Anchorage man builds global business

Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) When a plane carrying rescued American prisoner of war Jessica Lynch landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany in April, an Anchorage company was on hand to help.

The wounded Army private, ambushed in the Iraqi desert and freed from a Nasiriya hospital, was flown to Germany for medical treatment before returning to the United States.

The Alaska aviation-support firm, Trailboss Enterprises Inc., is used to being around VIPs like Lynch. Its employees have laid out the red carpet for hundreds of visiting dignitaries, including President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Many of Trailboss' distinguished visitors are prominent government or military officials whose planes refuel at strategically located Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage.

Trailboss is on an aggressive growth track. Owned by Joe Tolliver, a Vietnam veteran and self-described expert barbecuer, the company operates in Alaska, North Carolina, Germany and England. It employs about 135 and provides ground services to ''transient aircraft,'' meaning planes en route to somewhere else. Trailboss also does trucking, paving, construction, snow removal and other services.

The company generated $5 million in revenue in 2002 and projects $7 million to $10 million this year, said Tolliver. The goal is to hit $100 million within a few years.

Most of the business comes through government service contracts. Trailboss is certified as small and disadvantaged under the Small Business Administration's 8(a) program, so it can get bidding preferences on government jobs set aside for such contractors.

At Ramstein Air Base, where Trailboss holds the transient aircraft contract, the company's workload doubled during the recent war in Iraq.

''We'd normally service between 400 and 500 aircraft a month,'' said Tolliver. ''It was up to 1,000.''

While things have quieted down, company employees were busy herding aircraft on a recent afternoon at Elmendorf. Trailboss employees bustled around a string of military planes that arrived within an hour or so of each other. Within that short window, a NATO radar surveillance plane and its support aircraft landed, followed by a Navy P-3 spy plane and a clutch of fighter jets. Trailboss was on hand to greet them all.

The company's project manager at Elmendorf, Ray Salak, kept jumping in and out of his pickup truck, dubbed the ''Follow Me'' vehicle. One of Trailboss' primary roles is to lead transient pilots to their designated parking spot on a base. The Follow Me vehicle is outfitted with a big sign on the back directing the pilot to do just that.

After helping the planes taxi, Trailboss workers would refuel the aircraft, talk with the flight crew, perform minor maintenance and get the planes ready for departure.

Tolliver surveyed the scene as pallets of cargo were unloaded from the NATO support jet. The roar of F-15 fighter jets taking off and landing on a nearby runway shook the sky.

''This is like a small smattering of what it's like in a war zone,'' said Tolliver, a former aircraft mechanic who served in Vietnam. Before he retired, Tolliver said he was chief master sergeant in charge of aircraft maintenance at Elmendorf.

His Air Force connections helped him get a foot in the door after he retired and founded Trailboss, Tolliver said.

Like most small businesses, the company had humble beginnings. It was originally a barbecue catering operation at Elmendorf that later expanded off-base. Tolliver, a native of Mississippi, has a deep love for barbecue. But he also has a thing for trucks. It was Tolliver's longtime dream to own a trucking company after he retired from the military. He started with a dump truck in 1993 and did snow removal at Elmendorf. By 1995, Trailboss was providing construction services, including demolition, excavation and paving. Tolliver pushed deeper into government contracting after getting his 8(a) certification.

''Because of the seasonality of the construction business in Alaska, I knew I had to diversify to keep the doors open. If I hadn't done that ... I can assure you, I wouldn't be here,'' said Tolliver.

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