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KLLM Transport Services sets course to become largest US refrigerated carrier

Dec. 7, 2015
TIMES are good for KLLM Transport Services LLC, which is based in Jackson, Mississippi.

TIMES are good for KLLM Transport Services LLC, which is based in Jackson, Mississippi. In fact, top management believes the trucking company could emerge as the largest US refrigerated carrier within the next three years.

The 52-year-old trucking company is well on its way to that goal. KLLM Transport currently runs 2,700 tractors and roughly 3,800 trailers. Community college partnerships with dedicated KLLM Transport driving academies help ensure a reliable supply of drivers to keep the fleet moving. As a result of its purchase of Frozen Food Express, the company operates 14 refrigerated warehouses, and more are in the planning stages.

Under Jim Richards’ leadership, KLLM Transport Services has become one of the largest US refrigerated carriers.

“We believe we have all of the pieces in place to keep this company moving forward,” says Jim Richards, KLLM Transport president and chief executive officer. “Our owners have demonstrated solid financial backing and support for the success of this company, and we have a strong balance sheet. We’re positioned for growth, and that includes finding good acquisition candidates.

“We made a key acquisition two years ago when we purchased Frozen Food Express (FFE), which is now the only truly nationwide refrigerated LTL (less than truckload). The market was strong, and our timing was good. FFE is still based in Dallas (Texas) and operates 1,000 trucks and 2,000 trailers.”

Service variety

With its steadily growing fleet, KLLM Transport Services offers over-the-road, regional, dedicated, refrigerated intermodal, and logistics services to customers across much of the United States and Mexico. The carrier hauls temperature-controlled and dry commodities such as food, medical supplies, paper products, chemicals, and cosmetics.

Today’s KLLM Transport Services came out of humble beginnings and succeeded in spite of some serious challenges. The company was established as KLM Inc in 1963 by Tom I Kobuke, W J Liles, B C Lee, and Henry Moudy Sr. The company started as a truck brokerage that primarily handled exempt commodities, with main traffic arteries across the southern United States.

In 1967, the company purchased its first three fleet units—three tractor-trailer rigs. As early as 1972, the carrier began hauling regulated commodities and received General Authority from the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1982. The name KLLM (these are the first initials of the last name of each of the original founders) Transport Services Inc was adopted and recorded as the official title of the corporation.

By the time the carrier became a publically-traded company in 1986, it was running 300 to 400 transports. “That was a big fleet in that day,” Richards says.

Challenging times

KLLM Transport Services remained a publically-traded company until 2000, when Low Acquisition Inc (affiliated with Prime Inc) began buying up the stock. Jack Liles, KLLM chairman, president, and chief executive officer at the time, and Bernard Ebbers, Worldcomm chief executive officer, countered with an offer to buy the carrier and take it private. Ebbers provided 65% of the money.

What looked like a good deal turned dark after Ebbers was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in March 2005 for his role in the accounting scandal that led to WorldCom’s demise. Assets, including Ebbers’ interest in KLLM Transport Services, were seized by the federal government.

The fate of the trucking company remained in limbo for about three years. “We were in tough shape until (Mississippi entrepreneurs) Tommy and Jim Duff agreed in 2008 to acquire the shares held by the federal government trust and eventually pruchased the Liles family holdings as well,” says Richards, who was KLLM Transport Services chief operating officer at the time. “As bad as thing got, though, we never compromised our integrity, something that had always played a big part in this company’s success. Still, we didn’t turn our first profit in several years until 2012. We haven’t looked back since.”

More focus

The company that emerged from those difficult times is much more focused on customers and drivers. “We provide the equipment and personnel to best meet our customers’ transportation and logistics needs,” says Greg Carpenter, KLLM Transport Services vice-president of operations. “We also provide the capabilities for detailed monitoring of their shipments.”

Transport services range from over-the-road long haul and regional operations to intermodal and a full logistics portfolio. “Our over-the-road service is for shipments that often must be moved thousands of miles,” Carpenter says. “We offer this service throughout the continental United States and Mexico with single and team driver options.”

KLLM uses the requirements that are outlined by a shipper to design a transportation package that will provide the best service available. Just-in-time, protective service, temperature sensitive and low altitude routings are just a few of the specialty services the carrier offers.

Truckload drivers in the OTR operation are out an average of two weeks at a time. The average length of haul is 1,050 miles. KLLM Transport Services has about 300 driver teams in its operation. Annually, KLLM Transport drivers deliver more than 180,000 loads, achieving an on-time delivery rate of 98%.

Drivers are managed by dispatchers based in Jackson and Lancaster, Texas, with each dispatcher handling 60 to 70 drivers. “We would like to lower the ratio of drivers to dispatcher for our OTR operations,” Carpenter says. “We believe that would improve driver-dispatcher relations.”

Intermodal transport

KLLM Transport Services’ intermodal transportation program offers clients superior services for multiple modes of intracontinental transportation. A dedicated intermodal operations group serves most major markets.

At present, KLLM has over 1,200 intermodal specified trailers in service. In addition, KLLM Transport’s intermodal transport services uses its own tractors and drivers for dray operations, and in many cases intermodal transit is comparable to single-driver truck transit times. The intermodal group also maintain contracts with all major railroads for intracontinental transportation.

KLLM’s intermodal units are equipped with the StarTrak Logistic Management System which allows for 24/7 reporting on geographic location, fuel consumption, temperature, and refrigeration unit operating parameters. With this advanced system, fleet managers are able to receive notifications of any mechanical issues in real time.

On the logistics side, KLLM Transport Services provides customers with options that go well beyond its own fleet capacity. “By working with our highly qualified carrier network comprised of both large and small fleets, we provide customers with flexible service options that fit their needs,” Carpenter says. “When capacity is an issue our Logistics division offers cost effective solutions providing the best value for our customers.

“KLLM Logistics is focused on superior service. With exceptional communication at all times, we are committed to our customers by offering 24/7/365 days per year dispatch and customer service. We offer load tracking, daily check calls, emailed updates and many more communication options to fit customer needs. We will make sure each customer’s cargo arrives safely and on time.”

Making drivers

With its diverse operations, KLLM Transport Services has a constant need for new truck drivers. At the same time, the diversity provides more options that help attract experienced truck drivers and those who want to learn to drive a truck.

Regardless of experience, all drivers spend at least a week at the KLLM Driving Academy, which has campuses in Jackson; Lancaster, Texas; and Chicago Heights, Illinois. Each campus is run in partnership with a community college: In Jackson, the partnership is with Hinds Community College; in Lancaster, it is with Cedar Valley College; and in Chicago Heights, it is with Prairie State College.

The newest of the campuses is in Lancaster. Serving KLLM Transport Services and Frozen Food Express, the new two-story, 44,000-sq-ft training facility celebrated its grand opening on September 17, 2015 in Lancaster, Texas.

Like the other two KLLM Driving Academy locations, the new campus will offer an 18-day accelerated truck driver training program and features classroom, behind-the-wheel training, road and range instruction and driver safety education. The facility will focus on Texas residents, and class sizes range from 25 to 30 student drivers.

“This school represents an innovative partnership between KLLM and Cedar Valley College that will help fill key jobs in the nationwide trucking industry,” Richards says. “It leverages KLLM’s reputation as a leader in transport services with Cedar Valley’s strong commitment to providing quality education that leads to jobs and career pathways.”

Modern classrooms

The new state-of-the-art training facility features modern classrooms, an onsite physical lab, electronic log and refrigeration labs, a four-acre backing range, a full-service cafeteria, along with complete lodging facilities for 43 students in private hotel-like rooms. This new residence hall section of the school provides students with refrigerators, microwave ovens, cable television, wi-fi, laundry facilities, computer labs, and a study hall.

“Our Lancaster campus is specially designed to meet the needs of new driving students and help them as they start their new careers,” says Kirk Blankenship, KLLM’s vice-president of driver resources. “We will be training company drivers and independent contractors, helping them earn their permit and CDL-A and learn about accident prevention, professional driving techniques, DOT (Department of Transportation) regulations, cargo claim management, temperature control chain compliance, and CSA compliance, safety and accountability (program requirements).”

Launched in 2012, the KLLM Driving Academy program is divided into three phases. Phase 1 is classroom training that includes sessions on L3 driver simulators, the refrigerated trailer lab, and computer lab. The academy has two L# simulators in Jackson and one each in Lancaster and Chicago Heights.

“We want our trainees to spend at least a couple of hours in the simulator to become familiar with being in a truck cab, shifting gears, and understanding how the truck brakes perform,” Blankenship says. “By the time they get in the actual truck, they feel pretty comfortable with it.”

In Phase 2, trainees gain 12 days of experience on the truck driving range as well as on-the-road driver training. Phase 3 follows graduation from the academy. The trainee now has his Class A commercial driver’s license (CDL) and goes on the road for six weeks with a KLLM certified trainer—while earning a minimum of $400 per week.

As part of the classroom instruction, all trainees must obtain hazardous materials and tanker endorsements as part of the CDL. All of the hands-on training is done with new-model tractors.

Academy graduates who stay with for KLLM Transport Services for one year after training qualify for a $4,000 KLLM scholarship that covers the cost of the tuition.

Lease operators

While KLLM Transport Services has many company drivers, the focus is on encouraging drivers to become lease operators. The carrier works hard to help ensure that these lease operators achieve success as truck owners.

The lease operators have the opportunity to acquire the same types of tractors run by the KLLM Transport Services fleet. Currently, the carrier runs Freightliner Cascadia and Volvo sleeper tractors. The fleet spec includes Omnitracs on-board computers, roll stability, Meritor OnGuard collision avoidance, and the Bendix BlindSpot lane departure warning system.

The carrier runs only refrigerated trailers, all of them built by Utility and purchased through Southern States Utility Trailer Sales Inc. The trailers are 53-feet long and have lift pads for trailer-on-flatcar service. All of the trailers are fitted TrailerBlade side skirts. Trailer running gear includes PSI tire inflation.

Carrier refrigeration units are standard throughout the fleet and have the APX control system with  IntelliSet temperature management software. The technology gives the carrier the ability to precisely control refrigeration unit parameters for specific cargoes.

StarTrak telematics enable dispatchers and customers to monitor refrigeration unit operation and cargo temperature in real time. Drivers currently set the operating parameters, but dispatchers will be able to control settings in the future, according to Percy Thornton, owner of Southern States Utility.

“While we run state-of-the-art equipment, we try to keep it as uniform, simple, and efficient as possible,” Richards says. “We watch what other fleets are running, and then we choose what we believe will work best for our operation. We work with outstanding vendors who understand our expectations and needs. We believe the consistency in our fleet spec helps ensure consistently reliable service to our customers.”    ♦

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent more than 30 years covering the transportation industry throughout North, South, and Central America. He is editor of Bulk Transporter and editorial director of Refrigerated Transporter. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.

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