When asked for the secret to success at Melton Truck Lines, Vice President and COO Russ Elliott provided the distilled version. “Where we play well, we figured out what we can do really well, and that’s what we do,” shared Elliott. “I’m a short-timer around here. I started in 1991 as a customer service representative [and] spent about five years at another carrier prior to that.”
Elliott will celebrate 30 years with the company in January, having filled various roles for Melton in operations, safety, loss prevention, and human resources. These days, he guides all of those and more.
He began his tenure at Melton while working with GlasTran, a Tulsa, Oklahoma-based 30-tractor carrier founded in 1989 by Bob Peterson. Peterson purchased the 340-truck Melton in 1991, merging operations with GlasTran in Tulsa. Peterson is currently the Chairman and CEO of Melton Truck Lines.
The original Melton Truck Lines was founded in 1954 by Bert and Gladys Melton in Crossett, Arkansas. The company was subsequently purchased by William Duncan McRae in 1959. His son, Duncan McRae Jr., later took the reins and guided the company until his retirement, when Melton was acquired by Peterson. The company now runs 1,407 tractors throughout the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.
In 1980, Melton received approval to begin “through-trailer” service, pioneering the movement of freight between locations in Mexico and the U.S. on a single trailer. At that time, “cross loading,” the practice of transferring freight from a carrier based in one country to a carrier located in the other, was how freight crossed the border. Melton’s new service streamlined the import-export process and shortened transit time in both directions.
U.S.-Mexico freight is still a significant part of Melton’s business, according to Elliott.
“We handle border crossings from Texas to Tijuana, but 90% of our freight crosses in Laredo,” he said. “It’s about 150 miles to Monterrey (Mexico), the center of an industrialized region where we have a lot of customers.”
The USMCA treaty that replaced NAFTA hasn’t resulted in a change for Melton’s business, Elliott said.
“I understand the politics of the new agreement, but I don’t know, quite frankly, how it will change the landscape,” he explained. “It could cause an imbalance in northbound versus southbound shipments.”
He concluded, “What I do know is that we’ve been in Mexico for a long time and we’ll be in Mexico for a long time to come.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a bigger impact on the carrier than the treaty. “COVID has put everything into a tailspin,” he continued. Elliott and other representatives were in attendance when a March 11 NBA game in OklahomaCity was canceled due to one of the players contracting COVID-19.
“Two days later, the president declared a national emergency,” said Elliott, who commented on how quickly the business environment changed. “In ’08 and ’09, there were signs that the recession was coming. That thing developed slowly, but this COVID thing hit suddenly. Bam! This was fast.”
For the rest of March and into April, freight remained strong. “Our shippers were selling off inventory rather than making new product,” he shared. “May 13, exactly two months after Trump declared the national emergency, that’s when we think the bottom was hit.”
It was nearly impossible to prepare. “If you would have told me on January 1 that we were gonna send 90% of our staff home, our customers would stop shipping, and the country would close down, there’s no way I would have said, ‘it will be OK,’” said Elliott. “We braced ourselves for the worst possible scenario; no shipments, no freight, and where we would park 1,400 trucks. We took it one day at a time, called our customers, and kept going.”
The company was able to continue operations without reductions in driving or nondriving staff, a source of pride for Elliott, who credits the drivers for their enthusiasm. “The drivers are the real heroes of the entire situation,” he said. “When we were getting the word out about COVID, the feedback we got from drivers was, ‘Let’s just go!’”
Melton’s driving fleet is 100% driver-employee. The company currently has no lease program for owner-operators.
One program that hasn’t suffered is Melton’s wellness initiative, created in 2006 when the company lost two drivers to heart attacks in the same year CEO Peterson lost his father in a similar manner. At Peterson’s direction, the company decided to do something about it.
“We had an indoor smoking area for the drivers,” recalled Elliott. “Doesn’t that say something about the times we lived in? We converted the smoking area into a gym. It wasn’t received well.”
The program grew in scope to its current form. “These days, we have biometric screening for the five factors that indicate health problems, like obesity, diabetes, and smoking,” Elliott added. “We instituted a full-blown program where there’s a doctor on site in Tulsa five days a week for half-days and a nurse practitioner full days. We have a nationwide network of clinics that drivers can choose from.”
Encouragement and incentives, such as discounted rates for health insurance, have increased participation. “We pay for colonoscopies, and a few drivers came back and told us they had found cancer,” explained Elliott. “They had no symptoms and wouldn’t have known there was a problem without the colonoscopy.”
Information on fitness and weight loss are provided, in the hope that drivers will take charge of their health before a visit to the doctor is necessary. A healthier workforce wasn’t difficult for Melton leadership to envision, Elliott said, adding that the company just needed “to get ahead of it, and we have.”
Like other trucking executives, he is looking forward to the day when post-COVID-19 operations return to normal. “I’m tired of online team meetings. I enjoy seeing people and getting out and about.” A solution may be on the horizon, Elliott noted, sharing that he thinks a vaccine is going to be a “very important step.”
“They won’t cure it, but if we can curtail it and protect our most vulnerable, we can get past this,” added Elliott.
Until that day, Elliott is confident that the Melton team, whether on the road or working from home, will continue to get the job done.