FAIRMONT — Seven years ago, local trucking company W.S. Thomas Transfer was on the brink of shutting down after an unsuccessful search for a buyer for the company.

In the past two weeks, the company has invested $2.25 million in 15 new semi trucks and is hiring new drivers amid the worst economic disaster to hit the U.S. since the Great Depression.

After months considering to close the company, OnLine Transport of Indianapolis, Indiana purchased W. S. Thomas in 2013 when the local owner, Robert “Buck” Thompson retired. The 124-year-old Fairmont company became the fifth trucking company under OnLine’s corporate umbrella. OnLine Transport operates more than 700 trucks in its fleet.

“The credit to our growth is the equipment. OnLine Transport invested lots of money back into our Fairmont operation. In the last two years, we’ve purchased 25 or 30 brand new tractors at a cost of about $150,000 each,” said Terminal Manager George Abel, who started as a driver at the company 39 years ago. “The tractors we have are 2020 or 2021 Freightliners, brand new and with automatic transmissions, that are each equipped with a sleeper and most of them have refrigerators, televisions, and a lot of the comforts you’d have at home.”

Shortly before being sold to OnLine Transfer, W.S. Thomas employed about 40 drivers, but that number dwindled dramatically to about 17 drivers when the new ownership took over. Abel said the exodus occurred primarily “because some people didn’t like the pay structure or the new lanes OnLine Transport was running.”

Today, though, W.S. Thomas is growing like it never has before. The company is bigger than it’s been in many years, employing nearly 50 drivers out of its East Side hub and it’s looking to add many more drivers. Abel said the upgrades didn’t stop there.

“We’ve also purchased several new trailers, which cost about $25,000 each. We’ve also upgraded our shop here in Fairmont, where we do full maintenance on the tractors. And we’ve doubled the number of dispatchers here,” he said. “We’re adding more drivers every day — and we’ll add more people to the shop and the dispatch next year, too.”

W.S. Thomas, one of Fairmont’s oldest businesses, was established in 1896, long before the world had ever heard of tractor trailers. Deliveries were made with horse and buggy all across West Virginia and into surrounding states.

Abel said truck driving can be a rewarding career, both financially and personally.

“We pay our drivers 52 cents per mile, which means they make between $1,200 and $2,000 per week, depending upon how they utilize their time and how hard they run. We keep them busy, but our drivers are home every weekend,” he said. “Most of our drivers are from the tri-county area around Fairmont, or within 50 air miles of our terminal. But we employ drivers from West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio.”

Josh Shaffer is vice president with OnLine Transport. He said a dedicated tractor trailer driver can make a lucrative living.

“It’s not just about picking up freight and moving it from Point A to Point B. Truck drivers have the ability to drive their income, to grow their earnings based on how much they want to work, where they want to go, and what they want to do,” Shaffer said. “Any Monday through Friday job is great and will get you home every night, but it’s only going to pay so much. Truck drivers have the ability to maximize their earnings for the time they put into it.”

W.S. Thomas is a primarily a regional trucking company, operating within a 500-mile radius of Fairmont.

“We run a lot of stuff into Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, North Carolina and South Carolina,” Abel said. “We do service all 48 states, but we’re mostly regional, with the exception of a handful of drivers who go to California, Texas and so forth.”

Some of the company’s biggest local clients include Gabriel Brothers, N.D. Paper, and Novelis.

Matt Lanham is logistics coordinator with Novelis, the world’s largest recycler of aluminum and a leading producer of flat-rolled aluminum products. He said reliability is key when it comes to partnering with a tractor trailer transport service.

“W.S. Thomas gives us flexibility. They’re there for our hot shipments, when I need them to be. They give me flexibility to unload on off-shifts or get loads loaded to be delivered the next day,” Lanham said. “Our two companies have been working together for more than 30 years. You don’t see that much anymore.”

W.S. Thomas routinely delivers Novelis products to locations in Fishersville, Virginia, Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Battle Creek, Michigan, La Grange, Georgia, and Tyler, Texas.

Stephen Miller is the traffic manager for Gabe’s, a private discount fashion retailer that operates 104 stores along the East Coast.

Miller said dependability is key in his company’s business and W.S. Thomas consistently meets that criteria.

“The skinny of it is, in retail the timing of delivery is everything. Having a carrier that’s reliably on-time is a huge win in our industry. They do a fantastic job,” Miller said.

Abel said the aspect of his business that initially attracted him to the trucking life — a chance to see the country — remains one of the industry’s biggest selling points to new recruits.

“The best thing about being a truck driver is getting to see the country for free. I started out here as a driver myself in 1981 because I wanted to see the country. I was a great way to see it and get paid and it’s still true today. I’ve spoken with some of our younger drivers today and they say the same thing,” Abel said.

“You’re kind of your own boss. Drivers have got a task to do, certainly, but they can do it largely at their convenience. We watch, of course, to make sure they get there on time and safely. But if you get tired and want to lay down, you can just stop and lay down. If you’re not feeling well and you need to pull over and rest, you can do that, too.”

Under laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a tractor trailer driver is allowed to drive a maximum of 11 hours per day within a 14-hour time frame. After 14 hours, a driver must take a 10-hour minimum break. Every four hours, a driver must take a mandatory 30-minute rest break.

For aspiring drivers, OnLine Transport provides a four-week paid training academy in Indiana. There is also a local training option that W.S. Thomas operates out of Fairmont for new drivers.

For OnLine Transport, adding W.S. Thomas to its portfolio of trucking companies has paid-off handsomely during these past seven years.

“It’s been an excellent investment and great addition. It’s expanded our overall footprint as a trucking company, especially in the East Coast,” said Nick Pavilonis, OnLine Transport’s senior vice president. “We’re excited about the future with W.S. Thomas and hope to continue to invest and expand. There’s full support from the corporate side of things and we’re looking continuing to grow driver count and customer base.”

Abel said he is optimistic about the future, not just for W.S. Thomas Transfer, but for the trucking industry in general.

“I’m seeing more and more people who are wanting to drive trucks. For a while, there was a shortage of drivers, but today there are more younger people who want to make it a career. We seem to have more people calling and wanting to come to work for us,” he said.

The hiring of new drivers continues unabated at W.S. Thomas, too, Abel said.

“We just hired five drivers this week. And I’ve got four more in the training process now. We’ll be hiring more drivers on the horizon, too. We’ll be well over 50 drivers here by the end of next month and 60 drivers by the end of the year. In Fairmont, our long-term goal is to be up to 100 drivers,” he said.

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