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Winter 2004 | Volume 26, Number 5 | Features
Special Delivery

For Alumnus of the Year Ed Vander Pol, Business Success Comes From Above

ED VANDER POL SLEEPS SOUNDLY for a man with big responsibilities. His company has 1,300 employees in five states, hundreds of trucks on the road and nearly $100 million in annual revenues. Yet, like many a trucker hauling an 80,000-pound payload down the interstate at 60 mph, Ed takes the risks and variables in stride and keeps an open line to God.

The 1972 graduate of Seattle Pacific is co-owner and co-president of Oak Harbor Freight Lines Inc., one of the largest family-owned businesses in Washington state. Along with brother David, he runs the 87-year-old operation they say “belongs to God.”

“Money is overrated. This is about integrity, customer service and wonderful employees,” says Ed, who was honored as the 2004 Alumnus of the Year during Homecoming in January. “God expects us to help others and blesses us to be able to do so.”

A combination of successful business practices, good hearts and helping hands has grown Oak Harbor into a transportation company that serves more Northwest points than any other single carrier. Whenever a snowstorm shuts down the mountain passes, businesses in Eastern Washington know they can count on Oak Harbor to go a day out of the way by first driving south to Portland, then turning east to bypass the Cascade Range before turning north again to finally deliver the goods.

Such faithfulness does not stop at Oak Harbor’s paying customers. Ed’s company won the 2002 Community Partnerships Award from Seattle’s public television station KCTS for its volunteer service to national and local organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America and Northwest Harvest, the only statewide hunger relief agency in Washington.

“Last year, Ed’s company transported about half a million pounds of fruit and vegetables for our 300 food banks and meal programs across the state,” says Northwest Harvest Executive Director Shelley Rotondo. “They treat us with the same courtesy and reliability as they would a paying customer. I have a great deal of respect for Ed and his family. It costs them.”

Ed shrugs off any notion of sacrifice. “We haul empty trucks back from the east side of the state all the time. Instead of letting all that food go to waste, we pick it up at little cost and get it to the people who badly need it. What moves me is when kids go hungry.”

The Vander Pol enterprise began in 1919 in the small town of Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island when Ed’s uncles purchased two cartage trucks from a dairy farm for $600 cash. By 1937, their younger brother, Henry (Ed’s dad), had joined them. Despite having only an eighth-grade education, Henry’s business savvy became a guiding light for years to come.

“Dad worked hard, always told the truth, didn’t waste money and lived a simple lifestyle,” says Ed. “He expected the same from his employees, and he got it.” Henry drove the 46 miles from Whidbey to Seattle twice a day in an era without freeways. Since trucks then couldn’t travel much over 40 mph, this meant plenty of 16-hour days. Today, Dad Vander Pol is 87, and he still pops into the office occasionally.

Ed, who never had a job interview in his life, started working for his father on the loading dock as a high school student. When Seattle Pacific College denied him admission due to weak grades, he attended one year of college in Iowa. “I hated Iowa and buckled down to my studies so that I was accepted at Seattle Pacific my sophomore year.”

He majored in business; married his high school sweetheart, Mary Lindberg; and after graduation was put to work at Oak Harbor finding lost freight and soothing the occasional disgruntled customer. “Dad made me office manager at the ripe old age of 25,” says Ed with a lingering trace of good-natured disbelief. “I wouldn’t recommend having someone manage people 25–30 years their senior, but Dad was in the office right behind mine, and he helped smooth things over.”

Thirty years later, Ed is happy to share the leadership load, and an office wall, with his younger brother. At corporate headquarters — now located in the city of Auburn, Washington — David oversees sales while Ed looks after internal functions such as payroll, computer systems, maintenance and accounts receivable. The one job he’s never held at Oak Harbor is that of driver, and for good reason: “You can’t learn to run a company from the cab of a truck.”

The Christian faith permeates everything Ed does, and he prays before company business meetings and makes Bibles available to anyone for the taking. He doesn’t force his faith on anyone, but his employees are treated well and know that Oak Harbor’s way of doing business stems from Christian ownership.

“We’ve never had an employee complain about our faith,” says Ed. “One person even told me that the company is blessed and protected because there are Christians at the helm.”

Trusted driver and friend of 16 years Don Davidson certainly experienced some kind of protection during a close call in a recent windstorm. Enumclaw Community Hospital was in critical need of intravenous saline solution, and the precious liquid was aboard Davidson’s company truck en route when 80 mph winds struck.

The mayor of Enumclaw closed down the town and declared a state of emergency. Street lights went out, and the path ahead of Davidson lay strewn with downed trees and power lines. The veteran trucker knew the side streets well, so the hospital got its vital solution — but not before a falling tree sheared a side mirror from the truck, narrowly missing the cab and Davidson inside.

A sign on the wall of Oak Harbor’s headquarters quotes Exodus 14:14 and is as good a statement as any of how the company is run: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Active in lobbying for sound national trucking policy, Ed doesn’t let his business or advocacy overshadow devotion to family, church and the needs of the poor. He credits 33 years of marriage to a faithful and understanding mate. “Mary and I had some tough times, but she hung in with me when I wasn’t so good,” he says. She loves the Lord and prays for me. I know I can count on her.”

The couple has a daughter, Deborah, and two sons following in the family business: Daniel Vander Pol ’98, in sales; and Mark Vander Pol ’97, a cost analyst in the pricing department. Both were SPU business majors. “Dad taught us kids to work hard and not expect everything to be handed to us,” notes Mark. “We had to be in church every Sunday without fail, and we learned the importance of caring for people.”

A bass singer on the worship team at Tacoma Christian Reformed Community Church, Ed served on the board of Seattle Christian School and actively promotes child adoption through Bethany Christian Services. “Abortion bothers me so much,” he says. “It was legalized the year I went full-time with Oak Harbor.”

“Ed has a tender heart for others and recognizes that how he treats the poor is how he treats Jesus,” says Mary. “And he is simply overwhelmed at being named SPU Alumnus of the Year. We’re so grateful for the education our sons received there, and now to hear your own alma mater say, ‘You are valued, you are a godly man,’ is a huge thing to Ed.”

Seattle Pacific Alumni Director Doug Taylor marvels that “such a regular guy” is respected in so many places and on so many levels. “It’s difficult to overstate the incredible impact Ed has had in his community and around the state.”

Friend Bob Shupe believes Ed’s impact stems from the fact he doesn’t blow his own horn. “I treasure the man. He is genuine, astute and as caring as they come.”

His alma mater’s vision for effecting positive change in the world resonates with the 2004 Alumnus of the Year. “SPU has a tremendous president with the right message,” says Ed. “Engage the culture is exactly what Christians should do.”

President Philip Eaton has high commendations for the Alumnus of the Year as well. “I find Ed Vander Pol’s approach to his business and his life to be deeply rooted in SPU’s vision,” says Seattle Pacific President Philip Eaton. “He is a soft-spoken gentleman who runs his very successful company with great skill and competence, and with the utmost integrity. His warm commitment to his family, to his church and to the people who work for Oak Harbor Freight Lines clearly springs from his Christian faith and is evident in everything he says and does.”

In three decades of engaging the culture through good business practices, Ed has watched his competition both dwindle and expand. While few of the trucking rivals from the ’70s still exist, a glut of new carriers is responsible for excess hauling capacity in the market. Regulations have multiplied until the only things not regulated are rates and routes. Ed places such red tape issues in wry perspective: “The good news is you can’t make trucking in China.”

To David, his plainspoken brother is simply trustworthy. “What he says he’ll do, he does. When it comes to financial reporting, you can take his numbers to the bank.” But Ed’s read on Oak Harbor’s success is predictably modest. “I’d like to tell you my brother and I are real smart, but that’s not true. God has blessed us, and we’re just amazed.”


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