In It for the Long Haul
John Berghager runs his I-70 Towing and Recovery business out of a remodeled bowling alley at 2116 Vandiver Drive. It’s a building with a history in Columbia; and it’s a building that will certainly have a role in Columbia’s future.
“I think Columbia is a land of opportunity — if you want to work,” Berghager says.
He has taken his share of those opportunities, transforming a long-vacant property into an impressive office and workspace.
In addition to his towing company, he has also created several other businesses that play an important role in Columbia’s economy.
There’s not a whiff of stale beer or cigarette smoke in the recently refinished offices. Any evidence of its former existence as a bowling alley has been obliterated, and in its place is a sophisticated office and efficient work area for Berghager’s towing business. He also plans to offer 15,000 square feet of currently empty space to other businesses wanting retail or office space.
If you think the phrase “sophisticated office” doesn’t belong in the description of a towing business, you haven’t met John Berghager or toured I-70 Towing and Recovery’s offices and shop.
Viewed from Vandiver, the massive concrete building features three yellow stucco towers rising above windowless concrete and brick walls.
Walk through the front doors and one might think they are entering the lobby of a prestigious law firm, with subdued lighting, 16-foot ceilings, stained concrete floors and a spacious reception area complete with a three-panel original painting on the wall. The scene depicted in the painting breaks that illusion.
The three canvases, covering an area about 20 feet by 8 feet, portray a dramatic highway scene — a truck has run off the road, but the situation is well in-hand because an I-70 Towing and Recovery truck and workers are on the scene.
Berghager commissioned Bradford Stearman to create the painting and although it does not depict an actual incident, it’s a scene he has seen countless times.
“The thing about John,” says his wife Kelley, “is that he is very hands on. If there’s a big accident and not enough people to help out, he’ll get out there on the road and help.”
Berghager has the sturdy build and no-nonsense bearing of a man who is equally at home yanking a truck tire off an 18-wheeler or driving a flatbed tow truck on an icy road. His wife Kelley owns Girl Boutique, and they have been married 19 years and have a 14 year-old daughter.
Although he is able and willing to do the gritty, strenuous work of towing, physical stamina is only a small part of Berghager’s skill set. Most of the time, he can be found in his office, managing his businesses, looking for new opportunities and evaluating ideas for growth.
I-70 Towing and Recovery, a business that employees 10 people, has a lot of moving parts that he keeps track of himself. In addition to towing cars, trucks, RVs, semis and motorcycles, his company does an equal amount of hauling, transporting heavy equipment for building contractors and commercial clients.
I-70 Towing and Recovery may be the most visible of Berghager’s businesses, but it is only the tip of his revenue iceberg.
His Spring Creek Properties not only owns the Vandiver office site and six surrounding acres, but also has invested in a variety of properties scattered throughout Columbia and Boone County.
On the east end of his Vandiver acreage, he displays a selection of metal shipping containers, some of them 40-feet long, which are part of another of his business ventures. These are rented to contractors who need a safe place to store equipment on-site or to homeowners who prefer storing furniture during a home remodel. Several of the metal containers have been sold to farmers who use them to store farm vehicles.
A small part of the acreage facing Route B has been rented to a company that sells prefabricated sheds. But a major focus of Berghager’s attention is off-site.
He owns 26 semitrailers that comprise his trucking business. His fleet of trucks and drivers carry all the ground freight for FedEx Ground that comes into and out of Columbia to Kansas City and St. Louis. That component of his enterprise employs another 40 people.
Most people find it challenging enough running one business. But at age 51, Berghager somehow has found the time and energy to keep expanding all his businesses, in addition to helping design his office space and shop. (Ed Rohlfing of Putnam Interiors gave him some assistance.) Berghager attributes his success to two things: his habit of working hard, instilled by his father, and his desire to get ahead.
“I grew up on a farm in Center, Mo., and my dad made sure I had a shovel and work to do in the summer,” he explains.
As for getting ahead, Berghager didn’t have much more than a shovel to his name when he moved to Columbia in 1991. Needing a place to stay, he rented a small apartment, despite not yet having a job. When the first month’s rent was due, he had to use a credit card to come up with the cash.
Those early days in Columbia convinced him that if he wanted anything he’d have to work hard. “I didn’t want to live on my credit card,” he says.
The road from that tiny apartment to his newly remodeled 4,500-square-foot office space has taken 25 years to travel. After moving into his Columbia apartment, Berghager says he “hounded UPS until they gave me a part-time job for their Christmas season.”
When that work ended, he became an independent owner/operator with Roadway Package System, where he had three delivery routes and supervised several employees. Then, in his spare time, he and a partner bought a towing service that consisted of one beat-up towing truck. Five years later, he bought his partner out and that’s when the towing business took off.
In 2000, he saw an opportunity to get into the freight hauling business and cemented a deal with FedEx Ground to carry all their freight into and out of Columbia. As demand for his services grew, so did his fleet of trucks, reaching its current level of 26 semi trucks.
He has been using the cavernous garage space at Vandiver since 2010, and only moved into the office area in August of 2016. In the meantime, he worked out of an office he owns on Grand Avenue. Now that the garage and office are in the same building, supervising his towing and recovery operation is a lot easier, Berghager says.
The contrast between the garage and office space is dramatic — beautiful paintings and chandeliers on one side of the wall; bare concrete floors and shop lights on the other.
Trucks, forklifts and other heavy machinery move in and out of the garage all day and even at night. Berghager explains that if a semi has been towed to the garage, its cargo might need to be transferred to another truck to be delivered on time. His docks and cargo-moving equipment are necessary tools of the trade.
The concrete exterior walls of his office building are 12 inches thick with re-bar throughout. Even the flowerbed near the entrance is made of the same sturdy concrete. “We call it the compound,” Berghager says, referring to the building, “because it’s built like a fort.”
A fort never held such a striking array of artwork. A rich variety of paintings are arranged throughout the office. Some artwork along the wall between the garage and finished office are transportation themed, with representations of antique gas pumps and vintage cars. A large painting behind his desk shows the National Library of France. And others, such as those in the conference room, are abstract.
The conference room is adjacent to the drivers’ lounge, featuring a cooktop built into a black island counter and set off by orange cabinets.
Because towing can be grimy work, Berghager has given special attention to the office’s two bathrooms — one off his private office and one off the drivers’ lounge. Both feature concrete sinks, muted tiles and custom-built showers. The unstated message that the luxury drivers is that they are important and deserve a comfortable place to relax and clean up.
Berghager’s relationship with his employees is anything but understated. During their first interview, he sets a clear expectation. “I tell them they’ll have to earn it here. I’ll not give it to them. I also tell them we’re going to do what we say we’ll do,” he says.
He has translated his expectations into a solid reputation. Brad Fraizer, assistant fire chief for the Columbia Fire Department, has known John professionally and as a friend for 12 years. “John has worked at building relationships in the community and works with others to make Columbia a better place to live,“ Fraizer says.
A beautiful office, thriving businesses, an exciting future full of new opportunities… with so much success, some might develop an attitude about their place in the world. Not John. He doesn’t talk much about his accomplishments.
“He started from the ground level, up,” Kelley says. “He got where he is by being honest and working hard. He won’t ever change.”