With 700 tractors and 1,000 trailers crisscrossing North American roads, Indian River Transport Co. is one of the nation’s largest food grade carriers. The Winter Haven, Florida based business specializes in hauling food grade liquids, primarily fruit juices and dairy products.
John Harned owns the industry leading company, which was founded by his father Jack in 1974. Situated in what was the heart of the citrus market, the business got its start transporting orange juice out of Florida. “Over the years we have added other products as the juice market has moved away from Florida and into other areas,” says General Manager Vic Thompson. “There are a lot of imports now, so the industry is changing somewhat and you have to be in front of it. We certainly have an owner who is a visionary. He tends to see things ahead of time and reacts before a lot of other companies would.”
As Indian River Transport added more food grade liquids to its list of products, the company managed to claim a substantial portion of a relatively small market. Few businesses are prepared to meet the high standards necessary in this industry, and the company was able to gain a foothold through its conscientious approach. “We are very diligent in the tank washes and the record keeping – in everything. Everything you do within the food grade level has to be done right.”
Meeting sanitation requirements is a complicated endeavor. “When you are dealing with food grade, a tanker is washed after you haul a load,” Mr. Thompson explains. “Depending on what that product is there are different levels of how long you have to wash it, what the temperature should be, how long you have to hold that temperature.” Not only does the team have to manage the washing process, they also have to maintain meticulous records documenting their procedures and recording the types of liquid hauled in each tanker. “We are very diligent. We know what we are dealing with and the liabilities that can come from making a mistake.”
Indian River Transport only uses Juice Products Association (JPA) certified tank wash facilities to ensure the process is done correctly. “We make sure that everything gets the proper wash and that all our vendors understand that we only use a certified wash facility. We have a tank wash manager that is probably one of the best in the country. People from the state of Florida send people in here to train just because of the knowledge that he has in the industry.”
The company maintains its high standards across the entire organization. “We are image conscious,” Mr. Thompson remarks. “We stay clean and neat. All our equipment is clean and neat and it gets repaired immediately and it gets repaired the right way. We have beautiful facilities. The terminals that we own are state of the art. We have asphalt paving at all the locations as well as large shop facilities. We keep a very professional level at all locations, not just the corporate office.” The team also focuses on maintaining a high level of customer service, earning the company many long-term relationships within their niche market.
Of course, safety is another core company focus. “That is where we excel,” says Mr. Thompson. Safety starts with drivers, and Indian River Transport only hires professional drivers who have significant industry experience. “We don’t take drivers right out of school. Generally they have to have a year over the road.” The company goes the extra mile to ensure these drivers drive safely. “We do everything we can to keep them safe. We put roll stability on long before it was mandated. [We use] collision avoidance systems and lane departure systems. And we are looking at new things for next year as well, to continue to use [new] technology.”
The company’s safety efforts earned a Platinum award from Great West Casualty Company as part of the 2013 National Safety Awards Program. Based on crash data collected per million miles, the award honors the safest of Great West’s carrier affiliates. As the highest award level attainable, Platinum recognition is only given to a select few. “When you receive an award from Great West, typically it is recognized as being one of the best of the best,” Mr. Thompson explains.
Overcoming Industry Challenges
The company’s greatest current challenge is the industry-wide workforce shortage. “Over the last few years we have had some good growth – but we could have had a lot more growth if we had more qualified drivers. The driver capacity within food grade hauling is our number one issue. We want to keep our trucks staffed and that keeps getting more and more difficult.”
As the workforce ages and retires, there simply are not enough people stepping in to fill the ranks. “The average age of a truck driver is around 53 years old and not a lot of new, younger folks are entering the industry so there are a lot of driver capacity issues facing the entire country. And they predict that shortage to continue. That pool of drivers continues to get smaller and smaller and there is heavy competition for those drivers.”
Indian River Transport recruits and retains some of the industry’s best drivers by providing top-notch work conditions. “One thing that we do is buy the best quality equipment,” Mr. Thompson reports. And the company makes sure its equipment is always new; the oldest truck in the fleet is just three years old. All the bells and whistles are included, from refrigerators to 70+ inch sleepers. “That is where the driver lives so we try to make it as comfortable for him as possible.”
The company also offers no touch freight. “Our shippers load it and our customers unload it. All our drivers do is drive. There is no unloading, no extra work.” The company is also moving toward AutoShift transmission to simplify the job and attract more drivers into the market. “We are continuing to delve into every area we can.”
Recently, the company has begun offering drivers CDL Defender from U.S. Legal Services. This special insurance coverage provides legal representation in court for nearly any citation a driver might receive. U.S. Legal pays 100% of the attorney fees for covered issues – whether they occurred on the job or in a personal vehicle. They even cover a spouse’s attorney fees as well. Indian River Transport reports that, of the cases that U.S. Legal has represented, 45% were vacated or ruled not guilty, while 36% received a reduction in charges.
While new equipment, no touch freight, and good benefits are all important perks, there is still the issue of grueling driving schedules. The driver shortage is most severe among long-haul truckers and the industry has had to respond accordingly. “We are adjusting to the shortage of drivers and especially the over the road drivers who will stay out for weeks at a time. We are keeping drivers in the area where they live more.” Changes within the industry have allowed companies like Indian River Transport to slash the length of haul and retain these drivers. “The industry in general has moved to a shorter haul,” Mr. Thompson explains. “Our length of haul continues to drop as more imports come into the market and the delivery points are closer to a port rather than Florida or California.”
As the industry becomes more regionalized, the company may open more facilities in order to fully serve each region. “We are looking at opening additional facilities in strategic markets,” says Mr. Thompson. Indian River Transport has managed to grow successfully for 42 years, and as the markets shift and new challenges arise, the company has the experience and strategies in place to continue being a carrier of choice.