In 1925, Ervin Kahler set up shop in Morton with no more than two trucks, a couple of guys, and every man’s dream: to own his own business. “When my Dad, Ervin, started the company, he hauled construction materials and did some excavating,” said Roger Kahler. “His little business was on Penn Avenue, and he never hauled anything farther than 50 miles from Morton.” Little did Ervin know that future generations would embrace and grow Fort Transfer (formally known as Ervin Kahler, Inc.) into a company with more than 100 trucks and deliveries to all 48 contiguous states and Canada.
You might miss Fort Transfer if you don’t know where to look. This well-maintained and growing facility, hidden behind Morton’s post office, organizes the distribution of herbicides and chemicals across the country. The business is newly run by Brad Kahler, grandson of the original owner, Ervin, but it was Brad’s father, Roger, who established the foundation that led to their current success. “Right before my dad passed away in 1974, we decided to acquire another trucking company from our neighbor, George Fort,” said Roger. “His company, Fort Transfer, a small business with a milk route, possessed the No. 2 authority in Illinois, which meant they could haul to anywhere in the state.” This strategic move allowed Roger to expand his father’s company statewide and beyond.
The 1970s and ‘80s were a busy time for Fort Transfer. The company that initially hauled salt and construction materials was transformed several times, a reaction to the changing markets in the state and across the country. “We hauled liquid propane to Morton from Kansas in the ‘70s when there was a shortage scare,” said Roger. “Then we began hauling liquid agriculture chemicals for farmers.” Fort Transfer added a herbicide storage terminal in Morton in 1987. They now have small satellite terminals in Texas, Louisiana, St. Louis, and Memphis. “We have always quickly adapted to the changing markets due to our size,” said Roger.
Eight years ago, Roger’s son, Brad, returned to Morton from Colorado to begin the process of taking over the reins of Fort Transfer. “I didn’t think I would come back to Morton,” said Brad. “But looking back, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.” His dad echoes that sentiment. “My only job now is lawn maintenance and entertainment,” said Roger with a chuckle.
Since just 12 percent of family-owned businesses survive to a third generation, I was eager to ask these gentlemen to share the secret of their success. “We have a great deal of trust, a similar work ethic and good communication,” said Roger. “We also sat down ahead of time and created a plan that had our succession plan and roles figured out in advance,” added Brad.
You certainly get the feeling when meeting with these two that they are not only father and son, but also good friends. “It is so neat as a father to see this all work,” said Roger. “If a family business works, it is one the best things in life—along with being a grandpa!” iBi