The Corridor’s largest privately held companies: CRST International Inc.

Team CRST Celebrates Driver Appreciation Week 2022
Team CRST celebrates Driver Appreciation Week 2022. CREDIT CRST

Coordinating shippers’ needs with its drivers’ career preferences is crucial to maintaining CRST International Inc.’s status as one of the nation’s largest privately-held transportation companies.

“What we’ve really worked on this past couple of years is working with our customers to go after what we know drivers are more attracted to,” said Jenny Abernathy, CRST’s chief people officer. “We sought out things that really resonate with our drivers.”

Besides salary, that means such quality-of-life issues as flexibility in route assignments, schedules, and cargo. 

“Our goal and hope is that when a driver comes to CRST they’re here for their career,” Ms. Abernathy said. “For the past couple of years that’s become more challenging.”

Started in 1955 as Cedar Rapids Steel Transport, today’s CRST employs 6,200 people nationwide and another 2,000 independent contractors, according to Ms. Abernathy. About 4,000 are drivers.

While CRST offers career paths out of the cab, most drivers want to stay behind the wheel, Ms. Abernathy said. “We’re large enough that we can provide drivers in a lot of markets with multiple options” to keep them there, she said.

“If they want to be a peer mentor, that would be a step,” she said. “You may decide ‘I don’t want to be an employee driver, I want to be an independent contractor and buy my own truck,’ and we’ll help with that.”

Drivers may also focus on the type of specialized, high-value services such as refrigerated or flatbed cargoes that bring higher pay.

“There’s a special skill set if you’re going to haul $5 million loads,” Ms. Abernathy said. 

Fortunately, CRST’s Dedicated Services, longer-term contracts designed around shipper and receiver needs, are growing. Those services can make it easier to match drivers to routes and schedules they want.

“You kind of cater your service to (customer) needs,” Ms. Abernathy said. “You may have specialized equipment or a specialized driver. You really work closer with that customer to solve their special need.”

CRST’s acquisition of NAL Group in early 2020 proved especially fortuitous. Formerly North American Logistics, NAL specializes in last-mile deliveries, including to residential addresses – a market segment that boomed with consumers’ COVID and post-pandemic online shopping habits.

“NAL was a great acquisition for us, really aligned to where we want to go,” Ms. Abernathy said. “That final-mile experience is what we’re really looking for.”

NAL brings new options to CRST’s offerings to both customers and employees.

“They’re top-notch in the industry,” Ms. Abernathy said. “They came with that skill set, so we were lucky to have them.”

 CRST’s size  and employee options helped it weather the pandemic-induced workforce crunch that hit transportation and other industries, Ms. Abernathy said.

“Mid-2021, early 2022 it was really competitive,” she said. “We had to work through that tactically, to find drivers and bring them into CRST. We’ve certainly been able to keep our trucks full and find drivers.”

Much of that credit is due to CRST’s support staff in Cedar Rapids.

“We have more than driver opportunities, especially in the Corridor,” Ms. Abernathy said. “Some people think of us as just drivers, but there are a lot of great career paths.”

“That’s been a big focus of CRST, to make sure we’re an employer of choice,” said Anne Rierson, the firm’s director of enterprise marketing and communications. “There’s opportunities in so many specialties under one roof – finance, HR, customer service. It provides a nice career opportunity for people. We’ve got all that at CRST, and we’ve got all that in Cedar Rapids.”

CRST International Inc. details:

2022 Revenue: $2 B

Established: 1953

Top Executive: Hugh Ekberg, President & CEO

This article was originally published in the CBJ’s Largest Privately Held Companies magazine.

In 2023, this magazine celebrated its tenth anniversary, after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic. It featured a look back through the last decade and a glimpse into the future of the Corridor’s biggest, and most impactful, companies. Through in-depth interviews and people-focussed articles, the magazine explored how these industry titans have supported and inspired their communities through hardship and prosperity, and how they plan to continue their involvement for years to come.