By Jim Nowlan
WEST JERSEY – West Jersey Express is moving – to West Jersey.
The local grain and gravel trucking operation started in the early 1990s by Nancy Plumer, her late husband James and their son Matt has grown into a significant family-operated, over-the-road trucking and freight brokerage business, with 28 employees, 19 truck tractors and 50 flatbed, step-deck and other trailers.
“We have already outgrown the building we put up here on the farm in 2012,” said Matt, referring to the farm where he and his wife Connie live, southeast of West Jersey.
So, West Jersey Express recently bought the 30,000 square-foot former West Jersey grade school (more recently Bryton Technology), where the company will consolidate dispatch and accounting functions with a truck maintenance shop (in the former school gym) and a warehouse. With both dock and loading bays, the warehouse will handle storage for third-party logistics operations.
WJE is a true family-operated business: Matt oversees all; his mother Nancy handles accounting; son Drew leads the dispatching, with his uncle, Donnie Loughe; Connie does payroll; daughter Cassy Plumer does the invoicing; Matt’s nephew, the mechanically adept Jake Plumer, “keeps the drivers and equipment happy.”
Nancy adds that a number of the employees, such as Colleen Stevens in her office, are also “like family.”
A former student at West Jersey grade school in the 1960s, Matt and the family started with grain and rock hauling in the 1990s, to add some revenue to their farm operation.
By then, however, many farmers were getting their own trucks, and December to April was always slow for grain and gravel hauling. Thus, in 1994 the family created West Jersey Express, and by 1999 WJE was doing interstate refrigerated trucking of produce, candy, groceries and more for well-known companies like Ghirardelli Chocolates. WJE drew on “load boards” on the new internet to find loads to haul.
In 2004, Matt made contacts at Komatsu America in Peoria, and soon WJE was hauling 145,000-pound chassis, huge radiators, gargantuan wheels and other parts for Komatsu’s mining trucks. WJE takes loads for Komatsu and other manufacturers to and from ports in Savannah, Ga.; Florida; Houston; California, and up and down the coasts.
In 2005, son Drew graduated from Stark County High and got his CDL (Commercial Drivers License). He worked at WJE while studying at Black Hawk East and Western Illinois University, graduating with a business management degree.
“Drew is great,” says his beaming grandmother Nancy, “but don’t put that in the paper.”
What had been a farm operation, which did some trucking on the side, had become a trucking business, which still does farming on the side.
“Over-the-road trucking is an extremely competitive business,” says the outgoing Drew, who appears most of the time tied at the hip to his computer, handling the myriad details of successful dispatching.
“Our niche is outstanding service, reliable and on time,” Matt says. “If a company needs a load delivered across the country by 8 a.m. Friday at the port in San Diego, they need to trust that it will be there at 8 a.m. Friday. With us, they know it will be.
“Large brokers can come in and offer cheap rates, but their loads might not make it right on time. And if the ship leaves port without your load, it may be a month before another one in available. That costs companies big money.”
Trucking is heavily regulated, detailed, complicated – and stressful. When The News arrived at WJE at 8 a.m. Monday, Matt was pacing the cramped office corridor, cellphone glued to his ear, his voice rising and falling.
Drew and Donnie were on phones as well, while also looking deep into the computer screens. A few stress-reducing, nice old dogs greeted me, sniffed my hand, declared I was okay but uninteresting and returned to their beds in corners of the office.
“Drew follows every load from start to finish,” says Matt. This involves coordinating the timing, dimensions of the load, insurance, pilot cars (when large loads require cars, leading and following), weight limits, route surveys, bridge widths and heights, curfews (when loads are prohibited from traveling during urban rush hours) – and rates.
Most important to companies are the rates charged. And the rates include the costs of all the details just noted, and more.
The work in the “back offices” is just as detailed. For example, close tabs must be kept on fuel receipts, gallonage, and mileage traveled by each load in each state. Reports are made regularly to the Illinois Department of Revenue, which uses the data to allocate payments to each state over which WJE trucks roll. If a trucker doesn’t buy any or enough fuel within a state, that state charges for mileage traveled.
“We turn ourselves into pretzels to please everyone,” says Nancy of all the reports, regulations and customer demands.
This is obviously a 24/7 business, yet, as Matt says, “Family business does have its rewards, if you can make it work.”
Family business success requires teamwork, says Nancy, who seems to always have a smile at the ready.
“I continue working because I get to interact with family,” she says, with a smile. “And successful relations among family in a stressful business are possible by not holding onto little things, letting them go, and moving on.”
After the interview, Matt gave this writer a quick tour of the work going on at the old West Jersey grade school on Route 78 across from the Methodist Church and town cemetery.
“Health care and other costs keep going up,” adds Matt, “so we have to grow or get out of the way.”
“We added five new trucks this past year,” Drew notes, to punctuate the company’s recent growth.
At the new headquarters in the former school, scheduled to open this Spring, WJE has the space to grow, and to add new third-party warehousing.
“We will be able to take a truckload of seed or whatever,” explains Drew, speaking of the dock and loading bays at the warehouse in West Jersey, “then break it down and ship it off in less than truckload-size loads.”
Matt also noted that their new facility in West Jersey will have about 2,100 square feet of unused, available modern office space with large windows, fronting on Route 78. If anyone is interested, contact Matt at (309) 995-3301.
By Jim Nowlan