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How We Got Here: Chattanooga’s Path to Logistics Dominance

At some point, as companies kept proliferating, Ronald Ramsey and Chad Eichelberger started compiling a list.

Trusted Partners. Steam logistics. Trident Transportation. Taimen transportation. LYNC logistics. Avengers Logistics. A dozen more, and all have one thing in common: Somehow they can trace a connection to Access America Transport, founded 20 years ago in Chattanooga.

“We are proud of our heritage and proud of the impact the business has had in our city,” said Ramsey, chief commercial officer of Reliance Partners, which has grown from its beginnings as a insurance within Access America to become the largest private agency in the United States dedicated to logistics.

“And that’s right in Chattanooga,” adds Ramsey. “We have a very similar ripple effect in Birmingham and Minneapolis and elsewhere.”

Eichelberger, the chairman of Reliance, joined Access America just a year out of college in 2005. Ramsey followed in 2007, and Reliance Partners was born into the company in 2009, led by Andrew Ladebauche, who is still the CEO of the insurer.

“We will write over $650 million in written premiums this year, and we started with two clients: Access America and AAT Carriers,” Ramsey said.

But the explosion of the local logistics industry over the past 20 years has roots that go back generations deeper than Access America. As early as 1950, when modern logistics giant Kenco was born as a single warehouse on West 25th Street, the seeds for Chattanooga’s future as Freight Alley had already been planted.

“If you go back to the arrival of the first European settlers, the Native American population used the opening of [Missionary] Ridge to trade,” says Santosh Sankar, co-founder and managing partner of Dynamo Ventures, a Chattanooga-based venture capital firm that primarily invests in logistics companies around the world — and also has its roots in Access America.

The expansion of railroads in Chattanooga in the 1850s, the subsequent increase in manufacturing, the expansion of freight transportation options along the Tennessee River beginning in the 1930s, and the arrival of Converging interstate highways in the 1960s and 1970s steadily expanded Chattanooga’s role as a logistics hub, creating a major source of jobs and economic growth for the region.

“One of the reasons Volkswagen decided to base its North American manufacturing here is the proximity to the railroad,” adds Sankar, calling surface transportation a “heritage industry” in Chattanooga dating back centuries.

“We are seeing growth [in that industry] now with new companies such as Steam Logistics, FreightWaves and Bellhops, and these companies are based on giants like Kenco, US Xpress and Covenant [Logistics]adds Sankar.

Ramsey can attest to the role of these early logistics pioneers; he started his own career at US Xpress, where he was responsible for customer service from 2004 to 2007.

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How We Got Here: Chattanooga’s Path to Logistics Dominance

Along the road

Nathan Wooten runs two transportation companies from his office in Trenton, Ga., and grew up in logistics before he got that fancy name, he says. His father was a transport manager for Magic Chef and then for World Carpet in Dalton, Georgia.

“He got me hired into the company,” Wooten said.

Wooten began his career as a student in 1982 at Southwest Motor Freight, the Clyde Fuller-owned company that eventually spawned Chattanooga-based trucking giants US Xpress and Covenant Transport.

In 1987, after Clyde Fuller sold the Southwest Motor Freight business, Wooten went to work for carpet haulers in North Georgia before starting his own business in 2003. In this respect, he is like many others in industry, says Wooten.

Almost every freight and logistics company in the region can be traced back in some way to this handful of industry pioneers, he says.

“US Xpress and Covenant Transport – those guys evolved in the late 80s into what they are today, and there are a number of people who worked for those companies, learned the trade and then left those companies to start their own,” says Wooten.

“If you dig into those brokerages, you’ll find US Xpress or Covenant alumni. If someone were to make a trucking family tree around Chattanooga, the name Fuller would be at the bottom of the tree.”

In 2002, the new wave of logistics expertise arrived. Access America Transport spawned several companies, from Steam Logistics to Reliance Partners, in part because the culture of entrepreneurship across Access America encouraged employees to think like owners, Wooten says.

“Ted [Alling] did a really good job with his business when he started it and gave people a lot of knowledge,” says Wooten. “These three companies have former employees scattered throughout the industry.

Alling, who co-founded Access America with friends Barry Large and Allan Davis, says the entrepreneurial culture he and his partners have built was no fluke.

“When we started there was US Xpress and Covenant, there was KenCo and Tranco – which is quietly building a huge business – and as we grew here we just had such an entrepreneurial spirit” , says Alling. “All of our employees felt like they were developing their own business.”

Ramsey echoes that sentiment, saying the people who built Access America have empowered employees to think and act like owners.

“It validates that the culture and everything that we believe in and the path that we’ve given our people to be successful — it validates that,” Ramsey said. “We did it the right way.”

As the industry grows and local logistics companies continue to proliferate, the community benefits on many levels, Alling says.

“Everyone knows about this industry in our community now, and I have a lot of parents saying, ‘My kids are in logistics now,’ and that’s such a great thing as we try to retain talent here,” Alling said. “We are creating many neat headquarters based in Chattanooga that will create wealth for our community in the long run.”

Local logistics milestones

1950

Jim Kennedy, Jr. and his brother-in-law Sam Smartt opened the first Kenco warehouse at 421 W. 25th St. in 1950. Today, Kennedy’s daughter, Jane Kennedy Greene, is the company’s president, and Kenco calls itself the largest female third-party logistics company in the United States Over the past 72 years, Kenco has grown into a logistics provider managing 90 distribution facilities comprising 30 million square feet of space and serving more than 200 customers with varied logistics needs across a wide range of industries. The company hit $1 billion in revenue in 2021, says Scott Mayfield, president of Kenco Management Services.

“Over the past 20 years, it’s been a race for data, metrics, and cutting-edge technology,” says Mayfield. “Our customers have so much information at their disposal – the products, the inventory – that they want the partners to provide real-time supply chain data. You are not investing in these areas, you will be left over.”

1986

Max Fuller and Pat Quinn, friends who had worked together at Southwest Motor Freight, founded US Xpress. Max Fuller’s father, Clyde Fuller, gave the men 25 trucks, and their initial fleet of 48 grew to over 7,000 trucks and 19,000 trailers. US Xpress is now one of the largest trucking companies in the country. The company went public in 2018 and launched a new Atlanta-based trucking company, Variant, to build a technology-based fleet.

1986

David Parker, Clyde Fuller’s stepson, started Covenant Transport with 25 trucks and 50 trailers. The company changed its name in 2021 to Covenant Logistics and diversified its trucking operations to focus more on freight logistics, warehousing and other inventory management. In addition to Covenant’s three main facilities in Chattanooga, Greenville, South Carolina and Nashville, the company has stores, terminals, offices and 15 warehouses, all giving Covenant a footprint in 38 states across the country.

1995

Twin brothers Bruce Trantham and Byron Trantham founded Tranco Logistics as a warehouse with its first one-truck facility on 42nd Street in South Chattanooga. Bruce Trantham continued to work at UPS during the company’s early years as it started up and Bruce and Byron drove trucks, unloaded goods and drove forklifts even as more warehouses were added and the business was growing. The Chattanooga-based company operates more than 2 million square feet of warehouses and serves approximately 400 customers worldwide, and has grown to include 192 trucks and 542 trailers. The company has also added freight brokerage and other logistics support services over the years. To support operations, the Trantham brothers also added a recruitment company and a finance company. The workforce placement company, MSI Workforce Solutions, helps recruit and place workers at various companies, including Volkswagen of America.

2002

A trio of Samford University fraternity brothers — Ted Alling, Allan Davis, and Barry Large — launched Access America from a back room in Key-James Brick, a Chattanooga building supplies mainstay owned by the father of Large. Alling worked for third-party logistics giant CH Robinson Worldwide and was ready to build something new.

2009

Reliance Partners was born within Access America Transport. The company is now a standalone business and the largest private agency in the United States dedicated to logistics. The company will write more than $650 million in written premiums this year.

2012

Steam Logistics was launched within Access America Transport. The business is now a stand-alone freight brokerage firm handling both international and domestic freight. Steam has grown from 30 five years ago to 600+.

2014

Coyote Logistics purchased Access America. The company had 800 employees and $600 million in revenue, and Alling made a prediction: “We’re going to be building a lot of new headquarters here in Chattanooga.”

2015

UPS bought Coyote Logistics for $1.8 billion.

2016

Large, Alling and Davis founded the logistics venture capital firm Dynamo Fund, seeking to develop the most promising companies in the field of logistics.

READ MORE

* New Road: US Xpress leverages technology to enhance driver experience with Variant model

* How the supply chain has become everyone’s business

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