Luke Subler chuckles aloud when asked how he and his father, Jim Subler, are alike. The elder Subler is the founder of the family trucking company, Versailles, Ohio-based Classic Carriers, where Luke spent his formative years learning the value of hard work. It’s the company Luke now leads as president — so the invitation for comparison is a constant one.
“Anybody who reads this, who knows my dad as well as I, is going to laugh,” Luke said. “I always joke that we’re twins separated at birth … by 30 years. We walk, talk, and pretty much think alike. But we’re also our own people.
“Working with family is difficult just because you never really split up work and family life. It’s hard to do when you’re constantly together,” he continued. “I’d be lying to you if I said there weren’t some interesting — and maybe heated — conversations at Thanksgiving and Christmas and things like that. But we’ve always found a way to come back together and move forward toward a common goal. That’s the biggest thing. My dad and I are very close. Anybody that knows us knows that.”
Classic Carriers, founded in 1985, isn’t the only trucking company “ornament” that adorns the family tree. Luke’s grandfather and uncle launched Subler Transfer and ran the trucking company for decades before selling out. To this day, Luke smiles at the craftiness of the duo’s exit strategy.
“They sold out in 1980,” he shared. “The day deregulation was signed, they signed the paperwork to sell the company. It was good timing on their part.”
Unlike his older family members, Luke didn’t immediately jump full-on into the family business, save for the usual after-school and weekend work experiences that kids of small business owners know all too well.
“As soon as I was old enough to hop in the truck with Dad and ride around and go deliver stuff, that’s what I did,” he said. “I’ve always been around the business. I started sweeping floors at about age 10. I finally got my first paycheck when I was 12 years old.”
Subler sampled college but says he didn’t care for it. He returned to the company when he was 21 and Classic Carriers was 20. You could say from that point on, the two of them “grew up” together.
“We had just purchased a company in 2003, and we were still kind of integrating that,” he said. “Then, in 2006 we purchased another company out of Pennsylvania, so we were definitely in growth mode. Those were exciting times. Along about 2007, I moved to the terminal we had in Pennsylvania and operated that for a number of years, until about 2012 when I moved back to Ohio.
“It was good. I was still growing up in the business,” he continued. “There’s a lot of things I knew, but as far as managing people and doing things like that at a young age, it was a sharp learning curve. We’ll put it that way. I always kind of joke that I was the SOB — and that stands for “Son of the Boss” or whatever else you want to put with that acronym.”
All kidding aside, Subler was committed to learning the business and improving his leadership skills. He earned his CDL in 2006. While driving was never a primary part of his job, he’s spent enough time behind the wheel to be able to relate to his crew, their issues, and the things they face on a daily basis. That, and a penchant for listening first and directing later, has built his reputation as a worthy successor for his father.
That reputation was particularly handy when it came time to modernize or introduce other changes to operations.
“Embracing technology, that was probably the (main) thing I brought to (the company),” he said. “When you’re trying to teach people who’ve never really used a computer how to change their habits, it’s hard. I’ll never forget: I had a guy who was probably in his mid-60s, one of the smartest dispatchers you’d ever meet, but he hated computers.
“He literally did things off an old dispatch board, one of those old cardboards, and we couldn’t break him of it until he went on vacation,” he continued. “I removed the board and kind of forced his hand. He didn’t talk to me for a little while, but eventually he adapted. He even named his computer Lurch, and he and Lurch were best friends after that.”
Today the company employs 125 drivers, 35 of them owner-operators, plus more than 50 additional mechanics and other support staff. In addition to hauling cargo throughout the lower 48 states, Classic Carries provides logistics services and warehousing. Subler says the key to having survived this long lies in the quality of the staff and the focus that ownership places on employee needs. It’s a corporate value that comes very naturally.
“The first thing is, Classic Carriers was started by my father who started as a driver,” Luke said. “When you start out with that mentality, you treat drivers the way they want to be treated, and that goes for our entire company. We’ve got an open-door policy. I’ve got a driver in my office damn near every day, whether it’s an owner-operator coming to talk about rates or a company driver talking about the routes he’s on.
“It can be a whole host of anything, where somebody just sits down and says, ‘Have you got a minute? I’ve got some things going on I want to talk to you about,’” he continued. “That goes for personal matters as well. We’re a very family-oriented company, and we firmly believe in that. We never plan to change that.”
With his father spending more time in the warmer climes of semi-retirement and his own kids still too young to take their place at the company, Luke Subler has found himself positioned squarely at the controls to guide the family business through the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
“We’re looking to grow all aspects of our business, whether it be organically which is becoming very, very difficult, or through M&A. We’re going to do it any way we can,” he said. “There’s a lot of challenges and headwinds I see in the future, but technology is going to drive this industry. It already is, but I think we’re going to get more technology-driven and you’re either going to have to embrace it or get out of the way. And if you get out of the way, you’re going to get passed up really quick.”
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.