Fortune favors the finest: Family-owned carrier still thriving in Year 40

Dec. 22, 2020
Windom MN-based refrigerated hauler of all-American staples—cheese, ice cream, pizza and beer—leans on top-notch drivers, equipment to solve customer problems

Fortune Transportation primarily hauls all-American food-and-beverage staples: Cheese, ice cream, pizza and beer. And they’re always in high demand, through the good times, bad times—and even coronavirus times.

When money is tight, people still purchase pizza, just maybe the discount variety; beer makes the good times more enjoyable and the bad times more forgettable; and ice cream always is comforting—in celebration or sadness.

“They’re somewhat recession-proof commodities, and our customer base is important as well,” said Perry Olson, owner and CEO of the Windom, Minnesota-based refrigerated carrier. “We try to be a solid and consistent carrier with solid and consistent customers.”

A solid business plan has carried the family-owned company through 40 years, and though their anniversary celebrations were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic—somebody please pass the ice cream—Fortune’s success carries on thanks to its commitment to solving customer problems, and keeping elite drivers happy and productive.

“A lot of people are saying they can’t wait to get 2020 in the rearview mirror, and in a lot of ways I agree with that, but from a business standpoint, especially in the latter half of 2020, it’s been good for us,” Olson attested. “We’ve got a lot of work, our pricing is increasing, and the last few months have been good for the reefer food industry.

“And the projections for at least the next six months, and maybe as many as 12 months, are looking good as well.”

Solutions oriented

Most of Fortune’s business is in hauling bulk cheese, ice cream and beer, but it will haul any dry, refrigerated or frozen product, if it’s a good fit. The company’s biggest customers include Leprino Foods and Kraft (bulk cheese), Schwan’s and Blue Bunny (ice cream), and Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch (beer).

The over-the-road, full-truckload reefer carrier’s operation stretches across the Heartland, covering a region that extends from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and from the Canadian border to the Mexican border, from three terminals located in Windom; Greeley, Colorado; and Roswell, New Mexico.

Routes typically are loops, rather than out-and-back trips, so drivers aren’t looking for backhauls. Instead, they’re focused on building relationships with shippers and receivers on repetitive lanes during five-day round trips, with two nights at home every week and a 34-hour restart before heading back out on the road.

With regular routes, drivers also build familiarity with the facilities they visit and places they pass along the way. So they know where to park, where to get fuel, and the best ways to deal with any construction or traffic they’re likely to encounter. “All those things make the driver’s week that much more efficient,” Olson said.

Many drivers regularly travel 3,000 miles per week. Others never get more than 100 miles from home, instead devoting their attention to assisting local operations in different areas of the country as part of another business philosophy—a commitment to assisting customers in remote locations where other carriers won’t go.

“We see ourselves as a business that solves our customers’ biggest problems,” Olson said. So if a customer approaches Fortune with a problem, it’ll go to great lengths to find a solution, even if that means dedicating one driver or a group of drivers to aiding one customer in a short-haul or local operation that is vastly different from the overall, over-the-road-centered business model the company prefers.

That flexibility has helped Fortune thrive for 40 years, growing alongside its long-standing grocery supply and foodservice customers.

“We’ve always been in the refrigerated business, even before Fortune,” Olson said. “The company my dad (Donavan Olson) was working for when he started the business was hauling swinging beef from a local plant in Windom. And then there are ice cream companies that are local to Minnesota and Northern Iowa, and then we got in with some different dairy companies and co-ops in Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

Family fortified

Donavan had an opportunity to buy a truck while dispatching for the beef hauler. He seized it, then added three more trucks over the next few years, and finally went his own way in 1980. So Perry grew up around the business, and began assisting his dad and mother Sharon while he was in elementary school.

“We used to get all the paper checks in the mail from the bank, so it’d sometimes be a pretty thick envelope, and at 9, 10, 11 years old, my job in the basement office was to put all those checks in numeric order for my mother when it came time to do month’s-end,” Perry recalled. “So that’s where I got my start in the trucking business.”

His role grew about 10 years ago, after Sharon tragically was diagnosed with breast cancer, which she battled for many years before succumbing to the disease in 2016, soon after Perry and brother Ben, who is 10 years younger, took over corporate ownership of the company to help take pressure off their father.

Unfortunately, Ben died unexpectedly 2½ years ago, leaving Perry to run the business—while strengthening his resolve to double down on the family values that made Fortune a success. And he’s not without help. Donavan, 69, still is involved with the company as chairman of the board, Perry’s sister, Dana, and wife, Sandy, assist with many functions around the Windom office, including preparing a weekly meal for employees every Wednesday; and Maxine—Perry’s 92-year-old grandmother on his mom’s side—still brings in homemade cookies every Tuesday (peanut butter for Perry, chocolate chip for everyone else).

“That’s worth mentioning because that’s a real big part of who we are as a company,” Perry pointed out.

And the company’s commitment to its 140 drivers, and more than 200 employees, is strengthened through the work of driver services manager Leland Krumrey—a former 2 million-safe-mile driver who’s married to Dana.

Driver focused

The 2017 small-carrier winner of the American Trucking Associations’ President’s Award for safety refuses to cut corners when it comes to recognizing drivers’ achievements, or in supporting them with attentive staff and top-notch equipment. Fortune’s driver philosophy is based on six values spelled out at fortunetransportation.com: Ability-driven loops, level pay, home time, respect, looking ahead and safety.

Drivers are paid by the mile, which Perry said still is the best form of compensation they’ve found after trying different methods. Starting pay is based on verifiable experience and goes up with years of service, and production and fuel-economy bonuses. Fortune also offers a comprehensive benefits plan, referral bonuses, profit-sharing opportunities and a safe-mileage program.

Safe-mile recognition starts at 250,000 miles. At 1 million safe miles, drivers receive a new truck they can customize, including choosing the color and adding other details that represent family, military service or even a favorite sports team, like one former 3 million-safe-mile driver who for years drove the “Packer truck” decked out with the NFL team’s colors, logo and championships.

Fortune this year honored its third 4 million-mile driver and 103rd 1 million-mile driver.

Perry said consistent home time, so drivers don’t miss important family events or even a dentist appointment, and respect are equally critical initiatives.

“Respect is something we really try to instill in our traffic department, and talk about with our customers,” Perry said. “There are certain shippers and receivers who are difficult to work with or who are inconsistent, and some of them just don’t work in our mix. If they’re not willing to treat our drivers with respect, and respect their time and ability to make a living and get home to their family, then maybe they’re not a great fit for our operation.”

Exceptional equipment

Great equipment always is the right fit because it boosts the company’s image, with customers and prospective employees, and increases driver satisfaction and productivity. “I get frequent calls from friends in the industry who see our trailers and say, ‘Boy, you’ve really got nice-looking equipment,’” Perry said. “And drivers who come from other companies say they don’t have breakdowns on the side of the road anymore, and when they have a tire issue, or something of that nature, it’s generally handled quickly.”

Fortune runs approximately 150 trucks and 250 trailers. Most trucks are company-owned and most trailers are refrigerated. The tractors all are Freightliners with Detroit engines and automated-manual transmissions, and the trailers all are 53-foot Great Dane reefers with Hendrickson suspensions and air disc brakes, because maintenance director Curt Langstraat believes standardization is the key to transportation efficiency.

“We only need the software for our equipment,” Langstraat said. “If we were running Volvos and Cummins in a mixed fleet, we’d need that software, too. So, it reduces your specialized tooling and software, and your inventory. If you’re running all similar equipment, you can reduce the parts you need to carry at different terminals. And then you can develop a network with outside service shops, too. If you’re constantly going back and forth between different service centers … you really don’t develop as good a relationship with them. And our drivers and technicians are intimately familiar with the equipment we run.”

The trailers also feature Blackberry GPS tracking, the Hendrickson TireMaax Pro tire pressure control system and OEM-installed Transtex side skirts, which boost fuel efficiency.

Langstraat said for years company vehicles averaged 5½ to 6 miles per gallon but, through a combination of tractor-trailer advancements, including axle load management systems, thinner viscosity and synthetic lubricants, engine downspeeding, wide-base tires, wheel covers, and cab and roof extenders, the 2019 and 2020 EPA SmartWay Excellence Award winner had more than 100 trucks top 8 miles per gallon in September.

The most important piece of equipment on every Fortune trailer is the Carrier Transicold transport refrigeration unit (TRU). The company has turned to Carrier Transicold for TRUs for more than 30 years, exclusively so since 2015. Fortune’s newest trailers boast high-efficiency X4 7300 single-temperature TRUs that chill refrigerated or frozen products.

“They’re very dependable units,” Langstraat said. “They also have a great service network, and the dealer is just as important. They really look after us with any difficulty we might have. So it’s really been service after the sale that’s the big thing. Whether it’s the tractor or trailer, or the reefer unit or the suspension, it’s service after the sale, and we have a really phenomenal trailer dealer and unit supplier (Crossroads Trailer in Albert Lea MN).”

Safety-centric

Fortune’s dedication to fostering a safety culture includes equipping drivers with the latest safety systems and ensuring equipment is well-maintained. “We’re all support staff here,” Langstraat said. “So whether it’s dispatch or traffic or accounting or fleet maintenance, we’re all support staff. So our job is to provide the driver with clean, comfortable, efficient, dependable equipment that allows them to do their job.”

All company tractors are equipped with KeepTruckin ELDs, and utilize Trimble’s video intelligence—featuring forward-facing and side-mounted cameras—and telematics. Newer models boast the Detroit Assurance safety system with Side Guard Assist, Active Brake Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control, and Lane Departure Warning that utilize camera and radar technology.

Drivers also are provided with Thermo King TriPac Evolution Diesel auxiliary power units (APUs) for reducing idle time, saving fuel, and powering those quality-of-life accessories, like microwaves and refrigerators; premium sleeper cab mattresses supplied by The Original Mattress Factory; and Bluetooth stereos.

All three Fortune terminals have in-house maintenance shops. When trucks are on the road, the company sometimes will fall back on Daimler’s network of Freightliner dealers and Detroit distributors for minor fixes and warranty repairs (2/3 of the fleet is 3 years old or less), but all major mechanical and collision repairs are handled by the home office using three tow trucks to haul vehicles back to Minnesota, where Fortune works closely with a handful of local body shops and engine repair facilities.

“We strive to do all of our preventative maintenance in house,” Langstraat said. “We have a pretty comprehensive preventative maintenance schedule. Mechanical things will fail from time to time, so there are issues on the road that need to be addressed … but we try to bring everything back into one of our shops. Some of that is cost, and we’ve learned from our mistakes that way, too.

“If you want to understand the equipment, then you bring it back.”

Langstraat said Fortune typically runs tractors four to five years, or 500,000 to 600,000 miles, before trading them in, and trailers are on six-year turns.

Truck washes and trailer washouts primarily are handled by Blue Beacon Truck Washes, which help Fortune maintain Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) compliance. Drivers are authorized to wash their tractor-trailers twice a month. “We want a clean, presentable, professional fleet, so we spend a lot of money washing trucks,” Langstraat said.

Quality recruiting

Fortune also spares no expense when it comes to recruiting and retaining the right drivers.

Krumrey, who drove for 14 years before joining management, was looking for a way to streamline paperwork and save time two years ago when he connected with Dirk Kupar, president of TruckRight, and quickly was sold on TruckRight’s all-in-one approach to safety and compliance, driver recruiting and human resources.

TruckRight helps trucking companies establish a paperless workflow, improve website and social media engagement, and deliver online driver training through a CarriersEdge integration in its Ignite E-learning system. Krumrey said TruckRight, which also provides access to D.A.D. Protection Services for background checks, helped him streamline the review process for driver applicants, and identify the best fits for Fortune.

“Those programs have been very beneficial to us in the quality of the applicants coming to us, and in identifying the individuals who best fit our culture, our routes, who we are and what we do,” Perry said. “That part has dramatically improved.”

With TruckRight’s automated services, they’ve also enjoyed the added benefit of easily working remotely during the pandemic. Fortune’s recruiter works from home. “We get leads through our website,” Krumrey said. “We use KAT media, another service through TruckRight, that has really helped us as far as our advertising goes … (and) we use quite a few different angles to get our name out there.”

CarriersEdge provides training on an expandable library of topics, including food safety and FMCSA Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores, which Krumrey says continue to improve. The latest safety numbers from safety director Jeff Reeves showed Fortune’s unsafe driving score was a zero. “We are the best in our peer group right now,” Krumrey said. “That’s the first time we’ve ever seen that.”

Fortune at 40

In the end, according to Perry and Krumrey, Fortune’s success boils down to relationships and communication—two things that often are best strengthened with a round of beers, a pizza and a bowl of ice cream. “The drivers know they can come in, sit down and talk with the owner face-to-face,” Krumrey said. “That goes a long way.”

Perry said his current goal is to help employees improve their finances, through financial and retirement planning services, and by making sure everyone understands the company’s 401K and benefits package. Fortune also is continuing to fill positions with talent Perry said might not have been available before COVID-19, while looking to expand its transportation and brokerage teams in a post-pandemic environment.

“One of the things that has been a little difficult is that more pay is not necessarily attracting more drivers,” Perry said. “But a more comprehensive plan for life is definitely proving to be valuable to all of us—as a company and as a family.”  ■

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has nearly 20 years of experience as a journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.

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