2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the incorporation of Thomas E. Keller Trucking. Tom’s humble beginnings taught him the value of family, hard work, and building a legacy as told in his memoir, The Life and Legacy of Thomas E. Keller.
Losing my job at J.I. Case meant Suzette and I no longer needed to stay in Burlington, Iowa. We discussed where we wanted to live and settled on heading back to Indiana. I was fortunate. Over the years, I had managed to build relationships with several dealers and salesmen with a company called New Idea. New Idea was a short-line manufacturer. I became familiar with two New Idea territory managers over the years when I was at J.I. Case, even going to lunch with them every so often.
As I began my job search in Indiana, I remembered the New Idea company and the sharp gentlemen I met along the way. So I decided to write New Idea a letter. I wrote that I wanted a job and that I’d move any place. Preferably Illinois, Indiana or Ohio.
The name of the man from New Idea was Leo Wendlyn. We connected on the phone, and we set up a meeting to discuss more. “I’ve got a territory open in southern Ohio,” Leo told me after we made our introductions. I accepted the job and instantly liked Leo. Suzette and I made a quick trip back to Burlington to gather the remainder of our belongings and quickly found an apartment in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Working with New Idea sparked an idea a few years in. Many of my dealers weren’t big enough to purchase truckloads of equipment. What they were willing to buy was two or three machines. Those little dealers just couldn’t afford to go to Coldwater, Ohio, to pick up those two or three machines.
I thought, “if I had a truck, I could solve this problem for them.” So I bought a truck, and put on the longest bed I was allowed. I would hire one of the dealer’s men and he’d take that truck to Coldwater. When he arrived, he would back into the dock and the machinery would be loaded for him. His day started around 7 a.m., and he was usually back around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. I would meet him, send him home, and then take my loaded truck around to the dealers, delivering each piece of equipment.
So I did that for a period of time to make a little extra money. It was the start to my moonlighting career of leasing out my truck to deliver for others.
(Our son) Mark was born on June 7, 1964. Around the same time I began delivering New Idea equipment to the little dealers in the Portsmouth area, I began to think bigger.
I struck up a relationship with Reinhert Trucking in the Portsmouth area, and leased my new truck to them to haul steel. My plan was this: I could load it at night, and I would get myself a driver from one of the dealerships. That driver could leave in the middle of the night, go up to Bryan, Ohio, and unload, drive back to Coldwater to deliver the machinery, and travel back home.
Before I knew it, Suzette, Mark, and I were making the move to Middletown. Around this time, I decided it was a good idea to purchase another truck tractor. I visited the dealer I went to the last time.
“Look, I want to buy a brand new truck. And here are the specs,” I said. I gave him my criteria. “I want to trade in that truck I bought from you.” When it arrived in February 1965 to Fruehauf, I had a tag axle installed. I turned it into a 6x2. I also purchased a steel-hauling trailer. By March 1, I had that vehicle ready to go in Middletown. My truck was leased to Gateway Transportation, but I was the owner, responsible for furnishing and fueling. Charlie was an employee of Gateway Transportation.
This was referred to as the two-paycheck system. This was because Charlie got his paycheck from Gateway, and I also received my paycheck from Gateway. It was a good deal for me financially because the driver didn’t look to me for things like wage increases. Charlie did an excellent job, making nice money, for about six months until he resigned.
I found a new driver, Bobby Smithers, who was ready to get away from his employer. And what do you know, he had a small accident. Gateway decided to let him go, leaving me with a truck and no driver. So Bobby and I left Gateway and moved over to R.L. Jefferies to lease. This wasn’t a two-paycheck system. This is one where I had to pay the driver. I also had to keep the records and handle the social security. I was willing to do all of that to keep Bobby as a driver. The problem with R.L. Jefferies was the rates weren’t that good. This meant Bobby was sitting around a lot, waiting for cranes to load or unload the big machinery pieces. This lasted about two months, but I was losing money.
We left R.L. Jefferies. I found a way for Bobby to be leased to the Associated Transport. I was encouraged enough with what Bobby was doing that I decided to purchase my second truck. I bought used, went down to Fruehauf and bought a new trailer. I found another young man to drive for me, and I struck up a deal with him and the truck to work with Gateway.
Six months later, there was a strike, called the Steel Haulers Strike. Around the same time, the industry experienced a fuel shortage. Gas prices went sky high. You could only fill up for 25 gallons at a time. These two events – the strike and the fuel shortage – worried me because I now owned and leased out two trucks. Not to mention the added stress of making sure I was working with good drivers and keeping up truck maintenance. Only a few months into driving for Gateway, my second driver decided to move back home to Kentucky. Immediately after that boy resigned, I found John Dalboa. I had John go to work with Associated Transport along with Bobby. Keep in mind, all of this moonlighting was taking place while I worked at New Idea as a territory manager in Middletown.
A man at New Idea died, who was the territory manager in Defiance, Ohio.
“Tom, you’re the man to go up and take that territory,” Tom Cooper said. As soon as I arrived in Defiance, I opened the Yellow Pages. I said to myself, “There better be a trucking company that I recognize. One with a two-paycheck system.” That evening, I did see a name I recognized – Brada Miller Freight Lines. Brada Miller had a haul out of the General Motors foundry. I began leasing to Brada Miller and saw the opportunity to add more vehicles. I got the first two trucks to come from Middletown to Defiance. Prior to this, I ran the operations of the Middletown trucks as best as I could over the phone. For a 10-year period, I kept up my moonlighting with several trucks and my territory manager position with New Idea. But then circumstances began to change in the late 1970s, both with New Idea and Brada Miller.