Top Workplaces: Estes Express wins first place for mega company

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As the largest privately held freight carrier in the nation — and with more than 1,000 Richmond-area employees — Estes Express Lines relies on its team members to play a key role in the company’s success, especially in showing determination when the going gets rough, as they did last fall, when the company suffered a cyberattack.

“When you have to go back to paper, that’s a gritty thing,” said President and COO Webb Estes, a fourth-generation founding family member. “We believe in getting our hands dirty, finding solutions when there doesn’t seem to be one.”

Members of Team Estes help to pack the playroom of Children’s Hospital of Richmond Children’s Tower with toys.

Estes Express drivers are also front and center. “Our employees interact with our customers a lot,” Estes noted. “In many companies, it’s a smaller subset of employees who have customer-facing roles. But our drivers are the ones who go and pick up the freight and deliver it. Our primary goal is to have happy employees because that creates happy customers.”

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That happiness is evident in steady improvement in employee retention since the Great Resignation of 2022, when the company’s turnover rate spiked to 18.7% — still considerably lower than the overall industry rate, which can be as high as 80% a year, depending on the task, Estes noted. In 2023, the rate dropped to 13.5%. This year, the rate is on track to be just over 11%. “That’s significantly better than the industry overall and something we’re proud of,” he said.

Estes attributes low turnover to a higher pay scale offered by most trucking companies as well as quality of life. Estes Express handles “less-than-truckload” deliveries, in which a driver makes multiple stops to fill a truck, returns to a central location where the shipments are unloaded and sorted into new groupings, and then sent out for delivery. As a result, “95% of our drivers are home every day,” Estes said.

Estes Express Lines won first place for a large company.

Business growth is also a plus. “We strongly believe that healthy companies are growing companies, because that creates opportunities for your people,” he said. “It’s great to feel secure, have opportunities within the company and take pride in the company’s progress.”

In terms of benefits, Estes Express increased its 401K match to 50% up to 8% of an employee’s contribution. For employees who have been with the company for 10 years or more, the match increases to 50% up to 10% employee contribution. Health care premiums have been held flat for the last five years, and employees of a year or more can obtain interest-free loans of up to $1,000, a program begun in 2020. Payback begins after eight weeks with paycheck deductions spaced over 50 weeks. All first-time borrowers also take a financial literacy course. “We’re a debt-free company, and we want to offer this service because we have the funds and know that payday loans and carrying credit card debt isn’t good,” Estes said.

Webb Estes, president and COO, of Estes Express Lines, a third-generation founding family member.

And in November 2023, the company brought back its subsidized cafeteria at the Richmond headquarters. “I’ve been told by employees they can get lunch (here) for a lower cost than going to the grocery store and buying lunch,” Estes said. “Eating together is part of (building) community. You’re not in a meeting room, but a place where you can eat and laugh and be loud.”

Estes notes that outsiders might regard the trucking industry as dirty, but Estes Express recently won an industry award recognizing its move toward electric vehicles and forklifts, installation of solar panels on its buildings and natural gas trucks in California and Texas.

“Our latest (internal) survey showed that more than half of our employees were interested in sustainability goals,” he said. “We hope our employees have pride that they work for a company that is looking for ways to improve our world.”

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