When freight needs to be hauled year-round along Alaska’s major highways, Dave Shooner of Spenard Builders Supply knows that performance and professionalism are the keys to success.
And, in his opinion, performance and professionalism are two words that go hand-in-hand with Sourdough Express, a longtime Alaska-owned company that has been an AGC member since 1998. Shooner has done business with Sourdough for nearly the same amount of time.
“They’re a very professional, cost-effective freight carrier here in Alaska,” said Shooner, who works as an area manager for SBS. “We use them for anything from a truckload to a hundred truckloads for larger projects.”
When it comes to hauling freight, SBS could tinker with who hauls its supplies. But why fix a system that isn’t broken? Sticking with Sourdough Express, Shooner said, has everything to do with performance.
“SBS general managers keep choosing people who perform. You’re not going go with Plan B or C if the Sourdough option is working for you,” he said.
“That consistency is very critical. You know who to call. You know if there’s an issue that they’re going to take care of it. It’s not guesswork on somebody down in the Lower 48.”
Sourdough has been serving companies in all sectors of Alaska industries, including construction, mining, household goods, oil and gas, and commercial freight since 1898. That’s right: Sourdough Express has been around so long that gold was discovered in the Klondike River, sparking the Klondike Gold Rush, just two years before the company started.
In fact, prospector Bob Ellis was the original owner of Sourdough Express. In Dawson City, Ellis got his start by hauling gear to prospectors’ camps. To transport the gear, he used sled dogs in the winter and horse-driven carriages in the summer. Four years later, he moved to Fairbanks and eventually sold the company to Edward and Agnes Hering in 1923.
The company has remained in the family ever since.
“It’s probably one of the oldest companies (in Alaska) that’s under the same ownership structure,” said Josh Norum, Vice President of Household Goods services and the fifth generation to work at Sourdough Express. “There are probably other companies that can claim they’re older, but we have kept it within the family.”
In 1995, three siblings — Jeff Gregory, Debbie Norum and Karen Conover — purchased Sourdough Express and Borealis Moving and Storage from their parents, uncle and grandfather to become the fourth generation to own the family business.
“Sourdough Express prides itself on being a fourth-generation family-owned and operated company that truly cares about our employees and customers,” Norum said. “We pride ourselves on developing our employees to be successful and grow their careers while giving our customers unmatched service.”
Two years after the 1995 purchase, the siblings developed an expansion of Sourdough Express called Sourdough Transfer, which specializes in moving members of the armed services in Alaska. That expansion continued in 1999 when Sourdough purchased Food Transportation Services, dipping its feet in the temperature-controlled freight business and hauling loads of Alaska salmon from a terminal in Cordova.
Eventually, Sourdough Express and Sourdough Transfer split into two separate businesses, with Sourdough Express focusing on only freight services and Sourdough Transfer focusing on just moving and storage.
In 2013, the expansion continued as Sourdough added another 8,000 square feet to its Anchorage warehouse as well as 14 extra dock doors.
All this history — and much, much more regarding the family history — is detailed in a homemade documentary that is posted on Sourdough’s website.
“In the last 20 years, Sourdough has seen controlled growth,” the narrator said. “ This is due to the dedication and hard work of each employee. From the road south of Anchorage on the Peninsula to the ice roads north of Prudhoe Bay, Sourdough employees are determined to be the most dependable moving and freight company in the state of Alaska.”
This 8-minute, 14-second video is something Sourdough Express shows to all its new employees, and it’s something their employees are proud of, Norum said.
Considering this is a fourth-generation, family-owned company, it’s no surprise the video was homemade.
“I had one of our drivers do the voice-over, and I wrote the script,” Norum said. “We were planning on making a rough draft, then have a professional media company redo it, but so far we haven’t seen the need.”
Norum had already been saving pictures, general history and facts for about five years. So when Sourdough Express put on a big culture event within the company, he figured making a company documentary would not only be cool to show but it would also last a lifetime. He also thought it was fitting to include a driver named Chappy, who’s been with the company on and off for many years.
“He knew how to talk specifically for a video,” Norum said. “He’s always had a big interest in Sourdough’s history, too.”
Sometime around 1968, according to Sourdough’s video, a buzz circulated regarding potentially large oil deposits north of Fairbanks. This led to Sourdough Express owner Leo Schlotfeldt — the grandfather of Jeff Gregory, Debbie Norum and Karen Conover — and other investors starting Great Northern Transportation Group with the goal of creating a route from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay.
That route, which was complete in 1974, is now called the Dalton Highway. To this day Sourdough still delivers freight up and down the 414-mile road that parallels the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. This past summer, Sourdough drivers hauled loads of foam into the hundreds for a construction project on the Dalton Highway.
“It was one of those things where the foam had to be there from this time to this time,” Norum said. “If we were late, they were at a standstill. We were always on time, making sure to meet our customer’s schedule.
“We were pretty happy with that, considering all the things that can go wrong up there. We kept it together.”
Brian Skinner, Vice President of Freight Services, said Sourdough’s job is simple: It’s here to provide reliable, safe service, a century-old philosophy that will enable the company to serve its customers for another 100 years.
“Big enough to do the job,” he said. “Small enough to care."
Kevin Klott is a freelance writer who lives in Anchorage.