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.
The first 10 years of Thomas E. Keller Trucking were times of growth, hard work, and learning from my mistakes. By the end of the 80s, I was happy with what I had built. I probably had at least 20 trucks and drivers at that time, and we always had somewhere to be. If an account was lost during those years, I usually found a way to land something new and continue to grow.
I was always fascinated by what they allowed in Michigan and Canada with multi-axle trailers. They allowed a heavier weight limit than Ohio. In Michigan, you could haul up to 164,000 pounds versus the 80,000-pound limit in Ohio. In these regions, you have 50 foot, 8-axle trailers.
I had an idea. I went up to Pazzani Reed in Detroit and asked if they could build two sets of trans-crafts multi-axle trailers with soft sides. And they did that for me. Then, I took those trailers down to Nashville, Tennessee, where I knew someone who had new technology from Europe who could install curtain sides. These were heavy-duty vinyl sides, and I was one of the first trucking companies to use them.
But given the gross vehicle weight differences between Ohio and Michigan, here’s what we did to move those vehicles. I was able to get a special permit in Toledo that allowed me to drive multi-axles from Toledo into Michigan, but first we had to get the parts we were hauling to Toledo. We’d load both trailers with 45,000 pounds at the Defiance foundry (General Motors) and take them separately to Toledo. Then, we’d hook the two trailers together to make a double. From there, the driver would head north. This satisfied the Ohio weight limit laws while taking advantage of the high weight limit laws of Michigan.
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.
I’ll tell you, grooming Bryan (my nephew) to take over the company was one of the best decisions I ever made. The staff respected him from the beginning, and Bryan showed his worth. Bryan saw business opportunities that I hadn’t seen and grew our small operation into something much larger than I could have alone.
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.