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FreightWaves Haul of Fame: Watkins Motor Lines grew for decades

...and then sold a major piece of the company to FedEx

Bill Watkins founded Watkins Trucking in 1932 when he purchased the first Watkin’s truck – a red three-quarter ton Dodge pick-up. Watkins purchased the truck using $300 that he had earned working on his family’s farm in Metcalf, Georgia. The very first run Watkin’s made was to Jacksonville, Florida hauling his own chickens. He then completed his first long-haul with service to Norfolk, Virginia.

The company grows bigger

Watkins grew the company by buying, selling and hauling produce, peanuts, pecans, cottonseed meal, hay and corn as a private exempt carrier. Before long, he had grown his fleet to six trucks, operating from the Thomasville, Georgia Farmers’ Market as the company’s base of operations. In those days, the company used the name Watkins Produce Company. 

By 1950, Watkins realized he would need to set up a business that required operating authorities, and Watkins Motor Lines was born. The company petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for the authority to haul frozen citrus concentrates. Watkins Motor Lines was a refrigerated carrier. 

A Watkins cab-over tractor and two of the company's dry vans. (Photo: Gary Morton Collection)
A Watkins cab-over tractor and two of the company’s dry vans. (Photo: Gary Morton Collection)

In 1959, Watkins formed a new subsidiary. Arctic Express Inc embarked on its inaugural trip to Alaska from Minneapolis in December of that year. The founding of this subsidiary expanded Watkins Motor Lines’ reach from Laredo, Texas to Kenai, Alaska, the longest distance in the United States. In 1963, the company’s holdings expanded further when it acquired Highway Transport, Inc., a petroleum and bulk carrier based in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

A trucking empire

By 1971, Watkins was operating routes across the continental United States  By 1981, Watkins Motor Lines was primarily a less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier. The company operated under parent company Watkins Associated Industries Inc., which also had businesses involved in construction and seafood processing.

In the 1980s, Watkins Motor Lines management decided to spin off its truckload and refrigerated segments into a new company under Watkins Associated Industries. This new company was christened Land Span. In 1997, it acquired Sunco Carriers, Inc., whose business was in refrigerated truckload. The refrigerated business of Land Span was rolled into Sunco’s operations. Land Span’s dry van business continues today, unaffiliated with Watkins. 

By 1997, Watkins Motor Lines accounted for approximately 75% of the revenue for the family of companies and it had grown to over 8,000 employees. In 1999, Watkins Motor Lines was the nation’s ninth largest LTL carrier of general commodities. 

A Watkins patch (Dale Bridge collection)
A Watkins patch (Dale Bridge collection)

Growing into a new century

By 2000, Watkins Motor Lines had 130 terminals. The company continued to grow through the early 2000s, establishing a regional overnight LTL delivery component called Watkins Regional Express. Following this, regional hubs were opened in Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia and where it all started, Thomasville, Georgia. 

Breaking up the company

In 2006, Watkins sold the assets and the LTL business to FedEx in a $780 million cash transaction. Land Span was sold to Celadon in 2012. Now, Watkins Refrigerated, all that is left of the LTL enterprise of the past, provides service to regional and interregional markets in the eastern United States.

In December 2016, Lakeland, Florida-based Sunco Carriers, which did business as Watkins Refrigerated, was acquired by private equity firm KJM Capital. Watkins Refrigerated operated primarily in the Southeast with a fleet of more than 200 tractors and 400 reefer trailers.

A Land Span tractor-trailer on the highway. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
A Land Span tractor-trailer on the highway. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

A sad ending

Watkins Refrigerated LLC filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 27, 2019, in the Middle District of Florida. That marked the end of a company that had lasted nearly 90 years and had seen many “ups” and a few “downs.”

A Watkins patch that highlights its refrigerated business. (Patch from the Dale Bridge Collection)
A Watkins patch that highlights its refrigerated business.
(Patch from the Dale Bridge Collection)

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes Arctic Express (No. ), FedEx (No. 1) and Highway Transport (No. 219).

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.