Keep on truckin’.

And to think America’s commerce could have ridden in the back of a Gersix.

If entrepreneurs were content with the status quo and not what’s around the next corner, George T. and Louis Gerlinger would have been happy running their car and truck dealership in the early 1900s. Selling vehicles was nice, but they really wanted to build something instead.

Kenworth trucks logoIn 1914, that entrepreneurial spirit resulted in building trucks, really powerful trucks. Trucks that could haul a load of timber through the rugged mountains of the Pacific Northwest without even breaking a sweat.

The trucks were so good that Edgar K. Worthington quickly took note of the operation. He and his business partner Captain Frederick Kent wanted in on the action, so they made an offer the Gerlingers couldn’t refuse. They renamed their new enterprise the Gersix Motor Company.

Fast forward a few years and the company had moved from Portland to Tacoma, then finally Seattle. Gersix was cranking out trucks on the south end of Lake Union at the rate of 56 a year. Every truck was handmade back then, which allowed the company to customize each truck to meet the unique needs of its customers.

But even customization couldn’t save the company, which had finally become known as Kenworth. As the Great Depression struck, orders took a nosedive right along with the Stock Market.

If there’s a common thread among Washington companies, it’s resilience. When the Depression hit, Boeing turned to making furniture and boats to make ends meet. Kenworth started making buses. They never stopped innovating either, even when cash flow was tight. Kenworth was the first truck builder in the U.S. to add diesel engines and sleeper cabs to their designs.

Eventually, the company caught the eye of another Washington Business Legend, Pacific Car & Foundry. They made railcars and eventually turned their attention to making tanks and other treaded vehicles during World War II.

In 1945 PACCAR purchased Kenworth. Under new ownership, production hit new heights, with the company cranking out 2,500 trucks a year from its Renton facility. Today, nine different models of heavy- and medium-duty trucks roll out of the 300,000 foot assembly plant, a stone’s throw (if you have a strong arm) from Boeing’s 737 factory.

Fittingly, nearly a fifth of Kenworth’s employees have been with the company since the new plant opened in 1993. In 2014, Kenworth produced its one millionth truck and is well on its way to the next million.

Not bad for a company that made just 56 trucks a year in its early days on Seattle’s Mercer Street. It just goes to show that good ideas last, and great companies have the staying power to stand the test of time, changing an entire industry with their bold vision, willingness to take risks and understanding what customers want and need.

To learn more about Kenworth, visit their website.

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