SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — A family-run trucking company in Sioux Falls is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. K & J Trucking had humble beginnings in 1979, starting with just one truck. Through the years, it’s grown to a fleet of over 50 trucks, employing more than 100 people, many of them women. Family and females are a driving force behind K & J’s business success.
K & J Trucking faced a bumpy road during its early days. The company formed during a national recession when high interest rates meant soaring startup costs. Owners Dave and Sharon Koch went without paychecks for weeks at a time to they could take care of their employees. But, through hard work and determination, their business expanded and they hired daughter Shelley who was studying computer programming at Southeast Tech at the time.
“The business was growing so fast, they needed someone to come on full-time, so then I just came on full-time and started in the paperwork department and I just did all the tasks that have to be done at a truck line, so I audited logs, I did trips processing, a helped a little bit with accounting,” K & J Trucking President Shelley Koch said.
Shelley Koch took over as president of the company when her dad died in 1991. Since then she’s blazed a trail as a woman executive in a male-dominated industry.
“I think what I do in the office is attainable for all women. Think the women we have driving for us, I so admire them. I think they are jumping a bigger hurdle than I am,” Koch said.
One of those women drivers who’s successfully cleared those hurdles is Summer Jakopak, who travels the country with her bulldog, appropriately named “Journey.”
“I went to Southeast Tech, there in Sioux Falls, and got in a big truck for the first time and just fell in love with it. So once I had my CDL, I decided to get a job and I was luck to find K & J first off,” Jakopak said.
Being a trucker means spending lonely weeks away from family. And women drivers face dangers once they pull off the road. So Journey is an important traveling companion for Jakopak.
“She’s an early warning system if somebody’s creeping around the truck. But for the most part, I don’t actually feel that much fear out on the road,” Jakopak said.
Jakopak has even taught her husband to be a trucker, so she can spend more time at home.
“I will have to admit that I have trained a couple of women to drive and that was a lot easier than training my husband. But it went fairly successfully, and we didn’t want to kill each other, so it’s gone okay,” Jakopak said.
Women make up roughly 10 percent of K and J’s workforce. While more women make inroads in the industry, K & J says they hire based on who’s best qualified, not on whether they’re a woman or a man. Jeff Eschen is a fourth generation trucker.
“I’ve just been growing up in it all my life you know, so it’s just kind of a first-nature thing,” Eschen said.
Eschen says driving these days is a lot more comfortable now with cabs getting roomier. And cell phones have replaced pay phones for truckers to keep in touch with family.
“When you’re gone for two to three weeks, or up to a month, everything’s through the phone and it’s just nice to have that family close, touch, bond, deal,” Eschen said.
The trucking industry is in another period of transition with the development of driverless trucks. While the technology will be a game-changer, K & J Trucking expects that there will always be a lane open for the human element.
“We thought we were going to be in the Jetsons Age right now when we were kids growing up, so we thought we’d be flying on our own space truck. We’re not there yet, but maybe someday we will,” Eschen said.
From recessions, to a changing workforce, to automation, the trucking indjustry has gone through several upheavals through the decades. But truckers are an adaptable lot, and K & J says its drivers will keep rolling with the changes.
“Trucking in general is going to look a lot different in 40 years. We look a lot different today than when we started, 40 years from now, I can’t imagine what it’s going to look like,” Koch said.
Many family-run businesses face challenges in finding a successor to take over the company. But Koch’s two sons have been involved with the operation and she says they’ve shown an interest in eventually taking the wheel and running the company.