A Family-Owned Firm Marks Over 70 Years in Business
Lester R. Summers, Inc.
Lester R. Summers, Inc. (Summers Trucking) of Ephrata, Pennsylvania has hauled everything from giant NASA telescopes to prestressed concrete products, machinery, modular buildings, commercial windows, lumber and construction materials. The premier oversize precast concrete hauler in the northeastern United States is a family-owned operation that was founded just after World War II.
Ephrata is the company’s “only branch right now. [Expansion] has been a point of conversation for last two or three years. We just had the two best years in our company history, and we realize to be able to go to the next level, we need to look at a second or third terminal,” says John Summers, vice president of customer solutions.
At present, most of the clients with which Summers Trucking works are based in its home state, with Virginia being the firm’s “second biggest state, as far as customers,” states Summers. Hauling oversized, over-dimensional freight is a company specialty. The firm has a big niche transporting commercial windows and counts parking garages and bridges as key sectors it serves, he adds.
The company was founded in 1946 by John Summers’ grandparents Lester and Dorothy Summers. “The early focus was on dump truck hauling [materials such as] sand and stone. Freight you could fit on a regular trailer,” says Summers.
During the mid-1960s, the company began transporting precast concrete products, eventually becoming the preeminent precast hauler it is today. At that time, John’s father J. Harold Summers began working for the company. Harold and his brother Lester Summers Jr. eventually took over the business in 1977. Along the way, the firm grew, particularly after Harold Summers “saw an opportunity to expand into doing over-dimensional, oversized loads,” reports his son.
In 2008, ownership passed to a new generation, comprised of John, his sister Rebecca Summers and Ken Summers, son of Lester Summers Jr. Rebecca is now president while Ken is director of operations.
Harold Summers also started a tradition of company involvement in industry associations. The firm currently belongs to several industry associations including the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA—which Harold chaired at one point) and the American Trucking Association (ATA), among others. Being involved in such groups has helped the company raise its profile, keep abreast of industry trends and give voice to issues of concern to the sector, such as infrastructure spending and driver regulations, says Summers. In 2014, Rebecca Summers served as chair of the PMTA board and was the first woman to occupy that position.
Lester R. Summers’ vast fleet of nearly five hundred specialty trailers and roughly seventy-five company tractors gives the firm a competitive edge. “It’s something that separates us from our competitors. We’re able to put twenty-plus trailers out at a customer’s site,” states Summers.
Clients do not feel rushed to load the trucks, unlike firms with smaller fleets who “pull in and want you to load them immediately,” he explains.
Summers Trucking owns one hundred percent of its fleet. “We have never gotten into leasing equipment. We want to have control of [our trucks] and not worry about someone else dictating terms,” says Summers. “We also specify our equipment to match our customer’s needs.”
These vehicles are equipped with global positioning systems (GPS) and electronic onboard recorders (EOBR). The company installed the recorders three years ago – ahead of mandatory federal regulations. It was decided that EOBRs were a safer way to record work hours and distances traveled than having drivers enter such details in logbooks and mileage sheets while behind the wheel, says Summers.
In addition to boosting record-keeping accuracy and driver safety, EOBRs have made it easier to track vehicles on the road. “Our dispatcher might be managing seventy to eighty trucks. Instead of having to call them and find out where they’re at, we have a big-screen TV in our dispatch office where we can see [where they are]. It updates every minute. We can see where the driver is at, so we don’t have to bother them during the day for routine check-ins,” says Summers.
As well as its own trucks, Lester R. Summers can tap into a pool of over fifty other hauling companies in a pinch if volumes become too great. At present, the firm has ninety-two employees, up from eighty-seven last year at this time.
A safety focus is “probably the number one hiring criteria for our drivers… We have two fill-time safety directors and a full staff of mechanics. They keep trucks running and up to code. We can’t afford to cut corners in any way,” says Summers. Summers Trucking has, in fact, won several awards for its safety record, from the American Trucking Associations, Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association and others.
The company wants workers who are more than safety-minded. They should have “the initiative to do things without having someone overseeing them. We are fairly lean in our overhead. We need employees that are able to take responsibility to do their job without a lot of oversight,” he adds.
Lester R. Summers offers employees medical, vision and dental coverage, paid holidays, paid vacations, 401K plans, profit sharing and more. The company pays drivers hourly wages and grants overtime pay past eight hours.
“A lot of trucking companies will pay a fixed rate for the load you’re hauling. What happens then, sometimes you almost are telling the driver, the faster you get this done, you’ll be better off. We don’t want to send that message. We want to make sure the drivers are delivering in a safe manner. If it takes them longer to secure a load, longer to get through traffic, longer to do the right things [that’s fine],” says Summers.
Given its long history and expertise with oversized loads, it is no surprise Lester R. Summers Trucking has undertaken several memorable assignments. The firm recently transported parts for NASA’s giant James Webb Space Telescope. An entire tractor and trailer, hauling the telescope parts in a specially-designed shipping container, was eased into a plane at a NASA facility in Houston and then flown to Los Angeles. After landing, the truck was unloaded and drove its unique oversized cargo to a Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facility in Redondo Beach, California. The company has also delivered commercial windows for Manhattan skyscrapers and precast concrete for facilities at the Statute of Liberty, and it is the sole hauler for Pennsylvania’s P3 bridge project, the largest bridge upgrade in the history of the United States.
Lester R. Summers, Inc. is facing some industry-wide challenges, including a driver shortage. Not enough young people are entering the profession. This situation is not helped by regulations that stipulate that truckers can start driving in some states at eighteen but need to be twenty-one to cross state lines. Congestion, made worse by crumbling infrastructure, is another huge issue.
“Ten percent of bridges are structurally obsolete, and congestion of the National Highway System alone cost the trucking industry more than $63 billion in 2015 and wasted nearly one billion hours, equivalent to more than 362,000 drivers sitting idle for a full working year,” reads a recent paper from the American Trucking Associations.
Adding to the sense of urgency is the fact an improved economy has meant big opportunities for trucking firms. The recession which struck around 2008 to 2009 has largely lifted, and “right now there’s more work out there than I’ve seen in the past decade,” reports Summers.
While the company has a website and does some social media, it does not take part in trade shows or buy ad space on billboards to promote itself. “Our biggest promotional tactic is word-of-mouth from satisfied customers,” states Summers.
Being involved in trade associations also keeps the company’s name front and center. Lester R. Summers Trucking is also very active in community causes in Ephrata from the food bank and blood drives to the Make-A-Wish organization and foundations to help medical patients. The company is not trying to promote itself through this involvement but wants to give something back to its hometown.
“We live here; our employees live here; our employees’ children go to school here. We want to create a vibrant community. We’re helping people out because we have the financial ability to do that, and it creates a better environment for employees and families,” explains Summers.
In five years, he anticipates the firm will have a second or even a third terminal on the east coast and will have expanded its geographic reach. He wants to remain focused on the company’s fundamental abilities and has no intention of offering a slew of new services.
“I don’t want to be a standard hauler, where I’m going to haul anything for anybody. I want to concentrate on what we do best,” states Summers.
The future is bright; expect Summers Trucking to continue trucking along for many years to come as “we have nearly one hundred people and their families counting on us for employment and we have many loyal customers. We plan to be around,” he adds.