GFI Transport 25th Anniversary interview with Phil Garber, President
Hello. I am a news reporter interviewing companies that have been in business for 25 years. This year we have an interesting company, GFI Transport, from the little town of Mount Joy, PA. If you are not sure where Mount Joy is located, it is a small town nestled between Lancaster and Harrisburg, PA.
Here with me today is the President of GFI Transport, Phil Garber.
Interviewer: Phil, maybe you can tell us a little of the story of how you got started 25 years ago?
Phil: My dad, my brother, and I were in a farming partnership when we felt the need to haul our products from the field to our feed mill. I am not sure why we felt the need but I think we thought we could save some money or something like that. So in the late 80’s we bought a 1976 White Freightliner with a small dump trailer. The truck was worth about $10K, and we bought the trailer for $4k. After buying the trailer we realized we made a mistake because when we went to inspect it, they would not do it because most of the cross members were cracked and they needed to be repaired. $10k later we were ready to go. A few months later we had the transmission and rear go out in the truck so we fixed it and spent another $6k on that.
Interviewer: How did you deal with saving all that money?
Phil: Roger and I looked at each other and said how are we going to pay for all of this? We contacted the local Cargill Company and ask if they had any work that we could help them with? They agreed to give us some work and this was the beginning of GFI Transport.
Interviewer: That sounds pretty easy. I would think you made lots of money from that point on. Is that true?
Phil: Yes we did but not with the truck. We were farming at the time and had some fairly good years. Thank God for that. We started to realize trucking is a very good place to write off some money if you needed that.
Interviewer: Well that sounds interesting. What kept you going if it was not so profitable in the beginning?
Phil: Well if you remember I told you we were farmers and my father always taught us to work with diligence, integrity and service. He taught us how to repair our own equipment. He also taught us many things about life but, most important keep God first in all you do.
Interviewer: What does that mean?
Phil: I was not always sure but we knew if we were to ask God for direction and try to do what we thought was the right thing, we would figure it out.
Interviewer: And did you figure it out?
Phil: All I know is we were not going to keep trucking with this old equipment. If we were going to keep on trucking we were going to do it with something that would not throw you out of the seat going down the road and break down every load or so. I remember taking my wife Cyndi with me on a trip down 283 in that old truck and she finally agreed with me that we should probably invest in some newer equipment. One of the things Roger and I were blessed with was good wives. Most of the time we asked for their blessing on things before we made major decisions. We made the decision to keep them out of the daily work at the office. It seemed to work better that way and today they are still best friends.
Interviewer: What did you buy, a brand new Peterbilt?
Phil: No, but we did buy a Peterbilt and a larger dump trailer in 1989. When we bought the larger trailer the guy that sold it to us said if we want the dump we needed to buy his PUC rights to haul midds out of Martins Creek as well.
Interviewer: What are PUC rights and Midds?
Phil: That’s what we asked too! Remember I said we were farmers. After doing a little research on the PUC and Midds we came to an agreed price for the trailer and rights. We then formed a corporation called Garber Farms, Inc. We had to do that to get the rights and that meant we could haul midds out of Martins Creek. We soon learned that midds are a by-product of wheat and they were very bulky and we needed a big trailer to haul them. Soon we got a call from Scoular Grain and they ask us to haul a load for them. The rest is history! (Not)
Interviewer: Do you still have the rights?
Phil: Yes we still have the rights but they were deregulated in the mid 90’s.
Interviewer: Deregulation, from what I understand, usually means you will have some stiff competition from other companies.
Phil: Remember what I told you about my dad? He always taught us to work with diligence, integrity and service. Well it was now going to start paying off. When we started hauling midds we decided not to take advantage of having the rights. We gave it the good old Lancaster County work ethic with a fair price and great service. It caught on very fast with our customers. We found ourselves being the number one carrier out of Martins Creek in a very few years. When deregulation came there really wasn’t anyone else that could take us out.
Interviewer: Are you still hauling midds?
Phil: Yes we are, but as time went on we started using owner operators to help with the work. I remember our first OO, Wendall Buckwalter, who is still here with us today. We also started to do our own work in the shop and hired Jeff Nolt who came in the shop in the mid-90’s as well. He is still with us as well!
Interviewer: Wait a minute! You have employees and owner/operators with you since the mid-90’s?
Phil: Yes, we are very blessed to have an awesome group of people that share the same culture as we do and I love that they have been with us all these years!
Interviewer: Does the sign I see in your parking lot have anything to do with that?
Phil: Do you mean the one that says “no idling”?
Interviewer: Well maybe that would have something to do with it, but what I meant was the sign that says, “Little Things Make Big Things Happen.” What does that have to do with trucking?
Phil: One of the things we learned early in our company was that if we pay attention to the little things BIG things usually happen.
Interviewer: Back to the midds, you said you are still hauling them. How many do you haul?
Phil: In the mid-90’s Martins Creek decided to double their size of the mill and our customers ask us if we could handle the work. Roger and I talked it over and decided if we got some more OO’s we could easy do all of the work. So at that time we started Garber Brokerage, Inc. All of our OO’s work for that company. Over the years this grew into a rather large part of what we do. At that time we had about 5 of our own trucks and 5 OO’s. And, yes, we do still haul a lot of midds today. We have spread out some and these days haul most of our midds out of a mill in Mount Pocono, PA.
Interviewer: So now that you arrived as a trucking company and a brokerage company, what was next on the horizon? I think we are still in the mid-90s and this is 2015.
Phil: Well as we were learning about business, we started to realize that we had a lot of our eggs in one basket. No pun intended. Remember we were still farmers at this time. Our father always taught us not to put all of our eggs in one basket and this applies to most businesses as well. We realized that 80 percent of what we were hauling was for Conagra a large company, but we never knew when they might decide to sell or something. We came to the conclusion that we needed to spread our risk and start hauling many different products such as mulch, cocoa shells, and many other products for many different companies.
Interviewer: You just mentioned hauling cocoa shells. What are they?
Phil: Cocoa shells are a by-product of cocoa beans. Cocoa beans, of course, are used to make chocolate. The outer shells of the beans are used as mulch and in the mushroom business. Hauling cocoa shells led us into an area we were never in–the cocoa bean world. That is a big world we had never been in before and now we were ask to play with the big boys– M&M Mars! We were asked to do a trial run with walking floors to haul cocoa beans from the ports to Elizabethtown. I remember the first load. It probably took 3 hours to load and 2 hours to unload. Some of these people here will remember those first loads. Cheryl comes to mind. This was one of our bigger moves we had made to date. We bought 5 new trucks and 5 new walking floor trailers–just to service M&M Mars at the time. Did I mention that cocoa beans are not a by-product? We finally were hauling a front end product for a customer that appreciated the service we had to offer.
Interviewer: You mention Cheryl. Who is Cheryl?
Phil: She is another long-term employee that has been with us almost since the beginning–over 18 years. She now dispatches over 15 loads of beans every day which we deliver to three plants.
Oh, by the way, she also does some of the billing for these trucks as well.
Interviewer: So it sounds like the company has grown in the early 2000’s to how many trucks including OO’s?
Phil: Yes we were very blessed to have grown up to 19 company-owned trucks and 10 owner/operators in the early 2000’s Not only did our company grow but our families were growing as well. I had a son who was an OO for 4 years and then got married in 2003. In 2004, we ask Ryan to join our dispatch team. As most of you know that was one of the better decisions we made here at GFI.
Interviewer: You mention Ryan was a great decision. Why would you say that?
Phil: Well let’s just say that Ryan has taken our company in 2004 from 19 owned trucks and 10 owner/operators to where we are today running 24 company trucks and 25 owner/operators. Ryan has become a person with leadership skills and has had a real interest in GFI since he was a young boy. I remember him telling me when he was about 13 if I drove a truck and missed a gear he would be able to tell me which one I missed.
Interviewer: So you’re telling me Ryan plays an important role in GFI.
Phil: Yes. Ryan has become the “go to guy” at GFI. In 2010, Ryan was named VP of Operations and began to buy-in as a small percentage owner. He continues to buy a small percentage every year.
Interviewer: You seemed to skip a few years in the company. You went from 2004 to 2010. Did anything happen in those middle years?
Phil: Yes I guess you could say that. As you know we were farming all these years that we were trucking. In 2005 Roger and I made the decision to discontinue farming. It was a very large decision but neither of us had our hearts in farming anymore so we decided to concentrate on trucking and storage.
Interviewer: So who bought all of the farming stuff?
Phil: Good question. I guess that is why you are the interviewer! We had a farm auction in early ‘06 and we sold everything but the land. We now rent out the land to a local farmer and he does a very good job of farming. One funny thing you ask about that I almost forgot… When we had our farm sale we sold a few trucks and trailers. After the sale, the auctioneer mentioned how much fun it was selling the truck and trailers. He thought maybe we should do that once a year or so. So in 2007 we formed an Auction company with the auctioneer John Hess and another partner, Jim Germak. Most of you should know Hess Auctioneers by now, and if you don’t, shame on me. It has become part of what I do day to day.
Interviewer: I think you mentioned storage? What kind of storage?
Phil: Well, when we got out of farming we had these chicken houses and we needed to do something with them. They were still good buildings but they were not going to be used for chickens anymore. So we came up with the idea to convert them to large storage for RV’s, motor homes, etc. That was the beginning of Garber Self Storage. Today we have 83 large units used for storage, plus 35 smaller units.
Interviewer: Oh wow! Who does all of that work? Sales, etc.?
Phil: My brother Roger did that!
Interviewer: Wow sounds like a lot of different things going on, do you guys use any outside consulting services?
Phil: Yes we do. We have been using a company called North Group Consulting since 2005 and have developed a leadership team from inside our company. We currently have 9 on the team. One of the decisions that came from that team was to change our name from Garber Farms Inc. to GFI Transport. This team has helped us through many different changes we made over the years.
Interviewer: It does seem like you have made some major changes over the years. What would you say was the biggest change over the years?
Phil: 2012 brought the most dramatic change we have experienced. I mean a major change. My brother felt like he was called to do something else the second half of his life. He told me it was time for him to move on.
Interviewer: That does sound like a major change. What all did he do?
Phil: As I said before, Roger managed Garber Self Storage that we started in 06. He had taken it from nothing to filling the 80 plus units with motor homes, boats, small business, etc. He did this all while helping take care of the finances for GFI, GBI and playing a very important role in the start-up of Hess Auctioneers.
Interviewer: Roger must have been quite a marketer?
Phil: Roger was a very good marketer along with being very detailed in everything he did. He also has a lot of heartfelt feelings for everyone he meets.
Interviewer: So how in the world did you replace a guy like that?
Phil: Another good question! When he told us he was moving on we were not sure what that meant for GFI, GBI, GSS and Hess Auctioneers. We knew it meant Change. We knew we were going to have to change the way were used to doing things. One thing we have taught our people here at GFI is change is always going to happen. Be prepared for it! We now had to practice what we preached all these years.
Interviewer: What did that look like?
Phil: Well it meant many people would have to make changes. We used our leadership team to help us make some of those decisions. As it turns out, Ryan became one of the key factors in this change. He hired Josh Zeager to become a lead dispatcher so he could do some of the things Roger did such as insurance, working with employees, and handling the responsibilities Roger had at Hess Auctioneers.
Interviewer: I am sure there were many others that stepped up to the plate. Would you care to talk about that?
Phil: Sure. I am so proud of this group of people. We had many people step up to the plate over the past few years. Steve Manning our finance manager took over doing all the budgets and the finances. He also picked up on some of the responsibilities at Hess. Beth Jordan, Roger’s and my personal secretary, took on many new jobs the last few years. The last few years have been full of challenges like most companies have, and yes we do miss Roger and his leadership, but with everyone chipping in it has been a fairly smooth transition. Thank you to everyone involved!
Interviewer: You know I have to ask who is doing all the hard work with your storage company.
Phil: Funny you should ask. We hired our second son, Rodney to be the sales person for Garber Self Storage. As of now he is doing a wonderful job!
Interviewer: I thought I heard that somewhere. So where is Roger now? What is he doing for his second half?
Phil: Roger is now working for North Group Consultants in sales and marketing. He also does some consulting for them from time to time. From what I hear he loves what he is doing.
Interviewer: What does that mean for you?
Phil: With everyone stepping up to the plate as well as they did, it means I can do what I am good at.
Interviewer: What might that be?
Phil: I can continue to do what I have done for many years. I spend most of my time floating between all of the companies. I spend about half of my time with Hess. The other time I am just dreaming about what the future may hold for these companies? Did I tell you I have two other children? They are part of my dreaming as well. What might the future hold for them? Might they ever be involved with any of these companies or will they want to do something else?
Interviewer: What does the future hold for GFI?
Phil: I have no idea! (Not really) We are planning to build a new shop on the farm in 2015 if the permits etc. get done. We are also planning on moving our offices as well in ‘15. We are not sure how all this will pan out yet but, we are excited to see the outcome of our vision.
Interviewer: Are you going to continue to grow the trucking company like you did in the past?
Phil: We do plan to continue to grow our company in the years to come. I am not sure how that will all look but I do know we will keep looking for new opportunities as they come along. That seemed to work pretty good the last 25 years!
Interviewer: So no big changes in the future?
Phil: No big changes that we are aware of but, we do know change is going to happen. Be prepared for it.
Interviewer: Any last comments?
Phil: We here at GFI do not take any of this for granted. We feel very blessed by God to be able to have you on this journey with us. We know God is in control and are looking forward to what he has for us the next 25 years!