The Heaven Above and the Road Below
The Story of Miller Transporters, Inc.
The American tank-truck industry and the tiny Mississippi hauling operation that would become Miller Transporters were both born just about 50 years ago. And it was the road that brought them both to life.
From the Rail to the Road
At the beginning of the 1940s, it was customary procedure in the United States for petroleum producers and wholesalers to transport their bulk products in railway tank cars. But that customary procedure, like so many others of the time, was thoroughly upset by U.S. entry into World War II.
Railway tank cars were vital for the cross-country transport of fuel to the East and West Coasts, where it would be exported to supply the inexhaustible needs of the American military effort. To assure the availability of rail cars for long-distance hauling, U.S. officials prohibited the transport of petroleum by rail over distances of less than 200 miles. For some, the revised hauling rules represented merely one more inconvenient wartime restriction. But an oil jobber in Jackson, Mississippi, decided that he just might be able to turn an inconvenience into an opportunity. His name was H. D. Miller. His friends called him Hal.
An Eye for Opportunity
Harold Dewey Miller was born in Dixon, Illinois, in 1898, and grew up in Walnut Grove, California. A World War I Medical Corps veteran and a 1921 graduate of the University of California, Hal Miller joined the sales department of Shell Oil Company, where he would spend the next quarter of a century.
After representing Shell in such diverse locales as Venezuela and New Orleans, Hal Miller was transferred to Jackson, Mississippi, in 1937. Operating as an independent distributor for Shell Oil in 1941, Mr. Miller realized that the government's wartime restrictions on petroleum transport by rail could create new opportunities for short-run tank truck haulers.
In 1942, Hal Miller sold his Shell distributorship to the parent company, holding on to one 2900-gallon tank truck in the bargain. With that truck and a single contract to haul gasoline from Vicksburg to Jackson, Mr. Miller formed a partnership with Jack R. Harrison, a friend and associate. Mr. Harrison managed the day-to-day activities of Jack Harrison Petroleum Transporters in Jackson, while Mr. Miller returned to his sales job with Shell in New Orleans, where he could be reasonably sure of picking up a dependable paycheck.
Joe Ratcliff was also picking up a paycheck, although he couldn't be sure of how dependable it would be. In August 1942, Joe started driving Jack Harrison's Number One truck seven days a week for $25 per week.
By 1944, the Harrison transport firm was seeing a moderate increase in activity. Building upon the original Vicksburg-to-Jackson run, the company had picked up additional routes from Greenville and Meridian to other points in Mississippi.
Still working for Shell in New Orleans, Hal Miller was encouraged. But in Jackson, Jack Harrison was developing other interests, and his enthusiasm for operating the small tank truck firm had diminished. If the potential of the firm was going to be realized, Hal knew that he would have to pick up the ball and run with it.
After almost 25 years with Shell Oil, Hal Miller resigned his position and returned to Jackson to assume active, full-time management of Jack Harrison Petroleum Transporters. At the time that Mr. Miller stepped into his leadership role, over-the-road hauling in Mississippi was a virtual free-for-all, with access to a truck the only necessary qualification for doing business. After World War II, however, the state decided that some degree of supervision was called for. The Mississippi Public Service Commission began to formulate regulations for common carriers and issued operating certificates to the Harrison-Miller partnership and other established hauling outfits. In 1947, Hal Miller purchased his partner's interest in the firm, changed the name to Petroleum Transporters, and began a program of systematic growth and superior service which continues to this day.
H. D. Miller assumed full ownership of a company which was no longer the one-truck, one-route operation of six years earlier. The firm was hauling refined petroleum products within the state of Mississippi from Collins, Greenville, Laurel, Meridian, and Vicksburg, along with fertilizer from Yazoo City. Although no trucks were dispatched from Jackson, Mr. Miller maintained his headquarters in the state's capital city because of its conveniently central location. In 1950, when two of Hal's sons, Jaime and Dick, joined the company, it was operating 30 trucks.
Petroleum Transporters took its first tentative steps outside its home state in 1952, when it secured limited interstate authority to haul petroleum products from Meridian into Alabama and from West Memphis, Arkansas, into Mississippi.
The firm also began to broaden its versatility with a new contract to transport urea from Vicksburg to Memphis, marking this first-ever chemical authority with the purchase of a gleaming new stainless steel trailer. In 1953, Miller's versatility was demonstrated in another area when it hired Anita Langston, the company's first long-term female employee.
Expansion, diversification, and name changes characterized the decade of the 50s from Petroleum Transporters, which became Miller Petroleum Transporters, which became Miller Transporters, Ltd. For a while, painting and re-painting trucks seemed to be a full-time occupation (before the company's trademark green color was adopted, Miller trucks were patriotically painted red, white, and blue). But such were the hazards of a thriving, growing, evolving business.
As the decade proceeded and Miller continued to secure more chemical and petroleum authority for hauling inside Mississippi, other companies were doing the same in neighboring states, effectively blocking Miller's expansion outside its home borders. In 1958, Miller was able to establish a foothold in Tennessee by purchasing authority in Memphis. Memphis would ultimately become the company's largest terminal, but extending the Miller operation to additional states proved to be a difficult nut to crack.
During the early 60s, Miller added cement to its roster of transported products, and the Brandon terminal was built to accommodate the shipping needs of Marquette Cement Manufacturing Company. Growth was continuing, but expansion into other states remained a problem. In 1964, however, that problem was finally solved. At least everyone thought so.
A Match Made.Where?
Miller Transporters was hauling in Mississippi and Tennessee. Hearin Tank Lines of Baton Rouge had authorities in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama. W. M. Chambers Truck Line of New Orleans operated in Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. On January 15, 1964, the Interstate Commerce Commission approved a merger of those three firms, and the new company, Hearin-Miller Transporters, began operations on the first of April.
Little more than 20 years earlier, Hal Miller had been the absentee partner in a one-truck, one-route hauling firm. Now, with 600 trucks, 19 terminals, and almost 800 employees, he was chairman of the board of America's fifth largest tank truck company.
Hearin-Miller Transporters hit the ground running. With ongoing interests in Mississippi, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas, revenues for the first full year of operation were projected at more than $15 million.
Six of Hal's sons-Jaime, Richard, H.D. Jr., Scott, Jerome, and Dennis-and two of Don B. Hearin's sons were involved in the business. "But it isn't any one Hearin or any one Miller that makes this organization tick," Hal Miller said at the time. "It's the whole groups." Everything looked rosy at the beginning, but it wasn't long before the bloom was off the rose.
In essence, Hearin-Miller Transporters consisted of two separate families in two separate offices in two different states attempting to conduct the business of one huge trucking company-in hindsight, a foolproof recipe for confusion and inefficiency. An article in The Carrier hints at what was to come: "The home office will be in Jackson. Baton Rouge will be a district office. Customer invoicing and drivers' payroll will be handled out of Jackson. Other employees will be paid out of the Baton Rouge office.
Also, all bills will be paid from Baton Rouge." Incidentally, with regard to the drivers' payroll, drivers with one year of company experience in 1965 were guaranteed a wage of $50 per week.
But even with wage scales like that, Hearin-Miller's profit performance never reached expectations. The corporation was finally dissolved in 1968, with the Miller family retaining operating interest in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama, including terminals in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and Mobile. The company closed out the decade by building a new terminal in Hattiesburg and staffing it with drivers from elsewhere in the company who wanted to get in on a ground-floor operation. Once the newly reorganized Miller Transporters was in place, H. D. Miller Sr. sold his interest to his six sons and retired.
Close Your Eyes and Hang On!
During the 1970s, Miller Transporters embarked upon a genuine roller coaster ride. During the early part of the decade, the company, the industry, and the entire nation were mired in a serious recession. But as business emerged from the economic downturn, building and expansion became the watch words. Although the threat of increased competition through deregulation threw a shadow over the close of the decade, the '70s proved to be a remarkable era of activity for the company.
In 1970, the Lumberton terminal was built at the request of Southland Oil Company, who had bought an oil refinery in the area and wanted Miller Transporters as its carrier. Miller's cement business was continuing to expand in March 1974, when the Artesia terminal opened to service United Cement's Golden Triangle plant.
The year 1978 was especially memorable for Yazoo City driver J. C. Franklin, who was named Truck Driver of the Year by the Mississippi Trucking Association.
Miller executives also remember 1978, not only for Mr. Franklin's achievement, but also for one particular day-June 30th, a lovely Friday in late spring-when Miller Transporters bought 150 International Harvester truck-tractors for a total cost of $5.5 million. It was the largest single equipment order in company history.
Amid the turbulence of a dynamic decade, however, a note of sadness was sounded. On January 4, 1976, Harold Dewey Miller Sr., founder of Miller Transporters, Inc., died at the age of 77. Aside from his achievements with his own company, Hal Miller's contributions to the advancement of his industry were acknowledged nationwide. He was also an outstanding community leader, a loved and respected husband and father, and a man whose rigid adherence to integrity continues to guide the company he created.
Hal Miller also believed that loyalty was an essential element in any relationship, whether business or personal. He often cited this passage by an unknown author:
If you work for a man.in Heaven's name work for him;
speak well of him and stand by the institution he represents.
Remember.an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.
If you must growl or condemn and constantly find fault, resign your position,
and when you are on the outside.damn to your heart's content.
But as long as you are a part of the institution, don't condemn it.
If you do, the first high wind that comes along will blow you away.
And probably, you'll never know why.
"He was always the perfect gentleman," recalls his son Scott, president of Miller Transporters, "in business as well as in other parts of his life. I am always thinking about my father when I'm running this business. I think he would be proud of what his sons have done."
The Complications of Competition
The treat of deregulation became reality in June 1980, when the Motor Carrier Reform Act was passed. Miller Transporters President Scott Miller commented in the pages of The Carrier that "the main thrust of the bill is to enhance competition by more freedom of entry. Other provisions allow rate-raising and lowering by the carriers without government interference. The hope of the de-regulators is that all rates will go down due to the increased competition. This is very debatable, and, obviously, only time will tell."
In response to government deregulation, Miller applied for a nationwide authority to transport bulk commodities between all interstate points in the U.S. The nationwide authority was granted in 1981. The most significant effect of deregulation proved to be the dominating factor of price-and price alone-in a shipper's choice of haulers.
Throughout the entire 40 years of its history, Miller Transporters had demonstrated an uncompromising commitment to on-time delivery, skilled personnel, and superior service. It was a challenge for the company to fight for business on the basis of cut-rate pricing alone.
But opportunities as well as challenges swept in on the tide of deregulation. Easing restrictions on expansion made it possible for Miller Transporters to purchase Wheeling Pipe Line in the summer of 1981. The acquisition included 105 tractors, 157 trailers, and terminals in El Dorado, Magnolia, and North Little Rock, Arkansas, and in Shreveport, Louisiana.
The deregulated environment opened the way for Miller to locate a series of new terminals across a broad geographical range: Matawan, New Jersey; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Chicago, Illinois; Charleston, West Virginia; Houston, Texas; Beaumont, Texas; and Savannah, Georgia. All but one of the new terminals were built from the ground up, and most were established in response to requests from shippers with whom Miller had already established a good working relationship and who needed transport services in these specific locations.
Deregulation also generated an evolution in the nature of products transported by the company. As the years passed, Miller's familiar green trucks carried less asphalt, cement, and refined petroleum. More often than not, the tractors were towing shiny, stainless steel tanks filled with chemicals. It was also during this period that Miller began to employ owner-operated vehicles. But, though some aspects of company operations were changing, the Miller tradition of quality service remained strong. In 1986 and 1987, Exxon Chemical Americas selected Miller Transporters as its outstanding bulk carrier of the year.
A glimpse into the future of Miller Transporters was provided by the January 1987 opening of the Woodstock, Tennessee, terminal, which was dedicated exclusively to the transport of chemicals for the DuPont Company. An article in The Carrier stated that the new terminal "is ready to set the standard in the tank truck industry. The key to reaching that goal is found in both companies' commitments to service and safety. Both DuPont and Miller seek to maintain a level of performance unparalleled among bulk tank shippers and carriers."
That level of performance-that pursuit of excellence-has always characterized Miller Transporters and its employees.
The '80s proved to be a decade of challenges. But company-wide efforts to improve efficiency; aggressive, creative salesmanship; and a core group of invaluable customers who shared Miller's respect for quality all helped the company make a successful transition to a deregulated hauling industry.
In 1941, Hal Miller Sr. was operating one tank truck between Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. What would he have said if someone had told him that in 50 years his company would be capable of making door-to-door tank container shipments virtually anywhere in the world?
With the arrival of the 1990s, that impossible dream came true. Miller Transporters joined in an international relationship with the Wim Vos Group, a European tank truck and tank container operator, and its parent company, the Netherlands-based Royal Nedlloyd Group.
By linking Miller's North American transport system with the European Intermodal and with Nedlloyd's global shipping network, the resulting multi-national, multi-dimensional system give Miller Transporters and Wim Vos a worldwide capacity to ship liquid chemicals, petroleum products, and liquid food products.
This cooperative association comprises a team of 25,000 highly trained employees, offices on six continents, a carrier fleet numbering into the thousands, and a sophisticated international logistics and communications network. Drawing on these extraordinary resources, Miller Transporters' half-century commitment of safe, on-time, door-to-door transport services now extends to any destination, anywhere in the world.
From one man and his truck to an $80 million carrier completing shipments around the world-that's where the story of Miller Transporters stands at this 50-year point in its history. But it's certainly not where the story stops. In March 1992, the company was notified that it had won three awards in the National Tank Truck Carriers 1991.
- Safety contest: Competitive Safety Grand Award, 30-50 million miles class.
- Personnel Safety Merit Award, 30-50 million miles class
- Sixteenth Year Improvement Award
This most recent recognition once again confirms the significance of Miller Transporters' long-established safety policy: "No load is so important that its safe delivery in a courteous manner should not take priority over all else." With the unshakeable legacy of integrity and quality that H. D. Miller Sr. passed along to his family and his company with the ever higher standards of excellence being established by the entire Miller team the story of Miller Transporters will keep rolling on, as long as there's a heaven above and a road below.