For Nashville Wholesaler, Side Loaders Make Dollars & ‘Sense’
When Edward “Ajax” Turner founded the Ajax Beer Co. in 1934 near Nashville, TN, delivering product from his warehouse floor through the retailer’s door was a much simpler proposition. He had one truck, which he drove, loaded with beer from one brewery. He could probably count his stops on two hands, and his wife, Geraldine, was the only other employee. She ran the office while Mr. Turner ran the route.
Oh, what a difference 80 years makes. Today, Ajax Turner Co., Inc. operates a fleet of about 200 vehicles that deliver around 8 million cases of top notch beer brands from 22 breweries – led by the Anheuser-Busch portfolio – to some 3,500 customers over 50 different routes, supported by a staff of 250 people. In 2004-05, the company shifted from a totally pedal sell system to 100% pre sales and set up its fleet to provide customers with an incredibly efficient delivery service.
“You have to deliver in ways that make money and make sense for both you and your customer,” says Gil Williams, Ajax Fleet Manager since 2003 and a 23-year company veteran. “You absolutely have to work with what you have in the retail environment.” That environment for Ajax Turner includes small and large supermarkets, warehouse clubs, convenience stores and onpremise accounts. They all have different size orders, different size backrooms, different size aisles and different size parking lots. In the Ajax world, “there’s no such thing as a cookie cutter delivery model.”
The company’s transition to pre sell started with its bulk routes. “We originally used 53 foot box trailers for supermarkets, and then saw we could catch some high volume cstores with the end loaders as well, so we added 4 more just for those and equipped them with 6-wheel aluminum hand carts,” explains Williams.
While the end loaders have worked well in that environment, “There is just no way that you can deliver to every type of account that we have off an end loader,” Williams stresses. “There’s always going to be a need for a side loader.” For instance, all of Ajax Turner’s on-premise accounts are serviced by one of the company’s 66 Mickey side loaders. “It’s not feasible to deliver 15 to 50 cases to a bar or restaurant off an end loader. Or if I have a c-store selling 100 cases a week, and I’m catching him twice a week, it’s not feasible to send a 45-foot end loader onto his lot. He may not even have space to park that rig and pull a pallet of beer off the lift gate, then wheel it into a store on a big cart. And if there’s no ramp, imagine how much work I’m creating for the driver.” By comparison, “it’s much easier to use a side loader with 50 cases going in on 4 or 5 hand cart loads. We have 46 dedicated side loader routes that catch c-stores, on-premise and some smaller supermarkets, and I keep a 10% pool of spares on hand so we don’t skip a beat. It all comes down to the retail environment. In the bigger metro areas loaded with supermarkets taking 400 or 500 cases a week, we hit them with end loaders. We get the pallets off the truck as quickly as we can and send a merchandiser in behind us to work the beer.”
Williams will even shoe horn a single bulk stop on a side loader if the logistics make sense. The example he points to is a route 50 miles from the warehouse in La Vergne with significant total Ajax Fleet Manager Gil Williams with a Mickey side loader featuring the new Budweiser graphics. volume but not a lot of big volume stops. “It makes more sense to send one side loader out there to service all of the stores rather than an end loader for that one large grocery store.”
Ajax drivers prefer the end loaders in the newly developed communities with large supermarkets, spacious parking lots and “all the things you need to get the cart into the store and into the cooler,” says Williams. “They can hit it hard and hit it fast, get the product in with no issues and go onto the next stop.” Conversely, the older towns tend to have smaller, older stores with smaller parking lots, “but the stores have nice wide aisles. The drivers prefer going in there with side loaders and 2-wheel hand carts.”
Ajax has been buying Mickey side loaders for at least the 23 years Williams has been on board. This year, the AB wholesaler went outside the “box” and bought 2 “combo” trailers from Mickey to deliver both packaged and draft beer to on-premise accounts. Williams worked with Steve Mason, Mickey’s Midwest Regional Sales Manager, and the Mickey engineering team to custom design the 46-foot, 22-bay units with 8 larger refrigerated bays to handle kegs. “We were using 2 different trucks 2 or 3 times a week for a couple of routes in outlying areas to deliver draft and packaged beer to the same accounts,” Williams explains. “With the combos we can get all the kegs and all the packages on the same truck and cover all these territories. We had some challenges with a few accounts because the trailers were so long, but all in all it’s been a success. We did not have to take any accounts off those routes.”
Conventional combo trailers would not have worked for Ajax Turner’s specific delivery needs, which means conventional body and trailer manufacturers would not have worked, either. “Mickey told me they would build whatever I needed,” says Williams. “It wasn’t a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Even when I sent it to Mickey’s Illinois plant to tweak some of the shelves, Mike Parker said ‘no problem.’ What I have is a custom-built trailer. That’s what Mickey does. They say ‘yes.'”
(Editor’s note: Mike Parker is the General Manager of Mickey’s Midwest Reconditioning/Service Center in Bloomington, IL.)
It’s important to Williams that he gets the exact trailers he wants from Mickey because he’s going to keep them for a very long time. “Their products never wear out,” he says. “If you keep up with routine maintenance – door rollers, axles, bearings – they will last 17 to 20 years. And being an AB wholesaler, our units are repainted or reconditioned every 3 to 4 years, so they always look and work great. I could take you out on the lot right now and you couldn’t tell which ones are 3 or 4 years old and which are 20 years old. They are that good.”