A Peterbilt Model 579 nears the Continental Divide with a full load for MTS Freight near Helena, Montana

Owning the Final Mile

It’s a state that boasts both one of the largest surface areas and smallest populations in the United States.

So when Steve Mergenthaler, the third generation of leadership at the Mergenthaler Companies, says his operation partners with other carriers to transfer freight “the final mile into Montana,” trust that he’s understating things a bit.

Those final miles are starting to be trusted to more Peterbilt trucks than ever before at MTS Freight, the less-than-loaded carrier that is currently the largest of the three branches of the Mergenthaler tree. The company, headquartered in Helena, Mont., also offers a special contracts division focused on telecommunications services and a household moving and storage division that functions as an agent of United Van Lines.

“There’s only 900,000 people here, and we’re all spread out,” says Mergenthaler. “It’s more cost-effective for some of the larger carriers to hand their freight over to us than run it all themselves. As a result, we’ve found ourselves a niche.”

For an LTL carrier, it’s a high-mileage niche that Mergenthaler has found, and it’s one in which he’s depending on new Peterbilt Model 579s, equipped with PACCAR MX-13 power, to serve.

Storied past

Mergenthaler has long been a familiar name in the Montana transport business. The company history dates back to 1933, when brothers Arthur (Steve’s grandfather) and Nick Mergenthaler began charging five cents a stop to deliver groceries. Growth, acquisition and diversification came steadily over the years and today, Mergenthaler’s 540 employees (two-thirds of whom are drivers) operate out of 27 locations that also serve Idaho, Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado.

The fleet has evolved similarly. Working from the back of a single pickup in 1933, the Mergenthaler companies now run 169 Class 8 trucks, 62 of which are Peterbilt Model 579s, mostly in day cab configurations, as well as about 30 Peterbilt Model 335s. On the household moving side, they also run about 60 Class 6 and 7 trucks, 15 of which are Peterbilt Model 335s which they’ve run since 2007.

Long a fleet of mixed OEMs, Mergenthaler and fleet maintenance director Dave Gardner had an eye toward fuel economy when they first decided to grow the presence of Peterbilts in the MTS fleet. Hauling “anything and everything,” these interline hauls sometimes scale out and sometimes run quite light, thus making real mpg measurements a challenge. What is consistent, however, is the mileage, which is typically around 125,000 miles per year on each interline unit.

“We decided to switch into the aero world in 2012, and we started watching what Wal-Mart was doing with their fleet,” Gardner says. “We became convinced that the Model 579 would be the best product out there.”

“And we knew what a boost bringing Peterbilts in would be for driver morale,” adds Mergenthaler. “It’s like driving a luxury car instead of an economy car.”

Licensed to gross 106,000 lbs. hauling “Rocky Mountain doubles” pairing 48-ft. trailers with 28-ft. trailers, MTS also lightened up its chassis by spec’ing the MX-13 Engine, rated up to 455 horsepower.

“Drivers don’t like to give up horsepower so we kept it high,” notes Gardner. “We had been running a 15-liter engine with a pretty beefy spec. And we went to an auto-shift transmission — that was a big step.

“The drivers love them,” he adds. “It’s not just the newness, it’s the driveability, the visibility and the comfort of the cab.”

“We’ve got another truck we want them to run in the city,” adds Mergenthaler. “But they get in here and take the Peterbilts out before we can tell them not to. It’s just the mindset — the Pete is the better truck.”

Gardner also says that extended preventive maintenance intervals out to 25,000 miles figure positively into their cost-per-mile analysis as well.

Happy customers

In the meantime, it’s not just drivers who are happy to see Peterbilts representing Mergenthaler on the highways of Montana. MTS Freight scores an impressive 98.7 percent in on-time deliveries, success they can attribute to working when few others will — many MST Freight miles are slip-seated and run at night to ensure morning delivery — and a reliable fleet.

“We heard from a guy who used to work at a competitor and he said he could never compete with MTS since we could make a delivery from Salt Lake City to Kalispell (Mont.) overnight, and it was a two-day delivery for everyone else,” says Mergenthaler. “So dependability is huge on the LTL side.

“And image is big with us too. I think it’s important for our customers to see our equipment pulling up to their location. It makes them feel like you’re doing well,” he adds.

“Overall, we’re really pleased with our Peterbilts.”

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