A certain question must pop into the mind of any driver applying for a job with Seminole Feed and its trucking co-company, Branch Logistics LLC, based in Ocala, Florida. The question is: "Have I really got what it takes?"

Along with top driving skills, experience, and credentials, a Seminole-Branch Logistics driver must possess a talent for customer service far beyond what most feed companies expect. This service includes guaranteed on-time delivery of bagged or baled 500-lb hand-truck loads into horse feed dealer warehouses and stable feed rooms, under tough conditions of Florida summer heat, torrential rain, and frequent hurricane threats. It includes meeting the high expectations of owners of elite thoroughbred horses and the specialized dealers who serve them. Along with the constant physical and mental demands, the job takes a durable, friendly smile.

Nineteen drivers based at Ocala consistently showed they have what it takes, driving more than a million miles and delivering nearly 65,000 tons of bagged product in the past year, to help Seminole Feed-Branch Logistics win Truck Fleet of the Year for 2006, the 17th consecutive annual event co-sponsored by the American Feed Industry Association and FEED MANAGEMENT magazine.

"Horses are a luxury and represent significant discretionary spending," explains Richard DeSimone, who once managed a thoroughbred farm and is now vice president of production and logistics at Seminole Feed. "Our dealers and their customers expect the best products and the best service. We make the world's best horse feed and we deliver it, fresh, in the best possible way. Providing less than the best customer service is not an option. Our drivers are an integral part of Seminole Feed customer service.

"What a great advantage to have in the market," DeSimone adds, "to be able to go to dealers and say, We can be your sole supplier for the equine customer: Seminole bagged feed products, plus baled hay, straw, equine health supplies and other store stock items delivered in totes. You can get these products on a weekly delivery schedule and our guys will roll it into your store or feed room and rotate your stock for you."

"It takes considerable customer care," sales vice president James Jimmie' Glisson points out, "especially when more than 50% of our dealers are ladies. If customers get their orders in on time, we guarantee delivery within 48 hours. All our product carries the date of manufacture and we deliver fresh product."

Started up as a small farm store in 1934 by O.C. Branch, Sr, and Lee Branan, Seminole Feed grew rapidly along with Florida's thoroughbred industry in the 1950s, building its first feed plant in 1967. Under the leadership of O.C.'s son O.C. Branch, Jr, and grandson Greg Branch, president of Branch Properties, Inc, Seminole grew to become the southeastern USA's horse feed specialist. Seminole's feed plant, once on the outskirts of town, now occupies part of a city block in downtown Ocala. Seminole has three company-owned stores in Marion County, which is home to about 50,000 horses and ranks as Horse Capital of the USA' despite occasional protests from certain counties in Kentucky. Seminole also supplies a growing array of more than 130 independent dealers throughout Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. Seminole's truck fleet, Branch Logistics, links the far-flung dealerships and direct-customers in a high-tech, just-in-time, guaranteed-delivery network.

Navigating the high-tech highway

Three years ago, Stephen Temple came to Seminole Feed-Branch Logistics with experience in professional fleet management, both in operations and sales. The company had recognized that further growth required even greater focus on efficient, high quality delivery, while optimizing the trucking business.

Temple explains that improving fleet performance required an objective, data-driven approach, which would enable drivers to increase their productivity.

"We started looking for new technology and found Comet Tracker developed by Tampa-based Actsoft. Rather than put trip recorders or transponders in trucks, we put units in the hands of each driver. We quickly found it was more cost-effective than equipment in the cab.

"For about $90 per unit up front, plus $30 per month per unit," Temple says, "each driver is equipped with a hand-held Nextel GPS-cell phone-walkie-talkie which is in constant communication with our Ocala office. The Comet Tracker system comes with transportation management software so I can receive real-time reports from every driver's Nextel phone at the office or through my Blackberry when I'm out on the road."

The satellite-signal global positioning system (GPS) enables vehicle tracking based on automatic transmissions from the driver's phone. The unit reports its current speed, direction, and location within a few yards as a street address, along with municipality, state, and zip code. The system includes a data base which incorporates the posted speed limits on the main Seminole Feed delivery routes. For more, see http://www.comettracker.com/.

"So, the GPS system does a lot more than just tracking trucks," Temple emphasizes. "It greatly improves our ability to support drivers. In case of a breakdown or other problem, we know exactly where the truck is and can stay in communication with the driver. Our system is set up so that the GPS units report automatically when the truck is within 300 feet of a dealership or other designated landmark. We can even set up off-route zones' in the system, places we don't want trucks to go.

"The GPS system also helps us control liability, in the event of an accident or damage claim against our operation. For example, there are quite a few Florida companies using the name Seminole' and someone might claim, by mistake or otherwiset, hat something falling off one of our trucks damaged their vehicle. Using the GPS system, we can prove exactly where our truck was and how fast it was going at the time of the alleged incident."

Safety through hiring, training, and mentoring

On the road to territory expansion and high technology, Seminole Feed-Branch Logistics has not left safety behind. Like other top scorers in the Truck Fleet of the Year program, the Ocala trucking team suffered no recordable accidents and no lost-time accidents in the previous fiscal year. With an average of only 5.6 years of employment for drivers, the emphasis has been on careful hiring, focused training, and good mentoring.

DeSimone notes the extraordinary demand for professional drivers in the Ocala area: "The economy of this part of north-central Florida has grown from agriculture and light manufacturing into distribution in a big way. Ocala and Marion County have very active and successful economic development agencies. Major consumer product companies and large retailers have hubs here and they're always looking for drivers.

"All our drivers now have Class A CDLs," he adds, "and they do physically demanding work they're not just bumping docks. One of our local routes in Marion County will deliver 20 tons of bagged product, bales, and totes over four or five stops. That's tough work, especially in the summer heat and humidity.

"But our hiring advantage is that drivers can maintain a good family life, working for a good, stable company, with incentives for good performance. Even our guys on OTR routes can have their feet under the dinner table on Wednesday and get to the Little League ball game on Saturday."

"All our driver training tools, including the video library, come from J.J. Keller & Associates," DeSimone adds. "It's quite an investment. But Steve uses it a lot, and not just for new hires, but for review and, if necessary, remedial training for experienced drivers."

The training check list is a long one, Temple notes: "Before the new driver touches the steering wheel, there's at least a full week of training. After that, he's got three or four days with a mentoring driver. The new hire may be the best driver in the world, but he'll need some pointers on moving 500 lbs of feed safely down a ramp."

With the focus on guaranteed and often just-in-time delivery, Temple continues, the delivery fleet requires a high level of flexibility. Over time, the new hire driver learns the whole network of Seminole Feed customers.

"Every driver goes to every stop in the system," the fleet manager points out, "delivering every type of load. There are no owned routes'. That way there is constant cross-training."

Full-service leasing preferred

Temple admits wrestling with the decision of whether Branch Logistics should lease or own trucks. He came down on the side of full-service leasing: "In the end, I believe you're going to pay the same, but the service takes care of all the unforeseeables, 'truck maintenance, road service, emergency recovery, and who knows what.

"If a truck breaks down at 3:00 in the morning, the driver first calls Ryder or Penske, not headquarters. Also, these leasing services provide full accident service, whether it's a collision or a spill, and they dispatch special teams. We don't have to worry about it."

DeSimone echoed Temple: "What tipped the balance further in favor of leasing was our out-of-state delivery. By leasing, we've got 24-7 roadside assistance. If one of the tractors goes down 500 miles away in Alabama, we've quickly got another one under that trailer making the delivery on time. Equipment issues are not going to delay deliveries."

Safety and feed product quality played a big role in equipment choices for the Seminole Feed-Branch Logistics fleet. Formerly, the operation used a number of flat bed straight trucks and trailers. When bad weather struck, drivers had to ‘tarp-up' to cover the load. Taping a mixed load of bagged feed, bales, totes, etc, by the road-side was time-consuming and potentially hazardous. Occasionally, wet feed had to be returned to the Ocala plant. Over a period of a year, nearly the whole fleet was converted to van trailers and box van straight trucks.

Both the trailers and straight trucks employ an aluminum ramp as the only design modification. The ramp has a special, non-slip, corrugated surface and retracts up under the chassis.

Big backhaul business

Seminole Feed business in the states north of Florida has been a boon to the company's trucking operation. Florida imports a lot more goods on trucks than it exports, which boosts freight rates coming into the state. So, after the Branch Logistics trucks make deliveries in Georgia, South Carolina, or Alabama, they can pick up compatible goods for return to Florida. As a result, the Ocala fleet's backhaul is measured in dollars added to revenue, not tons.

For out-of-state deliveries, DeSimone explains, order entry closes late Friday morning, after which the loads are configured and loaded up by Friday evening for shipping on Sunday. Following delivery in the neighboring states, the semis pick up backhauls for the return trip.

"We contract backhauls from the Southeast back into the Ocala area, as close as we can," Temple says. "Coming back into Florida, we can command high rates and we backhaul all sorts of goods, mainly consumer commodities', both food and non-food products. All loads are feed-compatible' and none include hazardous materials. Nothing requiring hazmat registration or special licensing. We also bring bagged micro ingredients back to the plant and at least one trailer-load of feed bags per week."

Feedback for quality

The Seminole Feed-Branch Logistics' focus on quality delivery emphasizes feedback from customers, both ‘external' customers who are dealers and direct-customers, as well as ‘internal' customers, including the sales force.

By way of example, DeSimone shows a customer feedback forma half-letter sheet with triple copies. The form includes check boxes for quality indicators, six different customer service issues, eight production issues, four out-of-stock issues, six hay quality issues, plus warehousing issues and transportation issues, including driver error'. There also is plenty of space for customer comments.

Seminole Feed also functions as an information service for customers through its website (www.seminolefeed.com), toll-free phone number, and its own quarterly magazine, Equus Caballus (www.ecmagazine.net).

"Seminole Feed believes in giving back," Glisson says simply and the Ocala truck fleet is an integral part of the feed company's community service effort. For example, Seminole Feed donates feed and Branch Logistics provides feed delivery to dealers for distribution to more than 35 therapeutic riding associations throughout their trade area.

The company also has supported many non-profit horse shows and equestrian events and has been involved in horse welfare and rescue programs. Beyond equine industry and charity, the Branch Logistics fleet has worked with state and federal agencies, delivering donated products for numerous hurricane relief projects.

"We were very busy helping out in Florida in 2004," DeSimone says, "but we were a bit too far east to help after Katrina and Rita last year."

Temple toggles his laptop to the website of the National Hurricane Center (http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/), where the screen shows a tropical depression forming east of the Bahamas: "We're coming into hurricane season again now." FM