The following story was originally published as an online exclusive on the W&M Alumni Magazine website. Webb Estes recently spoke to the magazine about Estes Express Lines’ sustainability initiatives as a companion to the spring 2024 feature article “Sustainable Solutions,” highlighting some of the W&M alumni who are moving renewable energy projects forward. – Ed.

When the W&M Alumni Magazine interviewed Rob Estes ’74 and his son, Webb Estes ’06, M.Acc. ’07, two years ago about how their family-owned freight transportation company was managing supply chain challenges, they talked about steps they were taking toward increased sustainability.

Since then, Richmond, Virginia-based Estes Express Lines has deepened its commitment to renewable energy while navigating emerging technology, underdeveloped electric vehicle infrastructure, changing state and federal requirements and other factors.

With a fleet of more than 10,000 trucks and over 23,000 employees, Estes is North America’s largest privately owned freight carrier and the largest less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier, meaning its trailers typically contain shipments from multiple companies.

Estes is at the forefront of freight-industry sustainability initiatives. In early 2023, the company launched the Estes Sustainability Program, which includes piloting a carbon-capture system for freight vehicles, installing solar panels and using electric forklifts at terminals, expanding its fleet of trucks that run on natural gas and incorporating electric tractor-trailers, particularly for trips of shorter distances. The program also encompasses efforts to increase efficiency by encouraging driving practices that reduce the amount of fuel use, by implementing aerodynamic features that reduce friction and by incorporating new technology that helps to plan more efficient routes and to ensure that trailer space is maximized.

Webb Estes
Webb Estes ’06, M.Acc. ’07 is company president and COO. (Courtesy photo)

“We’re trying to test everything we can that makes sense and helps the industry,” says Webb Estes, who became president and chief operating officer of the company in January 2023, while Rob Estes continues as CEO and board chair.

“There’s a balancing act of investing but not putting the cart before the horse,” he adds. “We’re trying to make the best decisions we can, knowing the technology will get better.”

Estes Express Lines began partnering this year with Watershed, an enterprise sustainability platform provider, to establish a baseline carbon footprint for use in analyzing emissions data and guiding sustainability efforts. The company is also working on the Dock to Door Coalition, a statewide partnership led by Virginia Tech, to advance sustainability and supply chain resiliency with involvement from industry, higher education, local communities and government.

Although Estes’ formal sustainability program is fairly new, it connects and builds on the company’s efforts over time, says Sara Graf, vice president of sustainability, culture and communications.

“It’s part of Estes’ DNA,” she says. “It’s who we are, being founded during the Great Depression, being privately held and financially stable, to think about how to be the best stewards of all of our resources, whether that’s our people, our equipment or how we service our customers and communities.”  

The company’s stewardship of its workers was recognized in May by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which named Estes one of the Richmond region’s top workplaces, based on employee surveys about issues such as workplace culture, work-life balance, training opportunities and benefits. Estes took first place in the “mega company” category.

Jean Berger Estes and Rob W. Estes
Jean Berger Estes ’75 and Rob W. Estes ’74 (Courtesy photo)

The Estes family’s commitment to their community includes William & Mary, the alma mater of Webb Estes and both of his parents, Rob Estes and Jean Berger Estes ’75. Rob served on the W&M Business School Foundation Board from 2004-2020; he was also part of the For the Bold Campaign Steering Committee and co-chair of the Richmond Regional Campaign Committee, along with Jean. A former W&M Foundation trustee, Jean serves on the W&M Alumni Association board. The couple has raised scholarship funds through the Estes Challenge and contributed generously to the new W&M Athletics Complex. Webb also served on the Richmond campaign committee and gives back to William & Mary.

“Whatever little bit we have done to support the institution, we’ve gotten much more back in the feeling of being part of something larger than we are,” Rob said in an interview for the 2018 W&M Alumni Magazine feature “Richmond Revival.”

Webb Estes recently spoke to the magazine about Estes Express Lines’ sustainability initiatives as a companion to the spring 2024 feature article “Sustainable Solutions,” highlighting some of the W&M alumni who are moving renewable energy projects forward.

In March, the company received the inaugural Sustainability Pathfinder Award from Transport Topics, a media outlet serving the freight transportation industry. The award recognizes companies that are “paving the way for a greener future.”

Estes is the first LTL carrier to sign on for a pilot program with Remora that places a device on the back of a truck to collect carbon, which then can be stored and sold for uses such as concrete manufacturing. Originally, the pilot was scheduled to begin in fall 2022, but the initial model needed refinement so that it captured carbon more effectively while not reducing fuel economy.

“We’re hoping it will be ready later this year,” Webb Estes says. “We’ve ordered our first 10 devices and we’re still committed to the program.” 

The company’s other sustainability efforts include installing solar panels on the roofs at seven of its 215 terminals, generating about 1.7 kilowatt hours per year and offsetting an estimated 1,180 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Estes says they plan to install panels at 40 more terminals, but heightened demand for solar equipment has created a backlog in the wake of tax incentives associated with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

A large truck
Estes Express Lines operates 12 electric trucks out of a California terminal. (Courtesy photo)

Delays also have affected the company’s ability to acquire electric trucks — 12 that had been ordered in 2019 were received four years later, in 2023. Those 12 are based at a terminal in California, which mandated that by 2035, all trucks moving goods through the state must be zero-emission vehicles.

That presents a challenge for cross-country shipments, since batteries currently allow Estes’ trucks to run for 150 to 250 miles per charge, but they often need to travel 600 miles per night.

“I think you’re going to see a lot of loads transferred in Las Vegas or Reno, Nevada, or Phoenix, because those trucks may not be allowed into California,” Estes says. “Then an electric truck could do the last 300 miles.” 

In addition to its electric trucks, Estes Express Lines operates 315 electric forklifts at its facilities as well as two electric yard trucks — designed to pick up and move trailers at a terminal — in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“It’s newer technology, so there are things to work through,” Estes says. “When electric vehicles break down, it takes longer to get parts. We want to invest in this area because we want a sustainable solution, but all of it comes with some growing pains.”

The company has also invested in 180 natural gas trucks; however, in a few years, most of those won’t meet California’s emissions requirements. Still, Graf points out that 50 of those trucks run on renewable natural gas, which California looks on more favorably. Renewable natural gas, or biogas, comes from sources such as municipal solid waste landfills, wastewater treatment plants, livestock farms and food production facilities.

“There are a lot of moving pieces, and the thing that I see, looking out at the next five-10 years, is a lot of the best solutions aren’t there yet,” Estes says. “So what we’re navigating is: How do we continually make good investments that help our employees, our customers and our world, while making sure we don’t do it too early and miss all the great things that William & Mary students are going to come up with in the next five years?”