How four big trucking companies got their start in little Plain City

Sunday , July 02, 2017 - 5:15 AM

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Chester Rodney England was a Plain City farmer who, in 1920, started his own trucking company. From those humble beginnings, four major trucking companies can trace their roots back to the tiny Weber County town.

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

PLAIN CITY — Despite the prominent use of the word “plain” in its name, this place has one very extraordinary thing going for it.

The tiny city with the rather dull-sounding name is the unofficial trucking capital of the world.

Don’t believe it? Consider this: Four well-known trucking firms — C.R. England, Swift Transportation, Knight Transportation, and Pride Transport — trace their roots directly back to little old Plain City, Utah. 

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Dan England is chairman of West Valley City-based C.R. England, the trucking company that started it all back in 1920. Dan England says he’s been around the industry all of his life and has never seen anything quite like this Plain City connection.

“At least not anywhere near on the scale of this,” he said. “I think it’s unique not only to have the number and size of these companies that have their roots in Plain City, but that we’ve always been such friendly competitors. We have that lasting relationship.”

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Indeed, that friendliness shows in the current merger between Swift Transportation and Knight Transportation. In April, the two companies with a shared history announced a merger to create Knight-Swift Transportation, a trucking giant worth an estimated $5 billion. The merger is expected to become final in the next few months, and the new mega-company will boast about 23,000 tractors, 77,000 trailers and 28,000 employees, according to a recent Forbes story. Its headquarters will remain in Phoenix, Arizona, where the two businesses have been based.

The merger has the blessing of both Swift founder Jerry Moyes and Knight principals Kevin and Gary Knight.

Story continues below timeline. 

‘Piece of work’

Although none of the four companies are currently based in Plain City, all trace their genealogy back to Chester Rodney England, a Plain City farmer who in 1920 figured there had to be an easier way to make a living. That year, he bought his first Model T Ford truck and began providing farm-to-market service for farmers in Weber and Cache counties, and was soon hauling milk for the Weber Dairy. C.R. and his sons, Bill and Gene, built C.R. England into a company that today has a fleet of nearly 4,000 trucks.

Dan England remembers his grandfather well.

“He was a piece of work, old Chester,” Dan England laughs. “First of all, he was a real personable guy, and made friends anywhere he went.”

To illustrate: In 1969, when Dan England finished an LDS mission in Europe, his parents, grandparents and other family members traveled to Europe to meet him. At one point, they all ended up watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony at London’s Buckingham Palace. Everyone but Chester.

“As usual, he was sitting over on a park bench, talking somebody’s ear off, telling them about Plain City, and the family, and the company,” Dan England recalls. “He was missing the Changing of the Guard, and I rushed over to him and said, ‘Grandad, c’mon, you’ve got to come see this.’ He looked up and told me, ‘Hell, we have better parades than that in Plain City.’”

Dan England says that’s just the way his grandfather was. It was more important for Chester to sit and chat with somebody than to watch a 500-year-old ceremony.

In the 1950s, Chester England left the trucking business to his sons and moved on to build a lumber yard in Plain City. But the trucking legacy in that sleepy town was just getting started.

Diesel and sleeper cabs

Enter Carl Moyes, who had driven a truck for C.R. England in his younger days. In the late 1950s, Carl and his wife Betty started B&C Truck Leasing in Plain City. Then, in 1966, when son Jerry graduated from what was then Weber State College, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and formed the company that would eventually become Swift Transportation.

Jerry Moyes had his own theory as to why Plain City was such an epicenter of trucking. In 2005, he told the Standard-Examiner: “I like to say there was diesel in the water, and we were conceived in a sleeper cab.”

As if two trucking companies from Plain City weren’t enough, in 1979 Jeff England — Gene England’s oldest son — left C.R. England to start Pride Transport, now based in West Valley City. Although the rest of the family though he was crazy, Jeff England says he simply got a wild hair to own his own trucking company.

“I’ve always been a truck nut through the years, and in 1976, I bought one truck while still working for my dad,” he said. “One truck wasn’t enough, so a year later I wanted another one, and a year later another one.”

By 1979, Jeff England had four trucks and had gone out on his own with Pride.

Today, at 76, Jeff England is semi-retired. He sold the business to his son but says he still likes to get behind the wheel of a truck.

“I am still actively driving,” he said. “I love it, that’s what I like to do.”

Typically, Jeff England will jump in a truck and make a run to Los Angeles, Phoenix or Denver — a two- or three-day route. He does that a couple of times a month.

“I’m hoping to be able to do it until I can’t anymore,” he said. “My dad did it until he was 90 … so I’m hoping maybe I’ve got a few years left.”

Good Knight

In 1990, brothers Kevin and Keith Knight, and cousins Randy and Gary Knight, gave the world a fourth trucking company with ties to Plain City when they left Swift to start Knight Transportation. All four men had grown up in Plain City and got their start working for the Moyes family’s Swift Transportation. The Knights also happened to be related to Maude Knight, who married Chester England in 1916.

Knight Transportation started with five trucks, and by the time the company went public four years later, they had between 250 and 300 trucks. Today, the company operates a fleet of almost 5,000 vehicles.

Kevin Knight, who spent 25 years as CEO of Knight Transportation and is currently executive chairman of the company, says he and the other Knight boys loved their jobs at Swift, learned a lot and were well-treated. But they simply wanted to go out on their own.

Kevin Knight admits when he and the others left Swift in 1990 to start their own company, it created “a different feel for awhile.”

“But after a year or two any feelings that weren’t good just went away,” he said. “We’ve been able to work through that, and here we are today, working to merge with Swift and bring the Moyes and Knight families back together.”

The Knight family had long talked about getting back together with Swift, but no one ever thought it was a possibility.

“They’re four times the size we are,” Kevin Knight. “Swift is the largest truckload carrier by a significant amount, and we didn’t ever think it could happen.”

But they approached Swift and the Moyes family, “and I’ll be danged if we didn’t get ’er done,” he said.

Full circle?

Could the four trucking companies come full circle one day and join together? Jeff England says he could imagine Knight-Swift adding Pride back into the family, but doesn’t know about C.R. England. 

“It might be a stretch to consider England involved in that because of their size,” he said. “But it wouldn’t be highly unlikely that they could pick us up.”

Longtime Plain City resident Dorothy Cook, who along with husband Lyman edited “History of Plain City” back in 1979, says the big truck companies haven’t forgotten their roots.

“When we have our Fourth of July parade, a lot of times they’ll come and bring their trucks and be in the parade,” Cook said. “The Knights and Moyes and Englands are very generous to the city.”

Kevin Knight jokes that there’s an old saying that you stay close to your customer, and even closer to your competitor. He says truckers understand how tough the business is, and as a result they have a tremendous amount of respect for each other.

“There’s just something kindred about all of us truckload guys,” he said. “It even goes beyond the guys from Plain City.”

Jeff England suspects that mutual respect may also have something to do with the fact the trucking industry is so vital to the country.

“If the trucks shut down, our store shelves would be empty in about three days,” he said. “That shows us that everything you and I have was on a truck at some point.”

Kevin Knight said he loved growing up in Plain City — “It was a great community then, and it’s a great community now.” And he thinks it was this community that spawned all of the truckers today.

“Everybody was connected to a farm in some way, so you always had an opportunity to work,” he said. “And you’ve got to enjoy working if you’re in the trucking business. That’s just kind of how we all grew up. If you think about the England family and their success, and then the Moyes family and their success, and then the Knight family, it’s just like we all kind of learned it and developed it together.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.