Hill Bros. enjoys elevated reefer rates—hopes demand doesn't plummet

May 18, 2022
The family-owned pork and beef hauler based in Omaha, Nebraska, serves customers nationwide with a fleet of 200 company-owned tractors, and 250 refrigerated trailers with Thermo King TRUs.

All things considered, Hill Bros. weathered the challenges of the past three years in reasonably good shape. Despite the COVID-19 impact, the refrigerated and dry freight carrier continues to meet shipper needs with the right drivers, equipment, and support staff.

Based in Omaha, Neb., Hill Bros. operates a fleet that includes more than 200 company-owned tractors, 300 refrigerated trailers, and 300 dry vans. While a large percentage of operations are concentrated in the Midwest, the carrier serves customers in the Southeast, and from the Midwest to California.

“Our primary focus is on refrigerated cargoes, with beef, pork, and packaged frozen goods accounting for the majority of our business,” said Al Hill, president of Hill Bros. “We also have a division of 30 trucks hauling fresh pork to California ports for export to Japan, with backhauls consisting of bottled wine to Denver and the Midwest. Our Southeast network consists of frozen foods and meats concentrated in the Atlanta market.

“Demand for refrigerated transport remains solid, and refrigerated rates should stay strong. Low inventories are helping to keep refrigerated truck rates at an elevated level. Many of the products we haul are moving at a just-in-time pace.

“I’ve never seen anything like this past year in the trucking market, with good rates and higher used truck and trailer sales, and it is hard to tell how long it will last. We’re seeing reports predicting a downturn in the U.S. truckload market, but I hope they’re wrong as the cost of our drivers, equipment, tires, and overhead will not decrease.

“(One industry observer) reports that the driving force will be a slow-down in customer spending combined with an oversupply of trucking capacity, particularly in the spot market. They say that the spot market has become glutted with a multitude of inexperienced and unseasoned new operators. We’ll just have to see what happens, and then adapt.”

Family company 

The operation that evolved into Hill Bros. was launched by John E “Pete” Hill, who had a long career in the trucking industry. Following management stints at three Nebraska truck fleets, he formed Hill Truck Line in 1974. In 1986, he launched Hill Bros. Transportation in concert with his four sons, Pete, Al, Jim, and Pat. John Hill was 91 when he died Feb. 18.

During the regulated years, Hill Truck Line operated routes between Omaha and Kansas City, Mo. With trucking industry deregulation in 1980, the carrier expanded into irregular route operations that brought steady growth over the following decades.

More recently, the company added its own 3PL brokerage and logistics service. Hill Bros. Logistics is a complete supply chain management solutions provider that serves customers throughout the 48 contiguous states and in Canada using its own assets, as well as those of contracted providers.

Al Hill acknowledges that current operating conditions are some of the most challenging the trucking company has faced over the more than four decades it has been in business. Serious issues include the growing shortage of drivers, continued delays in new tractor and trailer deliveries, truck parts shortages, dealer service delays due to technicians shortages, escalating prices for new trucks and trailers, and fuel expenses.

“We’ve taken a number of steps in response to these challenges,” Al Hill said. “The driver market certainly is tough, but we are having the best success in finding drivers for shorter hauls. Finding longhaul drivers is more difficult. We currently employ 214 company drivers and we have signed on about 25 owner-operators. We’re looking for more owner-operators.

“To help in attracting drivers, we are doing everything we can to increase pay and benefits for company drivers. We give out free DEF to all owner-operators at the Omaha terminal. We are condensing our traffic lanes into power lanes. We are concentrating on the areas where we are strongest. We are doing everything we can to build good, predictable driving jobs.”

A majority of the drivers handle regional shipments that have them out and back every day or every other day. Longhaul drivers are on the road for a week at a time and are home for the weekend.

Driver selection

Despite the driver shortage, the carrier has maintained its strict driver selection requirements. “We’re not going to take shortcuts in driver recruiting and selection just to fill the driver’s seat in a tractor,” says Raul Soria, Hill Bros. safety director.

He adds that it is critical to hire the right drivers that fit the Hill Bros. operation. “Right now we have enough drivers to meet customer needs,” he said. “We still could use more as new trucks coming in April through June, but we are getting closer to 100% fleet utilization.”

Experienced truck drivers must be at least 21 years old, have a valid commercial driver’s license (CDL), and show that they had a clean driving record for the past three years. A clean record means no serious violations in the past two years and no more than three moving violations in the past three years. Currently, the average age of experienced driver applicants is 48 to 50 years old.

For inexperienced drivers who are recent graduates of an approved truck driving school, Hill Bros. offers its Finishing Program. Established in 2012, the program teams new drivers with driver trainers who have excellent CSA scores and a good working relationship with the safety and operations teams.

“About 30% of our new hires are entry level,” Soria said. “We recruit them from a small network of CDL schools primarily in the Nebraska/Iowa region. We’ve had very good results with the program, and about 75% of the graduates stay with us at least five to seven years. The first graduate of the program is still driving with us.”

All newly selected drivers complete a new-hire orientation that includes a functional capacity exam. For experienced drivers, the orientation lasts two days. The orientation runs four days for inexperienced drivers.

Finishing School

Following the initial orientation, entry-level drivers begin eight weeks of advanced driver training behind the wheel with a Hill Bros. instructor who has completed a train-the-trainer program. The new driver is assigned to a new trainer every two weeks.

Most of the training time during the first eight weeks is spent locally. This is followed by seven to eight weeks of driving in a regional setting. 

The driver selection and training process is part of an award-winning safety program that the Hill Bros. management team built over the years. Most recently, the carrier was recognized with a second-place award in Division III (15 to 24.99 million miles) of the Truckload Carriers Association’s Fleet Safety Awards competition for 2021.

Hill Bros.’ five-person safety team promotes knowledge-based training with competitive safety incentives. Drivers can earn monthly cash bonuses for safe driving performance on the job and clean vehicle inspections. Participation in quarterly safety meetings is mandatory, and roughly 65% of drivers do so online.

Tractor specs

The carrier has built a fleet specified with state-of-the-art safety technologies. The newest company tractors include the International LT with a Cummins ISX engine and Eaton automated transmission for regional and local hauling. The carrier provides longhaul and team drivers with the Volvo 860 with a Volvo engine and Volvo’s I-Shift automated transmission. Specs include the Bendix Wingman Fusion system that combines electronic vehicle stability control, collision mitigation, and lane-departure alerts.

Geotab telematics provide accurate vehicle tracking, vehicle systems monitoring, collision detection, and in-vehicle driver coaching. “The system has plenty of customizable capabilities that make it easy to adjust to our operations,” Soria said. “It also shows a very good return on investment.”

Over the past year, Hill Bros. installed Netradyne on-board cameras in all of the tractors in the fleet. The carrier uses forward-facing and side-mounted cameras.

Tire inflation management systems have been installed on all of the tractors and trailers in the fleet. Aperia’s Halo tire inflation system is spec’d on tractors. The trailer fleet uses a mix of Hendrickson and Meritor tire inflation systems.

Trailer specs

Hill Bros. has standardized on Wabash refrigerated and dry freight trailers. The 53-foot long refrigerated trailers are specified with 2.5-inch insulation in the sidewalls, 2 inches in the ceiling, and 3 inches on the floor. Rear swing doors open to 109 inches wide. Thermo King C-600 refrigeration units are standard across the fleet.

The carrier is in the final stages of deploying the ORBCOMM trailer monitoring and tracking system across the system. “The ORBCOMM system is helping us take our operations to new levels of efficiency and profitability,” said Pete Hill, Hill Bros. vice president. “This telematics solution gives us the ability to manage our refrigerated and dry trailer assets seamlessly through a single portal and use that data to gain a clear view of our entire operation. We began installing the system in February and deployment should be complete by July.”

With mapping, reports, alerts, and exceptions, the ORBCOMM refrigerated solution provides up-to-the minute trailer location and temperature information to ensure loads are in compliance and meeting customer standards for quality and service. The platform also provides the real-time data and business intelligence needed to help Hill Bros. increase utilization of its refrigerated trailers and gain fuel savings.

The carrier also is deploying the ORBCOMM dry trailer monitoring system, which features a high-sensitivity solar panel with long-lasting battery life and charging capabilities. The system enables Hill Bros. to access live and scheduled status updates, whether trailers are in transit or in the yard, or empty or loaded.

Seeing the big picture for the fleet operation has become increasingly important for the in-house maintenance operation. Most of the vehicle maintenance is handled in-house at the company shop in Omaha, according to Glenn Knust, Hill Bros. maintenance director.

He says one of the biggest maintenance challenges the carrier faces today is getting replacement parts. “We’ve faced growing shortages of all parts since the COVID-19 outbreak,” he said. “Virtually everything is in short supply. As a result, we’re having to carry larger parts inventories.”

Hill Bros. continues to address the challenges of the past several years while building a strong, competitive transportation operation with leading-edge technologies and fleet management systems.

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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