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Keep on truckin’: Three generations of Smith family keep commerce rolling for 70 years

WORTHINGTON -- When you walk through the produce aisles, along the meat case and past the frozen food section of your local grocery store, chances are Smith Trucking had a hand in helping bring some of those products from the farm to your table.T...

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Tim Middagh/Daily Globe

WORTHINGTON - When you walk through the produce aisles, along the meat case and past the frozen food section of your local grocery store, chances are Smith Trucking had a hand in helping bring some of those products from the farm to your table.
The company, which had its humble beginnings in nearby Round Lake in 1946, moved to Worthington in 2000 with 19 trucks and approximately 30 employees. Today, it is “busting at the seams” said Phil Smith, who owns Smith Trucking with his wife, Rita, and three of his five children - Pat Smith, JoAnne Harberts and Mike Smith. The business employs 162 people - from drivers to mechanics to office staff - has a fleet of 115 company-owned trucks and 150 refrigerated trailers and contracts with nine owner-operators. Its fleet delivers product to more than 250 customers across the 48 contiguous United States.
In 2015, the company’s trucks logged a combined 15 million miles per year, traversing the interstate and highway system from the West Coast to the East Coast and all points in between.

70 years to today
Joe Smith founded the business in 1946, helping farmers by hauling their grain to the elevator and their livestock to the stockyards. He also did custom corn shelling on the side. His wife, Mayme, could be considered the company’s first female driver, said Phil with a smile. She’d help out by hauling grain in those early days.
Phil and his brother, Keith, grew up in the business and partnered with their father to purchase dump trucks and haul blacktop, gravel and even soft water.
“We helped build some of the interstate shoulders,” recalled Phil. “We worked on I-29 south of Sioux City and I-35 by Ames, Iowa.”
In the early 1970s, the three ventured into over-the-road trucking when they sold two of their gravel trucks and bought their first semi-tractor.
“That was kind of the start of Smith Trucking,” said Pat, the oldest of Phil and Rita’s children.
Through their connection with the Sather family, founders of the Sather Cookie and Candy Co. at Round Lake, the Smiths began hauling confectionary products throughout the Midwest in 1973. By the end of the decade, seven Smith trucks were dedicated to hauling for their fellow business neighbors.
In 1978 - one year after Joe’s death - Smith Trucking became licensed to haul boxed meat and general commodities all across the country.
Its first contract was with Campbell’s Soup Co., in Worthington, to haul chicken meat.
“We had a contract with a guarantee to haul one load a year for them,” shared Phil, adding that Smith Trucking purchased two trucks and two trailers in anticipation of the workload. Unfortunately, Campbell’s Soup honored the very minimum of its contract, and had Smith transport just one load for them.
“In the fall of 1979, we turned to Armour,” said Phil of the Worthington pork processing plant now known as JBS. “We hauled the first load of meat out of (their plant in) Huron, S.D.”
“We still work with them today,” added Pat.
In fact, Smith Trucking’s top customers are JBS, Austin-based Hormel and LeMars, Iowa-based Wells Blue Bunny.
Phil worked as an over-the-road truck driver for Smith Trucking until the late 1980s, while Pat and Mike also drove truck for a time. Both brothers, along with sister JoAnne, worked their way through all facets of the business. They can relate to the work their employees are doing, and pitch in wherever they’re needed.
“We all wear many hats,” said Pat.
“If the floor needs swept, we’ll sweep the floor,” added Phil.

On the road again
No matter the time of day or night, East Coast, West Coast or Midwest, chances are travelers will see a Smith Trucking tractor-trailer cruising down the road to its next destination. Truckers are on the move seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“We haul a lot of produce and cheese from California to the Midwest,” said Pat. When the trucks reach the Midwest - southwest Minnesota in particular - they pick up loads of fresh pork to haul back to the coasts.
If it isn’t food - fresh meat, produce, ice cream, candy, Chinese foods or non-perishables - they are transporting across the country, it’s likely temperature-controlled vaccines. Smith Trucking hauls animal vaccines from Worthington’s Merck location to facilities in Omaha, Neb., Kansas City, Mo., and to Millsboro, Del.
Inside the offices of Smith Trucking, Pat displays a satellite tracking program showing where each of their trucks are at any given time. Tiny blue truck icons, on any given day, show them either in transit or at one of the many distribution centers they drop off and pick up loads.
At the time Pat displayed the program on his computer screen, several trucks were in the Los Angeles, Calif., area, 21 others were in Chicago, Ill., and numerous trucks were moving up and down the eastern seaboard.
Just as scattered as their trucks are across the country, so too are their drivers. While some are local, the majority live in other states, from Washington to Florida.
“We have a pretty big group (of drivers) from California,” said JoAnne.
Smith Trucking recruits drivers primarily through word of mouth, said Pat, adding that a lot of times, drivers will contact them because they like how the company takes care of its equipment.
There is a qualifying process to be hired, in which potential new drivers have to go through a background check, present their driving records and share previous employment information.
Of the drivers on staff today, three of them are women.
“If they’re qualified and have a safe driving record, they’re just as capable,” said Phil.

Built on faith
Between 1946 and 2007, Smith Trucking experienced steady growth. As profits expanded, so too did its fleet of trucks.
That continues to be Phil’s business philosophy.
“If we’re profitable, we’ll grow,” he said. “If we’re stagnant, we’ll just wait it out.”
The family is well aware of how tough business can be, and they are quick to say it hasn’t always been easy.
“2008 was a tough time for us,” said Phil.
That was the start of the collapse in the housing industry. The price of pork dropped to less than $20 per head late that year, and fuel prices went up 44 cents - in just one day.
“What we find in our business, there’s a lot of food still moving, but when the economy drops, it’s the people who run dry vans and flatbeds that tend to come into our line of work,” explained Pat. “That pulls down the rates. It makes it a lot more competitive.”
After notching one of its most profitable quarters in early 2008, it followed it up with its absolute worst year.
“In 2008, we were basically broke,” shared Phil. The company didn’t even have enough money in savings to meet payroll. “We gave it to the Lord and said, ‘if you want this business to survive, it’s yours.”’
They thank the Lord for all he did then, and all He continues to do today by adding the words, “In God We Trust,” to every single one of their trailers after the 2008 business scare.
They get a lot of comments from those four words - many positive, and some negative as well. In fact, just recently Phil was told his trailers should say, “In Reason We Trust.” He just shrugs off the negative comments. Everyone has their opinion, but the Smiths know there is someone watching over them.

Eyeing future growth
Earlier this year, after months of long and involved negotiating between Mike Smith and Abraham Algadi, executive director of the Worthington Regional Economic Development Corp., an agreement was reached and Smith Trucking initiated a purchase agreement with the city of Worthington to relocate its business to a parcel in the city’s industrial park along U.S. 59, just north of Interstate 90. Because the area does not yet have needed infrastructure - streets, sewer and electric access - the company’s development of that property won’t happen until June 2017 at the earliest.
That gives the Smiths time to consider building design and learn how other trucking companies have addressed building layout and movement of trucks on and off site.
The new site will house Smith Trucking’s offices and bring the maintenance and repair work under one roof. Currently, the company does maintenance and repair work on trailers at its Joosten Road headquarters and house its safety department and tractor maintenance shop a couple of miles away in a building on the former Campbell’s Soup property it leases from the city.
“We do everything from (engine) overhauls to oil changes,” said Pat.
“The only thing we don’t do is body work,” added Phil.
Once the new facility is open, Pat said the plan is to end the lease with the city, but there is no intention of selling the 11-acre site on Joosten Road.
“We wash out all of the trailers here,” said Pat.
Its close proximity to JBS makes it a “valuable location” to Smith Trucking, added Phil.

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Community-minded
Each year, Smith Trucking gives a percentage of its earnings back to the community through charity endeavors.
“We make a point to keep it local,” said Pat.

Among the benefactors of their donations have been Love INC, Proclaim Aviation, Helping Hands Pregnancy Center and the Community Christmas Basket program. Smith Trucking also donates to AIM, a missionary group in Africa, and often gives donations when there are local benefits for families in need.
In December 2014, Smith Trucking donated the use of a tractor-trailer and a driver’s time to haul the Worthington High School marching band equipment to Florida, where the band performed in the Outback Bowl. It also contributed to the fundraising drives for construction of the new YMCA in Worthington, and made a donation to the hockey arena for improvements there.
“We’d rather do lots of things behind the scenes ...,” said Phil. “We’d rather keep it low-key and do as much as we can.”
“One of the things that’s overlooked is, as a carrier hauling all food products, we get damaged product that we bring back and donate to the food pantries,” shared Pat.
That spirit of helping people in need has carried over to their employees. Last year for Christmas, the employees took up a collection and instead of buying gifts for the Smith family, they adopted a family in need and purchased clothing and gifts in their employer’s name. Said JoAnne, it was the best Christmas gift they had ever received.
“We want to support the community as much as possible,” she said. “We’re happy to be blessed with the opportunity to do that.”

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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