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Taking Over; My Business, My Terms

Posted by Tom Keller on 9/7/18 2:42 PM
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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 years between 1968 and 1979 are hazy for me, probably because I was working all day at New Idea and moonlighting during the evenings and on weekends. Working two jobs like this was unusual at the time. And I just kept working. I tried to stay quiet about it, but naturally, many people saw what I was doing. No one objected, and many of the guys at New Idea knew about it. When I got up to Defiance to take over my new territory, I didn’t spread the word about moonlighting. I tried to keep my job at New Idea separate. But every once in awhile, those worlds crossed.

The farming industry was shifting dramatically in the 1970s. Farmers were demanding bigger capacity equipment, and New Idea didn’t have it. We lost business to bigger, more well-known brands that produced large-scale equipment. I found myself more motivated than ever to grow my trucking business. I knew I had to do something else, and could see the writing on the wall.

This is the time when I really starting doubling down on my trucks. In a 10-year period, I built relationships with other truck lines besides Brada Miller. R&W Truck Lines and Ranger Division of Ryder Truck Lines were two other authorities I operated under. During the uncertainty at New Idea, moonlighting was not only consistent but a growing profit center for my family.

In the late 1970s, at the same time New Idea was suffering, Brada Miller was experiencing changes, too. Even though I was leasing some of my trucks with other freight companies, Brada Miller was one of my most consistent relationships. I had been leasing my truck to them for the longest.

If I could be in charge of the Defiance agency for Brada Miller, I would have more income coming in and could resign from New Idea before things really went south.

I knew the Defiance-area territory- a date was set for when I would take over the agency. My next order of business was going to New Idea to let them know I’d be leaving the company. It was an easy decision for me, but a stressful one.

I had a driver, Paul Marti, who was really sharp. I got a second phone line so I could begin running the agency from home. Together, we worked the phones at the kitchen table.

As business was building in the first few months, I had more trucks than I did drivers. I got in contact with someone who knew some drivers. 

“I have trucks here,” I said. “If you want to tell them boys to come over here and work for me and remain with Brada Miller, I have jobs for them.”

So they did. Three of them came over, and we began dispatching them immediately. Five new people were now driving for Brada Miller, with Paul and I working the phones. I also had my original trucks and drivers that came over to me at the agency, some for Brada Miller and others with Ryder.

It was time to find a terminal. I inquired about a terminal on Jackson Street in Defiance that had once been used by a bigger company. There was an office, a dock, and a nice parking lot that held 10 trucks and trailers. It wasn’t the best terminal, but it had what I needed.

The space had enough room for me to set up an office, so I moved dispatch from my home to the terminal. Right along Jackson Street, and near my new terminal, was an apartment for lease. I took advantage of its close proximity, signed the lease, and set up a few beds. This way, my drivers would have a place to sleep and clean up in between routes.

I’ll tell you, we had a good thing going during those early months as the Brada Miller agency. We were small but efficient. I couldn’t understand Brada Miller’s financial difficulty at the time. The agents like myself felt business was booming. Nevertheless, that changed when Harold (from headquarters) called me one day a few months later.

“Tom, I’ve got some bad news,” he said. “We’re not going out of business, but Brada Miller is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.”

Chevrolet was surprised to hear about all of the troubles Brada Miller was facing. “If they do go bankrupt, we’ll do everything we can to support you, Tom,” he (the head traffic manager in Saginaw) told me. This affirmed to me I had shipper support, which was essential since the government still regulated the trucking and transportation industry.

I went about my business, and business ended up being good. It was just a matter of a month or so in Chapter 11, and things were still not looking up for Brada Miler. Chapter 13, essentially liquidation, would be filed soon. Here I was with an adequate number of trucks and an adequate number of trailers, and reassurance I’d have the Saginaw shipper support. I had also managed to pick up another account in the Saginaw area, Saginaw Steering Gear, hauling steering gear castings for vehicles. I decided to seek out a traffic lawyer to discuss my options. I asked him what I would need to do to continue my operation and what permits I would need to obtain.

The signs for my vehicles were homemade, and they were placed on the side of my trucks. I found a salesman from Newton Signs. When my permanent authority came through, I called him and designed those signs.

But instead of my signs reading Brada Miller, they read THOMAS E. KELLER TRUCKING INCORPORATED. The moment I saw my new signs, there were no words to describe the amount of pride I felt. Finally, my own business, I thought to myself.

That morning, Paul prepared all of the paperwork from the downtown terminal where we had recently set up. I took the papers out to Barnes Restaurant, which was located just outside of the GM foundry. I met the drivers there, and I gave them their bills. We recorded all of the weights and the other logging requirements before they headed to Saginaw. This became our regular routine.

As we expected, Brada Miller went into Chapter 13 bankruptcy a few months after I started Thomas E. Keller Trucking. I kept the same pay structure for my drivers, and gave them 24 percent of what I earned. They really liked this system because it was similar to what they were used to. However, now they were guaranteed pay every week, as there was no fear of Brada Miller going bankrupt.

Here I was, in 1980, with a newly established company and the security of the Saginaw haul that I locked in months prior. Our first order of business was to concentrate on Saginaw and make sure we were doing an excellent job. I also put two milk tankers, with the capacity to hold 6,000 gallons each, to work with a new account, Diehl Products.

Another new account, S.K. Wayne in Defiance, came on board. Every day, one of my drivers made daily trips to Chicago to haul the wrenches they manufactured. He’d take a small amount of product up to S.K. Wayne Chicago, and on most trips would bring a small amount of product back to S.K Wayne.

 Later on, General Motors needed help with small shipments back to Defiance. We found a way for us to get the small shipments General Motors needed on the S.K. Wayne backhaul. We got up to 10 loads a day going to Chevrolet, from Defiance to Saginaw. Over the course of a few years, Thomas E. Keller Trucking Inc. outgrew the terminal, and we needed to make a change. Remember, the space we had wasn’t built to handle our growing volume.

In 1985, I hired McDonald Construction to build a 7,000-square-foot terminal, which included a small office, two maintenance bays, and a wash bay. Construction completed in 1986, and we’re still in the same building today.

Keller complex

When I opened the terminal, I brought Suzette out to see it. Suzette has always expressed concern – sometimes negativity – about the loans and investments I made for the business. Looking around, she remarked, “Tom, I take back all of the negative things I’ve said. You’ve really done a nice job.”

Not too long after that move, I got a call from Jim Manskey at Chevrolet. “Well, we’ve got Central Transport running out of Danville. And we need your help on handling some of those loads,” Jim said. I dwelled on this for a long time. I knew I wanted to haul more than usual, but I didn’t want to overextend myself. I eventually agreed to take on some of this work, and the business was mine. I went over to the international dealer, Defiance Truck Sales. “I want five new trucks, as quickly as you can get them,” I said. “I want all matching trucks.” One month later, we started hauling out of Danville.

My method of communication with them was a little unconventional. I found out the best information came at about 2 or 3 a.m., so that is when I would call. I’d talk to the same fellow over there every day, and he’d let me know how many trailers were loaded. This allowed me to plan the number of drivers and trucks I’d send later that day.

For a year and a half, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, five days a week, to get the information I needed for the Danville-Saginaw haul.

And boy, was it worth it. This piece of business was great in the early days of Thomas E. Keller Trucking. I got up to seven loads a day.

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 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.  Other trucking companies saw what we were doing and followed our lead. Everyone else had their own variation on what we were doing. Investing in the curtain sides ended up being very profitable for my business.  Another reason installing curtain sides was a good move: they helped us land a new account, a particleboard manufacturer in Gaylord, which was up in northern Michigan. Sauder

Manufacturing needed our help to deliver the particleboards to Archbold to be used for furniture manufacturing. This was about 1988.

Eventually, I built my fleet to where I had six sets of trailers into Michigan and another four sets of trailers into Canada. Sauder Manufacturing had an opportunity for us to get particleboard out of Val-d'Or in Quebec, Canada. I worked with Nelson’s to design trailers to comply with Ohio, Michigan, Ontario, and Quebec axle regulations. I began a relationship with Johns Manville right here in Defiance, as I heard they were supplying marbles to a plant in Brossard, QB, a suburb of Montreal. In order to get the full load on and scale properly, we built a deck to put one marble tub above the other marbles. This deck was on a hinge that could be tilted out of the way for the particleboard. This made us competitive, and helped us land a lot of business.

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.

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Topics: Company Culture