GIRARD, Ohio – In 1904, few would have guessed that the offspring of a small horse-and-buggy venture that hauled products from rail yards in Youngstown would still be in business today.
Not only is Aim Transportation Solutions Inc., Girard, still in business, it’s emerged as the largest privately owned truck leasing company in North America.
With its humble horse-and-buggy days well behind it, Aim has taken the reins in an industry where technology is accelerating at warp speed. Automated trucks, electrification, sophisticated logistics guided by new software and other concepts unfathomable 120 years ago today drive the industry’s future and the next generation of leadership at Aim.
“There’s a lot of disruption coming down the road,” says its chairman and CEO, Tom Fleming. “It’s just a matter of how and when.”
Fleming retired as president of the company two years ago to make room for his two sons, Scott and Geoff, to manage daily operations as co-presidents. Today, the company operates three subsidiaries: Aim Leasing Co., Aim Integrated Logistics, and Aim Services Co.
“My goal is to slowly but surely transition the company to them,” Fleming says of his sons. “And they’re doing a great job.”
Over the last four decades, Aim Leasing and Aim Integrated have expanded to about 120 separate branches across the country that also provide maintenance services to 11,000 vehicles the company owns, Fleming says. While Aim Leasing manages leasing and rental contracts, Aim Integrated provides a combined package of leasing, driver, dispatching and logistics services to customers throughout the country.
The company has also branched out to used truck rentals and a new brokerage division that has grown over the last several years. Another service, Aim’s pro shop, provides maintenance to customers’ trucks on-site.
“I deal more on the integrated side,” says Scott Fleming, while his brother, Geoff, manages mostly the leasing end of the business.
Among the greatest challenges Aim Integrated faces is recruiting qualified drivers to fill an enormous void in the labor market, Scott Fleming says. “That’s where we’re really struggling – getting people to work,” he says.
While the job market for drivers has been tight for several years, the chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
Going forward, the company is focused on making strategic investments in information technology, he says, which is critical for Aim and its customers to remain competitive.
“We’re transitioning very much to a technology company,” he says. Large tractor-trailers today are safer, smarter and come equipped with more sophisticated braking systems and cameras. At the same time, technology has changed how drivers are managed and how Aim can manage its clients’ logistics.
“Our customers want vision,” he says.
While the push to electric vehicles is certainly making its mark on passenger transportation, it hasn’t affected as yet the larger, over-the-road freight haulers, he says. But that is likely to change over the next 15 years.
“It is coming,” Scott Fleming says, pointing to estimates that project between 30% and 40% of the total large-truck market could be electrified by 2035. “It may be sooner,” he says. “Technology moves pretty fast.”
More distant are driverless trucks, which will require years of further research, testing, infrastructure improvements and safety protocols before they’re deployed on a large scale, he says.
While investment in new technology is critical to move the company forward, Geoff Fleming says growth in Aim’s leasing business could also likely come from future acquisitions of other private operations. “Currently, we have additional opportunities on the horizon,” he says.
Often, these acquisitions are motivated by sellers who may not have a subsequent generation of ownership in the business, tax changes that could affect the value of a company as the owners near retirement, and those companies looking to exit the industry.
“They look to us instead of some of the big companies because they know we respect the employees and the culture,” he says.
Generally, Aim is looking to build on its customer base in the Midwest, although it has locations as far west as Denver and Phoenix, he says.
The transition to new leadership should also come as assurance to employees that there is a sense of stability and continuity within the company, Geoff Fleming says. “It’s part of our family, part of our legacy that we try to uphold.”
The roots of the company date to 1904, when Tom Fleming’s maternal grandfather, J.V. McNicholas, began a horse-drawn freight business that served the rail yards in Youngstown. Several years later, the company – renamed McNicholas Transportation – diversified into hauling steel as the region’s industrial core expanded.
“McNicholas developed into one of the largest steel haulers in the country,” he says. The company also began a commercial and residential moving division.
“I grew up in the business,” Fleming recalls.
His father worked at the company and his grandfather lived with the Flemings after falling ill. So much of the conversation in the family home centered on trucking. “All we ever talked about was business, work and trucks,” he says.
Fleming began his career in the McNicholas warehouse at age 14, working during the summers and after school.
Then, in the early 1960s, McNicholas diversified yet again and entered the truck leasing business – essentially leasing trucks internally. “We had started a small leasing company and that came under my responsibility,” Fleming says. By 1980, the company found a market in leasing trucks to outside firms.
However, by the early 1980s, Fleming says labor issues and general business conditions forced McNicholas to close.
In 1982, Fleming bought the leasing business and established Aim NationaLease with 29 trucks and six employees.
Today Aim employs more than 1,200.
1982 was an uneasy time to launch a new venture as interest rates skyrocketed and the economy of the region was wracked with high unemployment as the steel industry began to retrench.
Among the company’s first big customers was Easco Aluminum, an aluminum producer in Girard. The business was enough to secure a major loan for the company to provide 19 tractor-trailers for the manufacturer, laying the groundwork for exceptional growth over the next four decades.
By the late 1980s, Aim had expanded into the Pittsburgh market and secured new business with Wholey’s Seafood, a major seafood distributor in that city’s Strip District, Fleming says.
In some ways, it was a turning point for Aim since the contract called not only for supplying trucks,
but also drivers and electronic services that could help to manage the distribution network of that company.
“They were our first dedicated customer,” he says. “We were able to buy a program and integrate their distribution system into our operations.”
The leasing and dedicated services business jumped during the late 1990s and into the 2000s as more companies opted to jettison insurance and employee liabilities and outsource these services to firms such as Aim.
“We’ve had steady growth in Aim Integrated throughout the years – it’s been the fastest growing part organically in the company,” Fleming says.
Aim’s leasing business has expanded both organically and through acquisitions, he adds.
As the economy begins to reopen in the wake of the pandemic, Fleming says that demand outruns the supply of trucks on the market.“We’re having a record sales year,” he says. “But It’s hard to get trucks,” noting that new truck deliveries from manufacturers are at least a year out.
The future of the company is in good hands with his sons, Fleming says.
“I think the employees see a future if they have young people running the business instead of someone who’s a little more mature,” he says, laughing.
Pictured: Scott Fleming, co-president of AIM Transportation Solutions, chairman and CEO Tom Fleming, and Co-president Geoff Fleming are driving the company forward as “a lot of disruption” comes down the road.