Rocket Supply Corp has been in business since 1959, producing high-end, hand-built LPG bulk-tank delivery trucks. Until two years ago, it was business as usual.
And then Rocket made the most dramatic changes in its history.
It started by changing its enclosed decks from steel to aluminum. Steve Bloomstrand, vice-president of operations, says the Roberts, Illinois-based company has the only deck of its kind in the US. It is convertible, serving as an open deck in the summer and an enclosed deck in the winter. It is removable, connected to the tank by gaskets instead of welds.
"Our customers like aluminum because it's lightweight and rust-free," Bloomstrand says. "We paint our aluminum decks, while a lot of our competitors leave them raw. A painted surface is much easier to keep clean and maintain."
Earlier this year, Rocket made an even bigger change, switching from stocking propane-powered medium-duty trucks to diesel-powered Kenworth T300s in single-axle configurations.
The trucks are primarily 2,600 to 3,499 gallons. Rocket will custom-build tanks of up to 5,000 gallons on a Class 8 chassis, but most of its customers prefer Class 7 single-axle chassis. Specifications include: 206-inch WB, 138-inch CA, 261/2-foot overall length, CAT 3126B engine with 230 hp and Eaton six-speed transmission, high-level trim, power window on the right side, AM/FM radio, heated mirrors, air-ride driver's seat, stationary passenger (both high backs), and locking differential.
"The intent of what we do is to build propane delivery trucks - that's still the same," Bloomstrand says. "But the method and the style have changed tremendously in the last year."
A Stable Niche Market Rocket builds 50 trucks a year, about half of which go to parent company Hicks Oils and Hicksgas Inc, which has numerous retail propane facilities in Illinois and Indiana. The others go to independent propane retailers that place a premium on quality and reliability, most of them in the Midwest, Tennessee, Kentucky, New York, and Washington.
Bloomstrand says it's a niche market that has remained stable, even though the propane market has been weakened over the past three years by milder winter weather.
Rocket puts bodies on Peterbilt 330, International 4900, Chevrolet C7500, and Freightliner FL-70, but Bloomstrand says the Kenworth T300 has been the most popular diesel-powered chassis, despite a price tag that is $10,000 more.
"The thing about Kenworth is that the reputation means a lot," he says. "People realize it's a Class 8 heavy-duty truck name and a well-respected name. The T300 is a Class 7 truck built to Class 8 standards. The other things that really start to sell it are the aluminum cab features, the good visibility from the cab, the ease of entry and exit with the staircase, and wide opening doors."
Rocket sold 22 Kenworth-powered trucks last year and has 20 on order this year.
"That's really better than the chassis we've been doing in the past," he says. "They've really taken off and done much better than we anticipated. We didn't know how easy it would be to sell them. People are really proud to drive them."
Longer Life Expectancy Bloomstrand says the CAT 3126B is projected to run 300,000 to 350,000 miles without major repairs. With a 25,000-mile-per-year average by most of his customers, the life expectancy would be 12 to 15 years compared to six to 10 years with propane-powered units.
Rocket has 21 employees and 50,000 sq ft of factory space on 10 acres. In addition to producing LPG trucks, Rocket also has developed and patented The Wizard, a remote shutoff system. With shutoff systems becoming DOT-mandatory on all propane and ammonia bulk trucks in January, Bloomstrand expects The Wizard to be a successful product.
What is in Rocket's future? Bloomstrand says that if the trend continues with more independents selling to major retailers, Rocket might need to connect with a major to gain stability.
"But fortunately, for now, our production schedule is out and we're selling a lot of trucks," he says. "Our reputation is getting us a lot of business." o