Paul, Chuck and John LeFebvre represent the third generation of a family transportation services business that has been in operation for almost 80 years. In addition to growing the business, the brothers are working on a succession plan to ensure the company's heritage will include a fourth generation. D.Ann Shiffler reports
The management team of LeFebvre Companies gets along like brothers, which is good, because they are brothers. Paul, Chuck and John LeFebvre run the business started by their grandfather with a purpose and a commitment that is noteworthy and admirable.
All three grew up in the company, earning spending money in their formative years by washing trucks, moving equipment and eventually driving trucks. They worked their way through the ranks of the company doing every odd job there was to do, and today they run the company with a hands-on strategy they gleaned from hands-on learning. Th e trio head one of the industry's most respected and successful specialized transport companies in the Midwest.
Like most entrepreneurs, Noel LeFebvre started the company in 1928 because he saw a market need. He started off hauling cattle and milk but quickly found a niche in the concrete hauling sector.
“It was really not out of the ordinary,” says Paul LeFebvre, president of the company. “Grandpa saw a need. He got into concrete in the 1930s, an area we still specialize in today. His three sons expanded the company from that point and then the three of us have now been with it 20, 32 and 33 years.”
Today the company employs 150 and has a fleet of 120 trucks and 212 trailers. Th ey serve markets throughout the Midwest, including Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas, Wisconsin and Illinois. Most of their business is dedicated to hauling concrete bridge beams, concrete pipe and box culverts, and although concrete is their specialty, they do occasionally haul other over-sized and over-dimensional cargo, as well.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with the three brothers about running a family business, the specialized transport industry and related issues. What I was most impressed with during our interview was the camaraderie and solidarity among the siblings. You could tell that they work hard and tend to enjoy what they do.
As far as who does what, the brothers have settled on a division of responsibilities that suits them well, although Paul says he “drew the short straw” in being in charge of the administration duties and serving as president. Chuck is vice president and fleet director in charge of fleet purchasing, truck selling and overseeing maintenance. John is secretary and operations director in charge of the trucking day-to-day operations.
Also note that due to the complexity of interviewing three brothers in the same room, answering the same questions, we decided to provide answers with just one voice, unless otherwise noted.
What is the secret to running a successful family business for so many years?
Paul: I m going to say communication - communication among the family members first and then with our employees and then with our customers.
Chuck: I think much of our success can be attributed to our long-term relationships with our customers. Our largest customer has been on board with us for 70 years, Cretex - a third-generation company working with a third-generation company.
John: I think it's our customers and our ability to communicate. Also, it's our employees. We have a group of long-term employees too. We are fortunate to have such good people working for us.
As a family business, do you consciously plan to train younger generations to work for and stay with the company?
Yes, it's a conscious effort of ours. When we got involved with the company, the three of us, that was not the case. It was happenstance. We had an uncle who got out of the business and our dad started bringing us kids in. None of us had any business background really.
But we have since been working for two-anda-half years putting a succession plan together for our kids. Our children will have the opportunity, but there are steps in place they have to take to get where we are today.
If you look at some of the statistics, often with second- and third-generation companies, by the third generation they somehow fall off the radar screen. We are looking at grooming the fourth generation into this company.
Part of the plan involves part-time work with the company. Th ere's getting an education and even working outside of the business for a year or two and choosing which path they want to take in the business. Between all of us (nine children between the three brothers) we like to believe we can put together a good management team.
Of all transport equipment and vehicles in your fleet, what is the most impressive to you?
I would say it's the big 12-axle units we use to haul the concrete bridge beams. We have five of the HydraSteer brand steering dollies. For the beams designed in Minnesota, we are mainly restricted by weight. Th e longest we haul on these 12-axle units is about 157 foot beams that weigh about 160,000 pounds.
In other states we could probably haul longer or heavier beams on that axle-configuration.
We've hauled concrete bridge beams so long; we know how to do it well. We have had projects involving the transport of more than 600 bridge beams. Once you get the details down, the rest becomes routine. Th ere are some projects that take more planning and a little extra care. But we specialize in this type of transport, and we know what projects need a little extra tender loving care.
Through the years, your company has been involved in the SC&RA, working on permit uniformity and other issues facing the transport industry. In your area of business, have you seen progress? What else needs to happen?
To be honest, with the concrete products we haul, they are usually produced in the states they will be used in - the projects they are used on don't cross state lines. We are aware that other companies deal with permitting problems and the SC&RA has worked hard and been successful in the area of permit uniformity. Th ey've made strides in that area.
For the most part we are okay in the Midwest region. We used to do some work in Ohio and there were some real issues with the type of trailers we use because of weight restrictions in Ohio.
For the members of SC&RA, I think when we talk about uniform permits, it's out there and an issue for all of us.
I think for our company, personally - we were really able to reap the most benefits in terms of load securement, made possible in large part by the involvement of the SC&RA and its members.
We worked hand in hand with the group that was proactive in Minnesota on some legislation that turned out to affect federal regulations. It got on the federal docket that was signed into law, and this was really a positive for us.
It took a lot of work and dedication from SC&RA members to make this happen and it has really been a positive for us to see these issues addressed and also to be a part of the resolution, specifically in terms of load securement.
The North American Cargo Securement Agreement details how you tie down the product and how it should be chained or strapped. As far as concrete products, there had not been an identified specific standard for securement. Th e new agreement that came out addresses concrete and concrete sewer pipe.
Paul: Chuck was instrumental in getting our ideas across because we've done this for so many years. It saved a lot of headaches and got the job done. It was a safety issue and a quality issues. Load securement standards promote safety and help our customer to get their products to the jobsite without being harmed or damaged in any way.
What is the single biggest issue for the business of specialized transport today?
Our biggest for Minnesota, and for what we are talking about, is the highway funding, whether it be gas tax or toll ways or whatever the funding mechanism. It's the funding sources so that all these deficient bridges and roadways that need to be looked at can be repaired. Our concern is this funding mechanism for highways and states, which we will benefit from in the long run.
Labor is an issue for many companies in this business but it's not as bad for us as it is for the over the road companies. Our drivers are home every night. We have an issue with labor, but as far as we are concerned, it's a far cry from where it is for the over the road people.
What about new technologies available to trucking companies? How do you decide on how and when to purchase all that's available?
There are a lot of new technologies out there, such as GPS tracking. Many in the over-the-road sectors have put them in their trucks. We've put them on now; it's our third year for them. We are finding more and more ways to utilize the benefits of these technologies. I think we are ahead in our segment of the industry, but we may be behind the trucking industry as a whole.
I think that we are just scratching the surface as far as steering dollies and wireless remote control operation. Th ere's a lot of neat stuff out there. But you have to determine what is most cost effective. Every day is a balance in knowing what to spend our money on and how to get the best equipment possible.
Describe your most memorable/impressive transport jobs?
They are basically river crossing bridges in the Minneapolis and St. Paul area. In 1978, we hauled bridge beams for a project that needed 500 concrete bridge beams. Th ey were pretty much all the same weight and length. Th at was a good job, a good time.
Several years back we hauled 696 beams for a project. Th at was quite an accomplishment. Th e beams were 140 feet and 140,000 pounds. We delivered them all without any incident or accident. Scheduling the deliveries can be challenging. We are restricted as far as time and areas. We can't run in the rush hours and we have to adjust for how many beams the contractor can take at one time.
After operating for so many years, it's interesting, we've been a part of the interstate highway construction from Minneapolis to Fargo. And if the three guys in this room didn't haul the bridge beams, then our dad or uncle did. It's nice to travel the freeways in this state and see the different routes and know that someone from this outfit had something to do with those roads and bridges.
What are the keys to procuring/planning/executing a transport job?
We try the best we can, which is why we are still here. It's mainly the service we provide, and with our market and our customers, a big element is the equipment. It's a combination of equipment and service. We are known for having excellent equipment here, which has allowed us to retain the good drivers, and to set a high standard. We hope to maintain that reputation as we move forward. Our equipment distinguishes LeFebvre, and right after that it's the service we provide.
What do you envision as emerging markets for the North American transport market? For your market niche?
Infrastructure work that would be at the top of our list, and the next one would be wind power. We've been approached to take a look at wind... it's a growing market [requiring equipment to haul heavy and long objects].
We do a fair amount of over-sized and over-dimensional transport. It is something that needs to be looked at. We grew up with concrete and it's our specialty. It's our niche. We don't do it cheap but we provide a good value for our customers. We make their concrete look good.
Do you all get along as well as it appears you do?
It's a brother thing. Mostly we do. Some days are better than others.act