Innovators: Breaking down barriers

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (center) and John Hill, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief (second from left), visited the El Paso, Texas office of Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution on Oct. 19. They met with Dieter McLaughlin, vice president (far left); Scott McLaughlin, president (second from right); and Don Anderson, vice president (far right).

With all the uproar over Mexican carriers operating in the United States, it’s easy to forget that the Department of Transportation’s North American Free Trade Agreement trucking demonstration program also allowed U.S. trucking companies to operate in Mexico. But Scott McLaughlin hasn’t forgotten.

McLaughlin is president of El Paso, Texas-based Stagecoach Cartage & Distribution, the first U.S. trucking company ever to operate – legally, at least – its own equipment into Mexico. And even if the pilot program doesn’t survive congressional opposition, Stagecoach has opened the door to business opportunities that potentially could continue in some form.

Stagecoach hauled its first load on Sept. 14 to Obregon in the interior of Mexico, but McLaughlin has set his sights closer to home. Although Mexican carriers have been able to operate in the commercial zone across the U.S. border, U.S. carriers haven’t been able to operate their own equipment at all into Mexico. For the most part, this limitation hasn’t hampered Stagecoach, which has built strong ties with solid Mexican carriers.

“We will maintain those alliances,” McLaughlin says, emphasizing that Stagecoach doesn’t plan to use the pilot program to replace its Mexican transportation partners. Instead, McLaughlin pursued the new operating authority initially to develop a specific opportunity across the border – pneumatic tanker transportation.

Loading and unloading pneumatic tanks is complex, and the equipment is fairly expensive, McLaughlin notes. “We want to control the process with our equipment and drivers.”

Some observers have minimized U.S. carriers’ opportunities into Mexico on the grounds that truck drivers wouldn’t be able to speak and read Spanish well enough to operate safely and efficiently in the country. That’s not an issue for Stagecoach; a majority of its drivers are Hispanic and bilingual. McLaughlin, therefore, has plenty of drivers who are suitable for driving the seven trucks the carrier has certified in the program.

In addition to its freight forwarding and warehousing operations, Stagecoach operates more than 200 power units in over-the-road, regional, daycab and dedicated segments. McLaughlin has some sound reasons for operating only seven trucks into Mexico at this point. “We are very busy,” he says. “Our utilization is very high, and we don’t have a lot of capacity to move into Mexico.”

Besides, with continuation of the program in doubt as of late October, there isn’t much point in working too hard on long-term plans. Even so, McLaughlin does see some potential opportunities in intermodal and truckload dry van that might benefit from seamless transportation. “Our goal is to provide a higher level of visibility all the way through. In those cases, it may make sense.”

If the pilot program ends, McLaughlin will try to work with a Mexican carrier to serve his newly developed customer base for pneumatic tank transport across the border. But he does believe the program’s demise would be unfortunate – and not just for Stagecoach.

“I have been surprised how enthusiastic a number of customers are about this program,” McLaughlin says. “Logistics managers see the potential for freeing the flow of goods.” He was surprised, too, at how many drivers were interested in driving into Mexico.

“Right now, we’re taking it day by day,” McLaughlin says. “If we see some certainty to the program, we’ll look at some of the strategic alternatives. It’s great to have that option.”

Solid safety
By networking through DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, McLaughlin pursued participation in the pilot program even before Mexican transportation authorities made the procedures publicly available. This demonstrated interest may have had something to do with Stagecoach’s selection as the first U.S. carrier to participate.

But Stagecoach’s safety program likely played a major role as well. Indeed, the trucking company apparently fared well during a surprise Level 1 inspection conducted on-site by Mexican authorities about 10 days before the Sept. 6 approval.

Stagecoach’s fitness was hardly in question. The carrier has implemented some stringent policies, including a 75 percent random drug-testing rate. And the carrier analyzes hair samples as well as urine. “We get excellent benefits by combining the two,” McLaughlin says. “We have had drivers who have passed the urinalysis but failed the hair analysis.” DOT requires urine analysis, but the American Trucking Associations’ board is urging DOT to allow carriers to use hair analysis, which can detect drug use for up to 90 days prior, as a substitute for urine analysis, which typically is good for only two or three weeks.

The carrier also has embraced safety technology, including forward collision warning, lane departure warning, electronic stability control, real-time driver performance monitoring and tire pressure monitoring. “We want our drivers to be as safe as possible,” McLaughlin says. “We’re looking for tools that can assist drivers in awareness.” In addition, Stagecoach is spec’ing front air disc brakes on its next 10 new trucks to see how much better they perform in braking.

These initiatives aren’t cheap, but that doesn’t bother McLaughlin. “We feel that we’re much better off in the long run. Drivers really appreciate our focus on safety.”

Employees also appreciate Stagecoach’s efforts to encourage healthier lifestyles, says McLaughlin, who learned from his own experience. Until McLaughlin was in his early 30s, he wasn’t very physically active. Since then, he has become an avid bicyclist and has run a couple of marathons. “I found that it has improved my overall quality of life.”

Stagecoach provides 25 pounds of fresh fruit each weekday at its El Paso terminal. Workers now snack on apples and oranges rather than candy bars and chips. Stagecoach has worked with a local gym to provide memberships that can be discounted or even free to the employee – at the company’s expense – based on how often the employee works out.

In February and March, about 100 employees participated in a voluntary challenge to lose weight. The company paid workers $10 for each pound they lost. The total weight loss was 700 pounds. McLaughlin plans to roll the program out after the holidays. “It created energy and excitement. We saw some pretty dramatic changes.”

And as with safety, Stagecoach sees technology as a valuable tool in promoting employee wellness. For example, the company has installed a defibrillator. Stagecoach also has bought a device that allows a nurse to screen workers on at least a monthly basis for problems related to glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and so on.

All of Stagecoach’s wellness programs are voluntary, but McLaughlin has been pleased with how well employees have embraced them. “If we have a happier, healthier, less stressed employee, we all gain.”

Innovators profiles carriers and fleets that have found innovative ways to overcome trucking’s challenges.

If you know a carrier that has displayed innovation, contact Avery Vise at or (800) 633-5953.