Catching up with Jeff Stoops was surprisingly easy. Thirty years ago, his Daleville, Indiana-based trucking company, Stoops Express, topped Inc.'s inaugural list of the fastest-growing privately held companies. (At the time, we called it the Inc. Private 100.) A former junior high school teacher, Stoops got into the trucking business in 1971 to earn extra money during his summer breaks. He launched his own trucking company five years later. By 1981, Stoops was 34, and his company had revenue of $15 million, a fleet of 137 trucks, and a four-year growth rate of 9,372 percent.
Stoops is 64 now, and we assumed that we might find him on the back nine of a golf course somewhere or perhaps on a lake fishing for walleye. A quick search, however, revealed that Stoops was right where we left him: running a successful business.
"Retirement just doesn't work for me," says Stoops. "It's not much fun when the phone doesn't ring and there isn't anyone depending on you—no crisis, no competitor to defeat. I love to play golf, but I can't do it every day."
Stoops flirted briefly with retirement in 1986, after selling Stoops Express to the Burlington Northern Railroad. He had stayed on as president for a few months before leaving the company. "Working for a large company wasn't all it was cracked up to be," he says. "The challenge just wasn't there."
After a couple of months at home, Stoops's retirement came to an end in 1987, when he received a call from the truck manufacturer Freightliner. He was asked if he would be interested in taking over a failed dealership in Indianapolis.
Making the transition from running a trucking company to selling vehicles to other trucking businesses proved challenging. "All of my customers had been former competitors, so it took a while to win them over," says Stoops. "But I had a lot of insight into my customers' needs, and I was able to help them solve some of their equipment issues. We've built this business over the last 24 years on those relationships."
His company, Stoops Freightliner - Quality Trailer, operates a network of six dealerships in Indiana and Ohio. The company has more than 600 employees and roughly $350 million in annual sales. Each location is essentially a one-stop shop for anything a trucking company might need, including new and used trucks, repair services, replacement parts, and trailers.
This time around, Stoops has taken a more measured approach to growth. "We were in a constant growth mode back then," he says. "When a customer gave us the opportunity to grow, we just acquired more equipment, and away we went. My banker once told me that he was concerned because we were highly leveraged, nearly 6 to 1 in liabilities to assets. I laughed and said I thought that was pretty good; when I started the company, I was 60,000 to 0."
Stoops anticipates acquiring two or three new dealerships over the next three years. "The dealership business is different than the trucking business," he says. "I continue to look for acquisitions to expand the territory we cover, but I'm not going to do it in ways that don't make sense. We're located in Indiana and western Ohio; I'm not going to buy something in California just because it's available."
Much has changed in the trucking industry since Stoops sold his first business: Trucking companies have consolidated, onboard computers have made trucks more sophisticated, and the cost of fuel has risen. What hasn't changed is Stoops's formula for success. "The basics are the same," he says. "Hire good people, motivate them, and give them the tools they need to help the business grow."
Looking back on a career that has created some 3,000 jobs over the years, Stoops is proud of his accomplishments. "I went back and dug out those old Inc. magazines," he says. "That was a really exciting time. We got invited to lunch at the governor's mansion, we got interviewed on local TV—it was a really big deal." As for retirement, Stoops isn't quite ready to give it a second chance. "I told my wife that I'd retire at 80. She's going to hold me to that."