Like the little engine, rail park has lofty goals
“The biggest obstacle is just getting our name out there and proving to the big people that we are serious” — Tim Kuebrich
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
A new logistics park in Godfrey is slowly picking up steam in its quest to be a bigger player in transportation and freight movement in Southwestern Illinois.
Owner Tim Kuebrich, though, wasn’t thinking about railroads, trucks and such when he got into the business via a circuitous route that took him from Jerseyville to St. Louis to Saudi Arabia to Godfrey. Now, though, it appears he’s ready to stay put.
His operation, Lake Drive Logistics, is beginning to get noticed, and Kuebrich, a machinist by trade, said he’s learned a lot under fire.
“You go to the school of hard knocks,” he said. “Ask a lot of questions, talk to a lot of people. I’ve stumbled through it, but I learned a lot in the last three years. It’s been a different world for us, but it’s been good.”
The Lake Drive Logistics campus is largely hidden in acreage off Pearl Street in the heart of Godfrey, part of the old Mead Packaging facilities that once employed more than 200 people.
“We’ve got 45 acres and a 71,000-square-foot warehouse, of which around 10,000 square feet is sectioned off for a machine shop,” he said. A large, manmade lake sits on the property, which is ripe for development because of the two railroads that serve the corridor alongside it.
Kuebrich, 53, acquired the property in 2014 and has spent the ensuing time cleaning up the property, spending hundreds of thousands on repairs, working on contracts with customers and building relationships with local officials and the transportation industry.
“The biggest (obstacle) is just getting our name out there and proving to the big people that we are serious and that we can do it,” he said.
Kuebrich went to Ranken Technical College to become a machinist before landing a 13-year stay with McDonnell-Douglas Corp. in St. Louis. He spent much of that time building jigs and fixtures that held the wings off the F-15 jet for repairs. The last three years of that career, 1993 to 1996, were spent in Saudi Arabia, where the company sent him to work on the same planes used by that country.
“Glad I went. Glad I’m not there now. I had my entire family with me – my wife and two children. Great experience for all of us. It was after the Gulf War but before (radicals) started targeting civilians,” he said. “The general public in Saudi Arabia is just like you and I are and just as nice as can be. They are just everyday people. There’s good people in this world all over.”
He came back to the states — and to new opportunity. A-1 Machine Shop, in Jerseyville, where he had worked as a co-op student in high school, came up for sale because of the owner’s pending retirement.
Kuebrich bought the facility and turned it from a one-man operation to five employees and several CNC machines. Before long, the 6,300-square-foot building in Jerseyville was busting at the seams. That was around 2013, shortly before he bought the old Mead property for machine shop space. Mead, which was a successor business to the former Alton Boxboard operations, made among other things beer boxes for Anheuser-Busch and Miller breweries.
“I found this building and I kind of fell in love with the property,” he said.
The shop, which now goes by the name of AB Machine Shop, only takes a small part of the space, leaving room for other uses. That led to the formation of Lake Drive Logistics, a natural given the railroads’ location.
“Dealing with the railroads has been a learning curve for us,” Kuebrich said. “The rail is dually served by Union Pacific and Kansas City Southern. We’ve got a track agreement for them both to serve us. That’s kind of a rarity. Most of the time you’re only served by one railroad. It has been a good thing for us.”
The rails through that area are being upgraded for high-speed rail use by Amtrak, but the improvements mean the potential for more freight rail, too.
In the beginning, the logistics facility could handle only five railcars at a time. Now, the service spur has been extended and can hold 12.
“We’ve brought in a lot of product out of Mexico for Kansas City Southern,” he said. “We transload it here, warehouse it or take it directly off a train and put on a truck.”
As a member of a committee working with the St. Louis Regional Freightway, Kuebrich’s been able to get his company’s name in front of other businesses and has found answers to many of his questions.
His first logistics project was a partnership with Kansas City Southern and Scotwood industries (based in Kansas City) to bring calcium chloride (salt) out of Mexico.
“And we now warehouse it for them year-round. It’s the best ice melt there is,” he said.
Lake Drive ships the product to Chicago, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio. The salt shipments opened a new territory for Scott Wood, because it did not have a warehouse in this area.
“They actually closed one of the warehouses and brought that product here so we’ve been expanding for them on that side. Scotwood owns a salt mine in New Mexico. It also has a plant down in Washington Park that they bring sodium chloride in. BNSF railroad brings it to Washington Park. We bring our calcium chloride in here from Kansas City Southern out of Mexico and we truck it down to them. They have a blending line and a rebagging line so they’ll blend the two (salts) together to make a little cheaper ice melt.”
For a time, Lake Drive was also bringing in spent brewer’s yeast from the Corona beer plant in Mexico to be dried and repackaged for the pet food industry.
Now, the logistics facility is also working on bringing in lumber products.
“Anything you would see sitting outdoors at a lumberyard we could store outdoors here,” he said.
The company has also partnered with Union Pacific distribution services and is reviewing opportunities for bids.
Kuebrich thinks his transload facilities will serve a niche, even if smaller. Jerseyville officials are looking to locate a large intermodal transload operation in that community, and Lake Drive could help fill gaps in service.
“What they are talking about doing there is such a large scale. But the small stuff I’m doing would not go up there because it just doesn’t fit. If we work together I think it could be beneficial to both of us,” he said, adding that he has talked to the Jerseyville mayor about it.
The company Jerseyville is dealing with wants to build an intermodal facility but also wants completion of U.S. 67 to a four lane across the county. That will take state of Illinois assistance and could be an obstacle because of the state’s fiscal condition, he said.
“Those kinds of things are going to be the drawbacks. Do I think it’ll happen? Yes, I do. But I think it’s going to be 10 years down the road,” he said.
While the rail industry has had mixed success in recent years mainly because of the drawdown in coal shipping, Kuebrich thinks it will be strong in the future because of the relief that rails provide highways. For every rail car in use, three or four trucks can be pulled off the road, he said.
Lake Drive Logistics hasn’t committed to buying its own trucks, but it has partnered with two other trucking companies out of St. Louis.
“Some of the stuff we’re bringing in, the bid process calls for us to provide trucking,” he said. “Either trucking to here to put on a rail car, or inbound railcar and outbound truck.”
Lake Drive is also doing a lot of container work, repairing or redistributing loads brought into the facility so they can be shipped out as needed.
Kuebrich acknowledges being a small player in the gigantic logistics industry.
“But I think there are a lot of opportunities there for us. We’re still looking for that niche product and service.”
The facility is part of the territory served by America’s Central Port, a unit of local government that offers assistance programs to help lower operating costs for start-ups and private expanding businesses. Kuebrich has gotten to know Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of the port, and Mary Lamie, the executive director of the St. Louis Regional Freightway District, who has toured Lake Drive Logistics multiple times.
Both individuals are very supportive, Kuebrich said.
“They are poised waiting to help us whenever we have the right opportunity. I can pull a lot of knowledge out of there,” he said.
Kuebrich showed a reporter a design produced by engineers at America’s Central Port showing where rail spurs could be built to further serve the logistics park. The design shows many alignments as possible.
Some work has already been done. Trees have been cleared, and one spur has been added, and Kuebrich is talking to railroad officials about adding switchbacks to accommodate trains coming different directions. At least two more rail spurs could be added under the current plan.
“If I could do all that it would bring me up to 50 cars (at a time). Right now, we can have only 12. We can load them, unload them, and send them out and take 12 more in,” he said
Kuebrich has been trying to develop a master plan to coordinate anticipated growth. He also bought two nearby houses to make way for development.
Kuebrich owns most of the operation, but does have a silent partner. Lake Drive LLC was set up as the company of record, and the chief tenants, Lake Drive Logistics and AB Machine Shop, lease the space.
Kuebrich brought his son Andrew aboard the operation to run the machine shop at the very beginning.
“We bounce a lot of ideas back and forth, talk about them and come up with a plan and then execute it,” he said.
Overall, he has seven employees now and could probably use a couple of more.
“If we have one or two of those other contracts come through, I’m going to need five or six more.” One of the jobs he’s bid on was for a product out of St. Louis, representing 12 trucks a day and four railcars a day, five days a week.
And if the right opportunity comes along the port district has told him it could front him money to build a spur and he could pay it back.
“Some of these large (potential contracts), they want to see a track record. They’re in it for the long haul, too. Once they move that business here, it’s here for a long time. We’re getting to that point where the opportunities are starting to come in.”
Godfrey village response has been terrific, he said.
“(Mayor) Mike McCormick is very supportive. We took a property where the last business moved out in ’97 and we moved into in ’14, so it’s been vacant for quite some time. I said it was going to be a work in progress for several years and it’s coming around very well, I feel. When we first moved in there was a row of trees down Pearl Street about 70 feet wide and you couldn’t even see this building from Pearl Street. The lake was so overgrown with the brush that you couldn’t see the dam.”
Because high speed rail construction is going on within sight of his business, some of the railroad workers asked and were granted permission to camp on logistics park land. The resulting relationship has been good for both parties, he said.
Kuebrich was asked to lay out his predictions for his business. Near term, he thinks Lake Drive will land one of the companies it’s been courting. Long term, he expects to build more rail access and be served by the railroads more days each week.
“We’re only served two days a week right now with railcars coming in and out. I look for that to go up to five days a week and be 30 to 40 cars a week, if not more.”
The ideal products would be lumber or anything palletized or in crates.
“We’re working currently with a company that diecasts aluminum transmission housings. We would truck those in here and put them on a railcar to go south for transmission builds. That’s in the works. We haven’t signed the dotted line yet, but we’re real close.”
If that deal gets done, more automotive products might be a possibility.
So far, Kuebrich believes he has invested close to a million dollars between buying the property and materials and making repairs. Some $100,000 went into electrical upgrades. Another $100,000 went into fixing a rail line that hadn’t been used in 20 years.
Kuebrich said there are a lot of trucking businesses in the market but not a lot of rail operations like his. He noted the gigantic logistics operations at Gateway Commerce Center in Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach, none of which is rail served.
“So, we’re kind of talking to some of the people down there and seeing if there’s some of that that we could possibly convert over to rail and truck it from here to there or vice versa. It’s mind boggling what they’ve got there.”