A calculated success: Falcon Transport’s Joe Fleming

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Joe Fleming’s story really begins in 1903, when his grandfather bought a horse and wagon and started a transportation company – McNicholas General Cartage and Storage, in Youngstown, Ohio.

Over the decades, Joe’s uncles, mother and father all joined the company. And Joe, an honor student, found himself working his college-year summers in the warehouse and on moving vans. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he recalls. “But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to work there.”

Fate, however, had other plans.

The return home
After graduating from Georgetown University in 1970, Joe received a masters degree in education and became a math teacher in Washington, D.C. He married Maryellen, his high-school sweetheart and, when their first son was born, they decided to move back to Ohio, where Joe had a teaching job lined up.

But when the teacher he was to replace decided not to leave, Joe was left without a job. His dad and uncle persuaded him to take over as manager of McNicholas’ moving division, replacing a cousin who had been elected state representative.

“The tough part about it was that, after I’d started working in the family business, another local teaching job became available,” Joe says. “It was a dream job at a school where I would have loved to work. I remember telling Maryellen, ‘I want to teach, but I just can’t walk out on the company.'”

So, Joe turned down the teaching job, and stayed with the moving division – “hating every minute of it.”

After six months of suffering with “unhappy housewives who were moving,” Joe got a break that was to help shape his career. His cousin, David McNicholas, who had worked at the company, came in to help reorganize the data-processing department. He concluded that Joe’s background was better suited to that line of work, which was relatively new to the company.

Joe took some IBM classes, and he and a partner took over the data processing department. He was much happier with computer and systems work and, in the late 70s, his department designed and wrote a system to automate dispatch and operations.

Joe had made his mark, and went on to become director of operations. But, in 1982, due to some union problems and his uncle’s age, the painful decision was made to close the company. It was a traumatic year.

Joe (far right) and his maintenance team today (left to right): John Serich, director of maintenance; George Siefert outside vendor and breakdown manager; Dave Takas, parts and warranty manager; Bob Hardisky, shop, training and technical-project manager.

Once bitten…
By now, a funny thing had happened – Joe actually wanted to stay in the trucking business. His brother and some of the other managers took what had been McNicholas’ leasing division and started running it as a separate company, Aim NationaLease. And his cousins revived the moving and storage division, Carney-McNicholas.

Meanwhile, Joe and two other company officers – Jim Grace, now retired, and Don Constantini, now Falcon CEO – got together and started Compass Transportation. Then they purchased nearby, nearly bankrupt Falcon Transport. They focused Compass on the steel industry, and positioned Falcon as a truckload van carrier, serving the automotive industry throughout the Midwest and East Coast, with Joe as president.

“Fortunately, when we closed McNicholas, we had sold every truck and every piece of equipment,” says Joe. “We were able to pay off all the company’s debts, so we had little trouble getting the credit we needed for our new venture.”

The new executives started with 17 trucks. But when they divided up duties, they realized that no one had any maintenance experience. Someone had to have that responsibility, and Joe drew the maintenance straw.

Maintenance 911
“I thought, maintenance, jeez!,” Joe recounts. “I didn’t know anything about it, and wasn’t sure what to do first.

“There was a Cummins distributor, Bill Hart – wonderful guy, retired now – and I called him and said ‘Bill, I’ve got to learn how a diesel engine works.’ He brought me a very basic book that he had passed around at high schools, and talked me through it.

“I hired two mechanics – both are still with the company – and we grew from there. But I knew I’d need to learn a lot more.” In 1989, Joe joined The Maintenance Council (TMC, now the Technology & Maintenance Council), and “learned something at every session. I’d come away with tablet after tablet filled with information. And I’d learn more from every hallway conversation between sessions. I could always find someone to help me.

“I was like a sponge,” Joe continues. “I’d walk around the exhibits in awe, stopping at booth after booth, asking ‘How does this work…What does this do?’

“Where I was coming from, there’s no way I could have done what I’ve done without TMC. I’ve met a great bunch of people I can call anytime with questions. I’ve even visited some of their shops to see how they do things. It doesn’t matter if our companies might be competitive – maintenance folks are always willing to share.

“Sometimes, you might have an equipment problem and not know what caused it, or how to prevent it, until you talk to others who have had the same trouble. A good example is brake linings cracking from brake-shoe rust – it’s called rust jacking. We had seen some of it at Falcon, but not until stories were shared at TMC did we realize that it was being caused by new road de-icing chemicals, like magnesium chloride, and inadequate shoe preparation at reline time. At TMC, everyone learns from each others’ experiences.”

Over the years, Joe has become more and more involved with the Council, and always finds time to give back by helping those in the position he once found himself in. He’s served as chairman of the S.6 Chassis Study Group and multiple task forces, as a moderator and participant in many technical and mini-tech sessions, as a member of the TMC/ATA Transition Committee and as board member.

“I’ve seen Joe in action,” says Bob Flesher, managing director, vehicle maintenance, FedEx Ground, Wexford, Pa., and fellow Career Leadership Award recipient. “And he’s probably the most patient man I know. At TMC, there are often topics that illicit emotional reactions – such as the trailer underride-guard-repair issue. Joe always remains calm and unassuming, but you can tell his mind is busy sorting through the problem logically and professionally. When he arrives at a conclusion, you can bet it’s a good one.”

“Joe is low-key, but dynamic,” adds Tom Tahaney, district service manager, Kenworth Truck Co., Evesham, N.J. “I know it sounds paradoxical but, in his quiet way, he gets things done so fast, and so well. He’s brought a whole new perspective that greatly benefits TMC and the industry.”

Recognizing Joe’s involvement and contributions, TMC has awarded him its highest honor, the Silver Spark Plug.

Joe has a great rapport with all Falcon employees. He’s shown here with veteran “tire guru” Billy Cross, who has been associated with the companies since the mid 60s.

Situation under control
Today, Joe and his maintenance team care for more than 1,000 tractors, 1,175 van trailers and 695 flatbeds, with the help of 50 technicians at seven shops. Joe tries not to micro-manage, but admits he’s very detail-oriented because, he says, “The little stuff will eat you alive.” For example, he found that, with the 28,000-mile oil drain interval he’d established, the trucks weren’t getting the attention they needed in other areas.

So he instituted a 14,000-mile “mini-service,” which is a full service with no oil change. The trucks get a thorough inspection, and little problems are taken care of before they further deteriorate.

“Now, if a truck misses its mini-service and gets out to 17,000 miles, our computer program automatically flags that truck for a full service,” says Joe. And you can bet he’s aggressive about getting overdue trucks into a shop – he wrote the computer program.

When visiting a Falcon facility, it’s obvious that Joe is very well liked by his employees. There’s always time for a pleasant exchange, and there’s a friendly feeling all around.

Technicians get an especially fair shake from Joe. For example, he doesn’t hold them to a set time to complete a job, but he insists that the job be done right the first time. In fact, he’ll ask tough questions if he doesn’t think enough time has been spent to do a job properly.

“We use TMC’s Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standard (VMRS) codes for parts,” says Joe. “But when a mechanic punches in on a job, we don’t track his time by VMRS code. If he does a brake job, lubes the truck and replaces a headlight, we know he has spent, say, five hours on the truck, but we don’t know how that time was broken down. I really don’t want him stopping what he’s doing and running back and forth to the computer to log those specifics. Our system may not be perfect, but it works pretty well for us.” As you might guess, there’s no technician-shortage problem at Falcon.

One imminent concern Joe has involves new engines, equipped with exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), due out this October. “The problem I have is that the government has squeezed the deadline down so tight that engine makers have to rush these things into production,” he says. “I’m sure they’ve done their homework, but I’d feel more comfortable if there were time to do more testing to ensure reliability. I think we’re going to sit on the sidelines and see what happens before buying any trucks with the new engines.”

A broader scope
In 2000, Compass Transportation was merged into Falcon Transport, and a new division, Comprehensive Logistics, was formed. This afforded Joe an opportunity to put his systems background to good use, automating shippers’ loads, creating load-building programs, and integrating all manner of software for the new company’s impossibly intricate delivery schemes.

For example, Comprehensive sequences and delivers auto parts, just in time, to General Motors assembly plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Lansing, Mich., which together produce about 3,500 cars per day. “We deliver half a million parts a day,” says Joe. “We need to not only be on time with each delivery, but we have to verify that the shippers have shipped the right parts. And we need to load the parts, in the exact order in which they’ll be unloaded and used, onto our trailers, back to front.”

To add to the complexity of the operation, Comprehensive’s employees actually perform some sub-assembly of parts, such as applying weatherstripping to window glass, prior to sequencing and delivering.

To add value and save money, Joe justified the purchase of an expensive scan-gun system, which was installed for error proofing, calculating that it would require six more employees to do the same work, while ensuring at least the minimum quality and accuracy that Comprehensive’s customers expect.

In 2001, the company had a near-Six-Sigma quality rating, with the majority of errors resulting from supplier mislabeling.

What now?
While the role of today’s maintenance manager has evolved to embrace information technology, Joe’s foray into the world of high-tech logistics has brought him full-circle, serving to heighten his awareness of the importance of solid maintenance practices. After all, if a truck breaks down and just one of several daily deliveries to GM doesn’t show up on time, a plant shuts down, at an enormous cost per minute.

Now that TMC has added information technology to its maintenance mission, Joe is sure the organization will help him to continue to grow in both disciplines. And those who know Joe know he’ll continue to give back, gladly sharing what he’s learned with those who need the benefit of his experience.

“I’ve never rebuilt an engine, nor done a brake job,” he admits. “I manage, I listen to my people, and I use what I’ve learned at TMC.”

Sounds like a surefire equation for success.

Falcon Transport Typical linehaul specs

Tractor: International 9200i (these specs), Freightliner Columbia (Argosy cabover for doubles), Volvo WIA (all pre-VN)
Engine: Cummins N14, 370-hp, ESP+; doubles, 430-hp
Transmission: Eaton Fuller, 10-speed
Clutch: Eaton Solo
Driveshaft: Spicer Life SPL170
Axles: Dana/Spicer
Rear suspension: International, air
Brakes: Dana/Spicer
Wheels: Accuride disc, 5-hand-hole, 22.5-inch
Tires, front: Michelin XZA2
Tires, rear: Michelin XDA-HT
5th wheel: Fontaine, SL6AWB, 24-inch
ABS: Meritor WABCO
Power steering: Ross
Air dryer: Bendix AD-9
Alternator: Delco 33-SI
Batteries: Interstate, 4, 3,000 CCA
Fan drive: Horton, Kysor
Ext. lighting: Truck-Lite Super 40
Driver’s seat: National 2000, Model 195
Satellite communication: Qualcomm
Trailer, van: Great Dane, Strick, Wabash
Trailer, flatbed: Fontaine, Great Dane

Key suppliers

Engine oil: Valvoline (Premium Blue 15W40)
Grease: Valvoline (Long-Life semi-synthetic)
Gear lube: Eaton Roadranger (synthetic 75W90)
Trans lube: Eaton Roadranger (synthetic 50W)
Coolant: Fleetguard (Complete PG propylene glycol w/DCA-4)
Retreads: Michelin (70 percent), Bandag/Goodyear/Oliver (30 percent)