Business

CRST founder Herald Smith dies

He and his wife launched trucking company out of a used chicken coop

CRST photo

Herald and Miriam Smith, CRST International, Cedar Rapids
CRST photo Herald and Miriam Smith, CRST International, Cedar Rapids
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Herald Smith, who with his wife, Miriam, founded CRST International in Cedar Rapids in 1955, died Monday morning in Ellison Bay, Door County, Wis., surrounded by family members.

Smith, 91, launched Cedar Rapids Steel Transport (CRST) with a $125 used chicken coop as an office behind a service station in southwest Cedar Rapids. After getting a phone and electricity installed, Smith lined up drivers to backhaul steel to Cedar Rapids manufacturers from Chicago.

“I had been fired from a trucking company, Western Transportation, and they kept my last paycheck for a month,” Smith recalled in a March interview with The Gazette. “I had to go to my dad and borrow a thousand dollars, which I needed to pay back in 90 days because he really needed it.

“I asked my wife to hold off paying the bills for a month because I needed the money to start the business.”

Smith was able to get drivers to haul livestock to Chicago because he offered to pay them when they delivered their loads and showed him their receipt. Other companies forced drivers to wait as much as two weeks to obtain a check.

The privately held CRST, which now employs more than 7,000 drivers, independent contractors and office personnel, is projecting annual revenues to grow from $1.5 billion this year to $2.15 billion in three years.

“Smitty was a great man,” said Mayor Ron Corbett, who worked for CRST for a decade, starting as a vice president. “He had a big impact on Cedar Rapids.

“He and his wife have been very generous to the Cedar Rapids community, just as his whole family has been. My condolences to the Smith family. He lived a great life.”

In that March interview, Smith said he never envisioned the company he cofounded would have annual revenue topping $1 billion.

“I figured when we hit $1 million in revenue, I would just sit on that and relax,” Smith said. “When we got to $1 million, I wanted to get to $2 million, and when we got to $2 million, I wanted to get to $5 million. That’s just the way it went.”

John Smith, Herald’s son and current chairman of CRST International, said in March his father “believed that when you see an opportunity, you go for it. I think all of us who have led the company have done that over the years.

“I also learned persistence and hard work from my dad. When you get into business, you have to be persistent because things aren’t always going to go right.”

Dave Rusch, CRST president and chief executive officer, on Monday called Herald Smith “the most entrepreneurial guy that I’ve ever met” and said he will be remembered as an industry visionary.

“He was an icon in the transportation business,” Rusch said. “He dealt with adversity after the industry was deregulated in 1980. He was a very good man, and I’m going to miss him.”

The company the Smiths started has come a long way.

In June 2014, CRST announced plans for a $37 million, 11-story tower in downtown Cedar Rapids, the first new building of any size on the riverfront since the GreatAmerica Building opened in 1998.

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Slated for completion next year, the building will house CRST International’s corporate headquarters with about 80 employees and the Cedar Rapids offices of Bankers Trust.

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