KEARNY, N. J. — Ah yes, change.
That one word synonym for “inevitable.”
That one word that sends shivers up and down the spine of executives in corporate boardrooms across America.
Yes, change IS inevitable, or at least most of the time.
Anyone seen an IBM Selectric repairman lately?
Or a polyester leisure suit?
Or a rotary telephone, you know the one with the metal dial that hurt your finger?
How about ethyl gasoline?
Or a nickel Coca Cola?
Or drive-in movies?
So imagine how it must have been for Fred Kennedy, president and CEO of flatbed carrier L.J. Kennedy Trucking, when he returned to his family’s trucking business in 1996 after being away about 30 years.
What would he find different from those years while he was in school and spent time washing trucks and parts and loading glass bottles to be transported to Gordon’s Gin?
Kennedy is a simple man who answers questions with simple, matter-of-fact answers and does so without hesitation or reservation. An interviewer learned that early in the conversation when he posed the question: “So you worked there as a young man and you came back quite a few years later. What was your impression of the changes in the industry between those two periods?”
“Well, it was still tractors and trailers moving materials,” came the short, but profound, answer.
Outside of that basic fact, there were some differences, he recalled during an interview with The Trucker.
Trailers back then were only 24 feet long; now most of his company’s trailers are 48 feet long.
Sleepers weren’t around back then.
The safety and the comfort of the drivers and new technology were among the most notable things he found when he came back to the company his brothers had founded some 50 years earlier.
But bottom line, the basics hadn’t changed. Trucks, driven by professional truckers, still pulled trailers carrying cargo.
Kennedy was only a toddler when brothers Lou and Frank founded the company in 1947.
He was a later-in-life baby, born in the summer of 1945.
By then, Lou Kennedy was 17 years old, Frank was 19.
“They started with one truck after they finished winning World War II,” Kennedy said. “Lou was in the Pacific and Frank was in Europe. After they came home in 1947 they began with one truck and pretty soon they had enough business for two trucks and then they needed a truck driver and it escalated from there in the late 1940s.”
The Kennedys got into the hauling business using four-legged power.
“Lou always had an affinity for horses and he actually started with a horse and carriage,” Kennedy said. “There was an old gentleman that owned property that our offices are on now that was his mentor. In those days there were a lot of dairy farms and this guy had cows and horses. So Lou actually began by moving things with a horse and carriage and then evolved into trucks.”
In the early years, the Kennedy brothers moved sheet rock for U.S. Gypsum and when U.S. Gypsum built a new plant in Stony Point, N.J., in 1955, it awarded 50 percent of the trucking from there to L.J. Kennedy.
“That was really the catalyst that got them going in the trucking business,” Kennedy said.
That he at first took a career path other than trucking didn’t mean he was leaving his family roots behind.
“My brothers — I used to say they never graduated from high school, but they always reminded me that they never went to high school — had to work to support me,” he said. “I knew I would always come back to the company. It was an obligation to my brothers to be able to help them for having helped me get through school.”
Kennedy said he was headed for law school, but things ended up differently and he joined the Army when he graduated from The Citadel military college in Charleston, S.C.
He remained in the Army for over 20 years, retiring from Special Forces in 1990.
He taught at a military high school for three years, was assistant commandant at his alma mater for awhile and took over in 1994 as president of Oak Ridge Military Academy at Oak Ridge, N.C.
He was there some 30 months.
“Then the time came that my brothers’ health wasn’t the best,” Kennedy said. “They’d had bypass surgery and they said if you’re going to make it, this is the time to do it. So we packed up and moved to New Jersey.”
At this point, Fred Kennedy was running the trucking operation as company president; Lou, an entrepreneur, was involved in other business matters.
Fred Kennedy became the company’s executive vice president.
“Lou bought property, started an insurance company and had a lot of different things going,” Kennedy recalled. “Then when Lou died in 1996, it was one of the most complicated estates and I was executor for that estate. It took almost two years to liquidate all his holdings.”
When Lou died, Fred became president and Frank took the title of CEO.
Despite becoming president in 1996, Kennedy said it was around 1998 before he could dedicate his fulltime efforts to the trucking business as a result of being executor of Lou’s estate.
Frank died in 2007.
But the two older Kennedy brothers left a legacy that remains even to this day.
“The DNA we have is that my brothers were truck drivers. In fact to the day they died, if anybody met them on the street and asked what they did, they’d say ‘we’re truck drivers,’ even though they hadn’t driven for many years. That was just their nature. And they always appreciated what a driver has to go through — the hours that they keep, the conditions they face, and in a lot of cases the wages that they just don’t earn for the work that they do.”
So they were always interested in making sure they took care of the drivers.
The brothers didn’t take much from the company, nor did they live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, the younger Kennedy said.
“Whatever profits they had at the end of the year they would put it back into the company, usually through bonuses to drivers based on their performance as measured through safety,” he said. “Then they’d reinvest in the company in equipment and didn’t pay a lot of taxes because the