Robinson's Road

08 May 2008

From his office, David Scripps, president of Robinson Cartage Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, can see one of his biggest customers, the Premarc cement plant. Eighty-five years ago, Scripps' great grandfather, Leonard Robinson, selected the site for his new trucking company because it was across the street from that plant.

Although the plant has gone through several owners, the relationship with Robinson Cartage remains strong. “They love working with us,” says Scripps. “If they call and say they want ten trucks tomorrow, they' ll get ten trucks tomorrow. Some of our people are over at that plant right now.”

Robinson Cartage is often called upon to haul concrete bridge beams up to 150 feet long for the plant. The company has not, however, stayed with the other mainstay of its early years - log hauling. Instead, Robinson increasingly specializes in hauling machinery long distances. “We' ve built a reputation for hauling machinery to Mexico from the Great Lakes area,” notes Scripps. “GM, Ford and Chrysler all have had us haul machinery to automotive assembly plants down there.”

Machinery hauling first became an important component of Robinson Cartage's business during World War II. As the nation retooled to meet military needs, Robinson Cartage reconfigured itself, adding a crane & rigging division to install machinery.

Gerritt Scripps, Leonard Robinson's son-in-law and David Scripps' grandfather, was instrumental in that division's development and ultimately assumed control of the company. Now 91, he still talks about the company's heritage. Until a few years ago he was an active participant in the business.

In 1984, Gerritt Scripps' son Jim assumed ownership of the company. Within 2 1/2 years, Jim Scripps died of cancer. “Dad was quite active in SC&RA before he became ill,” recalls David Scripps. “It's sad that his death kept him from reaching his full potential in the industry.”

Taking over

Suddenly, David Scripps, who had started working for the company in 1976 as a rate clerk, was forced to make major decisions as Robinson Cartage's new owner. Like many other SC&RA member companies operating in the Midwest, Robinson Cartage struggled to cope with the region's deteriorating economic conditions during the remainder of the 20th century.

By 2003, Scripps was worried about the company's prospects for survival. That year, he decided to take the bold step of divesting the company of its crane & rigging division.“I was never really comfortable with that business, and I felt it was time for us to go back to our roots and concentrate on our trucking business,” says Scripps. “At the time, everybody wondered how we could possibly do such a thing.”

Trying to sell an entity of that magnitude in a sour economy proved to be a considerable challenge for Scripps. “SC&RA was a good resource,” he comments. “I shopped that division through the whole association before selling it to another SC&RA member, Erickson's Incorporated.”

Based in North Muskegon, Michigan, Erickson's acquired all of Robinson Cartage's crane and rigging equipment and hired 35 of the employees. “In the transition, the only person losing a job was a part-time clerical worker,” notes Scripps. He has never looked back. “Nobody has regretted making that change,” Scripps says. “Today, we' re realizing more profit from trucking than we ever did from our combined trucking and crane businesses. When we focused on the one aspect of our business, everything seemed to fall into place.”

Scripps attributes his company's current success to its ability to make timely pick-ups and deliveries, while having hardly any damage claims or worker injuries. “That happens because we have a great crew of 25 drivers and a great nine-person support staff,” Scripps points out. (His wife, Kerry, also works in the office, handling payroll, collections and some human relations work.)

When he heard discussion of high driver turnover rate at the recent SC&RA Annual Conference in Phoenix, Arizona, Scripps found himself puzzled. “We have a lot of longevity at Robinson Cartage,” he says.“Our operations manager, Roger Stegehuis, has been with us 37 years. My guys tend to stay here until they retire.”

Loyalty

Scripps asked his employees why they are so loyal. They explained that they liked the family atmosphere and the diversity of workplace challenges. “Every day, they come to work without knowing what they' re going to haul or where,” Scripps says. “They also get to drive late-model Kenworth and International tractors, hauling a fleet of 125 trailers. It's quite an assortment of equipment that's capable of handling just about any problem we come across.”

The positive frame of mind cultivated by Robinson Cartage seems to rub off on customers. “When we say our customers are like family, we mean it,” says Scripps. “We have one customer who calls us even when she doesn't have any work. She' ll say we always cheer her up when she's having a bad day.”

Scripps seems as proud of that as he is of some of his company's monumental hauling jobs.

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