A barrel of prevention

Todd Walker is showing off one of C-Line Express’ warehouses when he spies a driver who apparently has forgotten his training on the safest way to stack oak barrels. Walker, C-Line’s vice president, cordially – but quite firmly – reiterates the company’s procedures. Then he pulls together all the drivers on hand for an impromptu refresher course. It’s this kind of immediate response to an observed risk that has resulted in C-Line suffering only three workers’ compensation injuries since Walker and his father-in-law, company President Pat Clay, bought the Napa Valley-based carrier in 1990.

At a time when many other California trucking companies are seeing their workers’ compensation premiums double or triple, C-Line faced only a 10 percent increase in its most recent policy renewal. For Clay, the success in work place safety is hardly mysterious.
“We train our people religiously 12 months of the year,” Clay says. He points to some common sense rules that every driver should obey but many carriers don’t reinforce, such as never touching a truck unless the driver’s body is touching the truck or ground at three points. C-Line even makes a point of reminding drivers to never jump out of a truck.

Training is particularly important because of the nature of C-Line’s business and the various types of equipment drivers use.

C-Line’s customers supply oak barrels, corks and bottles to the wine makers. The company serves all the major barrel-makers in France, Clay says. C-Line’s receivers are
typically small- and medium-sized wineries in Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys. C-Line also inherited some grape-hauling business from an acquisition two years ago, but Clay and Walker quickly dropped all but one of those customers. For that one customer, C-Line provides power only – no trailers and no manual labor.

“Our business requires a tremendous amount of handling,” Walker says. The carrier operates several warehouses, so training on forklifts and similar equipment is essential. C-Line’s business is primarily LTL into local wineries, many of which are in hilly areas with bad or narrow roads. To feed this distribution, C-Line trucks run down to the Port of Oakland and back with intermodal containers. The bulk of C-Line’s freight – barrels and corks – comes to the United States from Europe by ship.

This varied and challenging operation calls for 32 straight trucks and tractors pulling various trailer types – 28-foot single axles, 40-foot and 45-foot trailers, as well as containers. Among those 32 power units are a couple of sleeper-equipped trucks dedicated to serving some of Southern California’s wine producers.

To keep a handle on this operation, Walker makes the most of the safety resources available to him, such as visits from his insurance company’s loss control personnel. Many carriers dread such inspections, Walker says. “I look at it as free consulting. When somebody is handing you something free, you might as well take it.”

Walker is continually looking for ways to improve safety cost-effectively. About six months ago, for example, C-Line began stacking oak barrels in its warehouse on pallets rather than on top of one another. That change wasn’t cheap because pallets are expensive, but Walker figures that savings in time, space and especially improved safety, justify the decision.

One of C-Line’s recently implemented practices is storing its freight of oak barrels on pallets. Walker determined that savings measured in time, space and safety more than offset the expense of the pallets.

Pruning and weeding
Drivers join C-Line under a 90-day probation and spend the first two or three months in training. “We want them to drive with several different drivers,” Walker says. “To an extent, every driver here is a trainer.”

Having new drivers ride with several experienced drivers keeps the veterans on their guard. Perhaps more important, Clay says, C-Line managers find out who fits in. Walker agrees. “You can’t have a team if people don’t know each other.” The ride-along period also teaches new drivers the nature of work and location of key customers and familiarizes them with the equipment. In the end, it’s the veteran drivers who basically decide whether a rookie stays after 90 days, Walker says.

C-Line doesn’t insist on experienced drivers. “We hire a lot of people out of truck driving school,” Clays says, adding that on occasion C-Line has hired someone and sent him to school to get a CDL. “It seems like the pool of drivers right now isn’t abundant,” Walker says. But it’s not just lack of supply that leads C-Line to newly minted truck drivers. The company wants to avoid drivers who have developed bad habits elsewhere.

One likely reason drivers aren’t in ready supply is the cost of living in Napa and surrounding communities. “We think that truck drivers can’t live in this area anymore,” Clay says. It’s not such a big issue for older drivers who may have owned their homes for a while, but it’s a big problem for attracting younger drivers. So C-Line, which just moved out of Napa to its current location in the nearby community of American Canyon four years ago, is considering another move.

The labor supply isn’t so tight that C-Line keeps marginal or difficult drivers, however. Clay admits that during the busy season – generally April through September – C-Line is focused on getting the job done. If employees aren’t working out precisely as C-Line’s managers would like, “our attitude is ‘live and let live’.”

During the winter months, however, the company scrutinizes its operation and employees to see where improvements or cuts are needed. Clay refers to this period as “pruning.”
Deciding when and where C-Line prunes and who gets weeded out, if necessary, isn’t an exact science, but Clay and Walker are satisfied with their approach. One exercise they use occasionally, Clay says, is ranking all employees in the order they would fire them if they had to. Walker thinks the drill is useful because it forces managers to think through an employee’s complete performance rather than focusing on some remarkable blunder committed six weeks or six months earlier.

Another yardstick flows from C-Line’s compensation package. When Clay and Walker took over C-Line, the company was paying strictly by the hour, and productivity was poor. So C-Line developed a new system that calculates pay two different ways – an hourly wage and a percentage of the revenue drivers produce. Drivers can count on the hourly wage as a floor, but if the revenue-based pay is higher, that’s what they get.

C-Line calculates the revenue percentage monthly, so the company, in effect, reviews drivers from a productivity standpoint each month, Walker says. Consistently failing to get revenue-based pay, especially during the summer, sends up a red flag, he says. “The one or two guys who don’t get it in the busy months are the guys you have to look at.”

The work is so intense during the summer that C-Line offers an attractive but strict bonus program. Drivers can earn 10 days paid vacation if they don’t miss a single day of work between Memorial Day to Oct. 1. To keep the program from becoming an administrative nightmare, the no-miss policy is absolute. An absence, no matter how compelling the reason, nullifies the vacation bonus, Clay says. Other incentives C-Line offers include $50 a month for no moving violations and one day’s pay per month if the driver has no accidents or incidents.

Growing management
Clay started out in the trucking industry in 1954 working for his father. He then worked for several major carriers in the East and Midwest before moving to California in 1978 and becoming a partner in a rice-hauling operation. Walker, on the other hand, was barely out of college and had no prior trucking background when the two worked together in the rice-hauling company during the 1980s. His formal training is in management information systems, and he learned the business by programming a trucking software system for the company.

Today, Walker is C-Line’s day-to-day manager. That was long Clay’s plan, but the transition accelerated quickly last year when Clay served as president of the California Trucking Association. CTA duties constantly kept him out of the office or busy with association business, and the time commitment continues this year as Clay serves as CTA’s chairman.
The timing of Clay’s CTA responsibilities fit his plans perfectly. “You can’t grow management if you are standing there watching them,” he says.

Clay and Walker have developed clear roles. While Clay focuses on business development, customer relations and generally hauling in revenue, it’s Walker’s job to manage the operation and keep expenses under control. “I have always been in charge of the cash register, and Todd’s been in charge of the checkbook,” Clay declares.

One hallmark of the management style Clay and Walker espouse is openness. Except for situations like discipline that necessarily require discretion, little at C-Line is kept out of the public view. Walker, for example, often uses a fax machine in a common area to send out documents, such as financial statements, that many companies would consider highly sensitive.

One of Walker’s biggest challenges is paperwork. He contends that if a manager actually completed all the forms that crossed his desk, that alone would be a full-time job. So Walker has, over time, developed a strategy. “If you get it, and you’ve never seen it, you throw it away. If it comes back, you probably need to fill it out.”

Despite the hassle, Clay and Walker are committed to compliance and safety. They need to look no further than their insurance premium to see the payback.

Vice President Todd Walker

Location: American Canyon, Calif.
Principals: Pat Clay and Todd Walker
Equipment: 26 tractors and straight trucks, including Freightliners, Kenworths, Internationals and Fords; Cummins and Detroit Diesel engines; Eaton Fuller transmissions; Great Dane and Wabash trailers. Also uses 6 owner-operators.
Freight: Oak barrels, corks, bottles, grapes
Challenge: Preserving work place safety
Solution: Regular training and reinforcement; risk management; periodic performance reviews; incentives.