Established in 1928 by its namesake Henri Essers, Belgian transport and logistics company H. Essers is a heavyweight in the European transport scene. Still family-owned, it is active in 12 countries across the continent and services a variety of industries ranging from container handling through to airfreight.
To accommodate such a broad footprint, the company’s signature red and white colour scheme has been applied to a multitude of trucks and trailers over time, ensuring each contract is carried out with equipment that is tailored to the job at hand. The result is a 5,000-strong fleet that is unusually diverse for European corporation of its size, with both vehicle types and manufacturers varying dramatically depending on the business division.
“H. Essers is comprised of many business units, all in need of their own specific trailers,” explains Fleet Manager, Dirk Franssens. “There’s refrigerated transport, pharmaceuticals transport, air freight, exceptional transport and of course your general freight. All these areas need special equipment.”
Franssens explains that, unlike many of H. Essers’ competitors, the Belgian company does not solely rely on the German “super powers” to source equipment, yet he is quick to add that he does not categorically rule them out either. Instead, each new contract is closely considered and only equipment that will best carry out the task is selected.
“Our experience has shown that our customers require only the best trailers for their cargo, so we look at that on a case-by-case basis. Only recently, our testing showed that a Schmitz Cargobull trailer performed best at a specific task, for example, so we bought 15 fridge trailers of them,” he says. “It’s horses for courses in our line of work and we are happy to look at all kinds of smaller manufacturers too to get what we think is the best solution.”
With equipment from Belgian, French, German and Dutch trailer builders, the resultant fleet is just as much of a cultural melting pot as Essers’ hometown of Brussels, home of the European Parliament, he says. “We have trailers from Belgian manufactures like Van Hool, LAG or Védécar, which have excellent quality in our view, but also from French brand Trailor and small Dutch suppliers like Van Eck and Pacton.”
While Franssens admits the collection may look like “a mixed bag”, he says you can actually boil down every trailer purchasing decision to the quality of the chassis. “Our studies have shown that the best chassis will last for 12 years, so we look for that kind of quality when we go shopping. In line with that, trailer axle manufacturers – almost without exception – guarantee a lifecycle of a million kilometres, so that’s something we also appreciate. At the end of the day, we always make sure the component quality is guaranteed, no matter which trailer builder we choose.”
Yet, while considered spec’ing may help the H. Essers team minimise the risk that goes with each purchase, it doesn’t waive the need for regular maintenance – and it’s here where the challenge lies, says Franssens. According to the expert, having a multitude of different manufacturers means the company’s mechanics need to be prepared to work with a wide variety of material.
To manage it all, Franssens has set up a system of “periodical maintenance”, as he puts it. At least once a year, every trailer has to visit one of the main workshops in either Genk and Lommel in Belgium’s east, or in Vilvoorde near the Brussels airport, which mainly handles the company’s airfreight equipment.
During that main service, each trailer also gets an MOT, Great Britain’s annual safety, emissions and roadworthiness certification. For the refrigerated section of the fleet, maintenance is more or less dictated by the ATP certification standards, Franssens says, which ensure temperature-controlled vehicles meet the standards for cross-border perishable goods transport.
On top of the yearly workshop visit for a major maintenance overhaul, each piece of H. Essers equipment also has to check in for a visual inspection every four months. “During that inspeciton, we have a close look at all the moving parts and lubricate wherever necessary, but also check on the air nozzles, a detail that is often overlooked,” Franssens says – adding that a special emphasis is placed on tyre and wheel management, with regular training for the maintenance team mandatory.
The majority of the fleet uses 385/65 tyres, except for the refrigerated trailers, which use the somewhat lower 385/55 and during their lives, tyres are revolved through different axle positions and are changed with their wheel to “avoid fitting new tyres around old wheels”, as Franssens explains.
“Overall, I’d say we carry out at least 60,000 tyre checks on an annual basis, and the checks are very thorough to ensure we get the most out of each tyre,” the Fleet Manager explains, revealing that “squeezing as much as possible out of a component” is only possible with top quality equipment that was built for longevity.
In H. Essers’ case, all trailers have Goodyear tyres fitted, while the trucks run on French-made Michelin tyres. “These tyre manufacturers operate very good tyre renewal systems, which can be advantageous for us. However, proper checking as part of our own maintenance is still essential to ensure that renewing a tyre makes sense,” he explains.
From within the Goodyear range, Franssens carefully considered which model of tyre to roll out across the fleet, thus making the change from its initial Fuel-Max tyres to the company’s now consistently used K-Max model. “We found that it would be beneficial to switch to K-Max because the tyres better suit the roads we use. European traffic has to deal with many roundabouts, and our testing found that K-Max tyres perform best under these conditions.”
Yet, with a fleet as diverse as the one Franssens has to manage, the odd exception is acceptable. The company’s airfreight trailers, for example, make for a special case – with larger wheels that require extra attention when it comes to maintenance: “Our airfreight trailers have 19.5 inch wheels instead of the normal 17.5 inches, because we found they last longer with taller wheels while still allowing us to load and unload pretty quickly, which is a main requirement.”
Although airfreight, refrigerated and general freight trailers all present unique requirements to the maintenance team, Franssens tries to combine maintenance expertise wherever possible. One example where this works particularly well, he says, is for temperature-controlled trailers and ones with special safety requirements. “In both cases, we are working on a closed trailer with an isolated body, so there are parallels in the processes we can benefit from.”
Next to an extremely thorough maintenance regime, Franssens says the H. Essers fleet is also known for keeping equipment longer than the average transport business – in some cases almost doubling the lifetime of a trailer by refurbishing it regularly. “Many operators say goodbye to their refrigerated trailers after the six year ATP certification runs out, and then it will probably be sold on to someone based in Eastern Europe. At H. Essers, we believe that’s not the end of a van’s service life, though.
“If a van is maintained properly, it can easily be re-tested for approval and run for another three years or so. This way we are able to run our refrigerated equipment for up to twelve years,” he explains, indicating that the move to refurbishing trailers was triggered by the recent drop in prices on the second hand market.
“After a full refurbishment, trailers will last us another ten years or so, which is a substantial win. During the process, we replace all parts that raise any concerns –everything to do with air and light, as well as brake cylinders, hubs, discs, bellows, wiring and even curtains to make it look good. We also upgrade ABS to EBS,” Franssens lists. “This way, we end up with a new trailer for half the cost that still meets the load safety standard defined in DIN EN 12642 XL. We only let others take care of the bodywork. We have refurbished some 250 trailers by now and only the future will tell how many more we will overhaul this way.”
While Franssens says refurbished equipment only makes up part of the company’s giant trailer fleet, it played a vital role in contributing towards the €442 million revenue achieved in 2014. And, even though he is just one of the company’s 4,300 or so employees, Franssens considers his job the fulfilment of a boy’s dream. “As Fleet Manager, I get to meet many people inside and outside the company who are equally passionate about their jobs and are prepared to go further than anyone would expect. The result is a fleet that is truly unique and that we are very proud of.”