Presented by First National Bank Alaska
It all began simply enough: Two brothers, a 24-foot box truck and $900 worth of ice cream and milk for delivery along the stretches of perpendicular highway that connect Anchorage to Glennallen and Glennallen to Valdez.
That was 45 years ago. Today, the company that is still known as Wilson Brothers Distributing serves 285 customers with daily deliveries of goods from more than two dozen different food and beverage vendors, along with consolidating and transporting everything from commercial cleaning supplies to Amazon packages to laundry. From the local food bank to the tugboats working in Prince William Sound, it’s hard to find an aspect of life in Valdez that isn’t touched by the multigenerational family business.
“It ends up being quite a responsibility,” said Curtiss Wilson. “You can’t go through the town without seeing a Wilson Brothers employee or truck or vehicle of some sort there.”
Three generations of Wilson Brothers (and sons, sister and mother)
Curtiss -- Curt -- is the vice president of Wilson Brothers and largely manages the business today. His father, Jim, and uncle, Floyd, were the original Wilson brothers when that first truck started making trips back and forth between Anchorage and Valdez in 1975, providing lodges and grocery stores with products from the dairy where Jim worked.
Established just as Alaska’s pipeline economy began to boom, Wilson Brothers grew quickly, and although Floyd moved on after a few years, Jim’s wife Aggie and their sons and daughter stepped up to help manage the thriving business.
“I guess I grew up with it, you know,” Curt said.
Now he’s working toward passing the mantle of leadership to a new generation. While Curt runs the show and Jim still serves as president of the corporation, Curt’s son Samuel has started to step into the role of operations manager at the company’s Anchorage location. The job comes with long days and high expectations, but Samuel, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq, says he’s been training for it since childhood.
“A lot of it starts at the dinner table,” Samuel said. “Hard work and dedication and customer service is how we were all raised and brought up.”
Over the years, Wilson Brothers has established partnerships with major suppliers, freight companies and clients around the state, forming partnerships with companies like Sysco Alaska, the Odom Corp., and nearly every freight transporter in Alaska. Since 2011, Wilson Brothers has been a Lynden agent, the only one of the transportation group’s partners that represents six of its subsidiary companies, which include familiar names like Lynden Transport and Alaska Marine Lines. Wilson Brothers now operates out of a custom freight terminal in Valdez that was built in 2012 with Lynden’s help.
No family agrees on everything, and there’s not always 100 percent consensus among the various Wilsons about how the business should operate. But Wilson Brothers has survived despite -- or, Curt suggested, because of -- the different perspectives that the family members bring to the table.
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Curt said. “A lot of give and take. When it comes to the community side, they don’t really see that part of it.”
“They’re not supposed to,” Jim added.
Families supporting families
Like many longtime family businesses, Wilson Brothers doesn’t have a complex growth strategy, big plans for innovation, or any intent to “disrupt” the industry. The company’s goal is simple: People need things; Wilson Brothers delivers them; service is priority.
And they do it reliably, according to the head of another longtime Valdez family business.
Colleen Stephens is the president of Stan Stephens Cruises. Founded in 1971 by her dad, Stephens’ company has been doing business with Wilson Brothers since the late ’70s. Whether they needed hot cocoa and clam chowder for day cruises or beef brisket and cleaning supplies for the island camp they once operated, the Stephens family has gone to the Wilson family.
“Being a family-run business, you allow each other to have a lot of flexibility,” Stephens said. “They’ve always worked really well with us. We know that they’re going to have our backs, and (they know) that we’re going to work around what they have.”
That mutual give-and-take extends beyond everyday business transactions, she added.
“We are dependent on them for supply chain, (and) at the same time, they’re there to support our schools, to support the city,” Stephens said. “If the commitment of that family had not been made to this town … we would be relying on large corporate entities rather than someone that holds the value of Valdez in their hands.”
Stephens said that while Wilson Brothers is known in town for being supportive of community efforts with “fantastic” discounted rates and donations, its importance to Valdez has been particularly felt over the past several months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the pandemic, Stephens said, she’s been able to get pretty much anything she wants or needs, including household staples, special ingredients, and yes -- toilet paper.
“That supply chain is a lifeline,” Stephens said. “They provide that link to Valdez, whether it’s getting something on grocery store shelves or into a restaurant, or it’s getting something (shipped) out.”
Businesses like Wilson Brothers that have longstanding ties to a community are the ones that you know you can count on even when times are as “challenging” as they have been for the past several months, she added.
“I think that’s kind of the core of who a small town is,” Stephens said. “When you have someone that’s in your community, rooted in your community, every pain of each resident has been felt by every business, and every success, too.”
Challenges and community
As the business has evolved over the years, so have its financial needs. The Wilson family has been banking with First National Bank Alaska since 1960, when Jim took out a loan to buy a 1958 Pontiac in celebration of his high school graduation.
“I had the world by the tail then,” he said.
Curt talks about the company’s history with First National in some of the same terms Stephens used to describe the mutually beneficial, give-and-take relationship between Stan Stephens Cruises and Wilson Brothers. Not only has the bank been creative and flexible in the ways it has supported Wilson Brothers’ growth, he said, but First National is, in turn, a Wilson Brothers Distributing customer, trusting the company to transport supplies to its Glennallen and Valdez branches.
First National Bank Alaska and Stan Stephens Cruises aren’t the only Valdez businesses that rely on Wilson Brothers. The port community of 3,900 currently has no commercial air service and no ferry, so the only ways in and out are the port and a single ribbon of highway.
“Wilson has become the lifeline, really, for that town,” Curt said.
The company sends trucks between Anchorage and Valdez five or six days a week, loaded with grocery store stock, medical supplies for every health care provider in town (including the veterinarian), and UPS shipments, including the Amazon orders that have more than quadrupled during the coronavirus pandemic, from about 30 pieces a day to nearly 150 on a recent Friday. When an avalanche closes the highway, cutting off the town by land, Curt will bring a barge over from Whittier to keep the supply chain open with the cooperation of Alaska Marine Lines.
One of the services Wilson Brothers prides itself on is consolidation. Rather than having a dozen different shipments coming on different trucks from different vendors, their customers can have everything from cleaning chemicals to fresh bread to mail consolidated into pallets and delivered in a single shipment. In a city where the economy is built around remote work on the water, it’s a valuable offering.
“We delivered a big order of groceries to a tanker here about a month ago or so,” Curt said. “The guy on the tanker says, ‘This is really cool. When I get groceries elsewhere, you gotta call the meat guy, the dairy guy, the beverage guy, the chemical guy, the laundry guy.’”
Along with convenience for its customers, Curt said Wilson Brothers prioritizes safety for its team. All of Wilson Brothers’ drivers have numerous certifications and oversights, including CDL licenses, regular drug tests, and badges with the Transportation Security Administration and Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
Valdez has escaped any significant outbreaks of COVID-19 so far, but the community has been prepared for the worst since March, when Wilson Brothers helped make sure the city had everything it needed to be ready. Curt delivered 100 milk crates to the hospital to be used in setting up emergency beds, and he made sure the local food bank had what it needed to keep the town fed, setting the organization up with storage containers and a refrigerated truck for extra supplies.
Pandemic or no, community service is a regular part of Wilson Brothers’ business model. Curt estimates they spend about $35,000 each year on sponsorships, giveaways and philanthropic endeavors like supporting the Valdez Museum and Historical Archive
“It’s just something that we do,” Curt said. “It’s part of being responsible to the community in which we do business.”
Being an entrepreneur in Valdez isn’t always easy. Compared to other towns on Alaska’s road system, it’s pretty remote, and the volume of business is low relative to the cost of operating. As a result, everyone tends to rely on their neighbors, and that extends to the business community as well.
“I consider us the local vendor,” Curt said. “We have local employees. I try really hard to do what we can to fulfill what I think is our responsibility as being part of the community.”
First National Bank Alaska has been Alaska’s community bank since 1922. We’re proud to support Alaskans by investing in your success as you take the leaps of faith, large and small, that enrich communities across the state.
This article was produced by the creative services department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.