With its 5,600 tractors and 8,900 refrigerated trailers, Prime Inc is one of the largest refrigerated carriers in the industry. The Springfield MO carrier employs more than 6,000 drivers (a majority of them independent contractors) and operates throughout North America.
CLEARLY, Prime Inc has built one of the most successful business models in the trucking industry. The Springfield, Missouri-based carrier typically posts annual revenue growth in the 13% range and has been ranked as the 28th largest trucking company in the United States.
At the core of the business model is a vibrant company culture that influences every facet of the business. The company’s mission is to prosper while providing excellent customer service. Key values include pricing services at rates that are a true value to customers; treating independent contractors and company employees as true team members that are part of the Prime Inc family; a passionate focus on safety; and a willingness to embrace any cost-effective technology that can improve productivity to the mutual benefit of the company, associates, and customers.
“We focus on Fortune 500 customers, and our objective is to be the low cost provider, not necessarily the lowest price provider,” says Steve Wutke, Prime’s vice-president of sales. “We’ve built a great customer base with a lot of long-term relationships. We’ve won numerous service awards, an indication that we are delivering what our customers want.
“We have a powerful business model with a strong company culture that definitely helps us differentiate ourselves from the competition. We work hard to keep that company culture strong. It includes incentive based compensation for virtually everyone in this organization. The more productive you are, the more you will earn.
“We have a great driver recruiting and retention program, and we have pushed our turnover rate down into the 60% range. We’re getting enough drivers to keep growing the fleet. We offer very good training and benefits, and that includes an award-winning health and wellness program.
“We provide drivers with the technology and equipment they need to operate efficiently. Technology is an important tool in this company. For instance, we got an early start with electronic driver logs, because Missouri was a pilot state for the program. We believe this is about creating a better life for our drivers. It promotes safety and creates a more level playing field.”
Every one of the company’s 5,600 tractors is equipped with Qualcomm on-board computers that have electronic logging capabilities. Prime Inc runs 10,000 trailers, 8,900 of them refrigerated. The carrier also operates flatbeds and foodgrade tank trailers.
Refrigerated loads account for roughly 75% of the cargo hauled by the carrier. Refrigerated loads are primarily food and food products, but Prime Inc also handles some pharmaceuticals and other temperature controlled shipments.
The carrier operates throughout North America. In Mexico, operations are conducted through interline partner Frio Express. The two refrigerated carriers have been partners for 22 years.
Tractors and trailers are dispersed among a handful of terminals, including the sprawling 40,000-sq-ft headquarters facility in Springfield. With its full-size basketball court, gymnasium, cafeteria, movie theater, post office, spa and salon, and large company store, it’s certainly not the typical fleet terminal. Smaller versions of the headquarters terminal are in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Salt Lake City, Utah.
Passing through the terminals are more than 6,000 drivers, including roughly 4,000 owner-operators. Drivers are under the direction of a cadre of dispatchers, each of whom manages 60 to 70 individuals.
Prime Inc’s leadership has worked hard to build a solid driver corps, and management boasts that the company employs some of the best truck drivers in the industry. Applicants can be as young as 21 years old, but all are thoroughly screened. Applicants with a commercial driver license must provide a 10-year driving history, and they must have a clean driving record.
Newly signed truck drivers begin their careers with Prime Inc by attending a three- or four-day-long orientation. The classes are a combination of hands-on training and class work. Classroom portions are computer-based, and students work at their own pace.
This keeps the material fresh, and periodic knowledge checks ensure that new associates understand the material. Feedback is instantaneous. Unlike other orientation and training programs designed to just “check the box” for new drivers, the training at Prime Inc is designed to make sure new associates have all of the materials, knowledge, and skills they need to be successful.
In addition to computer-based classroom training, all newly signed truck drivers get seat time in one of four state-of-the-art driving simulators. Even if they’ve never sat in a tractor-trailer rig before, the simulators let drivers experience driving, shifting, control, and backing in a safe environment before they ever head out to the training pad. Experienced drivers new to Prime also get to sit at a simulator as a part of their truck driver training and orientation. It evaluates their skills coming in and shows where additional or focused training may be needed to enhance their truck driving skills.
The simulators can present a variety of driving conditions to a truck driver. They can simulate the effects of snow, ice, glare, and night driving. They can also simulate any type of surface, from a two-lane mountain road to a prairie interstate. When combined, these two sets of conditions can provide opportunities for truck driver training that can’t be found anywhere else.
Prime Inc actively seeks out promising candidates who want to learn to drive a truck. Through the company’s student driver program, the individual is able to obtain a CDL permit in four days. That is followed with 10,000 miles of on-the-road training with a certified CDL instructor for three to four weeks, which includes at least 75 hours of actual driving time.
The new driver then returns to Springfield to complete the Class A CDL exam and obtain a CDL with a hazardous materials endorsement. He begins working as a B2 company driver trainee earning 12 cents a mile and accumulating another 30,000 miles over-the-road. Once he has accumulated a total of 40,000 miles over the road, the new driver takes the ACE orientation at Prime training center and, after passing the upgrade skills test, is assigned his own company truck.
From the point any driver—regardless of skills and experience—comes on board at Prime Inc, he hears about the carrier’s top-down focus on safety. Safety training includes the Smith System.
The Prime Inc safety award program recognizes driver associates who operate through the year without a preventable accident. Awards, which include exclusive pins, hats, patches, and jackets, are given after six months, one year, and then every year thereafter.
The carrier also provides a financial safety incentive. For instance, solo independent contractors earn five cents per mile for safe driving and on-time delivery each week for weekly miles between 2,400 and 2,900 (500-mile range).
The “Millionaires” program recognizes driver associates who have driven at least one million miles without a preventable accident. Plaques honoring these drivers line the hallways at the Springfield location.
Qualifying driver associates receive a prize package and a personalized plaque displayed prominently in Prime’s Hall of Fame located in the terminal. The “Gold Level”, Prime Inc’s highest level of safety achievement, is awarded to those who have driven a million miles for the company. The “Silver Level” is awarded to driver associates who have accumulated a million miles or more throughout their driving career at various carriers, including Prime Inc.
Work performance also is recognized with awards and incentives. The Prime Time Certified (PTC) Award Program recognizes driver associates who achieve outstanding on-time performance. These PTC awards are earned on quarterly and yearly basis of continuous on-time performance. Awards include patches, belt buckles, shirts, and sweaters. At the two-year level, associates receive a gold ring with one diamond. With every additional year of continuous on-time service, a diamond is added to the ring.
The latest addition to Prime Inc’s incentive programs is in health and wellness. Developed by former Prime Inc driver Siphiwe Baleka, the carrier’s driver health and fitness program was implemented in 2012 to address the issue of driver obesity and to combat metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Together, these conditions raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
The Prime Inc program uses digital health technology to address obesity and improve driver health. “With more than 6,000 drivers, we knew that we had to find a technology solution to help monitor and track progress,” says Baleka, Prime Inc’s driver health & fitness coach. “Our drivers use the Body Media Link Armband and the Mio Motiva Drive + Strapless Heart Rate Watch. Currently, they are losing an average of 19.3 pounds and 7.3% of their body weight in just 13 weeks. We’re beating the traditional weight loss programs that you see advertising on television.”
Available to every driver in the company, the program earned Prime Inc recognition as Healthiest Company by Everyday Health, a digital health and wellness company. Prime Inc was the first recipient of this new award, which was presented in January.
Drivers pay up front to participate in the voluntary program, but the fee is reimbursed for successful completion. Three hundred drivers signed up when the program was launched, and 40 are still active participants, Baleka says. New groups start every month.
“We teach them new health habits and establish new behaviors,” he says. “The program is customized to the specific needs of each driver. We have to manipulate a participant’s metabolism to enable him to lose a pound a week until he reaches a good weight. We make adjustments in diet. Drivers don’t have a lot of downtime, so we teach them how a 15-minute workout can have all of the benefits of a one-hour exercise routine. We have 32 exercises that work multiple muscle groups.”
Financial wellness is just as important, and Prime Inc offers its drivers the opportunity to join the independent contractor ranks. It has grown into a very successful program, and the proof is clearly evident in the fact that owner-operators dominate the driver ranks at Prime Inc.
In addition to signing up independent contractors who already have their own tractors, Prime Inc offers lease arrangements through subsidiary company Success Leasing. Drivers have the opportunity to lease tractors with no money down and no credit check. Drivers become eligible to lease a tractor after completing the ACE orientation, the driving skills test, and Smith System training.
Tractors available through Success Leasing are similar to the makes and models used in the Prime Inc company fleet. However, lease drivers have the opportunity to customize the tractors to suit their tastes.
Freightliner Cascadia tractors make up roughly 80% of the company fleet with Peterbilt Model 587s and Kenworth T680s accounting for 15%, and International ProStars making up the remainder. Tractors with single drivers are on a three-year trade cycle, while those in team operation are on a two-year cycle.
“We believe these makes and models deliver the best cost of ownership for our operation,” says Nick Forte, Prime Inc’s fleet maintenance administrator. “Tractors run 105,000 to 115,000 miles per year, with the higher mileages typically coming from teams.”
Light weight is important, but the lightest tractors in the Prime Inc fleet are in the 17,000-pound range. “Our lightest tractors are in our Eco Feather Weight lineup,” Forte says. “Our goal with those tractors is to stay under 18,000 pounds, including fuel, driver, and the driver’s belongings. We would like a 14,000-lb tractor tare, but that isn’t possible with all of the emission control systems on today’s tractors.”
Safety technology is a critical specification item, and all of the tractors have full roll stability systems. Other technology includes collision avoidance systems from Meritor and Bendix, and Bendix Autoview (formerly Iteris) lane departure warning systems.
On-board camera systems are among safety technology now being tested in some Prime Inc trucks. Doran tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) are now being rolled out across the Prime Inc fleet.
“We’re buying about a thousand TPMS units at a time, and we are putting them in all new tractors,” Forte says. “It is a wireless system that transmits tire pressure data to a cab-mounted display. We also spec the Meritor Tire Inflation System by PSI system on our trailers. These are critical technologies because we run so any widebase single tires.”
General tractor specifications call for proprietary engines in the 15-liter/455-horsepower range as much as possible. Prime Inc uses 13-liter engines in the Peterbilt, Kenworth, and International tractors because those manufacturers don’t have a 15-liter proprietary engine.
“We’re staying with proprietary engines, because we want to deal just with the truck builder for all of the major component issues,” Forte says.
For transmissions, the carrier has standardized on the Eaton Fuller 10-speed manual. “We’re running a few Detroit DT12 automated transmissions in test, but the resale values just are not there,” Forte says.
The carrier uses Meritor and Dana drivetrains and tandem-drive axles. Aluminum wheels are used throughout the fleet, as are widebase single tires. Prime Inc recently launched its own retreading operation (under the EcoTire Treading Company name) to handle retreading of widebase tires. The retreading operation just supplies the Prime Inc fleet.
All of the tractors carry Rigmaster Power auxiliary power units (APUs) built to Prime Inc specification. These APUs weigh at least 200 pounds less than competitive products, according to Forte.
Lighter weight is an objective with refrigerated trailers as well. Wabash and Utility trailers in the Eco Feather Weight program don’t exceed a tare weight of 16,000 pounds (including fuel). The 53-ft trailers have three inches of insulation and 3,601 to 3,693 cubic feet of cargo space. Refrigerated trailers are on a 40- to 60-month trade cycle.
The Carrier Ultima XTC refrigeration units are specified with IntelliSet programming and the Stealth package for quieter operation. “We have been using Carrier Transicold refrigeration for a number of years, because we believe it is the best fit for our company,” Forte says.
Prime Inc uses StarTrak as well as Trailer Tracs for refrigeration system monitoring. StarTrak is an untethered trailer tracking system. Trailer Tracs makes use of the Qualcomm link on the tractors to monitor load temperatures, set points, alarm conditions, and connect and disconnect times.
Across the fleet, trailers are specified with Hendrickson’s Vantraax air-ride suspension system with the Surelok anti-dock walking system. ♦