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Extensive in-house transportation system supports continued expansion at C&S Wholesale Grocers

  • December 6, 2018
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EVEN as the C&S Wholesale Grocers team reflects on the company’s first century, they are planning ahead for the future. That’s especially true in the transportation and distribution operations.

An aggressive fleet replacement program is underway to capitalize on the latest technologies for tractors and refrigerated trailers. New and updated software systems are being implemented to provide more uniform transportation and distribution management capabilities.

Based in Keene, New Hampshire, C&S Wholesale Grocers has grown into the nation’s largest wholesale grocer and serves 6,500 retailers, chain stores, and institutions (such as military base food retailers) across the United States. To meet the needs of its customers, the company currently operates 1,000 tractors and 7,000 refrigerated and dry van trailers dispersed among 22 distribution centers.

“Our distribution network extends from the East Coast to Hawaii,” says Ron Wright, C&S senior vice-president of transportation. “We make 33,000 deliveries each week to customers from Maine to Hawaii. Customers range from mom-and-pop independents to grocery chains, and we offer them a wide range of delivery options.

“To ensure the best distribution service for our customers in future years, we are making a significant investment in new technology and upgrades. We’re rolling out a Manhattan Associates transportation management product, as well as the FourKites Freight Visibility product for all outbound and managed inbound loads. We’ve also upgraded our PeopleNet onboard systems and TMW Asset Maintenance technology.

“Over the next two years, we’ll be rolling out the Manhattan product, which includes freight tendering, freight payment, planning/routing, and dispatch. This major overhaul is critical for our company, which has grown rapidly through merger and acquisition. We need a unified approach to transportation technology that projects ‘the C&S way’ for transportation and distribution operations. Currently, we have 30 different transportation management systems in use across our company.”

While the C&S Wholesale Grocers fleet handles a majority of the transport duties, the company also works with approximately 100 third-party carriers. “We value strong carrier relationships, whether they are small asset-based fleets up to major dedicated operations,” Wright says. “Engaging with a carrier is far from a transaction. It has to be based upon clear expectations and an opportunity for both partners to gain value out of the relationship.”

Growing company

The company that grew into the nation’s largest wholesaler had a very humble beginning. In 1918, Israel Cohen and Abraham Siegel bought a small brick warehouse and began making grocery deliveries to stores in Worcester, Massachusetts. They named their fledgling enterprise “C&S,” and worked hard to build a base of loyal, satisfied customers.

As America’s retail food industry changed in the 1940s, so did C&S. Supermarkets emerged and began to attract customers from the smaller mom-and-pop grocery stores that had served the nation for decades. C&S responded by introducing an efficient “roller system” in the warehouse to streamline operations. C&S also introduced the revolutionary idea of staffing trucks with just one employee who worked as both driver and salesman, cutting delivery costs in half.

In coming years, C&S expanded the geographic area it served and began acquiring other wholesale grocer operations. The company expanded into the Southeast in 2005, acquiring facilities in Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. In 2013, C&S and BILO/Winn-Dixie entered into the largest wholesale grocery out-sourcing agreement the industry has ever seen, which includes C&S’s acquisition of warehouses in Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama.

C&S was awarded the winning bid at a bankruptcy auction in 2014 to purchase nearly all of the assets of Associated Wholesalers Inc (AWI), expanding C&S’s independent customer base in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. C&S also completed the purchase of Grocers Supply in Houston, Texas, allowing C&S to branch into a new region with diverse consumer needs.

C&S acquired FreshKO Produce Services Inc in 2015, expanding the wholesale grocer’s fresh and organic customer base and strengthening C&S’s presence in California and other trade areas. In all, distribution banners include ES3, Grocers Supply, Davidson’s, FreshKO, and Hansen. They will almost certainly be joined by more acquisitions in coming years.

Transport challenge

The breadth and diversity of the C&S operation means the transportation function must support a large, complex story delivery and non-store delivery network. Fleet operations accumulate 150 million miles a year and account for 1.7 million store deliveries and 150,000 backhauls annually.

The average trip per load is 250 miles and includes three deliveries per load. “We deliver a full range of grocery products, and that includes the freshest and largest variety of perishables in the marketplace,” Wright says.

He adds that C&S Wholesale Grocers traditionally has been able to leverage its size, scale, and innovation in procurement and warehousing operations to provide value to our customers. “We will continue to do that while also investing more in the people, processes, and technology in our transportation operation, he says.”

That includes an aggressive effort to upgrade fleet equipment. “By the end of this year, we will have replaced 68% of our tractor fleet and 28% of our refrigerated trailer fleet,” says Chris Trajkovski, C&S vice-president of transportation, fleet maintenance, and assets. “By the end of 2019, we will have replaced 83% of the tractors and 50% of the refrigerated trailers. This campaign was necessary to help create a more unified fleet spec and to replace older equipment that came through acquisitions over the past few years.”

Trajkovski adds that the fleet replacement campaign will help boost fleet-wide fuel economy. “We calculate that we have removed 5.7 million gallons of fuel consumption with the new trucks,” he says. “We’re also boosting driver and customer satisfaction with more reliability and better quality transportation.”

The newest tractors are Volvo VNR daycabs with 425-horsepower Volvo D13 engines and Volvo automated transmissions. The tractors have Bendix Wingman Fusion safety systems, including roll stability and collision mitigation. Meritor air disc brakes are spec’d in all wheel positions. The SAF Holland fifthwheel comes with a dash-mounted air-release.

Reefer trailers

For new refrigerated trailers, C&S Wholesale Grocers has turned to Wabash and Vanguard. The company plans to purchase 725 refrigerated trailers in 2019, and 375 of them will have Carrier Transicold’s Vector refrigeration units with electric standby. The fleet runs a mix of Carrier and Thermo King refrigeration and specifies single- and dual-temp systems.

“We already have 875 refrigerated trailers that are running Vector refrigeration with electric standby,” Trajkovski says. “We’re in the process of retrofitting our California facilities with electric standby capability. WE believe we can cut operating costs by about 40%, and we will also see a very good environmental benefit.”

The new refrigerated trailers are spec’d for a seven-year lifecycle and are insulated to provide a -20 F to 38 F operating range. Trailers range in length from 28 to 53 feet and have Bulletex wall liners, corrugated aluminum floors, rollup doors, and galvanized steel door frames. About 25% of the trailers have Palfinger liftgates.

Running gear includes SAF Holland spring suspensions and axles with SAF Holland air disc brakes. “These suspensions are reliable and trouble free,” Trajkovski says.

A majority of the fleet preventive maintenance is handled in-house. Some of the maintenance shops in the southeast also have bodywork and painting capabilities.