By Tony Bennett
Big Rigs, Big Business
Superior’s Trucking Industry is a Transportation Powerhouse
That Plays a Key Role in the Local, Regional and Even National Economy
The evidence of trucking’s ubiquity is all around us. You see them everywhere: big rigs hauling big trailers with all sorts of logos on the sides. Food, clothing, tools, natural resources, what have you – it’s trucking that mainly gets these things from one place to another.
While it’s no revelation to note the prominent role of trucking in modern American society, it is quite interesting to pull back the curtain a bit on the industry with the assistance of some of Superior’s biggest players in the game. People like Jeff Foster and Dave Evans, whose eponymously named companies are titans in local trucking, along with Peter Haines of Halvor Lines, which provides premier transportation and logistics services across the United States and Canada (and is one of Superior’s biggest employers). And people like Corey Hulst of Rihm Kenworth, with years of comprehensive expertise in new and used trucks, as well as truck and diesel engine parts crucial to operating big rigs.
The stories of each company’s rise to prominence are different and they each do a different kind of business, but there is a common thread among them all: a commitment to doing a job and doing it very well, all while playing a major part in the local, regional and even national economies.
“When we were looking for property…They were just so accommodating and interested in what we do. It was ‘How can we help you?’ – that was the attitude of the City of Superior. And it continues to this day.”
– Jeff Foster, Jeff Foster Trucking, Inc.
Jeff Foster’s journey started not on the ground, but in the air. In the early ‘80s, he was a guy with dreams of becoming an airline pilot, but he also had an eye toward getting into a business where he could make money and grow at his own pace. Deregulation in the trucking world led him to hang up his wings and invest in wheels.
Today, the company boasts hundreds of employees doing a wide variety of jobs in numerous locations. It’s not anything Foster pictured, but he’s happy with the way things have turned out.
“We’re so diverse,” said Foster, “We’re actually not even just into trucking, but in operations that are critical to trucking: warehousing, storage, docks, forklifts, wood palates. We’re still growing. We’re always looking at new opportunities.”
Foster ended up in Superior after being enticed by the town’s openness to new business. “There were a couple of things about Superior,” he said. “One was benefits with insurance. And the other was just the way Superior wanted us to come to town. When we were looking for property, they went out of their way to show us areas and facilities. They were just so accommodating and interested in what we do. It was ‘How can we help you?’ – that was the attitude of the City of Superior. And it continues to this day. I’m asked frequently by folks, ‘How do you like Superior?’ I was asked that very question by Alan Klapmeier – and I told him that it’s a great place to do business.”
Klapmeier’s name, of course, has been in the local news in recent months because the former Cirrus Aircraft CEO is bringing the offices and manufacturing facility of his new aircraft venture, Kestrel Aircraft, to Superior. It stands to reason that people like Jeff Foster helped to make that happen in some way with strong recommendations and endorsements of the business climate in Superior. And, undoubtedly, the needs of Kestrel will surely be met in part through local trucking companies. The relationship is symbiotic by nature.
Foster shares this closeness not only with local companies like AMSOIL – “If you go by our lot, you see quite a few AMSOIL trailers,” he said – but with other local trucking companies, as well. It seems that rather than being in desperate competition, Superior’s trucking industry works side by side to assist each other in myriad ways.
“Our major customers are primarily local. Some of our service work is more regional,
and occasionally we get some national people. But our local carriers are certainly
a large part of why we’re here.”
– Corey Hulst, Rihm Kenworth-Duluth/Superior
“Halvor Lines, Jeff Foster, Dave Evans – all of those are very good customers,” said Corey Hulst of Rihm Kenworth Duluth-Superior. Hulst is a branch manager and sales representative with the company, which has been in Superior since 1998 but started up in St. Paul in 1932. It also has locations in Albert Lea and Sauk Centre, Minn. Hulst said that since the Superior-area branch opened, it’s experienced “relatively steady growth” and in recent years, the company has added technicians and salespeople to its roster.
Rihm Kenworth is a truck and parts dealer that serves a wide variety of customers, from the solo driver to the large company. “It’s ranging from a smaller service truck or van to Class 8’s, which are heavy-haul trucks which are used in tractor-trailer combination,” Hulst explained. “And they’re used in hauling 80,000 pounds of gross weight items.
“Large fleet truck traffic is our primary customer,” said Hulst, “but we serve small owner operators with one truck all the way up into larger fleets of 350-plus trucks. Our major customers are primarily local. Some of our service work is more regional, and occasionally we get some national people. But our local carriers are certainly a large part of why we’re here.”
Not only are Rihm Kenworth’s business relationships focused locally, they’re relationships that have grown over time. “Most of our people we have long-term standing relationships with,” Hulst said. “We have people in our operation who were there when we started in 1998, and they’ve been dealing with Dave Evans and Jeff Foster all the way through. We partner as much as we can.”
Part of the reason for Rihm Kenworth’s ongoing success, says Hulst, is that their trucks are, in his words, “the Cadillac of the truck. We’re not the cheapest truck on the market. We definitely serve a high-end client. And we have to have partnerships. If you’re going to buy a product strictly on price, you’re not going to buy our product.”
Hulst says that service of the trucks they sell is also paramount: “The life of a truck isn’t 100,000 miles,” he explained. “The life of a truck is a million miles. Trucks aren’t broken in until they’ve got 60,000 miles on them. Some of these drivers are going 100,000-plus miles a year. Our product holds up. It’s got longevity. It’s got resale value.”
Speaking of longevity, Halvor Lines’ Peter Haines has something to say about that. Haines (who recently came to the business as vice president of sales and marketing after nine years at AMSOIL) recognizes that the establishment’s loyalty to its workers is a large reason it’s been so successful in its 30-plus years in operation.
“We have some of the lowest driver-turnover records in the marketplace, period,” said Haines. “And I’m talking throughout North America. A lot of that has to do with how we treat and work with our drivers. We create an environment that makes them happy and allows us to move freight and allows us both to make money. We have drivers who have been with us since the outset. It’s really one of our strengths. We treat it like a family business.”
A huge part of the trucking industry isn’t just putting people in trucks and sending them down the highway – it’s keeping those trucks running. Many Superior-based trucking companies maintain their own garages for the umpteen million tweaks and repairs that need to be made on a regular basis.
“We do outsource some of the large projects, with some of the routine and even rather detailed maintenance being done internally,” Haines said of Halvor Lines. “This shop is taking care of fundamental maintenance. We just outsource stuff that we can get done quicker and at a lower price point if we can hire someone locally to get it done.”
Haines noted a topic other local trucking companies are also proud to talk about: the way his employer is addressing the question of how to operate in an increasingly green-minded business environment.
“When you look at the way fleets operate today, there’s a lot to keep in mind,” said Haines. “I think diesel trucks have gotten a black eye over the years. People see them heading down the highway and think of pollution, but a lot of people don’t realize that trucking is how all these different commodities get into stores and how all these products get moved. And then you take a look at the Halvor fleet, and two-thirds of our fleet has 2010-compliant engine technologies, which are proven to reduce a carbon footprint – which is important to us and our customers.”
One thing people might assume about the trucking industry is that the economic collapse of 2008 may have led to a downturn in business, as consumers of all stripes have had to tighten their belts. Interestingly, this seems not to be the case. Peter Haines of Halvor Lines said, “The month of August 2012 represented the best performing month in our organization’s 44-year transportation history.” And Dave Evans of Dave Evans Transports, Inc. – another of the local area’s big names – says the story is similar with his company, too.
“As far as the economy being bad on our side, it’s pretty nonexistent,” Evans said. “We had a pretty good downturn at the end of ’08 and the first four months of ’09, but business has been pretty steady.”
Evans’ company has been doing business since 1984. “It started out in McGregor, Minn., and I moved here in ’87,” he said. “The reason I moved here was to get right next door, as close as I could, to the lime plant and the cement plant. It saves on deadhead miles. That adds up. And for quick response, it just makes sense.”
When Evans came to Superior, his business was much smaller. “When I moved here, I only had 12 trucks in the fleet, and right now we’re probably very close to 60,” he said. “So we’ve grown a lot. Of course, that’s a lot of years going by, too. It’s worked out well.”
As with the other trucking companies in town, Evans is cognizant of the important role his outfit plays in the Superior economy, and that includes the purchase of simple goods and services, as well as employing people. “There’s nine of us in the office and 15 in the shop,” he noted. Add the 60-some trucks to that list and you can see how significant just one trucking business is to Superior and the region. Their needs – from paper products to warranty work on trucks to their banking – is handled locally through businesses like Tri-State, National Bank of Commerce and Rihm Kenworth.
Evans says that as a result, Superior would look completely different without a vibrant, growing trucking industry. “With Halvor Lines being well into 300 trucks and Jeff Foster being a couple hundred…there are a lot of people employed in this town. And the fuel that’s bought at local truck stops – it certainly does add up,” he said.
“We try to buy everything local,” said Foster. “If there’s an option to give business to someone in Superior or Duluth, we do. Business has a lot to do with relationships.” The way he characterizes those relationships seem like a window into his success. When members of the business community are invested in supporting each other, there is more success for everyone to go around. When one establishment depends on another and vice versa, a bond is formed that can allow both to grow at the same time.
And not everything is always about investing only in business growth; Superior’s trucking industry is also involved heavily in the community. “We support the Dragon Boat Festival,” said Haines, “fundraising for cancer survivors, we’ve partnered with Northern Lakes [Second Harvest] Food Bank to fight hunger, we’re involved with the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s summer youth program, we support the Polar Plunge for the Special Olympics, and we just really have a laundry list of things we do to help the community.”
The stories behind the companies of Superior trucking industry are varied. But their common thread is that they’re made up of hardworking people who are deeply committed to the economic and social health of Superior and the region at large. And they have many, many decades of combined time and expertise in this area to prove that they’re here to stay. P.S.
Tony Bennett is a freelance writer.