A Humble Beginning for W.W. Estes

Our founder, W.W. Estes, didn’t start out his career in trucking—he was simply a modest farmer in Southside Virginia with a love for hard work and big equipment. Here’s an interesting look at how he came to be the founder of what today has become the fifth largest LTL company in the nation.

Born in Burke County, NC, in 1897, W.W. Estes was educated only through primary school. This was not uncommon in the early 1900s, when only 5-10% of the population continued their schooling past elementary grades. His practical education, however, continued after grade school in the form of working for his father, who owned a farm, harvested timber and operated a sawmill.

While still in North Carolina, W.W. married Ruth Gladys Berry (“Gladys”) in 1919. The following year, they moved to Southside Virginia near Chase City to start a family. Between 1921 and 1934, they had two sons and four daughters. The young couple worked hard to support their growing family. Besides running the farm’s day-to-day operations, W.W. supplemented their income throughout the 1920s by grading land for construction projects, while Gladys sold eggs and butter produced on the farm.

Hard Work—Followed by More Hard Work

When the Great Depression came along, farmers were especially hard hit. Across Virginia, farm incomes were quickly reduced to roughly half of what they earned in the mid-1920s. In 1931, W.W. decided to find additional ways to support his family, which is why he bought a used Chevy truck and began hauling livestock to market for his neighbors. It didn’t take long for his business to catch on. Pretty soon, he was also hauling farm supplies and other goods between farms, small towns and bigger cities. He hired his first driver in 1932, and the next year, he opened an office in Chase City, Virginia. By 1937, he’d hired at least one more driver. That’s also the year he officially named the company Estes Express Lines.

According to stories that current President and CEO Rob Estes heard growing up, those early days were not easy times. “When trucking was in its infancy back in the 1930s, and when they first introduced the very complicated business of regulation, you had to be determined,” he said. “You worked long hours and all angles. You drove, you dispatched, you loaded.”

But even during some very tough times, W.W. managed to steadily expand operations with new terminals—first in Richmond and Norfolk in the late 1930s. Then, in 1946, he saw a great opportunity to further grow the company as the U.S. experienced the biggest post-war economic boom the nation had ever seen. That’s when he decided to move the home office from Chase City, VA, up to the “big-city” state capital of Richmond. As a result, between 1944 and 1953, Estes Express Lines doubled in size with new terminals in Northern Virginia and Winchester, VA.

Earning the Right to Lead

In the midst of all this growth, W.W.’s oldest son, Robey W. Estes, Sr., joined the company full-time after coming home from World War II. Even though he was the son of the president, Robey did not “inherit” a leadership position. W.W. put him through his paces. Robey served as a driver, an office clerk, a shop foreman and a terminal manager before becoming the company’s
general manager.

In 1953, eight years after Robey had signed on with the company, W.W. suffered a severe heart attack. “The doctor pretty much told my granddad that he needed to get away from the stress of day-to-day trucking, and in fact he told him to head back to Chase City and stay on the farm,” said Rob. Thankfully, W.W. felt that Robey had learned enough about the business by then and was able to turn over the company’s active management to him right away. However, W.W. continued to consult with Robey on all major decisions, and saw the company through two acquisitions that more than doubled its network and revenue.

A Legacy of Integrity and Service

Rob remembers his grandfather as a very special man—a people person who inspired loyalty. “He hired good people, treated them well, worked beside them and mentored them. He didn’t demand respect, but he sure earned it.”

And as far as integrity was concerned, Rob noted that W.W. had plenty. “Before the age of lawyers and contracts—making sure all your i’s were dotted and your t’s were crossed—a handshake was all Granddad ever gave for an equipment order. And if he shook somebody’s hand agreeing to do something, and all of sudden that wasn’t a good thing for Estes any more, his word was still good and his handshake was his bond.”

As if being president of a trucking company and a farmer weren’t enough, W.W. was also active in community politics. He served on the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors for 16 years and on the board of directors for a nearby hospital in South Hill, Virginia. “He worked hard to make sure his community was a better place after he was gone,” said Rob.

Rob also fondly recalls that W.W. was exceedingly patient with his “rowdy” grandchildren. He had a gruff demeanor typical of men in his generation, but he was, nonetheless, tenderhearted and loved his family very much. He was happiest when everybody got together, and he especially enjoyed making all 14 of his grandchildren giggle and squeal in delight.

W. W. EstesEstes’ founder W.W. Estes actually figured so prominently in Virginia’s economic history that he was chosen by the Library of Virginia to be included in the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. (Volume 4 will be published in 2012.) died of complications from diabetes at a Richmond hospital in 1971. By the time of his death, the company had roughly 650 employees, a network that operated in three states and revenues of over $10 million—not bad for a 40–year old company started from scratch and a 74–year old man who started out as a humble farmer.