Still growing: Innovation, adaptation power Groendyke's deep-rooted prosperity

April 11, 2023
NTTC founding member reflects on 90 years as a family-owned tank truck carrier—even as it lays the groundwork to ensure its 100th anniversary celebration

Groendyke keeps going, and going, and going …

Now in its 90th year of operation, the family-owned for-hire tank truck carrier, one of the founding members of National Tank Truck Carriers, survived the Great Depression and Great Recession, trucking industry deregulation, and a global pandemic that slashed annual revenues by 30%—and it is not winding down.

“We’re already thinking about our 100th anniversary—and I plan to be here for it,” said Greg Hodgen, Groendyke president and CEO.

So, what is powering nearly a century of prosperity? The family’s commitment, for one. Three generations of Groendykes have dedicated their lives to advancing the Enid, Oklahoma-based business, and the entire tank truck industry. Safety is another source of their sustained success. It’s so ingrained in the company’s culture that Groendyke is the only eight-time winner of NTTC’s North American safety championship, which has been awarded since 1948. But the essential attribute is its youthful ability to adapt to the times.

Because Groendyke is one “old dog” that keeps teaching new tricks to its bulk-hauling peers.

“We might be 90 years old, but we’re still very innovative—and have been throughout our history,” said Hodgen, who’s married to John Groendyke’s eldest daughter, Shawn.

The latest examples include brake-activated pulsating brake lamps and registered tank truck apprenticeships, both of which it helped pioneer, and centralized chemicals and refined fuels planning centers that separate load coordination from dispatching in an ongoing effort to boost driver productivity and satisfaction.

“I’m proud of how innovative we are,” said Aaron Harmon, Groendyke’s executive vice president. “We may not be the first to try everything, but we’re certainly so focused on continuous improvement. That’s what keeps us sharp, keeps us relevant, and helps us take care of our employees and customers.

“And if we keep doing those things, we have another 90 years ahead of us.”

Family business

Harold C. Groendyke founded Groendyke Transport as a kerosene hauler in July 1932. His son, John Groendyke, took over as chairman and CEO when Harold died in 1986; and John, now 77, continues to serve as chairman. “It’s great to have him around because of his historical knowledge,” Hodgen said. “And he has great judgement and a keen understanding of the business.” John’s four children, Shawn, Melanie, Haden, and Tucker, all are involved in ownership capacities—and highly engaged in board meetings. “They’re very supportive,” Hodgen said. “It’s their family’s name on the side and they still identify heavily with that.”

Hodgen added CEO to his position as president five years ago, but basically has served in the same capacity since ascending to COO and EVP in January 2001, just with different titles. He officially became president in 2004. Hodgen grew up on a farm. He trained horses and pursued veterinary medicine before meeting his wife at Colorado State. After graduating in 1992, he went to work in Groendyke’s Enid office. Thirty years later, the 2011-12 NTTC chairman is a key player in the Groendyke family’s trucking story—a tale as uniquely American as rodeo. “I love it that the family still owns the company, and is still involved, and it continues to grow and prosper—and be a driving force in the industry,” Hodgen said.

Joe Morrissey gave up his dream job as CEO of CTL Transportation to be part of it.

He joined Comcar Industries’ Florida-based bulk carrier because it still was owned and operated by founder Guy Bostick’s family. But financial woes led to Pimco’s involvement as a majority shareholder in 2016, adversely altering the company’s culture. Unhappy with the result, Morrissey resigned, but he wasn’t jobless for long. Groendyke decided in 2018 to buy Tallahassee-based McKenzie Tank Lines, and since Morrissey already was in Florida, he came on to oversee the transition of the company’s largest acquisition. “My CTL experience made me appreciate Groendyke greatly,” said Morrissey, now Groendyke’s chief commercial officer.

Today, Groendyke transports more than 2,000 liquid bulk commodities with a fleet of 900 mostly late-model Freightliner and Kenworth tractors, and a diverse fleet of 1,800 Countryside, Heil, Polar, and Tremcar tank trailers. Chemicals are the largest segment, accounting for 70% of annual revenues, fuels are second—but make up 85% of annual volumes—and asphalt is third. The company employs more than 1,200 people, including 830 drivers, at 40 terminals across 15 states, including 35 with maintenance facilities, and five with tank cleaning operations.

“We’ve got I-10 blanketed,” Morrissey said. “And McKenzie opened a gateway to the Southeast for us. That acquisition moved us into the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and all of Florida. Now we’re well-represented in the Southeast, to a point of dominance.” The McKenzie deal also boosted revenue to a record $280 million in 2019. Groendyke lost ground during the COVID-19 pandemic, when its fuels business was halved, but started “clawing its way back” in late 2020—and last year returned to $260 million in revenue.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of the great people who came before us and gave us a solid foundation on which to survive, and thrive,” Hodgen said.

Strategic buyer

Groendyke had a long history of smaller acquisitions before deregulation. The carrier has made five under Hodgen’s leadership: James Inc., in 2001, Brown Transport 10 years ago, Manweiler Transport in 2017, McKenzie in 2019, and Georgia Tank Lines last year—all for strategic purposes. McKenzie unlocked the Southeast, and Georgia strengthened Groendyke’s still “vibrant and healthy” fuels business in the Atlanta area.

Morrissey and CFO Michael Barnthouse form Groendyke’s mergers-and-acquisitions team. They’re always evaluating opportunities in their “spare” time, and at least one private-equity group is in every discussion these days, said Morrissey, who was with Chemical Leaman when Apollo Management bought the company and merged it with Montgomery Tank Lines to form Quality Distribution in the first major private-equity “rollup” in the tank truck industry. “Now M&A is pretty fashionable, and everybody’s doing it,” Morrissey said.

Private equity does it differently, often working toward a five- to seven-year “flip” of the business, Morrissey lamented. Hodgen agreed PE involvement has changed the industry’s complexion, and how it approaches key issues. But he also believes many carriers have benefited from the investment-minded discipline PE’s provide. “It’s probably made some things carriers do more rational, where understanding cost is critical.

“But we’ve always been pretty good at that.”

Groendyke had to understand rating to survive deregulation. Now it has the capital built up to pursue acquisitional growth at its own pace, Hodgen said. Instead of chasing companies already on the chopping block, Groendyke’s leaders prefer to build relationships with like-minded owners who might one day want another tank truck family to steward their legacy. “The truth of the matter is, founders often put real value on legacy, and want to keep their dream alive vicariously through others,” Morrissey attested.

Family businesses also offer the stability employees appreciate, and managing for the long haul can make accountants happy, too, Hodgen insisted. “Because we manage for the long term, we actually see better short-term results, which may surprise people, but we do well month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter, and we’re very consistent,” he said.

The Groendyke difference

Selective growth and consistent performance are two advantages Groendyke enjoys as a 90-year-old family business. The carrier also owns a carefully cultivated reputation as a specialist in hauling specialized chemicals safely. “Not everyone wants to dance with the cargoes we haul,” Morrissey said. “So I always say, if there’s a hazardous element involved, you must choose wisely as to who you want to haul that product.”

Groendyke is among a handful of carriers with the drivers, infrastructure, and knowledge needed to transport the most volatile chemicals anywhere in North America, Morrissey said. It’s able to address a range of shipper needs, providing them add-on value and supply-chain resiliency most competitors can’t match. “We have a good mix of drivers, so we can take the layups, but also the mid-range jumpers, and 3-pointers, too, and make it all work,” he said, using a basketball analogy for the different local, regional, and longhaul routes.

Hodgen said they excel at handling the most difficult jobs—and overcoming all obstacles in the way. “When it absolutely, positively has to be done with a high degree of care, safety, and service, Groendyke is really good at that,” he said. “We have been for a long time. So, we’re known for our safety, but the other thing we’re very proud of—which is knit into our DNA—is always coming through for our customers.

“If somebody gives us a job to do, we get it done.”

Of course, that wouldn’t be possible without their professional drivers, so Groendyke’s leaders are committed to providing them with superior pay and home time, and the best long-term career potential in any trucking sector. They increased driver compensation by more than 20% over the last several years, and work with shippers to understand their value in rating. “Groendyke has invested a lot in getting the right people in the right locations, with the right equipment and training, and safety mindset to get the job done, and we’re not going to undo that,” Hodgen said. “So, we’re not going to cut rates to satisfy a pricing manager or procurement person who needs to get significant hazardous materials hauled.”

Groendyke’s advocacy also includes educating shippers on how to help drivers succeed, and culling business that inhibits their productivity. “Drivers waiting four or five hours to load isn’t ideal,” Harmon said. “It’s not a good use of their time.” And at the end of the day, valuing drivers’ time is about prioritizing people—something else Groendyke does well. “It’s all about the people,” said Holly McCormick, Groendyke’s talent office VP. “It’s who you work with, and who you work for, and we have a fantastic environment.”

Safety focus

No where is that more evident than on the safety front—where Groendyke sets the bar for the tank truck industry.

The carrier won NTTC’s top safety award in 1973, 1975, 1990, 1991, 1999, 2000, 2016, and 2018. The most recent win broke a tie with Dan Dugan Oil Transport, which claimed seven of the first nine awards. Manfredi Motor Transit is the next closest with six wins, including one as Distribution Technologies (later DistTech) in 2005. But neither of those companies still are around (Kenan Advantage Group acquired DistTech in 2010), leaving Trimac Transportation as the closest active carrier with three titles (2002, 2007, and 2019).

Competing for the Heil is one of Groendyke’s stated organizational goals each year. It’s also an employee expectation, which is critical to their success, Hodgen said. “That’s why we’re always on the podium,” Morrissey agreed. “So even when we don’t win, we’re right there. That, to me, is the culture.” He credited the Groendyke family for “embedding” safety as a core value early in their long history. McCormick said employees are proud of the carrier’s winning tradition, perpetuating a “championship” mentality. “It’s steeped in our culture,” she said. “And you get that from this mindset of continuous improvement. We are never good enough. We’re always striving to be better—even when we have a record number of wins.”

Leadership supports safe operation with elite training and cutting-edge safety technology.

New power units feature the latest advanced driver-assistance systems, including lane departure warnings, blind-spot detection, roll stability, collision mitigation, and adaptive cruise control. They also have pneumatic disc brakes, automatic transmissions, and forward- and inward-facing cameras. Groendyke also is in the process of installing side-facing Samsara cameras to better protect drivers—who Hodgen says now must drive “protectively” instead of defensively—and the company from predatory actors who are scaring off insurers. “We spare no expense in making sure we have the safest equipment on the road,” Harmon said.

“We also invest heavily in our facilities and our training.”

Groendyke produces its own training videos in-house. “We like to tailor the message to our business, our drivers, and what’s going on with our employees,” Harmon said. The carrier also uses a proprietary mobile app to deliver videos and customized messages to drivers on the go. Smith System training and Workday’s learning management system augment the safety department’s coaching and teaching efforts. “We do everything we can to give our drivers an edge and make them the safest they can be,” Harmon said.

And like everything else at Groendyke, what that entails constantly is evolving.

“Safety is one of our core values,” McCormick said. “Change is one of our core values, too. So, we know that whatever we’re doing today is subject to adjustment.”

Continual innovation

Brake-activated pulsating lamps weren’t a thing before Groendyke began testing them as a way to prevent rear-end collisions in 2015. After receiving too many citations in the process, it secured the first Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration exemption for the lamps. Now they have their own taskforce at Technology & Maintenance Council meetings. “We’re not afraid to think outside the box,” McCormick asserted.

McCormick helped NTTC secure Department of Labor approval for the first professional tank truck registered apprenticeship while leading the association’s Workforce committee. It’s now an approved occupation on, with its own RAPIDS code (3033). Now McCormick is developing Groendyke’s own apprenticeship program. “Our economy is so heavily dependent on tank truck drivers, they’re more essential than any other driver,” Hodgen said.

To keep them moving, Groendyke started to separate load planning from dispatching five years ago. After initially facing resistance, its refined fuels planning center in Fort Worth is fully transitioned, helping supercharge driver utilization, Hodgen said. The chemical center in Enid is halfway through the process. “Planners are like puzzle builders,” he explained. “Their sole job is to figure out how to optimize drivers’ time, so they can maximize their earnings.” Groendyke optimizes their productivity with pay based on hourly trip standards for fuel haulers, and per-mile pay and safety bonuses for chemical haulers.

In addition, Groendyke is developing a new driver scorecard, and benchmarking tools based on an employee experience survey now in its third year, and investing in extensive leadership training. “All of us are involved in continuous education, and making ourselves better managers, businesspeople, and employers,” Harmon said. Groendyke also will be involved in several hydrogen production projects soon, Morrissey said, while doing all it can to slow the “Faustian” race toward battery-electric trucks—which Hodgen insists is “nuts.”

“We’re not saying no to an alternative energy source,” he said. “We’re saying let’s be realistic and have an honest conversation about the available technologies.”

Steadfast expansion

Groendyke isn’t just thinking about the next big milestone. It’s already planning a path to its 100th anniversary, with the chemical sector as its guiding star. “The U.S. chemical industry is so healthy that we really are a dominant force in the global market,” Morrissey said. And while volumes dipped slightly year-over-year in the first five weeks of this year, U.S. investors are “doubling down” on manufacturing and refining capacity. “The U.S. is going to have a very robust chemical industry for many years to come,” Morrissey predicted.

The carrier already is growing with strategic partners who ship “performance” chemicals with load values in excess of $50,000—or even $100,000 in some cases—and eying expansion into adjacent states, on the chemical side, and with its asphalt business, which Morrissey believes will benefit from the bipartisan infrastructure law. And while Groendyke isn’t looking to grow its fuel-hauling business in new markets, it doesn’t expect that work to go away anytime soon. “We are not abandoning our fuel routes,” Morrissey said.

“We’ve been delivering fuel for generations, and we’re very good at it.”

Groendyke’s leaders aren’t anticipating a “deep” economic downturn this year, and Harmon is optimistic they’ll be able to grow their tractor fleet in 2023. Last year they received only 100 trucks, all as replacements, while dealing with supply-chain disruptions, making keeping them under 500,000 miles a logistical challenge. “We may see some sectors impacted by recession, especially anyone who supports the housing sector, but I think it’s going to be a mild and short slowdown, and then back to business as usual,” Hodgen said.

“That’s how we’re planning to move ahead.”

Whatever happens this year, or in the next 10, Hodgen expects the Groendyke family’s energy to continue powering the carrier’s success. And he stands ready to guide the next generation—whether it’s one of his sons, Gage or Zane, a cousin, or someone else—if they one day decide to pursue a career in the tank truck industry he loves so dearly.

“Somebody here will be involved, either running the company as an operator, or certainly on the ownership side,” he said.

“Groendyke Transport’s going to be around for a long time.”

About the Author

Jason McDaniel

Jason McDaniel, based in the Houston TX area, has more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist. He spent 15 writing and editing for daily newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, and began covering the commercial vehicle industry in 2018. He was named editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter magazines in July 2020.