Construction, Manufacturing, and Small Business & Startups

Modular Transportation adapts to changing landscape

Now 50 years old, trucking company originally hauled modular homes.

March 29, 2019
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Modular Train
Modular Transportation hauled the parts of La Grande Vitesse to the Calder Plaza when it was built in 1969. Courtesy Modular Transportation

Calder Plaza’s iconic sculpture, La Grande Vitesse, turns 50 this year, but coincidentally, the company responsible for hauling its parts to where it stands today also will be celebrating 50 years in business.

Grand Rapids-based Modular Transportation was founded in 1969. Founder Robert Stouten originally got into the trucking industry after serving in the U.S. Navy during both World War II and the Korean War, when he got into sales with the George F. Alger Company.

“They used to have a large van division … and they transferred him to Detroit to run their Detroit terminal. It hadn’t made money in a long time, and he fixed it within 30 days to where it was profitable,” said his son, Evan Stouten, who now runs Modular.

The elder Stouten left George F. Alger and returned to Grand Rapids after the company’s van division was bought out. He started his first flatbed trucking company with five drivers, named G&B Transportation, in 1962.

G&B took off during the “glory days” of the trucking industry, which lasted until the late 1980s, Evan Stouten said.

“You had regulated rates … and there was a federal law that said you had to be paid net seven days, which was just a beautiful thing,” Stouten said.

In 1969, Robert Stouten started a separate company called Modular Transportation. The purpose of Modular originally was to haul modular homes. Reiterating the story he always heard growing up, Evan Stouten said his father started the company with a borrowed truck and a borrowed trailer.

Several years later, however, the company Modular hauled for went bankrupt, and Robert Stouten had several people tell him he was better off getting out of the trucking business. But believing he could make it work, he opted instead to get into a different facet of trucking.

“He worked his salesman magic and got into the flatbed business away from modular homes,” Evan Stouten said. “He had some great relations with the founders of Dennen Steel, Mill Steel and Magic Steel.”

Evan Stouten went to work with his father in April 1983, and about half a dozen years later, his father merged G&B transportation into Modular.

The company has since grown to over 190 drivers and three offices in Grand Rapids; Columbus, Mississippi; and West Memphis, Arkansas.

“A lot of our growth has been what I would call organic,” Stouten said. “You start with a piece, you do a good job with them. You build relationships … we work out a fair price for both ends, then off you go and you do good things.”

Modular also has had to learn to adapt to a changing economy, Stouten said. In the past, the company would haul a lot of freight from Dennen Steel to a Frigidaire plant in Greenville, which is now gone.

The company also used to haul an “unbelievable” amount of freight to a General Motors stamping plant, which has since closed.

“Steelcase used to have their chair plant here, and that’s not here anymore,” Stouten said. “The world’s changed a bunch, not that there’s not still a lot of steel used in this area, but some of the things are gone.”

Modular has reoriented its freight services to adapt to industries reconfiguring or drying up. For example, the company now makes a lot of deliveries, prepaid by a customer, to multiple destinations.

The company has an asset division for all of its dedicated freight trucks, a specialized division for oversized loads — like for automotive and aerospace clients — and a brokerage division, named MTC Brokerage, which augments Modular’s capabilities by contracting partner carriers.

The company also has hauled freight for the construction of some key buildings, including the Trump Tower in Chicago and projects on Mackinac Island.

“Before the tourist season started, I remember they took our truck across on one of the ferries, and we were literally on that island where there are no trucks,” Stouten said.

Most relevant to Grand Rapids, Modular also hauled in the steel for La Grande Vitesse in Calder Plaza from Detroit. The sculpture will be 50 years old in June, a few months before Modular Transportation turns 50 in September.

Evan Stouten gradually transitioned into the ownership role of Modular in the early 1990s before eventually taking full control. Robert Stouten still is chairman and partial owner of Modular.

Modular prides itself in putting the safety of its drivers first. All of the company’s trucks come with collision avoidance technology. The newest trucks feature radar sensors, anti-rollover, blind spot detection and other unique safety features.

Despite positive growth, Modular, like many skilled trades, is facing an increased shortage of qualified drivers. Stouten said the American Trucking Association would classify his company as a large carrier, and the average turnover rate for large carriers is around 88 to 94 percent.

“We’re about 35 points below that, which is something, but it’s frankly gone up a little bit,” Stouten said.

To maintain its workforce, Modular tries to foster a family-style work culture as well as maintain a healthy benefits package, including 100 percent company-paid health, dental and vision for drivers and dependents; five vacation days every six months and paid holidays; no-cost life insurance; short-term disability and more.

“Robert Stouten considered his employees an extension of his family,” said Sherry Turner, strategic accounts manager for Modular Transportation. “We’ll buy lunch or bring potlucks in. It’s a very tight group here.”

“We lose drivers from time to time,” Stouten said. “The nice thing for us is a fair amount of them come back.”

Modular Transportation covers all 48 states in the continental U.S., as well as Mexico and Canada.

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