers for accounting and administration.
Wild West Express is moving to a custom-built facility of its design within the new West Mesa Industrial Park, about six miles west of Las Cruces. It has purchased a 12-acre site in the Park's designated free trade zone upon which it is building a new terminal and shop.
A freetrade zone is a federally sanctioned site where foreign and domestic goods are considered to be outside of the US customs territory. Merchandise can be received, stored, and repackaged — free of customs duty, quota, and other import restrictions until the goods pass from the zone into the US market.
Expansion plans include 10,000 square feet of offices and a 12,000-sq-ft maintenance facility. This new company headquarters is scheduled for completion within a year.
“As we grow larger, providing an exceptional level of service becomes more of a challenge,” Woody Sr. says. “We intend to continue to grow our niche and stay on top of our service to our customers.”
Holding onto Drivers
“Driver retention is the key in this business,” says Danny Crawford, vice-president of Wild West Express. “And we work very diligently at finding and keeping good ones.”
High turnover, along with the challenge of attracting new drivers, costs additional time and resources, he says, and that creates further operating costs, which often are difficult to pass on to customers.
Furthermore, spending the time in replacing and training new drivers refocuses managerial effort from running and growing the business, adds company vice-president Woody Crawford Jr, Danny's brother.
Wild West Express' driver turnover rate is 40%, considerably lower than the industry average. Most of its drivers come from referrals.
The brothers credit the company's low driver turnover to several key things:
- Formal driver recruitment procedures and selection techniques.
- A new driver orientation that is structured, takes a positive approach, and gives a true picture of what it is really like to work for the company.
- A formal driver training program that provides new drivers with the tools, information, policies, and procedures they will need to succeed.
- Open communications to management.
- Treating drivers as valuable individuals and making them feel an important part of the organization.
“We have found that a new driver's first 30 to 60 days are critical,” says Danny. “If the first month or two don't go well, chances are we may lose a driver before we have recouped our investment in hiring him,” Woody Jr says.