Lee Way Motor Freight was founded by Robert “Whitt” Lee in 1934. He had gone into business for himself in 1914 with a horse and buggy but created the trucking company in 1934 when he moved its location to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. By 1938, Lee Way Motor Freight covered lanes from Oklahoma City to the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico.
The U.S. Congress granted the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) the authority to regulate the trucking industry in 1935 with the passage of the Motor Carrier Act. Under the ICC, carriers’ were generally limited to existing routes; the easiest way to expand was to acquire another carrier and its operating authority for its routes.
Lee Way grew quickly, adding drivers and equipment. As it grew, the company also developed a reputation for safety, and in 1943, Lee Way Motor Freight received the American Trucking Association’s Safety Award for the best safety record for Class 5 common carriers operating 1.5 to 3 million miles annually.
World War II and post-war growth
In 1944 and 1945, Lee Way was one of 103 carriers in the area whose authority was taken over by the government to assist with the war effort. After the company’s authority was returned, its management’s focus returned to quality service and expansion. By 1947, the company had grown to 225 pieces of equipment and had added routes in Kansas and Missouri to its routing guide. That year, the company also purchased the operating rights of Sooner Freight Lines, expanding its operating authority and adding to its available equipment.
Growth continues during the 1950s and 1960s
In 1957, 10 years after this acquisition, 100 of the company’s drivers were again honored for their commitment to safety. By this time, Lee Way Motor Freight had also outgrown its terminal, and moved to a larger facility that was built following the completion of the interstate. In 1959, the company expanded its reach further by offering service to Colorado.
When Lee Way Motor Freight completed its acquisition of Summit Fast Freight, the company added several routes in Illinois, Ohio, western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. During this time, the company was sometimes referred to as Lee Way-Sooner Freight Lines, and by others just as Lee Way.
By 1961, the company had grown to 1,700 pieces of equipment and nearly as many employees. That year, Lee Way also acquired Illinois-California Express, which was based in Denver. This acquisition made Lee Way the sixth-largest motor carrier in the United States. Following this acquisition, Lee Way had terminals in 14 states and offered service directly from Pennsylvania to California and over 20,000 route miles.
In 1965, the company purchased Texas-Arizona Motor Freight and its operating authority. By 1966, the company had grown to 32 terminals. However, a strike by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters shut down several of these terminals for weeks that year. The company was able to recoup its financial losses thanks to rate increases that year. Lee Way experienced substantial financial success during 1967 and 1968. It also purchased another company, Pacific Transportation Express Inc., in 1968, and expanded routes into the San Francisco Bay area of California.
Issues arise during the 1970s
In 1971, another acquisition – Atlanta-based Theater Services, Inc. – gave the company access to critical southeastern markets. However, it was not all good news for Lee Way Motor Freight. The previous year, another Teamsters’ strike had cost the company a total 568 working days across all terminals, severely damaging Lee Way’s net profits. In 1973, a judge found the company guilty of racially discriminatory hiring practices as well.
Despite the financial difficulties of the early 1970s, Lee Way Motor Freight reported record revenues of $115 million in 1975. That year, Lee’s sons, who now ran the company, decided to sell the firm to PepsiCo for $50 million. PepsiCo had been expanding its transportation division for a few years. The acquisition was finalized in 1976.
No fizz under PepsiCo
PepsiCo did not own the company for the long-term, however. While under PepsiCo, Lee Way had started to falter. Between 1979 and 1983, the company lost $75 million as trucking deregulation changed the industry very quickly.
PepsiCo decided to exit the truckload industry altogether, and sold Lee Way Motor Freight to Commercial Lovelace Motor Freight. Commercial Lovelace Motor Freight was another ailing giant, and had suffered substantial losses since deregulation, sometimes reporting a loss of as much as $1 million per month. After purchasing Lee Way, Commercial Lovelace management closed 27 terminals and 60% of the 2,500 workers were laid off.
Commercial Lovelace pulls the plug
Even with these extraordinary measures, Lee Way was unable to recover from losses incurred following deregulation. By the end of 1984, Commercial Lovelace elected to close Lee Way. At the time it was shut down, Lee Way had expanded to 5,000 employees at 100 depots in 25 states. The following year, Commercial Lovelace Motor Freight declared bankruptcy.
It was a sad end to a company that had grown and prospered for more than 50 years.