A look behind the scenes at Panther II Transportation, Inc.
Rick Buffington is the Director of Operations for the Medina, OH-based Panther II Transportation. During Expediters Online visit, Rick was a busy man indeed - fielding questions from his personnel, answering the phone and dealing with this intrusive interviewer. He was also busy with an ISO 9002 audit re-certification, an industry standard of excellence.
More importantly, Rick deals with contractor questions, which is one of the most impressive attributes we saw at Panther II Transportation. "We have an open door policy and we want our contractors to see just how we do things in operations and other departments at Panther II," he says.
"We have a standing offer for all of our contractors to make an appointment and visit our dispatch department for an eight hour shift. Panther II will pay them for that day. This gives our contractors the opportunity to see how we dispatch and why the needs of the customer dictate how we dispatch."
Buffington states that the two important components of the operation are the customer and the driver. "Without the contractors," he states, "we don't have a business. I try to impart that to the drivers. To that end, we created the contractor relations department."
"When a problem can't be resolved at the driver manager level, we have another level for issue resolution."
He adds, "The owner-operators are presently caught in a pinch with higher prices for fuel and other over-the-road expenses. At Panther II Transportation, we recognize the problems that the contractors and drivers face in their business, and we try to help whenever possible."
Buffington is no newcomer to transportation. Before his arrival at Panther II Transportation over five years ago, he spent 16 years with UPS. His duties with Panther II include overseeing a large dispatching staff, as well as being responsible for the revenues in his department.
Panther II's Medina location houses the corporate headquarters. Panther II also maintains a Seville, OH location a few miles away that handles training, safety and other duties. Seville can also operate as a backup dispatch area if the need arises.
The dispatch areas in the main operations area are arranged geographically. Two associates are engaged in the process of customer communications and dispatching; a customer service representative who takes the calls and a driver manager who deals with the contractor.
Expediting, as we all know, is an around-the-clock business. Panther II Transportation services the areas in the continental US and Canada.
Panther II utilizes the communication system that is ubiquitous in expediting, the Qualcomm satellite system. In addition to transmitting two-way graphic communication between dispatch and fleet, the system also gives the trucks' position on a regular basis.
"Everyone has Qualcomm, but it's how you use it," states Rick Buffington. "From the time of an incoming call, the run can be offered to a driver within 10 seconds. Added to that, Panther II has developed its own proprietary software and programming which further enhances the reaction time to service both the customer and the driver."
The Qualcomm system "pings" a truck's location. If a truck is over 15 minutes late on pick up or delivery, it is considered a "service failure". The system can locate a truck to within 100 feet of its location, but as a backup, the contractors and drivers are equipped with a national pager or a cell phone.
Mark is an operations supervisor who somewhat jokingly says that his job description is that of "troubleshooter/fireman." He is a military veteran who has worked in various Panther II departments including safety, administration and operations.
"We give the owner-operators and drivers the most information we can", says Mark, "and we try to take the unknowns out of it, but it IS the expediting business, which is unpredictable."
Mark's duties include anything from overseeing pick up and deliveries to employee and customer relations.
Rick Buffington emphasizes that, "at Panther II, quality is everything. Simply put, we will do whatever it takes to fulfill the customers' needs. I feel that our level of customer service is unique in expediting; we go the extra mile to make sure the customer experience at Panther II is as smooth and pleasant as possible.
Jamie is an Ohio area dispatcher and has been with Panther II for 3-1/2 years. Jamie works as the customer service member of the two- person team. Ninety percent of her calls are customer calls; she says she enjoys scheduling the shipments. Jaime also states, "My job is to give the customers quotes, provide updates on the shipments and help the customer with transportation needs that exceed their expectations.
Derrick is a driver manager and has been with Panther II for close to three years. Once customer requirements are met, Jaime passes the load particulars to Derrick who contacts the driver. "The first thing I do," Derrick explains, "is look over the load information prior to my contact with the driver."
"Once I determine the load's requirements, I will alert the driver over the Qualcomm, and send a message to his pager. If it is a load that must be picked up immediately, I can give him 15 minutes to respond, then I have to find another truck for the load."
"I don't have any problems with our contractors'; they're just like us here in the office, associates with a job to do. I try to keep it light; everyone has bad days and I try not to take anything personally. I sympathize with the drivers and try to understand what they might be going through."
Rhea, a dispatch training supervisor, has been with Panther II for four years. Before entering the expediting business, her work history included two years as a Brinks armored car driver working a downtown Cleveland route. She states, "that kind of work is dirty, physically demanding and worst of all, it wasn't my money."
After the Brinks episode, she obtained her Class A CDL and worked as an expediting co-driver, racking up 4 years as a dedicated flatbed team driver. Since coming into the office from the road, Rhea has served as a driver manager, customer service representative and trainer.
"Training gives new associates confidence in doing their jobs," she says. "Phil (now with Panther II human resources) and I needed to shape the current department. The system is complex and it requires intense training and its application in dispatch."
Rick Buffington agrees: "You don't just throw associates on a desk and let them deal with drivers or customers; they must be educated on the expectations of both the customer and the owner-operator.
He adds, "The relationship between our dispatchers and our drivers is excellent. The dispatchers have great respect for the drivers. I instruct the driver managers to try to understand the contractors' needs. The dispatchers are subject to constant evaluation on how they communicate with the drivers and customers to insure superior service."
Panther II gives the rookie dispatcher a three-week training session with the basics, and then they must be re-trained in the dispatch room. Rhea also trains the company sales associates in dispatch to better acquaint them with operational procedures.
The backhaul department is a specialized area of Panther II. It locates reduced revenue loads in an effort to keep the contractors' straight trucks and tractor-trailers moving. Walter, Panther II's backhaul supervisor, has been with the carrier for 2-1/2 years.
Walter and his co-workers look for straight truck and tractor-trailer size loads on several Internet truckload boards as well as posting Panther II trucks on those boards to advertise the trucks' availability.
It was a place of non-stop activity, fielding calls from contractors, sending and receiving faxes, making calls to brokers for more pick up and delivery information about the runs and entering data on the computers. The idea is to find loads and to get the truck out of the less productive geographical areas back into the expedited freight regions.
The loads found on the Internet load matching services do not normally fall under the category of expedited freight, nor do the loads pay at expedited freight tariffs.
The company pays 85% on the loads it secures for the contractors, so it actually costs the company to maintain this service. Walter says it's still a valuable service for Panther II to provide because it assists the contractors and keeps the fleet in more productive areas.
Special Services department
Panther II's special services department handles those loads that require the owner-operator to possess advanced training and specialized equipment. This division is responsible for temperature controlled loads, flatbed loads, air charter and government shipments; any freight transport that requires special handling.
Irwin, a Special Services representative, is another former owner-operator who has moved into the office. He operated a cargo van with Panther II before Rick Buffington suggested that Irwin might consider working with Panther II's transition program. This program mentors new contractors for a 90-day period after their orientation to help them manage their new business. Irwin also spent time in the company's orientation training department, focusing on Canadian border crossing procedures.
His role in Special Services is sometimes one of customer education and he says that he often has to explain to the customer the difference between airfreight and air charter.
Special Services team member Jakub has been with the company for 3-1/2 years. He says that it's essential to listen to the customers to determine their needs: "Special Services offers very customized solutions to the customers' requirements."
At the time of our visit, Jakub was working on an air charter shipment. This particular load required a Cessna 310 with ground transportation at both ends.
As would be expected, the aircraft are always at a premium. Jakub says, "it's important to nail down the aircraft type required. Obviously, these shipments require the dispatch of two trucks in addition to the aircraft. We have to secure the plane and then get the trucks moving."
During this time, Irwin was engaged in setting up a government load. The freight was only 100 lbs, but would be traveling 1,140 miles requiring a team. In addition to the attention that Panther II gives to traditional shipments, the government freight requires a bit more specialized attention that this division provides.
Up and coming
Panther II is offering many new benefits in 2003, and the focus is on the contractors. In October, Panther II president Dan Sokolowski announced that the company would address the needs of the contractors through new initiatives including:
Internet based fleet management tools
Bonus programs for the contractors
Effective fleet management
Introduction of a "mini-load match up" program
Rick Buffington states, "The future looks very bright for Panther II transportation. Even though the economy sputtered through 2002, Panther II did very well. We secured many new accounts and we are looking forward to a great 2003."