Trucking company adjusts to economy by expanding through Midwest

Monday, August 18, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ Elfrink Transportation Inc. in Cape Girardeau is operated by, from left, director of administration Debbie Meek, terminal manager Jason Ayers, president Owen Elfrink and vice president Jay Niendorf.

In early 2006, the trucking industry was changing for Elfrink Transportation, and to survive, company officials needed a plan to retool the way it conducted business.

The result was an expansion from one terminal at 1326 Southern Expressway in Cape Girardeau to hubs throughout the Midwest — all within a two-year period.

"It's been a challenge to make this work with the cost of fuel and other issues related to the economy," owner Owen Elfrink said. "But a large part of the reason we have been successful is the associates who work here, because they are top-of-the-line people who care about their loyal customer base."

Elfrink started the company in September 1994 with one employee after working for his family's trucking business of 70 years. By 2002, his business had expanded to 60 workers at its one terminal, including 35 drivers.

The trucking company handled mostly small-weight freight services for other businesses on a contract basis within a 75-mile delivery area. As a cartage company, Elfrink Transportation did not deal directly with shippers, but worked for and was paid by other trucking companies to transport their goods.

However, by 2006, Elfrink Transportation had lost much of the business from those companies it represented, and Elfrink believed he did not have a profitable road map for the future.

That's when Elfrink hired vice president Jay Niendorf, a 17-year general manager of Service Transport in Nashville, Tenn. During Niendorf's time there, the business had grown from 70 to 700 employees.

Niendorf quickly began working toward the development of a new business plan and implemented needed changes.

To establish Elfrink Transportation as a regional trucking company, the once-profitable cartage business was eliminated and its first hub outside Cape Girardeau was established in Memphis, Tenn., by August 2006. Following its expansion into Memphis, the company created terminals in St. Louis and Chicago.

In the first part of 2007, the company created another business corporation, Elfrink Logistics. The non-asset-based business provides 48-state truckload service to companies. Elfrink Transportation recruited an experienced truckload brokerage manager to run the department, which is a separate corporation with its own legal identity but functions within the company's day-to-day business operation.

Its most recent acquisition, Tidwell Express of Fredericktown, Mo., was purchased in early August. The move will allow Elfrink Transportation to expand its business into additional areas of the Midwest while offering more early morning deliveries to local companies.

Today, the company has transportation contracts with Nestle in Bloomfield, Mo., General Electric Appliances in Louisville, Ky., WW Grainger and Signode in Chicago, and Spartech in St. Louis. Niendorf said none of these agreements would have been possible when Elfrink was a cartage company.

"We've done this by being real careful and aggressive," Niendorf said. "Our company has to continue exploring ways to improve how we conduct business and this announcement is just one way of surviving in today's marketplace."

Niendorf said the moves will allow the company to avoid bankruptcy. There have been 1,905 bankruptcies in the industry during the first two quarters of 2008, according to a recent article in Transport Topics weekly magazine.

The company plans to continue expanding its operations and maintain and improve relationships with its customer base as it looks to the future.

"While we compete against major billion-dollar companies, we're a small transportation provider with multiple product lines [that] can offer better service, better prices and still grow in a profitable manner," Niendorf said.

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