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AmeriGas Spearheads Groundbreaking Project

November 04, 2008

Written by: Jennifer Oredson, Two Rivers Marketing

Competitors are usually as willing to cooperate with each other as the Hatfields are to sit down to Sunday dinner with the McCoys. And it was that reality that got Len Strazza of AmeriGas thinking that there simply had to be a better way to do business.
“I believe in business partnerships,” says Strazza, who strongly felt that an industry collaboration, done the right way, could lead to a safer service truck for AmeriGas. What he ended up with was the safest service truck in the industry.
When Strazza, who is manager of national fleet operations for AmeriGas, brought his 20 years of fleet experience to this job, he had many ideas for improving the fleet. He collected data, did some soul searching and ended up reducing the number of truck builders AmeriGas used from 25 to 13 and replacing his longtime telescopic crane supplier with Iowa Mold Tooling Co. Inc. (IMT). One of those 13 strictly builds service trucks, and four more build service trucks and liquid propane delivery trucks. The remaining seven build only liquid propane delivery trucks, with one left over that strictly builds trucks to deliver gas grille bottles. Some of the companies that didn’t make the cut were companies unwilling to work hand-in-hand with their competitors.
Strazza initiated the AmeriGas service truck project by inviting the truck builders the company used and the new suppliers to the AmeriGas headquarters in Valley Forge, Pa., and even though he was asking competitors to cooperate, he wasn’t willing to brook any nonsense.

“The first thing I said was, ‘If anyone uses the word ‘proprietary,’ you may show yourself to the door,’” Strazza says. He wallpapered the conference room with truck drawings and told everyone in attendance, “If you’re here, you’re here to support AmeriGas and the concept that we will build the highest quality, safest truck in the industry.” Strazza admits that he began abrasively, but it was in an effort to set the tone for teamwork.
“I don’t think any of us in that room had experienced anything quite like it before,” says Mark Whaley, vice president of sales and marketing for IMT, one of the companies that entered into this AmeriGas partnership. “It was all about what was good for the project and good for the partnership — not as individual companies, but as partners.”
Whaley says that, at first, it was difficult for everyone not to keep their cards close to their chests, but the companies able to get past that were the ones that benefited in the end. He says he knew fairly quickly that IMT wouldn’t want to pass up the chance to be involved in such a venture.
“This concept of cooperation wasn’t really embraced in the truck fabrication industry, so they really questioned what I was doing,” Strazza says. In the end, those who were willing to cooperate stayed, and those who weren’t walked away.

“We sat in the room and ironed it out,” Strazza says. “At the beginning of the meeting, these guys were fierce competitors who wouldn’t talk to each other, and then you fast forward one year, and these guys are friends. That’s the thing that I’m most proud of: the fact that we’ve taken a negative culture and made it positive. It required a lot of work and dedication on everyone’s part.”
Why They Built It
Safety has always been a priority at AmeriGas, and soon after Strazza came on, he started to wonder what he could do to ensure his company was using the safest truck technology available.
“Everything we do in the propane business is done under the safety umbrella,” he says. “Propane is safe to work with as long as you manage it properly. It can cause a catastrophe if handled improperly.”
So it was with this in mind that Strazza decided to embark on this venture. He gathered the group of industry leaders and asked them, “How can we build the safest service truck in the industry? How can we build a truck that takes a good driver and makes him the best driver?”
The first meeting took place in October 2003, and the first 12 trucks were put into service in August 2004. And they made the leap from prototype to production in three months, which is fast for any company, and unheard of when five truck builders and just as many suppliers are involved.

“Everybody bought into the program in such a manner that we got it right the first time out of the shoot,” Strazza says. “It was challenging to keep everybody in line and moving in the same direction. Frankly, it’s challenging enough to get one department of one company to do that.”

Strazza says he believes the group was able to have such success from the start because of the nature of the group dynamic. They had representatives from all of the companies involved sitting in the same room, so when they would discuss an issue, the experts on that topic were there to make sure all the I’s were dotted and T’s were crossed.

“If there was any better way to do something, the experts were sitting in the room ready to tell us about it,” Strazza says.

So What Did They Actually Build?

The trucks sent into the field in August 2004 essentially were “smart trucks” that took the guesswork out of service vehicle operation. The specification team removed many of the human-error elements.

These trucks utilize telescopic cranes by IMT, bodies by Reading Truck Body, power gates by Thieman Lift Gates, and chassis by International Truck and Engine Corp and Ford Motor Company. Strazza took International Truck’s Diamond Logic multiplexing system and used it to program AmeriGas trucks so they wouldn’t allow the operator to make common mistakes that Strazza deemed unsafe.

“Our employees are working in your back yard, so their safety is also the safety of our customers, and based upon that, we want to try to prevent some of the common forgetfulness or mistakes because we’re all human,” Strazza says.

The new AmeriGas truck eliminates much of the human error by utilizing digital multiplexing, which takes multiple digital signals and sends them simultaneously through two wires. Think of it as a conference call of all truck chassis components and added equipment functions. If all components on the conference call don’t agree that the safety program is being followed, then the system will disallow an unsafe function to take place. So the truck, more or less, does a self-evaluation and won’t let the operator do anything unless all the programmed safety parameters are met.

“We built a truck that reminds the driver if he or she is forgetting anything that we have programmed as a safety necessity,” Strazza says. “If the driver forgets the simplest thing, the truck will alert the driver.”

The vehicle is full of sensors, and a computer runs the whole truck and shuts down functions that don’t meet safety standards. For example, if the operator tries to use the crane, he’s supposed to have certain things in place: the outriggers are supposed to be down, the wheel chocks should be down, the parking brake set and the transmission should be in neutral, etc. And if the operator forgets to complete any of these tasks on the AmeriGas truck, the crane simply won’t operate. If the hydraulic fluid level isn’t right or the engine temperature is too high, the crane won’t operate. If the oil is too low, the crane won’t operate. It’s that simple.

“When we introduced this truck, initially I had drivers who were outraged because they had been operating a crane for 30 years, and they didn’t feel like they needed the truck telling them what to do,” Strazza says. “But really, those drivers shouldn’t even know the truck has this system because, in theory, they’ll be doing everything correctly already.” However, as the trucks continue to be deployed throughout the company to 650 AmeriGas districts, more and more operators understand the value of the safety systems.

Eric Sassaman has been with AmeriGas for 15 years and a service technician for 11 of those years. He says he’s never been more impressed with a service truck than the one he’s driving these days.

“It’s the best truck I’ve ever operated,” Sassaman says. “The crane is unbelievable. You couldn’t ask for a better crane, and overall, I love everything about the truck.”

AmeriGas has approximately 500 of these trucks in the field, and their primary function is to set and remove propane tanks, as well as to fix propane equipment on-site. Many AmeriGas service trucks are on call 24 hours a day in the 600+ AmeriGas districts across the country.  When a district is fortunate enough to have one of the new smart trucks, they can provide customer service more efficiently and with a greater confidence of safety.

Sassaman says when he first started running the smart truck about a year ago, it took a little getting used to. But as soon as he got used to all of its functions and became more accustomed to what he needed to do when the truck’s lights started flashing, he realized the new truck was beyond compare.

“When you think about the old trucks versus the new trucks, there’s no comparison,” Sassaman says. “The new one is tremendous, all-around. Maneuverability, power, everything.” So it’s no surprise that he thinks other companies should have something similar. “This truck doesn’t let you forget, which is important because we’re all human. There’s a saying that when your feet hit the ground, your chock blocks hit the ground. Sometimes you forget, but this truck won’t let you.”

The Business of Partnerships
Almost half of the companies Strazza invited to participate in the AmeriGas project opted out because they were calloused by competition and set in their ways.

“I’m comfortable with the partners we select, and I’m comfortable that they understand the philosophy,” Strazza says. “Aside from building a quality product and supporting it after the sale, the biggest commitment I require is the commitment to our partnership. There’s a lot to be said for companies that can commit to something that doesn’t have a dollar figure attached to it — it’s a leap of faith.”

All of the partner companies are better businesses today because of their involvement. These builders can now handle multiplex electronic systems and have a higher level of expertise than their competitors. “Just like a personal relationship, if only one person’s happy, it’s not going to work,” Strazza says. And all of his partners are indeed happy.

“We take great pride in the fact that we do business with AmeriGas,” Whaley of IMT says. “We value our relationship with AmeriGas because we know they value their relationship with us. IMT is very proud to say that we manufacture all of the cranes for one of the safest and most technologically advanced service trucks in any fleet, regardless of the industry.”

Scott Ziegler, vice president of operations for Reading Equipment & Distribution, one of the AmeriGas truck’s upfitters, says they get a lot of phone calls from people saying they saw the AmeriGas truck and want one just like it.

“The fact that it’s creating such a buzz speaks volumes about what AmeriGas has created, about the quality of the truck that Reading Truck Body and IMT built,” Ziegler says. “I gloat all the time to customers when they come to our property and we have an AmeriGas truck. This truck is a point of pride for everyone in our organization, from the guys at the top all the way to the guys in the shop building the trucks.”

The favorable response seems to be a common theme among all the companies involved in building the AmeriGas truck.

“I feel a lot of pride in being an integral part of building a truck that is light years ahead of what other people are doing,” says Joe Volk, president of Signature Truck Systems, another one of the upfitters. “And I really respect the fact that AmeriGas is trying to improve our industry by promoting safety over competitive pettiness.”

Jim Ham, sales manager of product integration for International Truck and Engine Corp., says the success of this project boils down to AmeriGas and its partners having a better grasp of the technology available today.

“We had to figure out how we can enhance safety and security and at the same time increase the reliability and durability of the overall vehicle,” Ham says. “The answer was understanding the integration of all our systems. The Diamond Logic technology is available to the entire transportation industry, and what AmeriGas did was groundbreaking in the sense that they grabbed a hold of this technology like nobody else. They understood the technology and used it to bring all these upfitters together in a collaborative effort.”

And the industry has taken notice. Ham says the National Propane Gas Association (NPGA) is attempting to promote the use of technology to make the industry a safer place. “This technology is available to all, and anyone who wants to do something similar to what AmeriGas has done absolutely can.”

It’s this spirit of promoting safety that has Volk of Signature Truck Systems spending a lot of his time driving the AmeriGas truck around to trade shows, and he says if seeing the truck inspires other companies to put more stock in safety, then everyone will be better off.

A Mutual Benefit
Ziegler says Reading Truck Body and Reading Equipment and Distribution have gotten just as much good out of this partnership as AmeriGas has. “We complement each other,” he says. “We’re like peanut butter and jelly. Neither is very good on its own, but when we get together in this partnership, it turned into something everybody liked.”

Whaley says this partnership has led to additional business for IMT. “It started out as this one project and just grew into so much more for all of us. In fact, not only has AmeriGas become one of the largest users of our products, but this relationship has also provided us access to several other large players in this industry.” 

Ziegler echoes this sentiment. “It started out as this little seed, and it’s grown into a forest. It’s pretty special.”

The success of this project has made Strazza wonder why others out there aren’t doing the same thing. More than likely, he says, it’s simply fear of the unknown. “This system’s safety, productivity, control and equipment longevity value far outweighs the monetary cost.”

Strazza says that when he has speaking engagements, he often talks about safety and multiplexing because he wants the industry to be a safer place tomorrow than it was yesterday. Often, the sessions run over because the audience has so many questions.

“Whenever we display the truck at trade shows, AmeriGas’ competitors are often crawling all over it, and I’m OK with that because I think the more we educate, the safer everyone’s employees, customers and equipment will be.” That’s just good business for the propane industry as well as any other industry that utilizes a crane truck.