In 1987, a father and his son formed a partnership with Peterbilt Motors Company that has functioned and prospered for 30 years. Since its early existence, The Larson Group has dedicated itself to its employees, and its employees dedicate themselves to the organization – sometimes even for the 30 years it’s been in business.
Val Breitag, a salesman at TLG’s first location Peterbilt of Springfield, is one of them.
Perhaps it was his friendship with the Larson family during their days in Sioux Falls, South Dakota that has led him to this longtime commitment.
Or maybe it was his own, unique story beforehand that threw him in that direction – like witnessing the aftermath of a volcanic eruption during a trucking job.
STRANDED NEAR MT. ST. HELENS EXPLOSION
After spending four years in the Army, Val headed to the Gateway to the Plains: Sioux Falls.
“I didn’t really have a job when I got out of the Army,” said Val. “There’s not a lot of call for someone in Air Defense in the private sector.”
Job searching led Val to attending Midwest Coast Transportation Driving School, and he drove a truck for few months for a friend of his.
But one of his very first truck trips was more memorable than he expected it to be.
Team driving in a refrigerated truck packed with meat through the western region of the nation, Val was at the wheel and couldn’t help but notice how difficult it was to see the highway.
“I had never been out there before, so I said, ‘Is there a lot of mining out here?,’” waking up his secondhand.
“Yeah, there is,” he hollered from the bunk.
“It’s awful hazy and dusty out here,” Val replied.
Val chuckled and recalled, “I had been playing the stereo, not listening to the news or anything. I was playing music.”
The further they drove, the worse their visibility was. When they reached Wallace, Idaho, the Highway Patrol had blocked the interstate.
And they were shocked to find out that Mt. St. Helens went off.
Forced to find shelter and wait it out, the facility ran out of food on just the second day.
Despite the consequences, the two broke the seal on their trailer.
Val said, “We had a load of meat in the trailer. It was totally against the law. But we did it. Everybody got to eat.”
When they were given the clear to continue their trip, they had to put nylons on the air cleaners.
“The dust was so heavy the truck would shut down if the filters got all plugged up,” Val explained. “But we got into Spokane and nobody said a word about the seal being broken.”
Unloading apples in another nearby small town, Val still remembers the dust closely resembling snow. The comparison is even more accurate as he witnessed it being pushed with snow plows, piling up on the side of the roads they traveled on.
“It was a scary deal, really,” Val said. “You can’t really function. People had to cover their mouth because of all the dust. And all the stuff that happened with it, like all the flooding and the snow that melted off Mt. St. Helens – we got all that first-hand where all the rivers and the creeks were overflowing. We were right there.”
MEETING CLAIRE LARSON
Close with his neighbor in Sioux Falls, Val was asked to drive a truck for him. The job, though, he didn’t expect to lead to meeting a man who would open a big door.
Claire Larson attended church with Val’s neighbor, and heard about what great care he took of his truck.
Val happened to be buying parts at the Peterbilt dealership in town when he was called into Claire’s office. The conversation turned to the two having lunch, which then turned to Val buying a truck.
Their mutual love of Arabian horses was a hot topic of discussion. But the fact that Claire wrote up the deal on a napkin in a restaurant in Tea, South Dakota made the first encounter even more memorable.
Five years of trucking with Claire’s sons (“The Boys,” he calls them) and building his relationship with Claire, Val was given an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Val said, “When he (Claire) bought the first two dealerships in Springfield and Joplin, he called me up and said, 'Why don't you come out here and sell trucks for me?' I said, 'Well I can drive, and work on them and all that kind of stuff, but I've never sold them.' He said, 'You just get out here and I'll show you how to do it.’"
And he did.
A SALESMAN AND SINGLE FATHER
"When I first came to Joplin, I was a single parent," Val said.
He had a one-year-old son, Tyler, and an annual salary of $18,000. Not to mention, his schedule was hectic having to drive back-and-forth from Joplin to St. Louis to sell trucks. Sometimes he even planned ahead, asking his now-wife and Tyler to meet in the middle at Lake of the Ozarks.
But his situation didn’t go unnoticed.
Val said, “Virtually, all the Larsons – especially Claire and Margaret – they would watch my son for me. They helped me out a lot. The togetherness and the family. They're really a good bunch of people that have taken care of not just myself, but a lot of other people along the way."
All from Sioux Falls, Glenn Larson would pick up his brother, Val and Tyler, and all head to South Dakota for Christmas.
“We had a Suburban load of people and we just laughed all the way up there,” Val remembers. “And we’d roll into Claire and Margaret’s house at 2 a.m. and everyone would just crash out on the floor. It was just so much fun; everyone hanging out together and everybody, the togetherness and the family and everybody pitching in to make something happen. It’s just really a good bunch of people that have taken care of not just myself but a lot of other people along the way.”
CUSTOMERS ARE FRIENDS
Like the Larsons take care of their employees, Val takes care of his customers.
Val has been with The Larson Group since 1989, and has built and maintained a lot of relationships over the years – more interpersonally than your average salesman.
“My customers became my friends,” said Val. “My life is just the trucking industry. And on the weekends, during the week, at night, I hang out with those guys all times of the night. When they’ve got a problem or whatever – we’re virtually family. I pretty much take care of those guys.”
And thanks to The Larson Group’s expansion over the years, building friendships with customers across the Midwest, like Arkansas, Kansas City, Iowa, South Dakota and Indianapolis, was made possible.
“I’m not at their location every day, but they hear from me quite often,” Val said with a grin.
“A lot of people think of the trucking industry as like selling a car or something,” Val added. “But it’s totally different. Way different than that. Just like The Larson Group says ‘Customers For Life,’ well, that’s what they are. Most of these customers I sell to I’ve known for 20 years.”
Val says it’s the empowerment that keeps not only TLG’s customers for life, but many employees.
“I think they’ve empowered people to do a lot of things,” he said. “The empowerment makes it all happen. And that’s all of them. Even when I worked in St. Louis for Kyle – he always said ‘Go get it done. We’re here to support you.’ That’s the way it’s been with all of them along the way.”
Even before his work in St. Louis, Claire, his mentor, did the same.
Val said, “I’d come down and say, ‘Hey, I think we should buy this truck.’ And he said, ‘Well, why haven’t you bought it?’ I go, ‘Well, I didn’t have permission.’ And he goes, ‘If you’re going to make money, you don’t need permission.’”
Claire’s sons keep the empowerment going today.
“It’s funny because I know all the boys and I know them real well,” said Val. “You can kind of pick out different traits in each one. They don’t have all of them, but they’ve all got little bits of different traits that he had when he was selling trucks. He taught them well.”
Now, Val finds himself being a mentor, and empowering others. A few years ago, he asked if he could bring somebody in and train them.
Val said, “I’m not real techy at all and he is. And he’s usually putting stuff on my computer, and I’m thinking, ‘How in the heck did he learn that?’ So, it helps me and I help him. I’ve got a lot of truck knowledge. It’s worked out for both of us.”
He added, “I started out being friends with the father (Claire) and now I’m dealing with their sons. It’s kind of evolved over time. It’s been a good experience. I’ve gotten to do a lot of things. Go a lot of places. Meet a lot of people. People that I thought I’d never, ever meet or be associated with.”