Guzman Automotive
James Guzman (left) and his son Joe Gonzales (right) going over the books at the shop they co-own, Guzman Automotive.

The myth of running a family trucking business

Feb. 23, 2024
Family businesses are the backbone of America, and the successful ones are held up by thoughtful policies and consistent management. A great origin story never hurts, either.

When it comes to family businesses, according to Pat Soldano, president of advocacy group Family Enterprise USA, the “horror stories” get all the attention. “You don’t hear about the successes, because that’s not exciting,” she explained. “All you hear about are the disasters.”

Sadly, she’s probably right. But what’s more boring than a nice normal family—or family business, for that matter—in the 21st century? Dysfunction and greed are far more interesting than stability and moderation, at least that’s what my closest family member, TV, says. And the proof is in the popularity of the gabagool-loving crime family on “The Sopranos” and more recently, the corporate-raiding Roys on “Succession.” The former’s criminal enterprise ended violently (yeah, Tony died in that diner), and the latter saw the squabbling children squander control of their father’s media empire, and we loved every painful minute.

In real life, we should hope that these disasters are few and far between because they are a cornerstone of our economy. Family Enterprise’s annual research study found that 80% of U.S. businesses are family-owned, and multi-generational family-owned businesses contribute $7.7 trillion annually to the GDP. They also employ 59% of the nation’s private workforce. In the transportation industry, two out of every three trucking companies are, or at one time were, a small family-run operation, according to Soldano, who often speaks at American Trucking Associations events. And while I couldn’t find definitive stats on family-run repair shops, they likely comprise a solid majority of the overall total.

These are folks living the American dream of building something to serve a need of the community and feed their family, without some boss looking over their shoulder. They control their own destiny and own something to pass on to their progeny.

I was fortunate enough to meet one such entrepreneurial brood, the Guzmans, who just opened a repair shop on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. I don’t want to spoil the story (like I did if you haven’t seen “Succession”), but here is the gist. A guy named James Guzman, who has worked hard his whole life (we’re talking since before kindergarten when he began picking cotton in blazing hot fields) had a good thing going as a franchisee of a successful auto repair chain but left it behind to run a shop co-owned by his son. The goal is to provide the same level of friendly and attentive service James remembers his family getting at the local shop 40 years ago. Three other family members officially work there, though the whole clan finds ways to chip in. And because of their proximity to the under-construction $25 billion Samsung semiconductor plant, they’ll have more than enough local consumer and light commercial vehicles to service for years to come.

Read more: Shop succession plans for generational success

Guzman Automotive already has expansion on the brain, but the true test will be if those satellite shops will retain the founder’s heart. The father and son started their succession planning before opening and have carefully considered how to treat employees who do and don’t share their DNA equally, so they have as good a chance as any.

The next test will be whether Guzman’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren can sustain his values and find success in their own right.

You may think the odds are against them, that the business will decay as the inheritors lose sight of the business’s vision. After all, how could they truly know the struggles their grandfather overcame?

Soldano said we should probably have more faith in future generations, as past notions of why family businesses fail have been overblown.

“There used to be this old adage of, ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves’—that 70% of businesses don’t survive to the third generation,” Soldano explained. “And now the new theory is that’s not true.”

What is true, she said, is family businesses need to have corporate and family governance, along with a succession plan in place, while holding true to core values and a spirit of innovation.

Guzman Auto checks all those boxes, with a rich history to boot. The grandkids hear plenty about the Guzmans’ humble roots, now the stuff of family legend, and their kids probably will, too. That mythical start may just lead to lasting success.

Not all family businesses have the luxury of a thrilling origin story. Sometimes, they begin with a mechanic methodically doing side jobs to save for his own garage or a trucker who dreamed of owning and operating more than one semi. It’s not sexy, but it’s a living.

And as it turns out, being a good role model who dutifully runs a business can be even more compelling than a good yarn. Take the grand patriarch of C.R. England, Gene England. Truly a great even among “the Greatest Generation,” he expanded his father’s trucking business after World War II, and the 104-year-old still comes into the office. His grandchildren run the business now, and it’s stronger than ever and is testing the latest technology available, including autonomous trucks. As an outside observer, the Englands are as nice and normal a family that you could meet, and probably boring if you’re into chaos.

A reality show about the Guzmans or Englands isn’t likely something you’d bingewatch, but with their combination of tradition and innovation, you’d certainly want to work with them. And that’s the story any business, family or not, should really want told. 

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor-in-chief, Fleet Maintenance

John Hitch is the editor-in-chief of Fleet Maintenance, where his mission is to provide maintenance management and technicians with the the latest information on the tools and strategies to keep their fleets' commercial vehicles moving.

He is based out of Cleveland, Ohio, and has worked in the B2B journalism space for more than a decade.

Hitch was previously senior editor for FleetOwner, and covers everything related to trucking and commercial vehicle equipment, including breaking news, the latest trends and best practices. He previously wrote about manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest.

Prior to that he was editor for Kent State University's student magazine, The Burr, and a freelancer for Cleveland Magazine. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician, where he served honorably aboard the fast-attack submarine USS Oklahoma City (SSN-723).