Thu May 20, 2021
Ruksana Hussain - CEG Correspondent
When Brad Grafe, owner and president of Valley Transportation Service Inc., established the company in 1989, he observed a vital niche: providing transportation services to manufacturers and shippers countrywide.
From his Grand Meadow, Minn.-based offices, his network of company-owned, lease-purchase and owner-operator trucks provides a much-needed solution to clients across the United States, moving primarily construction and agricultural equipment.
From only two trucks, two drivers and two office staff, Valley has grown tremendously in the past three decades, with 60 staff at the main office location, 200 drivers and four outside sales crew and more than 200 trucks. Previously a fertilizer and chemical sales representative for an agricultural equipment cooperative, Grafe managed a trucking company for four years where he learned the business before venturing out on his own in 1989.
The scope of services has remained the same at Valley.
"The size of the equipment that we haul and the amount of stuff we can put on a trailer has drastically been reduced just because of the size of the equipment," said Grafe. "We do a great deal of back-haul stuff, such as large air conditioner and refrigeration units, used farm and agricultural equipment, auction items … anything that will go on a lowboy or specialized trailer, we'll sure try to tackle it and move it for you."
A big change he has witnessed in the industry in that time is equipment store mergers.
"We went from equipment dealers that were hauling to one location that now have 40 locations, so a lot of our growth was in just keeping up with the customers and the demand they had from buying stores. We kept gaining more and more accounts that helped spur our growth."
Valley typically works with Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks, XL Specialized, Manac and Trail King Industries trailers, hauling equipment across most of the Midwest, Arizona, California, Texas and Florida.
Located in a smaller building in downtown Grand Meadow until 2006, Grafe moved Valley to its current location on a 16-acre space, with an additional 40 acres attached, offering plenty of expansion room for future growth. Where the company started out at 6,000 sq. ft., Grafe added another 6,000 onto it in 2013 and supplemented that with a new shop this past winter, which is a full-service center, "where we do everything from engine overhauls to brake jobs and oil changes on all of our equipment," said Grafe.
Among specialized services offered at Valley are large equipment — up to 20 ft. wide, 16 ft. tall and 200,000 lbs. — placing the business outside the realm of a regular trucking company. This includes crane load, drive-on and drive-off loading, etc. While Valley has fared well on the equipment front, "We are running into some problems right now with COVID-19 and the issues of being able to get trucks finished and delivered to us," said Grafe.
"We buy new trucks every year on a trade cycle and some of them are getting a little tougher to get. One of the bigger challenges is all the emissions on the engines over the years. It started in 2008 and 2009 when the emissions portion first came out. We had a lot of trouble with engines, so just getting the problems worked out and keeping the motors running over the years has been challenging."
Alongside, working with drivers means safety is a top priority at Valley and the safety director ensures everyone is well-trained on that front. A string of safety awards earned by the company in recent years proves the value placed on safety for staff working at Valley. Online training is provided to all drivers, with instructional videos and hands-on driver testing. A weekly drivers' meeting is held where all the drivers present that day meet with the safety team to review different topics and address the everchanging regulations in the industry.
Valley works with a team of owner operators and company drivers to support its expanding reach. Approximately 130 trucks are company-owned and operated by company drivers. Another 45 are leased, where Valley offers a lease-purchase program for the drivers so they can buy the trucks from the company.
"The workforce is the biggest challenge that we face every day, not so much with the office and shop staff, but the driver situation that has always been a problem," said Grafe. "But today it seems worse than the prior years. Our drivers are out typically three weeks at a time, so it gets difficult to find that type of person that wants to be away for long."
To address the workforce challenge, aside from competitive pay and bonus, Valley rewards "Driver of the Month" and "Driver of the Year" recognition and the business has created a new drivers' lounge in the new shop providing breakfast and lunch. It also has a bunk house outside of town built for drivers so they get their own hotel room they can stay in when their trucks are in the shop.
Valley also has stayed ahead of the curve with computer and technology upgrades, including using PeopleNet fleet management software in its semi-tractors to track where vehicles are any time of day. Grafe said he is considering forward-facing and side-view facing cameras to capture accidents as well, as he anticipates steady growth in the future.
"We try to add 10 to 15 trucks a year right now, so we try to get that growth scheduled and along with that comes the challenges of the driver issue, so we are trying to battle that and keep our growth up, too."
Business is finally picking up this year after a terrible second quarter last year, said Grafe.
"Our mission statement is ‘Our Goal is to Help You Reach Yours,' so we are here to make sure that the customer is taken care of and they get their customer taken care of … we push that pretty hard with our staff and we try to make it smooth and easy for the customer because we know they've got one on the other end that they are trying to satisfy." CEG