Natural Decision: Champion Brands CEO explains why the move to CNG

©Ken McCray Photography©Ken McCray Photography

Earl Benton doesn’t let a good idea go to waste.

The president of Jacksonville-based beverage distributor Champion Brands was initially thwarted in his attempt to use compressed natural gas for his fleet of trucks. But he is now helping to herald in what could be a new era of alternative fuel usage by Northeast Florida businesses.

About three years ago, Benton started reading about how waste haulers and municipalities along the West Coast were saving money and helping the environment by fueling their trucks with compressed natural gas (CNG). So, he set about researching how he could switch his vehicles from diesel fuel.

“Rarely can you find something like CNG that you can save money over the long run but still be good for the environment,” Benton said.

Benton found that he could buy tractor trailer trucks, but he would not be able to use them because Northeast Florida did not have any CNG fueling stations. Nor, could he find a company to build a station.

“For two years we were chasing our tails,” Benton said. “We knew where we wanted to be but we couldn’t get anyone to bite.”

He talked with four CNG suppliers about possibly building a station but no deal materialized.

“None of them seemed overly enthusiastic about putting in a station. There had not been a lot of inquiries about using the fuel,” Benton said.

Benton eventually did reach a deal with Trillium CNG. Champion Brands committed to a 10-year supply of CNG and the companies agreed that the station near the distributor’s warehouses  would be open to other businesses as well.

Benton will switch all 40 of his large trucks to CNG over the next three years. He is paying about $50,000 more for each new truck to run it on CNG rather than diesel, but at a savings of $2 a gallon he could make up the difference in two and a half years. Government incentives for using alternative fuels will help defray the costs as well, as will lower maintenance costs.

boCNG engines have fewer emission components to maintain than their diesel counterparts, said Bo Whitehead, fleet sales account manager at Tom Nehl Truck Company, from which Champion Brands purchased its new trucks. CNG is a cleaner fuel.

“When you drain the oil it’s almost like you just poured it out of the bottle brand new. With a diesel engine if you drain that oil it’s as black as can be because of all the exhaust running through,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead has helped Benton research CNG over the past four years. “He had centered on it, so that’s why I centered on it.”

Champion Brands is the only customer of Tom Nehl Truck Company that uses CNG now, but Whitehead expects that to change. So, the dealership will likely ramp up training for its service team as CNG trucks become more common.

“It’s obviously huge for us,” Whitehead said. “It’s a big step in a different direction.”

Champion Brands also has a fleet of 60 smaller delivery trucks that Benton would like to convert to CNG engines when they become available in the United States. “It’s our goal to have everything running on CNG one day soon.”

Benton expects the eventual transition to reduce long-term expenses for the company, which was spending $850,000 a year on fuel. “If you can figure out in a day how to start reducing that number, rather than seeing it increase, that’s a perfectly good day’s work.”

The fuel conversion is Benton’s latest means of reducing energy costs for Champion Brands. “Today, with energy you have to be aware of every option, especially since it’s such a large line item on our expense summary,” he said.

When Benton installed light emitting diode (LED) lights in the company’s two warehouses, Champion Brands recouped its $200,000 investment in LEDs within 11 months.

“It’s roughly cut our electrical bill in half,” dropping it from $26,000 a month to $14,000 or less, Benton said. “LED lights are something every business should be looking at.”

Not only are LED lights more energy efficient—Champion Brands replaced 400-watt metal halide lamps with 100-watt LED lights for example—they also throw off less heat, 70 degrees versus 135 degrees, Benton said. The cooler lights have also helped Champion Brands save money because much of its energy costs go towards refrigerating beverages.

Switching to LED has also allowed Champion Brands to turn off lights in unoccupied portions of its warehouses as well. It uses motion sensors to switch lights on only when a work space is occupied instead. Unlike traditional light bulbs that take 10 to 15 minutes to warm up, LED lights can be turned on and off instantly.

Donnie Kincaid“They are only utilizing the light when they need it,” said Donnie Kincaid, energy manager at Jacksonville-based Tenzing Energy Solutions, which has helped Champion Brands convert to LED lights.

Companies are turning to LED lights as it becomes more accessible, Kincaid said. In doing so, they are reducing their energy costs by at least 50 percent and earning a payback on their investment within 12 months to 24 months, he said.

“The prices of LED have come down and technology has gotten so much better that it makes good business sense to move forward, and financing is available to those who don’t have cash through shared savings agreements,” Kincaid said. LED also helps the environment, he added.

Benton considers energy, economics and the environment when making decisions. He expects other companies to take a similar approach now as alternative energy sources and sustainability concerns become more common.

Champion Brands and Trilium Cng Ground breaking July 30 2014 Earl Benton©Ken McCray Photography 

Opening the new CNG fueling station near Champion Brands’ warehouses to other companies could accelerate the fuel’s adoption, particularly among fleet operators, Benton said. “They’ll look at the savings and they’ll be converting.”

Benton has locked in three years of CNG pricing for Champion Brands. “It gives us a little more stability when forecasting what our expenses will be for the year,” he said.

As of mid-August, the first of the company’s new CNG-fueled trucks were scheduled to arrive in mid-September, and the CNG fueling station was to be operational by Oct. 1. “People will be more interested once we get the tractors here and people can kick the tires and see them,” Benton said.

Regional distributors also will be able to extend their service area for CNG-fueled trucks by refilling in Jacksonville during trips to and from South Florida and South Georgia. “They have to have an oasis where they can fuel those trucks,” Benton said.

Beverage companies are likely to view the CNG station that Champion Brands is opening positively as well, which could help the company secure new distribution deals. “If we’ve shown them we’re responsible stewards and we care about sustainability, it puts another feather in our cap,” Benton said.

“We don’t consider ourselves pioneers, but sustainability is a big thing with a lot of the suppliers we do business with,” Benton said. “If we start today, maybe global warming won’t be as big a thing 10 years from now as it is today.”

Benton may start using solar power next. Champion Brands plans to add 25,000 square feet of warehouse space, which would give it a total of 225,000 square feet of roofing on which it could mount solar panels.

“It used to be that it was so expensive you couldn’t live long enough to see it pay out,” Benton said. “Now you can see it in three years.”

If Champion Brands could lower its monthly power bill from $14,000 to $5,000, for example, the investment could be justified. “That’s a pretty good savings in a year,” Benton said.

Benton’s experiences in converting to LED lighting and CNG trucks have taught him not to reflexively reject ideas. “My advice would be to listen and investigate. I wish I had done the LED lighting five years ago instead of three, and I wish CNG fuel had been available three years ago instead of this October because we would already have the fleet switched over,” he said.

Benton has been encouraged by the inquiries that he has received from other companies as they have heard of how Champion Brands is saving money.

“When people see how easy it is and they hear stories about how much they can save, it will be a real easy decision for them,” Benton said. “Long-term, everybody is going to have to be a little smarter.”


Construction was held up due to permitting issues but is now underway. The station is scheduled to be completed in December 2014.
In the meantime, the first wave of CNG trucks arrived at Champion Brands and hit the road Oct 1.  CNG is being trucked in from one of Trillium’s stations and fueled manually until the station is completed.
The grand opening of the station will take place January 2015, in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of Champion Brands.


A bright idea

Champion Brands has cut its electrical bill roughly in half by installing LED lighting and motion sensors. Here’s how Tenzing Energy Solutions helped them do it:


Replaced existing 400W metal halide high bay fixtures with 100W LED high bays.

Replaced existing T12 tubes with LED ted lighting

Replaced existing 400W wall washers with LED wall washers.

New construction:

Installed 100W LED high bay fixtures in new warehouse space

Installed LED tubes in new coolers.

Source: Tenzing Energy Solutions (

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