On the road with a Top 50 retailer

February 11, 2013 By    

What happens on the industry’s front lines? LP Gas editors spend two days and log hundreds of miles with Ferrellgas to find out.

Day 1: Riding in a 2012 Ford F-550 service truck

Headlights appear ahead in the darkness before dawn, and a Ferrellgas service truck makes its way slowly down the deserted road. This is the meeting place.

A figure emerges from the truck and approaches his guest for the day. Kevin Matsako introduces himself. Personable. Welcoming. Firm handshake.

The plant supervisor who does just about everything at Ferrellgas’ Cleveland-area location leads the way back to his home office, a tidy trailer tucked away in an industrial section of Twinsburg. An 18,000-gallon propane storage tank sits at this location, with plans to add another 30,000 gallons early this year. There is no shortage of work and gallon sales here.

Even at 7 a.m., Frank Edwards Jr. is ready for the day, businesslike in his shirt and tie and professional approach. The nine employees at this northern Ohio location enjoy when the region manager visits from his headquarters about 70 miles west of Cleveland, for he brings donuts to start the day. Ferrellgas facts, figures and philosophies are discussed.

The site’s five cylinder trucks and one bobtail hit these roads with steady, year-round business. When the location launched about eight years ago, it was selling about 300,000 gallons of propane per year. That total has grown to about 1.5 million gallons.

Three-quarters of that business is on the industrial side – forklift cylinders – while residential and autogas accounts make up the other 25 percent. The growing gallons here go against concerns reverberating at the national level about propane losing forklift customers to electric. The company delivers about 500 forklift cylinders daily. Pepsi and Rubbermaid are two big accounts, Frito-Lay with autogas.

The 39-year-old Matsako grew up just outside Cleveland. Raised by his grandparents and uncle, he learned about hard work and using his hands to complete a project. He boasts a strong mechanical and construction background.

“My grandfather worked for Ford. He was one of those old-school guys who didn’t replace parts; you fixed what was broken,” Matsako says. “I learned how to do all of it in the backyard.”

A career in propane

Matsako came to Ferrellgas about eight years ago from his own inspection company, just as the nation’s second-largest propane retailer was opening its branch in Cleveland.

He begins his days early, arriving at the office around 6 a.m. to ensure the trucks fire up and are ready to roll, but he’s always available for his employees and customers. He likes to keep those relationships on a personal level – he says about 90 percent of his customers know his name – and has no hesitation about giving out his direct phone number.

“My phone doesn’t stop,” he says. “They know from 5 a.m. on, I’m awake and going, so they can call me. I try to run this like it’s mine.”

Matsako really is the jack-of-all-trades. His business card reads “Plant Supervisor/Sales, Service,” but he also helps with scheduling, routing, setting tanks, delivering propane, dealing with customers and any other jobs that might arise. Some call him a service engineer.

One thing you realize right away about Matsako: He’s honest and tells you exactly what he’s thinking.

“I come off a little harsh sometimes, but the way I was brought up, a man’s a man. When I shake your hand, I shake your hand,” he says with emphasis.

Hitting the road

On this particular January morning, the sun is shining, but the air is cold, the temperature hovering around freezing; it eventually will approach 40. The sparkling new Ferrellgas truck, a 2012 Ford F-550, pulls into a Dunkin’ Donuts. Stop No. 1: coffee. Matsako can’t start his day without a steaming cup, cream and sugar.

Then he maneuvers the truck onto the highway amid the morning rush. His first order of business is a mobile home customer who is requesting hookup – a “place-in-service,” he says – after switching from a competitor.

The conversation turns to technology.

“I try to stay up on technology because technology is the future,” says Matsako, his Bluetooth in place for hands-free driving in case a call comes. “It is what it is; you can’t fight it.”

Matsako knocks on the door. No answer. He walks to the back to survey the situation and notices propane remaining in the customer’s current tank. Two 120-gallon Ferrellgas tanks looking freshly painted sit nearby. An older woman comes out of the home looking like she just woke. She says her home has no heat and warns that the inside is messy and smells of urine; one of her two dogs is sick, possibly with a bladder infection.

Matsako loves animals. His family – his wife, 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son – has a dog and cat, three lizards and two snakes. So it’s no surprise that Matsako is drawn to the two old dogs lumbering inside and leans over to play with them.

“Usually I have doggie biscuits” for customers’ pets, he says later.

Matsako checks the appliances; the stove is working, the furnace is not. He discovers that the electronic igniter has gone bad on the furnace and advises the woman, who expresses concern about her personal finances, to check with her county regarding assistance programs to have the igniter fixed. He also advises her to use the propane remaining in her current tank and says Ferrellgas will return to place the tanks into service. She seems grateful for his explanation and assistance.

Tank relocation

Matsako’s next assignment involves a temporary heating account for new home construction. He will load a 500-gallon tank from one site and drive it about 80 miles to another new home construction site. He works the truck’s crane effortlessly to lift the tank onto the bed, securing it and two portable heaters for the roadtrip. Even in the 30-degree temperatures, homebuilders are at work and welcome the powerful heaters that Matsako supplies to their sites.

The conversation at this point turns to safety and a slogan attached to the truck’s windshield: “If you slip off, stay off.” It refers to truck rollover prevention and reminds drivers not to yank the steering wheel back toward the road if the vehicle veers off the side. Bobtail rollovers have been a hot topic in the industry, with the Propane Education & Research Council releasing a video and safety material to retailers last year.

After Matsako relocates the 500-gallon tank to the new home construction site, the truck is back on the highway, headed west to a Ferrellgas storage location in rural Ohio, where he plans to pick up a pump station cabinet. Matsako is helping to build the pump station for a customer who will sell propane for RVs, forklift cylinders and other needs of walk-in customers.

He talks about the many uses for propane and how “it’s not always about the million-dollar accounts. We have to be scavengers and take the scraps sometimes, but if you do a good job people are willing to stay with propane. It builds confidence.”

Day’s end

The final stop is Ferrellgas’ northern Ohio call center, where Matsako loads 600 feet of hose onto the truck for portable heaters at a temporary heating site.

The sun is setting. A driver at this location is refueling his bobtail and parking it for the night, ready for what the next 24 hours will bring. On this day, the truck with Matsako behind the wheel logs about 300 miles with little downtime.

“I’m a high-strung, go-go-go, don’t-stop-until-I’m-done kind of guy,” he says.

BLACK ICE

On the second day of the ride-along, Matsako is faced from the get-go with challenging road conditions

Day 2: Riding in a 2009 Freightliner M2 business class bobtail

The next day has barely begun, yet Ferrellgas’ Kevin Matsako is already encountering trouble on the road in the form of black ice.

About 100 feet ahead, a car has crashed head-on into a telephone pole. A second car has skidded off the road another 150 feet down, and a third is pulled over just beyond the second because of the morning’s black ice.

Matsako brings his bobtail to a halt to inspect the oncoming traffic and determine whether his vehicle can make it through this slick stretch. At first, he chooses to turn around and find an alternate route to the day’s first destination. But after backing the bobtail into an open area, Matsako discovers he has less control of the vehicle in reverse than when he’s going forward.

A moment later, a school bus coming from the opposite direction chugs through the treacherous patch. The bus’ safe passage convinces Matsako that driving through the black ice is his best chance to navigate through the situation.

So he puts the bobtail in gear, builds enough speed to move forward and drives about 15 mph for the next couple miles of icy road. Matsako doesn’t let the line of cars forming behind his slow-going bobtail faze him. The eight or nine stops on his schedule aren’t interfering with his early-morning decision to take it slow, either. After all, putting the bobtail in a ditch before daybreak will alter his schedule completely.

“What people don’t understand about this job is it’s as much mental as it is physical,” Matsako says. “One of the biggest parts is keeping your eyes open all of the time on the road. You can’t take your eyes off the people around you, because it can get crazy out here.”

The first deliveries

Fortunately, Matsako makes his way through the stretch of black ice and safely arrives minutes later at his first destination. Three customers will be receiving tank refills at this site, a mobile home community that a competitor once monopolized. Now, the park is very much Ferrellgas territory. Ferrellgas didn’t win over these customers overnight, though.

“I went in there and knocked on doors,” Matsako says. “Within two months, we started getting steady calls. We didn’t change our price. We didn’t stop going after it. I personally went to every single door and knocked on it myself. Then, three months went by and I knocked again.”

The relentless pursuit eventually paid off, as evidenced by one particular day in which 22 tanks were brought out in two loads for 11 customers. The sense of pride in Matsako’s voice is evident as he describes that victorious day.

“I did the sales, installed the tanks and today I’m filling them,” he says.

Matsako pulls into the mobile home community, drives into a far corner and backs the bobtail into position so he can make his first delivery. Once done there, he finds his second customer – a will-call customer whose tank is down to about 5 percent of capacity. Matsako adds 100 gallons to it, as this particular customer doesn’t want the tanks completely filled.

Matsako then attends to a third customer who has two 120-gallon tanks that need fill-ups. But while attending to this customer, Matsako is alerted that he must deliver propane to the mobile home community’s owner, who has a nearby farmhouse. He makes the delivery there next, before picking up where he left off on his schedule.

Talking safety

It’s approaching 10 a.m., four deliveries have been made and Matsako is headed southwest for his next set of deliveries. A Marathon gas station is the destination. Filling the station’s 500-gallon tank is going to be a tad challenging because of its location.

The tank is tucked behind a guardrail near an embankment that’s adjacent to the store. The tank is also surrounded by snow on this January day, but Matsako hops the guardrail with his hose and makes his way to the tank with relative ease.

“Sometimes snow gets pushed onto a tank,” he says. “It’s the [owner’s] job to keep the area clean. Also, don’t chain your dog to the tank.”

The comment is a bit random in relation to the snow-around-a-tank remark, but Matsako, of course, has a story behind it.

“I had one guy tie a cow to a tank,” he says. “The cow ran off and the tank went with it. The rope eventually broke the cow from the tank, [but] the tank had to be retrieved.”

As amusing as the story is looking back, it’s also a frustrating one to Matsako because he considers himself a safety advocate. The way he calculated the black ice situation just a few hours ago is evidence of this, but Matsako says he promotes safety in every realm in which he and his crew operate.

“[Bobtail rollovers] are one of the things I worry about with new drivers,” he says. “That’s why I ride with all of our drivers to make sure they’re totally comfortable. I’d rather come in on a Saturday to make sure they can handle tough conditions than have them in an accident.”

Filling cylinders

Safety comes up again at Matsako’s eighth stop, following deliveries to a rural home and a mechanic who had maybe two-hours-worth of propane left in his tank when Matsako arrived. This eighth customer is a manufacturing plant where Ferrellgas refills cylinders two or three times a week to run forklifts.

The manufacturer uses 33-pound cylinders, and there are times when Ferrellgas must fill all 45 of them. About two-thirds of them are staged for a refill on this day, and Matsako has the option of filling each cylinder horizontally because they’re neatly organized on racks.

Instead, Matsako removes the cylinders from the racks, and he stands them vertically in a bunch. Taking down the cylinders and having to put them back will add a few extra minutes to this stop. But Matsako is fine with taking the extra time because, in his mind, filling the cylinders from the ground is safer.

“Some guys will fill the cylinders from the racks themselves,” he says. “I prefer to put them on the ground to refill because I don’t want to encounter the chance that liquid propane sprays on my face.”

Halfway through this task, a plant worker emerges from a back door with yet another empty cylinder for Matsako to fill. The worker also has questions for Matsako, as he’s curious about Ferrellgas’ home heating rates in a particular Ohio city.

Matsako doesn’t know the specific rate there because the city is about an hour from his plant and outside his service area. So he offers a best guess and hands the worker a business card with the hope of gaining a new customer for Ferrellgas.

“Each district has its own pricing,” Matsako says. “It all depends on where they’re pulling their gas from. So you try to give an average to the customer that’s no more than 10 cents off.”

Investing in autogas

Matsako’s next customer, Frito-Lay, is unique compared to the others visited on this day because it’s receiving propane for autogas purposes.

Frito-Lay has a 1,000-gallon dispenser tank at its facility in Cleveland, using autogas for 14 trucks that make deliveries throughout the region. Matsako says Frito-Lay probably has more than 100 total trucks that run on autogas. The Cleveland facility invested in its 14 about a year ago, and Matsako is hoping to hear about the company’s savings in the coming weeks.

For now, Matsako visits with a Frito-Lay mechanic, who reports that the trucks are running well. The biggest challenge the company has encountered with the trucks in the last year, the mechanic says, is familiarizing those who operate them with autogas.

Educating the Cleveland Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Bureau and the Cleveland Fire Academy were challenges, as well.

“We probably had 65 to 80 people here one day to educate them about the system,” Matsako says. “We couldn’t do this without them signing off on it.”

Wrapping up the day

Only two stops remain for Matsako, who pulls away from Frito-Lay and heads toward the heart of the city. The new Medical Mart in downtown Cleveland, which has been under construction for nearly two years, is next on Matsako’s list. The Medical Mart is a fenced-in area that spans multiple city blocks, and Matsako isn’t exactly sure where he’s expected to make his delivery.

To find out, he pulls the bobtail over, asks for directions and learns that the tanks he’s searching for are on the opposite side of the site. Matsako is probably used to such runarounds in the bobtail, though, because, as he describes, Ferrellgas serves many construction sites throughout the area.

Once Matsako finds the two 120-gallon tanks, he fills them along with two cylinders before moving on to the day’s final destination: a reseller with an 1,850-gallon tank. The reseller offers an assortment of options to customers, including 33-, 44-, 60- and 100-gallon cylinders.

Scrap yards, steel fabrication plants and refrigerator plants are just some of the customers this Ferrellgas customer reaches with propane. It also redistributes other gases, including argon, carbon dioxide, hydrogen, nitrogen and liquid oxygen. According to a plant manager, propane offers him one of the best margins of the mix.

Heading home

For Matsako, the day in the bobtail is now done. He visited 11 customers, filled dozens of propane containers and avoided an early-morning accident on that icy road because of careful driving.

Tomorrow will bring a different journey than yesterday’s in the service truck and today’s delivering propane. But Matsako prefers to do a variety of tasks each week after more than seven years with Ferrellgas.

He would, of course, prefer to avoid black ice anytime he’s in a bobtail, but obstacles like that treacherous morning road are reminders for Matsako that every moment around propane must be taken seriously.

“Some days are nice and smooth, and other days someone will cut you off from nowhere,” he says. “If you’re not paying attention, someone can startle you.”

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Photo: LP Gas

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the senior editor of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at kyanik@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3724.

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