Hirschbach Motor Lines: A question of service

In modern-day North America, running a trucking fleet that is both profitable and productive is all about keeping costs in check. But with the nation’s persistent driver shortage pushing wages up and the fuel price all but stagnating, the only way to save money is to make smart equipment choices.

Hirschbach Motor Lines, a transport company based in the far north-west of Illinois, has met the challenge head on. Following the example of Ray Hirschbach, who founded the business in 1935 and started off in the dairy business before pioneering the idea of transferring bananas from shipping containers into refrigerated vehicles to keep them fresh, the company is renowned for having an innovative edge – especially when it comes to procurement.

Now helmed by Brad Pinchuk and Tom Grosjean Jr., Hirschbach Motor Lines is still involved in the banana industry today, but it also diversified over time to remain competitive. A masterly stroke, in that regard, has been the establishment of dedicated fleets for key customers – an area now accounting for about a third of the entire Hirschbach business. The remaining two thirds of the business account for classic ‘over the road’ trucking, with each vehicle being out for two or three weeks at a time, covering typical long hauls between pick up and delivery.

But, it’s the dedicated fleet side of the business that has grown the fastest since Ray Hirschbach’s Eureka moment, with many a client remaining true to the brand for years or, in some cases, even decades. Quite often, long-standing customers would also rely on Hirschbach’s expertise to operate their warehousing and loading operations, according to Hirschbach President, Brad Pinchuk. 

“We listen closely to our customers to find out what their individual needs are instead of just concentrating on the over-the-road side of the business,” he says. “The on-site services offering, for instance, began with a request from a single customer, but is now growing rapidly. We are also getting into other things like on-site security services.”

He adds, “Our customers have high expectations, especially since we’re dealing with food products and meat. That’s why we are constantly monitoring the integrity of our loads and monitor the temperature inside every trailer. If an issue occurs when our trailer arrives, we can immediately access the relevant information and share with the customer exactly what happened while they entrusted us with their product.”

Pinchuk says Hirschbach, as a business, is now actively looking for clients that require more than just the basic transportation service. “Our relationships with our customers span decades, mostly because they place a high value on service and safety. We’ve got an excellent safety record, and a lot of the good customers out there are very concerned about vicarious liability and making sure they are doing business with people who are safe and aren’t going to transfer a risk onto them. That’s our unique selling point.”

With annual revenue around the $150 million mark, Pinchuk’s strategy has helped Hirschbach position itself as the number ten in North America’s somewhat fragmented refrigerated transport market. With only two large-scale competitors in the US – CR England and Prime – the company is well placed for future growth.

“Despite that favourable position, our emphasis is not on growth, it’s on quality,” says Pinchuk. “We are a private company. We don’t have pressures from Wall Street to achieve major growth on a quarterly basis. We can do both, improve on quality and grow at the same time; but the quality aspect of it is more important.”

Yet, even though the strong emphasis on quality service has helped Hirschbach set itself apart from the competition, fuel costs are still a big issue and cannot be absorbed by offering added value alone.

“That’s where spec’ing the equipment comes into play,” says Pinchuk. “Over the last three years, we have turned over the entire fleet and come up with a better specification, fuel economy wise. We reviewed all our specs and made sure we would end up with the most fuel-efficient fleet possible.

“Sometimes, it’s just simple things. A couple of years ago, for example, we have been told the front bumper could have an inch cut off at a particular point to save 0.75 per cent on fuel. So we went out and cut this little section out of each front bumper – and we got the saving.” 

Today, Hirschbach’s fleet comprises some 650 trucks and almost 1000 trailers. International and Freightliner dominate the truck fleet, with a 90:10 split in favour of International. Most recently, Hirschbach invested into a host of new ProStars, with Pinchuk stating the model’s fuel economy has now leapfrogged that of the Freightliner Cascadia, which had been in the lead before.

On the trailer front, Hirschbach’s preference is for Utility. The US brand has supplied almost 100 per cent of the company fleet, which is mostly fitted with Carrier Transicold refrigeration units. According to Hirschbach, all of the company’s trailers come in an ‘ultra-lightweight’ spec – apart from a solid 16,000 lb (7250 kg) floor for durability.

Aerodynamic improvement plays a key role in the Hirschbach fleet, with Smart Truck’s UT6 Plus under tray system fitted to each trailer right behind the landing legs in order to clean up the airflow around the wheels. Hirschbach is also fitting AeroEdge Side Fairings right near the rear doors for added efficiency. To further maximise fuel economy, the trailers all have super single tyres, aluminium wheels, centre fuse drums and auto tyre inflation systems fitted.

“We were using the Meritor Sentry Ride system before but recently switched to Hendrickson Air Ride,” says Pinchuk. “We’ve experienced irregular tyre wear in the past, which we believe is due to over-inflation/stacking, so we switched to Hendrickson’s Tyre Maxx Pro, which can also handle the deflation.”

What’s more, Hirschbach has invested into StarTrac units to monitor the performance of each refrigeration unit, enabling the company to compare the temperature settings to the actual results achieved. He says some units have been found set at -20°F (-9°C) when the requirement was zero. The StarTrac system is also able to monitor the mode of operation to make sure the refrigeration units are not set on continuous run when start/stop is the requirement. In addition, each refrigeration unit hs a special fuel-efficiency setting designed to protect the product while minimising the use of fuel, according to Pinchuk, who says a dynamic leadership team operating in modern-day North America almost has to talk about cost cutting with a certain amount of excitement to maintain an edge.

By fostering that drive, Hirschbach has achieved measurable improvements across the board, he says. Drivers are now getting 8.5 to 9 miles per gallon (3.58 to 3.8 km/l) out of every semi-trailer combination on the road – and the company’s head office is slowly becoming too small to cater to the amount of work coming in.

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