Jeff Stoops got started in the trucking business when he realized that truckers were making $10,000 a year more than he was as a junior high school teacher. Ten years later, Stoops Express operates 137 trucks, and the firm's 34-year-old president and sole owner predicts that his company will bring in $15 million this year.
Hidden behind cornfields at the junction of I-69 and State Road 67 near the tiny town of Daleville, Ind., Stoops Express doesn't look like a transcontinental transportation company. But Jeff Stoops didn't set out to build a trucking empire.
As a student at Ball State University, Stoops first drove trucks in the summer for a grain elevator in Emporia, Ind. He graduated in 1969 and got a job teaching social studies and coaching football and basketball at a small junior high school, but he kept driving during summer vacations.
"In 1971, I looked around and saw truck drivers making $18,000 a year while teachers were making $8,100," Stoops recalls. He decided to quit teaching to drive a truck, but his father talked him out of it. Instead, Robert Stoops, a Buick and Pontiac dealer in Elwood, Ind., helped his son finance the purchase of a tractor-trailer, which he leased to other trucking firms. By 1975, Stoops had a fleet of 12 trucks that were hauling material for the auto and steel industries.
That was the year, however, that the automobile recession hit the Midwest's economy, idling half of Stoops's rigs. Ask Stoops about the recession and he just smiles. "That was the best thing that ever happened to us," he says. "If it weren't for the auto recession, we'd still be hauling steel around the Midwest -- which means not doing much business."
Stoops had the inspiration to buy refrigerated trailers and to establish a series of routes to California, shipping manufactured parts and retail goods for Fortune 500 companies and back-hauling fresh fruits and vegetables to supermarket chains in the Midwest.
"That recession taught me a lesson," he says. "One thing that moves all the time is food."
Stoops Express was founded in 1976 when Stoops decided to quit leasing out his trucks. He applied for and received the Interstate Commerce Commission licenses needed to operate on his own. He went to the ICC with the backing of his major Midwest-based customers who, he says, "feel more comfortable dealing with a mid-western trucker." He repays their support by providing financial statements "to prove that we're not trying to hit home runs off of them."
Dressed in a V-neck sweater and casual slacks, Stoops still looks more like a junior-high coach than a truck driver or a corporate executive. He last drove an 18-wheeler in the spring when he and his son Matt "stole the show" on show-and-tell day at Matt's nursery school. Now he spends most of his 10-hour days in the office of Stoops Express, supervising 38 employees and 150 drivers.
He's also working to protect his company from the eventual slump he expects in long-haul trucking. Because of fuel costs and deregulation, he believes that truckers will have to give up routes of 1,000 miles or more to railroads, whose "piggyback" services offer greater efficiency and flexibility.
"But I'm not going to sit back and let the railroads take away my business," says Stoops. He's established a promising short route to Chicago where many trains pick up trailers to piggyback to California.