Trucks in the Tundra
Alaska’s multi-generational, family-owned transportation companies
By Tasha Anderson
Air Land Transport, founded in 1976 by John H. Snead, is owned and operated by the Snead family. From left to right, John G. Snead, owner; Monique Snead, president and owner; and Johnclaude Snead, general manager.
Photo by Saadia Snead
Alaska is all about transportation. It’s a factor in every potential resource development project; it’s a key component of building safe, functional communities; it’s the means by which Alaskan’s have access to oranges, candy canes, and Christmas trees. As Alaska’s industries advance and innovate new programs and techniques, the transportation industry has matured to transport all the materials those programs and techniques require.
Fortunately for Alaskans, many of the transportation companies servicing the state are home-grown: Carlile, now a member of the Saltchuk family of companies, was founded in 1980 in Alaska with two tractors. Lynden was established in Alaska in 1954 and has grown a multi-modal transportation organization comprised of more than fifteen companies.
Sourdough Express and Sourdough Transfer
While Lynden and Carlile both have extensive histories and a significant presence in Alaska, there are few companies—in any industry—that can boast a longer history in the Last Frontier than Sourdough, which was established in 1898 and continues to this day, under the same name, to be family-owned and -operated. Sourdough operates two main lines: Sourdough Express primarily deals in freight (including bulk freight, less-than-truckload (LTL), temperature control, and trans-loading) while Sourdough Transport provides moving and storage services. The company has offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Bob Ellis started Sourdough in 1898 using dogsleds in the winter and horse-drawn wagons in the summer to move prospectors’ gear to mining camps. Today, the company employs 130 full-time workers, operates 75 power units, and about 250 trailer units, according to Jeff Gregory, president of Sourdough Express and Sourdough Transfer. Gregory shares ownership of the company with his sisters: Debra Norm, vice president of finance, and Karen Conover, vice president of the moving and storage division. The company states, “In the last twenty years, the Sourdough companies have seen continuous, controlled growth. This is due to the dedication, loyalty, and hard work of each and every employee.”
Gregory says he officially started working at the company in 1975 when he was fourteen years old doing “anything they wanted me to do: shovel snow, shovel coal, clean floors, wash trucks. The yard boy was my title.” As he grew up, “I did about every position you can think of—mover, expediter, truck driver, mechanic.” Gregory was the one who moved to Anchorage in 1987 to open the company’s first terminal. In 1994 he moved back to Fairbanks and persuaded his two sisters to join him purchasing the businesses, which took place over about five years starting in 1995. He says that what he enjoys most about his position is “watching people succeed, watching people grow, [and] seeing a lot of employee and customer relationships evolve into life-long relationships.”
Gregory and his sisters mark the fourth generation in his family to run and operate Sourdough, and a fifth generation is already working in the family business; Gregory’s son Josh has worked at the company on and off since he was fourteen, “consistently for the last ten years,” Gregory says. Josh’s tenth anniversary at the company took place in November, and he’s currently the vice president of Sourdough Express and Sourdough Transfers operations.
Sourdough’s long history in Alaska has given them a front-row seat to much of the state’s growth. “We’ve been here a long time, and we’re one of a handful of companies that built the trans-Alaska pipeline that are still owned and operated by the same family and under the same name,” he says. The company also managed to pull through the oil price crash in the 1980s; however, he says the most recent crash was difficult to weather. “Alaska’s economy and the price of oil significantly reduced capital spending on the North Slope and reduced the amount of projects out there. We’re an asset-based company that had just gone through years of growth, so we saw a drastic reduction in revenue,” explains Gregory. For the last three years the company shrunk. “It’s been a challenging task, but we’ve been successful [at right-sizing] and we think it’s hit the bottom and we’ll start to see investment on the North Slope is returning. We think we’ve survived another downturn.”
One particular bright spot the company sees is an increase in military-related activity in the interior, including increasing activity to host two F-35 Lightning II squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base. “Alaska is a significant place for the military and Department of Defense,” and Sourdough Transfer caters its services to military families, Gregory says. He explains Sourdough Express has already seen an uptick in moving freight for the military for projects at Clear Air Force Base and Fort Greely.
Sourdough has been moving freight and families for the military for fifty years; both Sourdough Transport and Sourdough Express were tapped by the military to move goods and equipment for the 176th Wing of the Alaska Air National Guard to Elmendorf Air Force Base from Kulis Air National Guard Base in 2011.
“It took several months,” Gregory explains. “We moved the whole base, building after building, following their timeline.” In addition to furniture and household goods moved by Sourdough Transport, Sourdough Express transported the planes, some of which were placed on flatbeds while others were towed behind trucks, primarily at night and occasionally with police escort. “It was unique, seeing that pass through town.”
The company states that Sourdough has a simple vision, which is to be the best transportation company in Alaska. “We’re proud that we are still here, and we’re proud that we’re here for the long term and that we’re truly Alaskan,” Gregory says.
Air Land Transport
Air Land Transport was founded in 1976 by brothers John and Jim Snead and has been family-owned and -operated ever since. “Air Land is a well-rounded trucking company,” says General Manager Johnclaude (JC) Snead, who stepped into the position in the summer of 2017. “We have daily line haul to and from our three terminal locations in Anchorage, Kenai, and Fairbanks. Full load, LTL, and air freight services are our specialties.”
From the two brothers Air Land has grown to fifty-seven employees, all of whom reside and work in Alaska. The company utilizes a fleet of sixty power units and more than one hundred trailers.
Snead says the company’s growth was possible because of its focus on developing lasting relationships with its customers, who span the gamut of Alaska’s industries. Air Land builds relationships through quality service, and one of the options they offer to meet customers’ needs is “Hot Shot” freight, which “basically means we have a driver drop what he is doing and focus on the one customer’s freight as quickly as possible.” He says that Air Land has requests for this service a dozen or more times in a year, mostly to transport perishables and materials for the oil industry—“if the freight has an expiration date or the customer needs a part for a piece of equipment.”
One of the shipments that’s always time sensitive is radioactive material, which Air Land moves for a healthcare company. “The shelf life isn’t very long, so we have to get it and go,” Snead says. All of Air Land’s drivers are hazmat certified and TSA compliant, enabling them to truck material quickly, no matter what that material may be. He says in the past Air Land has even gone on Hot Shot runs to deliver flowers to a customer’s boat.
Snead himself has driven trucks for Air Land, and he’s been a part of the family business since his youth. “I was put to work at a young age; I was the first grandson in the family, so when it came to doing the dirty work I was the one cleaning the bathrooms or equipment.” He says he grew up in transportation, riding in his father’s truck as an infant. As a teenager he worked in the warehouse, doing whatever tasks were needed, and he first started driving a truck during the summers when he was in high school, though “it was just a tiny box truck, almost a van,” making local deliveries in Anchorage.
Snead was a scholarship athlete and played basketball at Northeastern State University for four years, graduating with a business degree. “I was debating whether to come back [to Alaska] or not and my grandfather said, ‘Get your butt back here and work,’” Snead laughs. So he did. Immediately after school he drove a truck until his grandfather, who was the company’s general manager at the time, transferred to him to account manager. Snead made outside sales for three years before moving into a leadership position at the company.
Air Land is a family-operated company: Snead’s grandfather, who founded the company, was the general manager until he passed away in the summer of 2017. Snead’s father, John, worked at the company for twelve years; upon sustaining a back injury he switched careers to teaching but remains an Air Land owner. Snead’s aunt Monique is the company president, and Snead’s grandmother worked at Air Land for years.
Snead is excited about his new role: “It’s going great and I’m having fun, and it’s good to have something to work at.” Moving forward, he plans to update Air Lands operations to utilize more modern technology, such as online bills of lading and online freight research or implementing a computerized dispatch system. He also would like to see the company continue to grow in Alaska. “It’s always an option to venture out and try other markets, but for now we’re an in-state carrier and we’re focusing on our in-state customer base.”
Tasha Anderson is the Associate Editor for Alaska Business.