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Leo & Agnes Schlotfeldt.

Sourdough Express, born in Dawson in 1898 as a horse and sleigh wood-hauling operation, had a long and venerable history even before Leo and Agnes Schlotfeldt became owners of the firm. But it was the Fairbanks couple, a classic mom-and-pop team, who built the business into a major enterprise poised for the 21st century.

Although not as involved in daily operations as they used to be, the Schlotfeldts still keep track of a small transportation empire that has literally grown up with the Interior. Jeff Gregory, vice president of Sourdough Express Inc. and a grandson of the couple, says an undying work ethic keeps Leo in particular on the move, despite his 85 years.

"He doesn't like to sit at home," says Gregory. "He likes to come around and make sure the furnaces are going and people are doing things."

Sourdough Express moved to Fairbanks just after the turn of the century. Agnes' father, Ed Hering, bought the company in 1923 to haul a bunch of Montana bison from the Fairbanks railhead to its new range near Delta. For many years, the company was chiefly involved in hauling household goods to and from nearby military bases and making coal and gravel deliveries.

After Leo completed an Army tour in Fairbanks, he elected to stay, attracted to the town and to Agnes Hering. The couple married, and Leo worked on area gold dredges and at Fort Wainwright during the war. In 1944, the Schlotfeldts took over management of Sourdough Express; they bought the company in 1947.

As heating oil began to replace coal and wood in the Fairbanks market, the Schlotfeldts responded with the flexibility and ingenuity that would mark their approach to business for the next three decades. Because hauling oil in barrels was cumbersome and inefficient, Leo built a homemade 1,200-gallon fuel tank and mounted it on a flatbed truck. The company's modern era had begun.

"From there on, we grew with the company," Leo recalls.

With that growth came the decision to separate the company into two primary divisions: Sourdough Express Inc. continued hauling short- and long-distance freight, which eventually included mining equipment and oilfield supplies, while Sourdough Fuel focused on fuel distribution and related home-heating services.

By 1955, Sourdough Express had offices and warehouses in Anchorage and Fairbanks. Eventually the firm became agent for and part owner of Global Van Lines. Through the years, in response to emerging economic opportunities, the Schlotfeldts formed or acquired related transportation ventures and became involved in warehouse property development.

"We were diversified, which was one of our successes," says Schlotfeldt.

In 1969, with the oil strike at Prudhoe Bay, Leo and other truckers saw another opportunity: hauling supplies and equipment overland to the Arctic coast. While many Alaskans now take the North Slope haul road for granted, oil companies preferred the sealift option to supply drilling operations. To make matters worse, there was little political support from then-Gov. Walter Hickel.

Schlotfeldt remembers that a group of Fairbanks truckers, upset about plans for a sealift, decided if the state highway department wasn't going to open a road to the oilfields, they'd do it themselves.

"The group involved in this brainstorm was Gene Rogge, Frank Chapados, Mark Moore, John Rowlett, Howard Bayless and myself," Leo recalls. Rogge built a fully-equipped lean-to on top of a Nodwell all-terrain vehicle, complete with stove and refrigerator stocked with steaks and roast. The idea was to blaze a trail north into the wilderness which would be the basis for a highway. Rogge, Bayless and Moore constituted the crew for this adventure and departed Nenana in April across the Minto flats.

"With our pioneers safely on their way, the ones left behind returned to the drudgery of everyday life with the utmost confidence our boys would return heroes," Schlotfeldt wrote of the adventure. "About three days later our disappointed crew returned, having encountered steep gullies and rough terrain which they were unable to traverse. Our disappointment was somewhat enlightened with the return of the fine T-bone steaks and roasts from the refrigerator."

The vision of Schlotfeldt and his friends was eventually vindicated by subsequent events. He speaks with obvious pride of having been involved in a truly historic effort.

And Schlotfeldt is quick to credit his partner with much of their success. "My wife Agnes was a great help in building the companies."

Being the bookkeeper made Agnes chief financial officer as well, though such a title would make her chuckle with modesty. But the two shared a similar devotion to hard work, to their families and employees, and to their community.

"We're real proud of our contributions in this area," says Agnes. "We believe in young people, and we always aimed at giving service."

No matter how cold it was in the winter, Leo says, Agnes was always lenient with customers during hard times. Such a policy generated goodwill for Sourdough and was made possible by a cardinal rule: Avoid debt that destroys cash flow.

Other Schlotfeldt business principles: Treat your employees right, and give students opportunities to learn and grow with the company.

By 1985, the Schlotfeldts were ready to slow down, at least a little. Sourdough Fuel was sold to the Petrostar Refinery, marking the end of an era. But in a testament to the quality of business nurtured by the Schlotfeldts, the buyers tapped their son, Walter, to run the new subsidiary.

"Petrostar was glad to get him," says Agnes proudly.

A daughter, Sue Gregory, and her husband, Richard, still manage Sourdough Express, while their own son, Jeff Gregory, is vice president in charge of company operations in Anchorage.

The younger Gregory embraces the time-proven values taught by his grandparents: hard work and an even hand.

"Started sweeping floors when I was 11 and I never left, I've done it all," says Gregory. He remembers his grandfather as "a grizzly bear at work and a teddy bear at home. Even on the weekends out at Harding Lake we had to work before we could play. (But) it's a warm place to work. There's always been loyalty and fairness to our employees. They always got the benefit of the doubt."

Sounds a lot like one Leo Schlotfeldt as he reflects on his more than 40-year partnership with Agnes building the transportation foundation of Alaska.

"We are very proud of our relationship with all our employees who have contributed much to the success of the companies we built. Their welfare and their families have always been a concern for us."

This ability to identify with concerns above and beyond the bottom line is perhaps the distinctive part of the Schlotfeldts' success story. To a satchel of traditional American business values, they added that distinctively Alaskan way of looking out for others in a demanding country. Even longtime competitors like Frank Chapados, lawman, trucker, and now Alaska Railroad director, say competing with Sourdough Express was always a "fair and square" proposition.

"They were here on the ground floor, at the beginning of serious trucking in Alaska," Chapados says. "Of all the people I've met, I'd say Leo and Agnes are the finest of the bunch."
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Title Annotation:Alaska Business Hall of Fame; owners of Sourdough Express in Alaska
Author:Richardson, Jeffrey
Publication:Alaska Business Monthly
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Canadian giant invades Alaska's bush.
Next Article:Merle "Mudhole" Smith.

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