Logistics company trucks in, retains talent


Fifth Wheel Freight puts the “party” in “third-party logistics company.” During lunch on a recent Thursday, employees played table tennis in the office and a barber provided free haircuts on-site. On other days, nail technicians give manicures to the staff.

Situated in a posh suite on the third floor of the historic Waters Center in downtown Grand Rapids, 161 Ottawa Ave. NW, the company moved its headquarters from East Lansing in January to help attract and retain recent college graduates who want to live and work in a vibrant downtown.

Owner and President Brian Bennett founded the company in 2012 and has grown it to a staff of 28 employees — with six to eight more coming on board this month — and revenue of $9.8 million.

Fifth Wheel Freight recently landed on the 2017 Inc. 5000 ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. with a 2,463 percent three-year growth rate.

As a third-party logistics company, Fifth Wheel Freight doesn’t own assets, such as trucks or planes; it consults with companies that need freight transportation to determine price, service, routes and carriers and then facilitates the transactions.

About 60 percent of its customers are in the steel industry.

“We do it all, but our growth is in steel,” Bennett said. “It’s a detailed, intricate industry with a lot of brainpower behind it, and we’re moving a lot of big products.”

While Fifth Wheel Freight still has an office in East Lansing, its focus has shifted to building up the staff in Grand Rapids. Calling it a “beautiful place,” Bennett said Grand Rapids has certain advantages.

“It was about the growth,” he said. “The audience we’re targeting for recruiting is new college grads. We recruit heavily out of Michigan State, but the 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds want to be in a fun town, and Lansing was not the place for that. A lot of Grand Valley and Western grads are gravitating toward this area, and we thought it was a great fit for us, too.”

Since opening shop in the Waters Center, Bennett said the company has grown its workforce by almost 20 employees and, by the end of this month, will have between 35 and 40.

Bennett’s wife, Julia, is CFO. Other leadership team members include Grace Sharkey, director of operations, Reese VanHeck, vice president of sales, and Josh Brawley, chief culture officer — all MSU grads.

The culture at Fifth Wheel Freight is one of its hallmarks, Bennett said — along with its focus on customer service and a 98.6 percent on-time rate for deliveries.

As part of his goal to build an efficient and high-performing workforce, Bennett created a custom training program for new recruits to learn the business.

“We want business majors, supply chain majors, marketing majors,” he said. “We actually prefer those with no logistics experience. A lot of people look down on brokers. We feel like our training development process is good, and we want to be training reps in efficiencies.”

New employees are placed into training groups of three to eight people for the first 90 days on the job, where they learn the software and customer service protocols, such as what to do if shipments are damaged or delayed. After 90 days, the recruits go out onto the floor with an experienced rep for hands-on work.

Bennett, himself a millennial, said he understands the need to take a different management approach with younger workers.

“Millennials like to know where they stand, so we give 90-day reviews for the first year. After the first year is up, we do deep reviews every six months.”

The company also has weekly staff meetings. Its suite in the Waters Center is an open-plan space designed to be collaborative and interactive, as evidenced by the central location of the table tennis table.

“We have a team, camaraderie-type base,” Bennett said. “We’re big on work-life balance. We work 38- to 40-hour workweeks, not 50 to 60 like some others.”

Sharkey said one of the things that struck her about the new employees hired out of Grand Rapids is their professionalism.

“They take their work very seriously,” she said.

Bennett said that level of excellence is what has propelled Fifth Wheel Freight to such phenomenal growth in three years.

“We’re at where we’re at because of our employees,” he said. “We have fun. They’re punctual. They take great pride in what they do.

“There are a lot of companies that have entered this industry, like Uber Freight, and Amazon may be entering. They have tried to automate the logistics process. So, we differentiate ourselves through our employees and our high level of customer service.”

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