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.
At 83 years old, I have a lot to be thankful for. Looking back on my childhood, I am proud of everything I was able to accomplish.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to say goodbye to many people I have loved throughout my life. But despite the losses, one of my biggest blessings was meeting Karen a few years after Suzette’s death. Life is too short to live alone, and I was fortunate to meet someone. Not only that, marrying Karen came with marrying into a big family, something I hadn’t had since my childhood. I was extremely lucky to be embraced by Karen’s kids, and we continue to enjoy visits and holidays together.
A big relief for me in retirement has been Mark’s progress. Occasionally, he has bouts where he needs help, but for the most part, Mark is stable. Stable enough to where I can live in Fort Myers for half of the year and not worry too much about him. Bryan has also stepped in. In addition to running the business successfully, Bryan has committed to looking after Mark now and in the years to come. The two of them meet regularly for lunch, and Bryan looks after him when I’m in Florida.
When I reflect back on my business, I can’t point to any one reason I was successful. It was many factors that fell into place. The first was Brada Miller Freight Systems going into bankruptcy. I was in the right place at the right time. My relationships were established and the work was mine for the taking.
I’ve never regretted the decisions I made during that time, and would do it again.
The double trailers were a proud moment for me. We were able to be innovative, serve the client, and impress the competition. I knew it was a good idea when my competitors started replicating what I was doing. On top of that, we were profitable. And our drivers were making nice wages, too. This innovation allowed us to establish a solid foundation to grow from.
Despite the growth of Thomas E. Keller Trucking – and later Keller Logistics – I did go through some bumps along the road. Inflation was one of the first issues I faced when running my own business. Just as I incorporated and deregulation went into place, President Ronald Regan raised interest rates to combat skyrocketing inflation. Another large obstacle in my early days was the brief loss of the Saginaw business. Another company was going around offering a much cheaper rate. At the time, all of the business I had left was the milk hauling and the S.K. Wayne account. Payroll was tight, and I decided to not take a salary. I did everything I could to cut back, personally and at the business. I went up to Toledo and visited a company, TriState, that I thought I could rent some of my equipment. I didn’t have to take that action, but it was always an option. In business, you have to be willing to take opportunities but know your limits too.
Several people in my life have described me as a mentor to them, most notably my own family members – Bryan and (my brother) Marv. I never set out to do this. If I had to guess, giving advice must come naturally to me. If I see an opportunity to enlighten someone, or give someone my opinion, I’m pretty free with that.
It gave me a lot of joy to see Bryan and Marv succeed. Marv and I advised each other, and he was a true friend throughout my career. I never felt like I was mentoring him; I think we both felt enlightened by what the other had to say. We exchanged so many tips and pieces of advice. When Bryan was learning the business, he saw my attention to detail and learned to do the same. When Bryan and I were growing the business in the early 1990s, we always sought out objective advice. This led us to make sound business decisions, and it’s another reason we were able to be successful. I could never have imagined how Bryan would grow the business like he has. Bryan brought a new perspective to the business that was good for everyone. Bryan’s investment in the latest industry software has also served the business well, and ensures the business stays compliant with hours of service. He won’t let them get close to violation.
In the old days, the company and the drivers didn’t worry about the logbooks. They just drove. And I’ll admit, we did some of that in the early days. When you grow up on a farm like I did, you just work when there is work to be done. In 2003, Bryan put his foot down. And he was smart to do it.
“If we can’t do it legally, we can’t do it,” I overheard him say one time. “We’re not going to be in the business of hurting people.” It was a good thing he did this because we are now one of the safest truck lines in the industry. We learned if you run legally, there are fewer accidents.
Another reason for my success in business was old-fashioned hard work, just as I learned as a child. You have to be disciplined. If you start something, you have to finish it. This is something ingrained in me from witnessing Dad preparing and selling melons.
When I look back on life, and what I learned from founding a small business, I would say that life is about selling – most importantly, about selling yourself. I learned this early on in my sales days.
You must be able to compromise. As I got older, I had opportunities to develop the skill set of telling people what to do and how to do it. When you have several employees, you have to lead the way. And that’s a matter of selling yourself and selling them on the idea to complete the task.
I tried to always live out this philosophy – leading by example – by dressing the part, speaking to people the way I wanted to be spoken to, and making sure to carry myself in a way that elicited respect. I always conducted business this way. Show your face. Speak your mind. Be direct. And always do it with hard work and honesty.