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Hauling own goods now less than half of business

Technology takes over Howard Transportation

ELLISVILLE — Howard Transportation can give lessons on how technology has changed the trucking industry. Billy Howard Jr. sits at his desk with his parent company’s Howard Computer running the PeopleNet software program.

Casually clad in his orange polo shirt, blue jeans and jogging shoes, the 43-year old Howard shows a USA map depicting where each of the 152 company trucks are at that very moment — each one is color coded. One is in Miami, another in Minnesota, another in Massachusetts and one in Houston, Texas — the rest at points in between. Howard has been president for 13 years and is awed by what the system enables him to do.

“This satellite tracking system has revolutionized the way we operate,” Howard said. “And it has dramatically improved our operating efficiency.”

In addition to providing the exact location of the trucks (24 are owner-operated), Howard can also determine the speed and fuel mileage of the truck, how the engine is performing, and can e-mail the driver directions to his next load. And families can also exchange e-mails with the drivers. As one truck industry veteran said, “Who’da thunk it!” And that’s not all.

“This gives us real time information on safety-related data such as excessive speed or hard braking and we can take immediate action rather than waiting on the driver to return,” Howard said. “We give bonuses based on the driver’s safety record and mileage. And if there’s a problem with the engine, we can determine if it needs to be worked on immediately or if the driver can get home where repairs are much less expensive.”

Howard Transportation had its beginning in Laurel hauling transformers and supplies in 1970 for the parent corporation, Howard Industries, which had cranked up a year earlier.

The trucks also did back hauling for some other companies — primarily perishables from California.

When the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, they began soliciting other customers. Then the transportation division was incorporated as a Howard subsidiary, and in 1993 the entire trailer fleet was converted to flatbeds. Howard worked his way up through the ranks of the parent corporation starting in 1975 and has been president of the transportation firm since 1990. He can tell you the present day operation is a far cry from its beginnings.

Today only 45% of its revenue comes from Howard Industries. The trucks haul building materials for Georgia-Pacific, its second biggest customer. Next in product line is steel for such customers as Bethlehem and Wheeling-Pittsburgh. “We have at least 50 of what we call our larger accounts,” Howard said.

There are 188 employees headquartered at the busy Ellisville office located just south of Laurel at exit 88 on Interstate 59. Loads are taken everywhere east of the Mississippi River plus Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. Then there are the transformers hauled to Southern California to Southern Cal Edison, a major customer. And the big changes continue.

Howard has another terminal in Kenly, N. C. About 18 months ago, the company began a “regional” operation in the Carolinas. “It was suggested by one of our customers and it’s been very successful,” Howard said. “Ten trucks are assigned to that terminal. It’s a trend in the trucking business and we’re also expanding our regional operations in Mississippi. These give us access to an entirely new market segment that we were unable to serve with our long haul operations.”

Another area of growth for Howard Transportation is the logistics and brokerage division. “A lot of companies are eliminating cost centers (like the transportation operation) and are going to outsourcing,” Howard said. “We’re taking advantage of that. Then we work with other carriers to provide a service to our mutual customers. And we also schedule freight with other lines that we can’t haul ourselves.”

That’s the indication that competition doesn’t bother Howard at all.

“There have been a lot of bankruptcies lately, especially among the smaller trucking companies,” he said. “That’s mainly due to fuel costs continuing to be at a near all-time high, very costly insurance and rates remaining hotly competitive.”

“We fight that high fuel cost by having a national agreement with Truck Stops of America and also by hedging with contract futures. And another advantage of our PeopleNet system enables us to direct the drivers to the lowest cost pumps.”

Howard gives strong emphasis to driver improvement and retention.

“Nationally, there’s been a shortage of truck drivers for several years,” Howard said. “But we have a low turnover rate compared with other companies. We’ve been fully manned for the last couple of years.”

The major source of new drivers is through the Mississippi community colleges’ driver training programs. “They fit better with us than commercial school graduates. Then we put them through a minimum eight-week training program of our own,” Howard said. “We keep a friendly personal professional atmosphere. Each of the drivers is assigned to one dispatcher and the door of our director of operations — or my door — is always open to any of those drivers. And, of course, we are competitive on wages and benefits.”

Howard says his customers expect three important characteristics out of his firm. “First, they expect the goods to be delivered on time. And they expect those goods to be in good shape when they arrive at their destination. And, last, they expect us to be consistent — that is, to have a truck available when they need it. Our technology has helped us in all three of those phases of our operation.”

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

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