Watch Now

FreightWaves Classics: Estes has hauled freight for more than 90 years

Company's growth due to decades of service and hard work

An Estes truck and trailer roll onward. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Estes Express Lines is the largest privately owned freight shipping company in North America.

Estes has provided shipping solutions to its customers since its founding in 1931. Over the decades its leaders and employees have built a “robust transportation network, a reputation for dependability, and an award-winning safety record.”

Estes is an asset-based freight transportation and custom logistics solutions provider. Its fleet contains more than 7,000 tractors and 30,000 trailers; it also has a network of more than 260 terminals. 

According to its website Estes provides the following services:

  • Less Than Truckload (LTL) freight solutions to and from all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean
  • A standard network of nearly 7,000 next-day lanes and over 270-million next-day points
  • Comprehensive time-critical solutions, including time-date definite, guaranteed and expedited freight delivery
  • Asset-based and brokered volume LTL and Truckload shipping to regional, national, international and offshore destinations
  • Comprehensive freight forwarding options that provide shipping anywhere in the world
  • Residential and commercial non-dock delivery solutions to take freight the final mile
  • Custom shipping and logistics including dedicated delivery, flatbed, truckload, warehousing, supply chain management, pick and pack, and other special services
An Estes tractor pulls twin trailers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
An Estes tractor pulls twin trailers. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

An overview of the company’s history 

W.W. Estes was born in Burke County, North Carolina, in 1897. He attended grade school and then began to work for his father. Although this is quite different from what occurs today, it was not uncommon at that time, when less than 10% of the population continued school past the elementary grades. Estes began working for his father, who owned a farm, harvested timber and operated a sawmill.

While still living in North Carolina, Estes married Ruth Gladys Berry in 1919. They moved to a farm near Chase City, in southern Virginia, in 1920. In the years between 1921 and 1934, the Estes had six children (two sons and four daughters). The couple worked hard to support their growing family. In addition to managing the farm’s day-to-day operations, W.W. graded land for construction projects, and Gladys sold eggs and butter produced on the farm.

Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression began, decimating the economies of most of the world’s nations. In the United States the depression hurt almost everyone, but farmers were especially hard-hit, with many farm incomes decreasing by 50% or more as commodity prices collapsed. Most farmers were earning much less than they had in the mid-1920s. 

W.W. Estes' first truck, a used Chevrolet. (Photo: Estes)
W.W. Estes’ first truck, a used Chevrolet. (Photo: Estes)

In 1931, Estes sought additional sources of income to support his family. He bought a used Chevrolet truck to haul livestock to market for his rural Virginia neighbors. Fairly quickly he was also hauling farm supplies and other goods between farms, small towns and bigger cities in the area. He hired his first driver in 1932, and he opened an office in Chase City, Virginia, in 1933. 

By 1937, he’d hired at least one more driver. That’s also the year he officially named the company Estes Express Lines.

The 1935 Motor Trucking Act brought the industry under the regulatory control of the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which meant that many existing routes were grandfathered, but that new routes had to be approved by the ICC.

Despite the continuing depression and the regulatory burdens imposed by the ICC, Estes steadily expanded operations with new terminals – first in Richmond and then Norfolk in the late 1930s. 

After World War II, Estes saw an opportunity to grow the company significantly during the post-war economic boom. He moved the company’s office to the state capital of Richmond. In the decade between 1944 and 1953, Estes Express Lines doubled its size and added new terminals in Winchester and northern Virginia.

An Estes tractor and trailer in 1946. (Photo: Estes)
An Estes tractor and trailer in 1946. (Photo: Estes)

During this growth period, W.W.’s oldest son, Robey W. Estes, Sr., became a full-time company employee after returning from his World War II service. He worked as a driver, an office clerk, a shop foreman and a terminal manager before becoming the company’s general manager.

Unfortunately, W.W. Estes had a severe heart attack in 1953. According to Rob Estes, “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.” W.W. turned over the active management of the company to his son, although he continued to consult with Robey on key decisions, including two acquisitions that more than doubled the company’s network and revenue.

Rob Estes remembers his grandfather W.W. as a very special man, and one 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.”

In addition to serving as the president of the trucking company he founded and farming the land he owned, W.W. was also active in community service. For 16 years he served on the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors, as well as serving on the board of directors for a hospital in South Hill, Virginia. 

W.W. Estes died in 1971. At his death, Estes Express Lines had approximately 650 employees, a three-state network and generated over $10 million in revenue. 

The company that W.W. Estes founded in 1931 now employs more than 20,000 people, including more than 9,500 drivers. 

An Estes cab-over-engine tractor pulls a company trailer in 1976. (Photo: Estes)
An Estes cab-over-engine tractor pulls a company trailer in 1976.
(Photo: Estes)

Company recognition

Among the various recognitions that the company has received in the recent past are:

  • Estes received a 2021 LTL Carrier of the Year Award from Coyote Logistics, a leading global third-party logistics provider.
  • Estes received the 2021 LTL Carrier of the Year Award from The Home Depot, the world’s largest home improvement retailer.
  • Estes was named a 2021 LTL Carrier of the Year by Logistics Plus, Inc.
  • Estes was ranked on Forbes’ Top 500 Large Employers List for the third time.
  • FreightWaves ranked Estes the 12th largest for-hire carrier in the nation by fleet size.
  • Estes received Penske Logistics’ National LTL Carrier Award.
  • Estes was named a Top 100 Trucking Company by Inbound Logistics.
Estes twin trailers with a mesa in the background. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Estes twin trailers with a mesa in the background. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Estes divisions 

  • Estes Time-Critical Services offers guaranteed and time-sensitive service for maximum shipping flexibility.
  • Estes Logistics creates B2B and B2C shipping solutions.
  • Estes Specialized Truckload and Delivery Services allow customers to develop regular pickup/ delivery solutions for retail, store-to-door and contract deliveries.
  • Estes SureMove is a reliable, lower-cost option for DIY household goods moving.

Estes companies

  • Estes Forwarding Worldwide LLC (EFW) offers innovative and secure solutions to customers and the industry.
  • Estes Leasing LLC provides cost-effective alternatives to equipment financing and maintenance.
  • Big E Transportation provides nationwide logistics and dedicated fleet services for retail replenishment, home delivery and final mile.
An Estes tractor and twin trailers pass a stand of trees. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
An Estes tractor and twin trailers pass a stand of trees. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Heritage and the company today

The one-man/one-truck company that W.W. Estes began during the Depression has grown into the fifth-largest LTL company and the largest privately held freight carrier in the nation.

Today, Estes has an extensive network of air, ocean and ground services; the company can ship to virtually any destination in the world. 

The company is debt-free and financially stable. It has won multiple awards for safety, responsiveness and exceptional customer service.

That is a legacy that W.W. Estes would be very proud of.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.