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Roadway’s biz ‘just like old Pony Express’

MERIDIAN — When Roadway Express put its break bulk/distribution terminal in Meridian in 1975, the company validated what local leaders had advertised for a long time: that the city is ideally located for that type facility.

J. D. Peeples is district manager of Roadway. From his Memphis office, he oversees the Meridian operation.

“Meridian is a strategic location for us with Interstates 20 and 59 going through it,” Peeples said. “With our drivers limited to 10 hours of driving per day, that makes it an ideal point from our other terminals. Those drivers can get their 10 hours by taking a load from Meridian to Atlanta or Memphis and returning that same day or driving to Greenville, S. C. and returning the next day. It’s just like the old Pony Express.”

Peeples ought to know. He’s been with Roadway for 21 years and was in Meridian for two years in the mid-90s. He’s been district manager for eight years.

It’s not small potatoes

The Meridian terminal is located on more than 10 acres just a couple of turns from those two interstate highways. And Meridian’s airport with its 10,000-foot runway is immediately adjacent. It’s a 24/7 operation with the exception of Christmas and Thanksgiving days. With more than 20 trucks leaving every hour, there’s a constant rumble of trucks arriving or departing, tanks being filled with diesel (6,000 gallons per day) at the two pumping stations and drivers and workers coming and going.

And there’s a van nearby waiting to take drivers staying overnight to one of the local motels. That alone is a nice economic boost for local tourist business.

According to Peeples, Meridian has 125 over-the-road drivers plus 100 dock workers and city drivers. Then there are the 50 management and clerical employees. That’s not small potatoes — knowledgeable sources say that the over-the-road drivers average $70,000 annually and the dock workers average $45,000. Economic developers have been known to knock down doors for those kinds of payrolls.

“Yes, we have a high cost per employee, but it’s worth it,” Peeples said. “We have a turnover of only 1%, and we get a better quality worker with a high attendance and an outstanding safety record.”

Safety and the average driver

Obviously, safety is a watchword with the firm. Observers have noticed that their trucks never exceed the speed limit — that’s because there’s a governor that limits the trucks to 62 mph. And as departing drivers climb the steps of the Meridian terminal, they are confronted with safety signs that include “Keep your eyes moving” and “Make sure they see you.”

Peeples said that the Meridian drivers had recently completed 7.8 million miles without an accident. He compares that with an average person who drives less than a million miles during their lifetime, yet has three or four accidents.

On the local scene, before each shift, the dock workers are put through stretching exercises to keep down back injuries and muscle strains. And safety signs are everywhere including “Watch your back” and “Look out below.”

Steve Stamper, one of the Meridian management staff, said that the local terminal receives a safety award at virtually every company meeting.

Anything over 1,000 pounds

The Meridian terminal is one of 26 similar facilities in the U.S., and with 110 doors is one of the smaller ones in the company, Peeples said. But the dock area is noisy with the whine of fork lifts spinning about loading and unloading the trailers backed up to the doors. Products being handled on this particular day ranged from Compaq computers to Slim Fast and signs of globalization are everywhere — products made in China or Thailand are among the cartons being shuttled back and forth.

“We’ll take anything over 1,000 pounds, except alcohol or some hazardous materials,” Peeples said. “Just have it packaged properly and we’ll take it from door to door.”

It’s no surprise that Peavey Electronics, with its international marketing, is the largest local customer.

Recession hasn’t hurt the stock price

As for effects from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Peeples said their economic problems began in the fall of 2000.

“Our revenue is off about 10%,” he stated. “9-ll just added to our downturn. We’re always the first to feel a slowdown because the first thing that happens is people stop shipping, but we’re the first to feel a recovery, too.”

Most layoffs have been taken care of through attrition. “Even when they’re laid off, they may get called back to work two to four days a week,” Peeples noted.

The slowdown hasn’t hurt Roadway’s stock price which is traded at about $37 on the NASDAQ. Peeples has the figures on the tip of his tongue.

“It’s done excellent,” he glowed. “It’s up 52.8% this year and 26.6% the past three years.”

Small wonder he’s smiling when he says that.

There’s an ESOP and employees can also earn stock based on safety (there’s that magic word again), attendance and company profitability. In addition, they can also purchase stock at a 15% discount. So there’s a lot of incentive to make sure that those revenues bounce back up.

Another reason they like Meridian

Roadway has come a long way since 1929 when Galen Roush founded it to haul Firestone and Goodyear tires from Akron, Ohio, to the Ford plant in Detroit. Today it’s the largest carrier of consumer products in the U. S., according to Peeples. Akron continues to be the home office.

As for the Meridian terminal, Peeples said there are no plans for expansion, “But we’re sure happy with that operation. The Meridian workforce is one of the most efficient in the company. That’s another reason we’re pleased to be in Meridian.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Bill Johnson Jr. at lanjohnson@aol.com.

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