By Kim Grimm
When running west back in the “good old days” you could go across Wyoming in the middle of the night and it might be ten miles before you would meet another vehicle. Things were a lot less stressful back then, versus all the congestion we deal with on the road today. These were also the days before cell phones when drivers would stop to help each other, and you had to find a pay phone and stop to make check calls with your dispatcher to get your load information. It seemed like a pain back then, but I am starting to miss those simpler times. Now, we are all just tracked through our cell phones.
Those days are long gone, and so are many of the companies that would load in the Midwest to deliver freight in California or the Northwest on Monday morning, then reload for the Midwest, just so they could do it all over again the next week. Back and forth, week after week, making money and having fun. So many companies, and so many stories of the drivers who hauled their freight. These are my favorite stories.
One outfit that almost joined the long list of “used to be” companies was Zentner Transportation Inc. out of Cedar Rapids, NE. Brothers Mark and Doug Zentner started the business in 1983 hauling grain in the Midwest, then they moved to pulling dry vans, with steady runs from Chicago, IL to California. Mark took over the company completely, and for about 20 years, Doug drove for American Freightways, which was later bought by FedEx. After being welcomed back to the family business, Doug once again became an owner operator, and leased his truck on at Zentner.
While growing up, Zach Zentner rode with his dad (Mark) and learned to drive the old-fashioned way, with dad as his teacher. When Zach got old enough, he started helping work on the trucks at their old shop on Main Street in Cedar Rapids, NE. They had to do all the work outside on the cement in front of the shop no matter the weather – rain, snow, sunshine or brutal heat – because the trucks wouldn’t fit inside. They bought the shop that they are in now in 2002 and appreciate being able to work on the trucks inside and out of the elements. In 2017, Zach added-on to this shop, and now they can also work on a truck and trailer combination inside.
When Zach’s dad Mark passed away, the company was in pretty bad shape, financially. The late 90s were good times, and back then they had 20+ trucks leased on. But like many other companies, when fuel got high and times got tough, a lot of good trucking outfits closed their doors. Instead of letting that happen to his dad’s business, Zack was determined to keep the company going and once again make it profitable. At just 24 years old, Zach kept the drivers together and convinced a banker to work with him. He reported to him every month until he proved that he had not only made the business stable, but was growing it responsibly, as well.
Joel Langon started driving for Zentner Transportation when Zach was less than a year old. Mark had him drive his personal truck, so he could be home with his son (Zach). Now, 31 long years later, Joel is still there, driving his own working show truck and pulling his own trailer (he also has another truck leased to the company).
When Mark passed away, Joel told Zach he would understand if he couldn’t keep the business going. But since that was not in the cards, Joel was there to truck and support Zach’s decision to make it work. Zach said, “Joel is family, and I felt that I owed it to him and the other drivers to keep it going.” Zentner Transportation is a member of the National Association of Small Trucking Companies (NASTC), and in 2010 Zach nominated Joel for the “Driver of the Year” award. In the end, Joel was 1 of 10 drivers to be picked for this prestigious honor that year.
Mark never jumped on the reefer bandwagon. Back then, many Midwest companies chose to haul meat and dairy west, but Mark preferred to haul dry freight, because he didn’t want the added expense of the reefer unit. When Zach took over the business, Doug’s son Dana (his cousin) wanted to haul livestock, so he leased his truck to the company and Zach and Joel bought him a bull rack. This company was founded as a family operation, and it still is today.
Zach’s grandpa Coog was a truck driver, and for the entire duration of his long driving career, all he ever did was deliver mobile homes. Zach still owns his grandpa’s 1938 Diamond T, as well as a 1981 W900A Kenworth and a 2003 KW, which is the company’s “spare” truck. Zach’s company trucks that he has drivers in are (1) 2020 W900 KW, (2) 2019 W900 Kenworths, and (1) 2003 Peterbilt 379. Zach said, “I won’t buy a truck that I wouldn’t drive myself.”
Today, the company has 17 trucks leased to them, and they own 26 trailers. The business is primarily drop and hook in Nebraska, with reloads on the west coast, which keeps Zach pretty busy in the office. Zach bought his first truck when he was only 18 years old but had to lease it to his dad and put a driver in it because their insurance carrier wouldn’t allow Zach on the policy because of his age. Always resourceful, Zach went to work for another company, hauling grain around Nebraska, until he was old enough to drive his own truck.
Four years ago, some of their mutual friends played “matchmaker” and it worked. Robin and Zach were married on 10/14/17 and are now expecting their first child on June 6, 2021. I was excited to hear that they are actually going to wait until the baby is born to find out if it’s a boy or a girl. No gender reveal party happening here! Robin loves to ride along in the truck on the rare occasion that Zach gets to haul a load, and she also works on the trucks. She helps move the trucks around the yard and is not afraid to get her hands dirty. But her favorite thing to do in the shop is work on their race car. Racing a dirt late model is a hobby they love, but these days it gets a little less time than it used to.
I would like to thank our friend Kevin “AKA Josey Wales” for telling me about Zach and all that he has done. Kevin said, “This man has done more for me in six months than anyone else in 30 years.” He is driving the 2020 W900 Kenworth, and he named her Greta. Zach takes great care of all his equipment, doing as much work as possible in the shop at home, avoiding those high shop rates on the road.
Starting a family business is hard, and “keeping it going” after the founders pass away or retire is even harder. Kudos to Zach Zentner for saving his dad’s company and now making it his own. I’m sure it is the wish for every person who starts a company and builds some success to one day pass it on to their children so they can enjoy some success, too. Congratulations, Zach, you are doing great things, and I’m sure you will be a great dad real soon, as well.