By Kevin Allenspach St. Cloud Times, Minn.
About five years ago, Jennifer Stueve started operating AllFleet Auto Transport Inc. from her kitchen table.
Today, the business has a staff of drivers and office workers that total about a dozen employees. Its small fleet of trucks crisscrosses the country, hauling cars and trucks for commercial and individual clients. During 2013, AllFleet carried more than 4,000 cars and generated more than $3.8 million in revenue.
To keep those trucks on the road, AllFleet has a mechanic and a 7,000-square-foot shop in Waite Park. But that's not where you'll find Stueve and her other dispatchers and administrators.
Since 2008, Stueve has run her company from a home on Sixth Avenue North. Her mother grew up in the house and later bought it and raised her own family here. Now, Jennifer lives here with her husband, Tim, and daughters Breanna, 9, and Ashalee, 7. They've converted a back entrance and the basement into office space with enough desks and computer terminals for five people in three rooms.
Stueve, 39, has worked in the auto transport business for 22 years, even before she graduated from Rocori High School in 1992.
She went to Rasmussen College, studying at night for two years to earn a degree in business management and a minor in accounting.
After starting her own family, Stueve decided to try working from home. With the help of Ron Maas, who owns Bedrock Motors in Blaine and Rogers, Stueve took over Maas' AllFleet sales and leasing division and later renamed it AllFleet Auto Transport Inc.
Stueve also partnered with Don Johnson, a St. Joseph man who had been driving trucks for more than 30 years. They took over sole ownership in 2012.
Amid a map of the United States, a marker board with a dozen jobs listed on it, four computers facing her desk and a bunch of pictures of family and co-workers, Stueve took a few minutes recently to talk about how she built a business from scratch.
Question: What was your inspiration for getting into business?
Answer: "Both of my parents were in business, so I always had it in my brain that's what I wanted to do ... and when I was a senior in high school, my grandfather -- who owns a car-hauling company as well (Parkway Auto Transport in Clearwater) -- asked that I come and work for him. ... That's how I got into transportation. I always had a love of geography and this is where it took me."
Question: How did you get started with AllFleet?
Answer: "When I started having kids and getting our family going, I really wanted to work from home. I got a phone call from a couple of drivers that I had worked with in the past at Parkway and they'd left. They were wanting to start a business. I knew Ron, and he more or less said, 'I'll back you. Go ahead and do it.' He was a very big influence. He went and got me a laptop and he said, 'You know what? We haul a lot of cars and I want someone who can help us.' One of the people involved was his nephew and he sat down with my business partner, Don, and we decided it was a good idea. Let's do it. Away we went with two trucks and we started at my kitchen table. As time went on, we grew and we've had the opportunity to move out several times, but it gives it more of a homey feel. My guys are like family, so it's comfortable here."
Question: What hurdles did you have to clear early on?
Answer: "We had to find drivers. Finding people who are good at customer service and finding good drivers is very hard. We went about it by word-of-mouth. People had heard of me or worked with these other drivers and we went from there. ... Now, we teeter between seven and eight trucks and three and four office staff. But we'd love to get bigger."
Question: How do you approach growing your company?
Answer: "We don't do a lot in the St. Cloud area. We haul for Luther Honda, and there is some hauling we do for people around here, but a lot of it is (from) Minneapolis and we have a 48-state authority, so we're all over. We look on the load boards and you can figure where you're going to be going. We get a lot of people who just call in. Right now, we probably have between 500 and 600 snowbirds. We haul their cars back and forth from the Sun Belt. We usually don't have too much trouble getting our drivers filled up going both ways."
Question: How are things different these days from when you worked for your grandfather?
Answer: "If the phone didn't ring back then, you didn't get cars. Now it's OK if the phone doesn't ring so much because everything is through email and the load board. Right now, we have a big contract with a place out of St. Paul where we're hauling a bunch of pickups -- 900 and some -- to different locations around the United States. We're pretty busy. That's why it's not a one-man operation."
Question: What is the most important thing you've learned to help you succeed?
Answer: "It's all about how you treat people. I don't want anyone to ever walk out of my home feeling that they were mistreated. I don't want any of my customers to ever feel that way. We do a lot in the spirit of customer service. I don't let anyone walk out the door without my saying thank you every day. I don't let my guys leave for a long trip on the road without giving them a hug. Money is great, but the success is in the people you meet and the impression you leave behind. You want to leave the impression of gratitude and be grateful for every customer. I feel like everybody who walks into my life did so for a purpose."
Question: What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur today?
Answer: "If you have a goal, don't ever stop reaching for it. It takes time. It takes a lot of effort, tears and time out of your life. But if you really, really want something, you have to go for it to get it."
Question: Do you think you'll eventually get too big to keep your home office?
Answer: "We've had many opportunities to move, but this also has to do with my kids. They go to school right up the street (at All Saints Academy, where Stueve is chair of the parent committee). I'm very involved with them. They're competitive dancers at Ms. Melinda's, so they're very often only a few blocks away if they need me. This is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job. There is no 'shut the phone off.' I have a wonderful husband who has his own job and does his own thing and he's the first one to help out with something if I need it.
It's not pretty and it's not perfect, but it doesn't matter if it's in my basement or in a $5 million building. Be true to yourself. That's just good business. ... I couldn't be doing this if Don wasn't in the business as my partner and the people we've got in the office weren't terrific and the drivers weren't, too, as a part of the team. If you measure growth in money, we've obviously jumped since we started. Sometimes I sit here and think, 'How did this happen?' What a great gift."