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Don Farris, Sr., KYFI and My First Job as an International Freight Forwarder

When I walked into KYFI (Kentucky Forwarding International) in Baltimore 1975 at the youthful age of 19, little did I know that this would be the start of a lifelong journey in international shipping. “What got me in the door was 1. I knew how to type, and 2. I knew what a bill of lading was from my days at Kmart where I filled out yellow freight bills for merchandise returns.  Who knew where this was going to take me.”

There, I was hired by the Branch Manager, Ms. Patricia Kelly who was a great teacher of the business. Around 9 months in, her and Don Farris, Sr., the owner of KYFI had a falling out and Pat left the company. Within the next 3 months, Don decided to shut down the branch and ask if would move to Louisville, KY.  I agreed, which looking back was one of the best decisions I had made in my life. 

Don Farris, Sr. was an entrepreneur who blazed a trail through the Midwest shipping industry.  “Of course, I was young and made my share of mistakes, but Don was patient with me and boy did I learn a lot about the business.  I relate it to a college degree in freight forwarding. Working first in a port city, then moving to the hinterlands gave me a complete understanding of freight movement, putting together all the unique parts of the puzzle.  By the time I arrived Louisville in1976, KYFI had Local P&D, Drayage, Rail Consul, a Container Pool, Warehousing including Pick & Pack and NVOCC services (no. 5 in the country). I left at the end of 1978 and ended up working for Airfreight International at BWI airport which gave me an education on the airfreight side. By the end of 1980 I had a full understanding of global cargo movement.  This became my career and passion in life which still exists today.

The shipping industry had always been a passion of Farris’s as well.  After serving in the US Army in post WWII Germany in the early 1950s, he enrolled in the University of Louisville and graduated with a certification in Transportation, a BSC in Business and became an instructor in Logistics. He also held several logistics positions with local businesses, including Cissel Manufacturing and Brown Forman Distillery.

Being a native of landlocked Louisville, Farris saw a great opportunity in the transportation industry.  To call Farris an entrepreneur is an understatement.  It seemed that everything he touched turned to transportation gold.

While at Cissel, he saw the concept of containerization, which was in its infancy at the time, as a revolution for the shipping industry.  He was quick to adopt it for Cissel, which manufactured laundry machinery and was transporting them overseas still using inefficient crane-loaded pallets. “Before containerization it was beyond cumbersome,” says Don Farris, Jr., Farris, Sr.’s son and current owner of KYFI.  “He loaded that first container and had an epiphany moment, ‘My gosh, this is going to change everything.’”

In the 1960s he founded Farris Transportation, a trucking company and Carrier Services, Inc., which loaded and unloaded trucks at the Ford Motors Plant in Jefferson County.

Don Farris, Sr. at his desk in his famous rail car

But Farris wasn’t satisfied to stop there.  In 1970, he founded KYFI to handle freight forwarding in the region.  As a relatively new concept at the time, companies were quickly interested in the convenience freight forwarding delivered.  “A Single Company Concept,” Farris, Sr. told the Louisville Times in a 1971 article about his company.  In shipping, he said, “Exporters end up dealing with from three to six different companies in the course of an overseas shipment. Under KYFI’s plan, they can export goods with minimum delay and red tape.”

KYFI Building

Farris revolutionized the industry yet again by persuading ocean carriers to create container pools, interior US lots of containers for rent on site to other shippers.  “In those days, in order to load a container in the interior US, you would have to pay to move your empty container from the port on rail.  He persuaded them to put containers there with a commitment to booking,” says Farris, Jr. “All of a sudden the door opened to competition, a deluge.”

Kentucky Container Service Depot

Farris also cemented his place in history by being only the 5th Freight Forwarder to obtain NVOCC authority from the Federal Maritime Commission, which represented the first time the commission had approved anyone to be an agent in a city that did not have direct access to an ocean port.

 Louisville Times article, 1971

Farris saw more opportunity in another industry near and dear to him, the whiskey manufacturers, where he first cut his teeth in logistics management. In the region at the time, empty whiskey barrels were a familiar site, strewn on mountainsides, in valleys, and cut up for planters and firewood.  Farris, Sr. used his connections in the distilleries to create an industry out of thin air, and inadvertently enhance the taste of spirits worldwide.

Farris had the idea to export the empty barrels overseas to other distilleries in Scotland and Ireland to use in their spirits production. “It was a cheaper container than making their own on that side and in essence they eventually found that the bourbon saturation (still in the empty barrels) enhanced their product,” says Farris, Jr. KYKI still does this today, exporting 50 to 100 containers a week. “Boy has that blossomed into something.  It’s the backbone of our company.”

By the late 1970s, KYFI went from three employees and $120,00 in revenue to grossing $4 million.  Farris expanded into major metropolitan areas in the region like Cincinnati and Baltimore, where a young, ambitious Szewczyk met him.  According to Szewczyk, Farris was a humble boss who championed diversification in the workplace.  “When I hear that there are not enough women in our field, I have to pause as here it is 1975 and a woman is running the Baltimore branch office.  Don was very good that way, he had a healthy mix of men and woman as well as a cross section of ethnic groups,” he says.

Employees with KYFI and Farris Transportation, 1978

Farris and Szewczyk parted ways in 1978, when Szewczyk moved back to Baltimore, MD.  But they remained lifelong friends.  Farris, Sr. sold the business to his son in 1987, who still runs it today with fond memories around every corner. “It was my first job.  At 12 years old I was sweeping out containers and changing light bulbs on chassis.”

But Farris, Jr. didn’t always want to follow in his father’s footsteps.  “In college it was just for beer money.  I had a degree in chemistry and planned to go to medical school.”   But he changed his mind, got a business degree and joined the company full time.  He proved as ambitious as his father.  “I was young and I wanted the business to grow grow grow.  I wanted to conquer the world.” 

At this point in his life, Farris, Sr. had grown wary with the transportation industry and gladfully handed the reigns to his son.  “He was a little worn down with what this business can do to you.  He ended up saying ‘Here’s what it’s worth, go to the bank get the money’ in 1987. I bought him out. And he was never involved in the company after that.”  Farris, Jr.’s two sons are now carrying on the tradition at the company as well.

After the sale, Farris, Sr. started a customs brokerage house in Florida, which continues to this day.   He passed away in June 2016.  His son remembers some of his father’s greatest lessons, in business and in life, “Be a person of your word.  Stick by your commitment.”  Farris, Sr.’s integrity helped propel him to become one of the greatest shipping entrepreneurs in the Midwest, transforming an industry and passing his passion to countless individuals.