Frank Sonzala, President and CEO of CIMC Intermodal Equipment, is leading the North American trailer market with an optimistic attitude, backed by quality, innovative developments in skel manufacturing and production infrastructure. Global Trailer gets in touch to learn more about the future of intermodal.
Q: Could you please provide a brief overview of your career before and with CIMC Intermodal Equipment?
A: I have actually been in the trucking industry since 1983. When I started International Transquip Industries (ITI), which manufactured the MinI Max Springless Parking Brake – a revolutionary product to the trucking industry. That company sold four times and I was kept on each time. In 1993, a trucker who brought the tire inflation system to meet ITI showed me the product and I thought this was the goose that laid the golden eggs! My new owners didn’t get it. I took that potential great product to them and they rejected it. I then told that inventor: When you find a proper investor, tell them I want to market it. The rest is history. PSI is number one worldwide.
Starting in 2000, I was a vendor to CIMC in China for the PSI Tire Inflation System. In 2015, I was asked to put my hat in the circle for the CEO position at CIMC Intermodal Equipment (CIE). I said of course, and after many interviews and meetings I was chosen over the other candidates.
So, after 22 years at PSI, I began my career with CIE on 1 March 2016. Now at CIE with almost four years of service behind, me and a contract for several more years, I am hoping to be the best number one CEO in the industry. Heaven knows I’ll keep on trying.
Q: Do you have any comments to share regarding CIE operations? Production milestones? Reflections on the past financial year?
A: Well in 2019, CIE underwent a total reinvention, both at our South Gate, CA HQ and at our Emporia, Virginia location. We started in Emporia with a completely redesigned factory, making it resemble a modern automobile manufacturing plant. We also upgraded the building facilities, employee uniforms and initiated ISO 9000 certification which was achieved in under six months of qualifying. I think that may be a world record! Then in South Gate our HQ was completely remodelled to mirror the Emporia facility. The old offices in the factory were upgraded with a brand new lunch room and locker room to accommodate our growing work force, new offices for our supervisors, and a fully equipped production studio for our Marketing and IT departments to do in-house pod casts, movies, videos for marketing and technical training as well as corporate communications around the world. We celebrated our reinvention with our vendors, customers, and friends at a ribbon cutting and open house in early June.
Q: Last year, chassis production increased by 53 per cent compared with 2017 data. How is CIE performing in 2019?
A: In 2018, we shipped an industry record 45,441 chassis in North America, even with a 10 per cent and 25 per cent tariff for part of that year. We also carried over a backlog of more than 10,000 units into 2019.
In 2019, the entire industry slowed down due to tariffs and economic uncertainty. However, we continued to keep our market share and to invest in our growth strategy, while our competitors didn’t, instead actually raising their prices to their customers. We have now positioned our company to easily provide 60,000 plus chassis going forward. Once the tariff situation is resolved or at least stable, at any or no tariff percentage, we will gain that pent up buying need that is currently in the intermodal and trucking industries, and we will be the only one who can provide big numbers. And by the way, ‘Made in America’ is the theme of 2020. So, keep your eye on CIE. Really big things are developing.
Q: In July, CIE celebrated the opening of a new facility in South Gate, California. Can you tell more about this site and what it means for the future of the business?
A: The new headquarters is very modern and special for all of our employees. We completely gutted the old office of the local gas company and made a very friendly, comfortable and healthy environment where they spend so many of their weekday hours. It features our unique artwork chassis as the centrepiece of our staircase to the upper floor. I believe that this iconic work of art is the only upright chassis in the world that has become a photo op for thousands of pictures. We also have installed alkaline water machines to provide both hot and cold alkaline water for tea, coffee, soups, and of course drinking. Completely replacing bottle water. It is a fact that cancer will not set in an alkaline body, so healthy for us all. All offices are climate controlled and energy efficient, along with video conference rooms, lounges, and a lunch suite with complete kitchen and a water feature. I pinch myself and say WOW, I work here! Employee morale and comfort is at an all-time high.
Q: In September, I understand you moderated a panel at IANA Intermodal Expo 2019. Can you tell me more about this experience? Were there any standout ideas or talking points at the event?
A: The Innovation Incubator was an inaugural panel based on a similar program that I started when I was Chairman of the IANA board of directors, and in place at the spring time Maintenance and Operations Conference in Chicago, Illinois, many years ago. There were eight presenters and all of the technology was very new and innovative. I believe that I learned a lot from the presentations and that the audience did too. It got a very favourable ranking from the attendees on the follow up survey of the IANA conference event.
Q: At the intermodal expo, VP Sales & Marketing, Trevor Ash, discussed the Revere chassis line. Can you go into more detail about this innovation (technical specifications, special features)?
A: It is our goal at CIE to be the leader of the evolution of the intermodal industry, and we have done just that. In 2001 we began the evolution of chassis design through increased safety and innovation with radial tires and LED lights, and we continue that now with Revere. Our revolutionary Revere chassis line offers upgraded componentry that will deliver to the industry the safest and lowest cost of ownership container chassis with an unheard of 10-year warranty on all non-wear parts and come standard with laser metal cutting, robotic precision welds and a KTL power coat paint system to prevent rust and corrosion.
The impact on our intermodal industry will be significant, especially given the current state of port jams due to the lack of reliable chassis that are currently not usable or in a constant state of maintenance and repair. From powder coated frame rails and attached components, extended-life landing gear, fully sealed electrical system, wheel ends that need no adjustment, and highly reliable braking systems that ensure safe stopping capabilities, Revere’s unique combination of components is changing the image of the container chassis.
Our Revere chassis spec means better efficiencies, less down time and increased productivity in an ever-growing intermodal industry. The industry will now have a state of the art chassis with the most reliable and safest components.
Q: Are there other topics you would like to discuss?
A: CIE is a member of many industry associations and participates in each at a high level. The American Trucking Association for example is a true advocate of the entire trucking industry. The Technology and Maintenance Council of that parent organisation is very active with its many task forces and study groups, plus its technician competition each year. The Truckload Carriers Association, the National Trailer Dealers Association, the Intermodal Association of North America, as I mentioned before is a must for the land, sea, over the road and global logistics community. SAE – Society of Automotive Engineers also is part of our go to associations for information and exhibition.
Q: Do you have any other comments you would like to add?
A: Finally, I want to announce that I firmly believe that CIE has established some of the best talent that the trucking industry has to offer at every level of our operation. Since I have been President/CEO we have led the intermodal industry away from bias tires, incandescent lights, and oil- and water-based paint. Our factories are basically zero emission and we empower our employees to be the best that they can be. Our culture stands tall for Faith, Family and Work Ethic, in that order, which sometimes is overlooked by other enterprises.
Since 2016 we have had a theme for every year: 2016 Empower the Work Force; 2017 The 6 to 60 program (this is the formula to take the company from the 6,000 units built in 2012 to the 60,000 units to build in 2020); 2018 Manage and Lead by Trello; 2019 Re-invent CIMC Intermodal Equipment, and now 2020 is ‘Made in America, by American employees, an American company (always was and is) with Global Partners’. The future is bright and with a positive attitude and positive culture the journey forward will be dynamic!