Plastics are everywhere. From automotive to construction to simple packaging, plastic products are possessed of a ubiquity almost like no other. Nearly all of the plastic around you has, at some time, been on the back of a truck. Based out of City of Industry, Calif., Plastic Express is an operation that is an almost perfect embodiment of the notion of the niche. Founded in 1970 by truck driver Ray “Jr.” Kurtz, Plastic Express began life as a trucking operation hauling PVC pipes and associated fittings around the Southwest.
Fast forward 45 years and Plastic Express now boasts 13 full service facilities and 36 bulk terminals across the United States with an ex-Naval aviator, Ray Hufnagel, at the controls.
While it may seem a sizable step from flying SH-60 Helicopters—both in Operation Southern Watch and Desert Fox—to managing the supply of plastic resin across the United States and into Canada and Mexico, Hufnagel is quick to point out some distinct similarities. “Aviation and trucking are very similar disciplines,” he explains. “They are both highly capital intensive, they both demand high levels of equipment utilization and a rigid attention to detail.”
Utilization and capital intensity are words not uncommon across the trucking industry, but it soon becomes clear that Plastic Express is also something of an outlier. “We look like we have a national presence,” Hufnagel explains. “Certainly we do, but the reality of our operation is that we are a regional carrier. 80% of our hauls are 100 miles or less, and we are focused around high population density markets.”
While it seems that plastic follows people, it is slightly more involved than that. Plastic Express is a fine example of the pursuit of niche business, and it is difficult to imagine a better example of an integrated transportation company.
“Our role is to provide our customer with the most cost effective and efficient means of getting their product to their customer,” Hufnagel explains. “We partner with the Class One railroads—unlike the situation in the trucking business 20 years ago, we are friends with the railroads—because we do not want the long haul work. We are the first and final mile of the supply chain.”
Hufnagel points to 2008 and 2009 as being a watershed moment in U.S. transportation. “We were just sitting there operating in an inefficient way,” he explains. “For us, it was a genuine kick in the pants, and we tore up the existing rule book.”