Bosnian immigrants and brothers Irfan and Nick Sinanovic were both in college when Nick’s part time job translating the commercial driver’s license (CDL) test into Bosnian revealed opportunities in the St. Louis region’s trucking industry and for the Bosnian community, putting them on the road to entrepreneurship. As the two observed the number of people trying to secure a CDL to enter the industry, they quickly determined there was room to help their fellow Bosnians by providing the skills training needed to pass the test, while also providing quality job opportunities. Their realization led to the 2005 launch of south St. Louis-based Vega Transport to provide truck driver training and shipping services.
“St. Louis has a great location. In the transportation business we move physical things, and geographic location is everything when it comes to that,” said Irfan Sinanovic. “The St. Louis region is located in the middle of the country, so if you want to head north, south, west or east, St. Louis is the spot to originate out of.”
While the Sinanovic brothers were finishing up their respective degrees in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Missouri St. Louis, they purchased a truck, leased a trailer, rented a vacant lot and hired a licensed driver who could take students out to work on their skills. During the first year of operation, Vega Transport trained more than 30 drivers, many of them fellow immigrants from Bosnia who were seeking well-paying, secure job opportunities where they could be successful. In addition to the technical skills training, the Sinanovic brothers also helped bridge the culture gap for their employees, an obstacle that can often hinder employment opportunities or career advancement. With a majority of Vega Transport staff from management to dispatchers to trainers and drivers all sharing the Bosnian native language, they helped each other learn English intricacies and workplace cultures.
By 2008, they had trained between 200 and 300 drivers, and the Sinanovic brothers decided to focus solely on the trucking side of the business. At that point, they were relatively well-established, with 15 to 20 trucks on the road at any given time. In the 10 years since then, Vega Transport has grown to become a full-service, nationwide Truck Load (TL) carrier. They now have 85 trucks and 100 employees in positions ranging from drivers, dispatchers and managers, to safety and maintenance personnel, to sales, accounting and human resources professionals – and the company continues to grow. Many of their founding Bosnian employees are still with Vega Transport and the Sinanovic brothers are also proud to say many have moved on to be self-employed truck drivers who own their own vehicles and businesses. When asked what the St. Louis region needs to do continue to support companies like Vega Transport, Irfan Sinanovic indicated that the region should seek out newly arriving refugees and lend support to ensure they build their skills and enter into a career path that benefits the region.
Another success story, DonVal Mizzou, LLC, is an early stage, asset-based firm providing brokerage and trucking services that was launched in St. Charles County, Missouri, in 2017. Founded by Valerie Donkoh, with over 13 years of experience in the transportation and logistics sector, and her husband Derek Donkoh, who worked in the global financial industry, DonVal Mizzou also sees the opportunity to grow their business in the St. Louis region. The firm, which was recently certified as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), already has three trucks and drivers and six additional employees and expects that to climb to more than 50 employees in the next 12 to 18 months.
“The St. Louis region can barely keep up with the demand for truck driving services, we see the market opportunity and we’re taking the lead with growing our own staff,” Valerie Donkoh said.
The couple is taking proactive steps to bolster their own workforce by launching a U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Certified Apprenticeship Program that provides training for transportation management coordination positions. With a backlog of 100 people interested in going through the 18-month program, DonVal Mizzou expects to start training classes of 10 new students each month going forward. With technical and financial assistance provided through the DOL and The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, successful completion of the Apprenticeship Program earns the participants a U.S. Department of Labor Journeyman Certificate. This certificate will verify they have acquired the needed skills to work in the transportation logistics industry.
Next steps are partnering and connecting with the region’s trucking industry. Valerie Donkoh was recently introduced to Giltner St. Louis President Brad Reinhardt who serves as president of The Transportation Club of St. Louis (TCSTL). Reinhardt and the organization serve as two great resources to meet other trucking companies and shippers.
Reinhardt, a 25-year veteran of the trucking and logistics industry, credits networking as a catalyst to build a successful career in logistics in the St. Louis region. Through his role with TCSTL, he seeks to ensure new trucking companies have the same opportunity to build customer and business relationships, even if it is with competitor companies. He prefers going to conferences in favor of cold calling, getting active in the right industry associations and gaining the trust of those with whom he would do business. Ultimately serving time as president with multiple transportation organizations throughout North America, Brad and his business partner, Al Hursey, were tapped to launch Giltner St. Louis in 2012 and are located in Collinsville, Illinois. “The trucking industry really likes the St. Louis region,” said Reinhardt.
“Giltner approached us and we worked out a deal to fold our existing business into their new 3PL operation,” Reinhardt said. “I walked into the office the morning after and told our team, we’re now Giltner St. Louis.’ It was all driven by our relationships and reputation.”
Those relationships built over Reinhardt’s 25 years in the industry span all facets of it, from the big-name shippers like AB-InBev and Procter & Gamble to a host of smaller companies seeking to transport their own products, to carriers like Vega Transport and DonVal Mizzou.
“It’s nice to have access to organizations like TCSTL where you can go out and network with other transportation professionals in the area,” said Irfan Sinanovic. “We’ve been in business long enough that we’ve pretty much done business with just about any broker that operates in this area, so we know of everyone and everyone knows of us, but it’s different when you can meet people face to face for the first time after conducting business over the phone or via email.”
“While they are at different stages in their life cycles, all three of these companies have one thing in common; they recognize the opportunities to grow in the St. Louis region because of our world class multimodal freight network, and each is investing here because they believe they can be successful,” said Mary Lamie, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway.
Lamie notes the opportunities within the region’s trucking and logistics industry will only continue to grow in the wake of continued expansion of warehousing and distribution centers on both sides of the Mississippi River, the opening of new manufacturing facilities and restarting of operations at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works.
Reinhardt, who opened a second office in Jacksonville, Florida, 18 months ago and now has a total of eight employees, notes that Giltner St. Louis is benefitting from all the freight activity here. “The increase in freight moving through the St. Louis region has led us to double our staff in the past two years and we expect to double again in the next couple of years,” Reinhardt said.
As Giltner St. Louis expands through the networking he facilitates via TCSTL, Reinhardt has helped others in the industry in both Illinois and Missouri to grow, often connecting his direct competition with solid customers and great employees. He relishes his role as a mentor, and most recently connected with the Valerie and Derek Donkoh to help them to tap into his network.
“I know there’s competition out there but we’re all pulling on the same rope and there’s enough business out there for everyone,” said Reinhardt. “Every success helps the St. Louis region immensely. If St. Louis is a great community for the logistics industry, we all benefit.”
The St. Louis Regional Freightway is a Bi-State Development enterprise formed to create a regional freight district and comprehensive authority for freight operations and opportunities within eight counties in Illinois and Missouri which comprise the St. Louis metropolitan area. Public sector and private industry businesses are partnering with the St. Louis Regional Freightway to establish the bi-state region as one of the premier multimodal freight hubs and distribution centers in the United States through marketing, public advocacy, and freight and infrastructure development.