Natalie and Justin Brown

“MPR Supply Chain is located in Bellaire at Ohio River Mile Marker 92.5. This one hasn’t been named yet, although it’s a highly trafficked area. We’re not the only game in town, there’s a lot of waterway transportation, and there is quite a bit of a coal industry still in the area, too.

Natalie is the President of the company and oversees almost everything from top to bottom: teams, financials, planning, purchasing, and HR. Justin gets his hands dirty. He’ll work on machines and he’ll do whatever he needs to do because he has that knowledge. He can tell you what’s wrong with a piece of equipment just by asking a few questions.

We left after high school, and went to college in Cincinnati, mainly Co-Op with Ford. We figured that upon graduation whoever had a job first was where we would go. When Natalie got a job with Ford, we moved to Michigan.

We left when it started to get really bad with the Big Three. They were doing layoffs and buyout packages. Natalie had the opportunity to get a buyout package, but then they denied it in the end. They said, ‘We want to transfer you back down to Cincinnati to work in our transmission plant there so you can be close to home.’

At that point, we had already decided we were leaving. We were going to move back to our hometown and start a family—we had already bought a house—so it was a little too late. We both loved our jobs and we loved it in Michigan. People say, ‘Oh, it’s so cold in Michigan!’ It’s really not that much colder, but you adapt; it’s just the wind because it’s so flat.

But our family was here and that was important to us and in a great community. Where we were living in Michigan, we didn’t have that hometown feel—we didn’t know people.

Working in the automotive industry was very fast-paced—you do whatever you could at the very moment to solve an issue; solve a problem. Here, it’s a little different, like, ‘No, we’re not going to be able to solve this problem tonight…so go home!’

Work/life balance is a lot more critical in this area. We do have workers that work hours upon hours and love it. But we also know that there are some people that have young families and they want to work a regular amount of hours. They want to go home at the end of the day, and there are other people that want to grind, and grind hard.”

“In 2009, Rick Frio convinced a company in Texas that there was an opportunity for huge cost savings by multimode transport—instead of trucking everything from Texas, they barged from Texas to us and then we distributed across the Northeast and Canada. The cost savings you get from the river is because of the massive amounts of goods you can ship in a barge versus a single truckload.

They realized close to a 60% savings on their shipping costs.

Rick started it, and he subcontracted to another company to unload the barges. They were new to everything, just trying to figure it out. Natalie’s dad is an operations guy and is good friends with Rick, so he gave him a call. Dave, her dad, has a business about two miles north of where the translating was taking place. He called and he said ‘I need help.’

Justin, along with several others, was sent down with forklifts and equipment. Things got back on track and it started flourishing. The business continued to grow and leased property. The lease rate went up after a year, so they decided to buy the property we’re at now. In 2018, Rick came in and said ‘Hey, I’m ready to retire. Why don’t you buy me out?’ So we bought him out, and now we’re partners with Natalie’s dad. 

When we first started, we probably did around 24 barges a year approximately. Last year, we almost did 600.

Every day, whether it’s with fuel, supplies, parts, or equipment, there’s a boat that shifts our barges in and out of places in our harbor. When we first started, we probably did around 24 barges a year approximately. Last year, we almost did 600. Quite a big difference. And 2015 was really when we started ramping up when we started to get into the frac sand with oil and gas. That’s really when our business started to take off.

We’ve tried to buy and support locally and taking that approach has been amazing. It’s just a ripple effect. People don’t realize you have just 32 employees in this company, but it directly impacts so many other businesses in the area.

We saw an opportunity half a mile down the street from us in the same industrial park. Some of the land was highly sought after – several people tried to buy it – and we were fortunate enough to talk to the right people at the right time. It took a lot of discussions and a lot of negotiating, but we were able to purchase all of that land, about 50 acres.

What’s neat is it’s on the Ohio River, just like our current site. What makes it really unique is there are two rail lines on the west side of our current location and that location. It’s the Wheeling & Lake Erie and the Norfolk Southern and down at this property they actually cross so you have real frontage on both the Wheeling & Lake Erie and the Norfolk Southern. State Route 7 runs overtop of it. So we’re right next to I-70, I-470.

The location is perfect. It’s had many businesses go through it, but it sat vacant for over 10 years. We knew that the odds were against us, but we went for it. And we delivered! We’re excited about it.

“Our intentions are to bring rail off of the Wheeling & Lake Erie. We’ve done rail before, but we always contract through someone else to utilize their rail line in order to unload off. This allows us to privately do it ourselves or to allow others to do it. What’s nice is we originally wanted rail on our current property, but with the expansion that we did with the sand terminal, we weren’t able to do that. Down here that gives us the opportunity to unload from the water rail, whatever we need to do we can go from one mode to the other mode.

Our employees are just as excited, too. But we couldn’t have done it without the state’s support. We knew we could purchase the property, but we didn’t have the cash to develop it. It was very important to us. We had to get funding, we knew that our bank could help us. We knew that they could only help us with a portion, too. So that’s when all those state agencies were able just to branch out and work together, which was amazing for us.

Ohio is very easy to do business in. It’s been very pro-business.

Ohio is very easy to do business in. It’s been very pro-business whether it be the entities like JobsOhio, Ohio Southeast Economic Development, our local port authority…I could go on and on about all these agencies that actively try to support businesses here.

Just north of us, there are some additional locks and dams. A lot of the large barge companies stop at this area and hand off to smaller barge companies. The barge costs become quite expensive as you go up to Pittsburgh, you go through five more locks, and the river gets narrower. So they may have ‘X’ amount of barges in tow, and they have to break those tows down and take a smaller number of barges up the river because of the narrow waterways there.

That was another cost savings that was found, instead of people barging up to Pittsburgh, they could stop here in eastern Ohio. And we still capture the trucking market out of Pittsburgh, which is only an hour away. We’re two hours from Columbus, Ohio. We’re able to utilize our location. That saves them on barge transportation, but then also our rates are very similar if not the same as leaving from these big cities. We can get that truck market there. It’s exciting to be able to continue to grow and expand our opportunities.

“This is a family-owned business. Even though we’re husband and wife, we work very well together. Natalie’s father has years and years of experience in coal mining operations and his machine and fabrication shop, and he’s taught us so much. He’s still involved in the business today. We operate it for the most part, but he still comes in when we’re doing larger planning projects, expansion projects, or large purchases.

We’re a team.

Maybe we do have a bit of an advantage because we have our personal relationship and are able to tie that into work. Several people have told us the same thing, ‘I couldn’t work with my wife.’

We don’t know if we could do it without each other.

We’re always talking about business, and for us, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. It’s just catching up on things and planning and ‘How are we going to handle this situation?’ We live and breathe it. The biggest benefit of working with your spouse is support. They’re always behind you, they’re not going to let you go, and you’re not gonna let you fall. They’re there to keep pushing when one of us has a bad day.

And we’re so fortunate to have a great team of people behind us here who help make our lives easier. They treat the business as their own, and we couldn’t ask for better people to work with.

We’re 50% partners with my father. We intentionally put the 50% in Natalie’s name, because we’d love to one day make it a woman-owned business. Having a woman-owned business could just take us to the next level.

Even our kids are involved here. They were down here the other day operating some equipment for us. And they’re little, they’re 7, 10, and almost 13. The two older ones were here operating a skid steer and mini excavator, so this is fun for them, too.

It’s the future for them.”

“People here are excited for us too, knowing that we’re a company with a future.

We’ve never laid anyone off. Our crew is very important to us—they’re our family. Natalie’s dad has always thought you don’t want to lay people off if you don’t have to, and we can proudly say MPR’s never had to lay anyone off. If work gets thin, we find other things for them to do. If they leave because they found a better opportunity for themselves, we wish them the best. We pride ourselves in employing people and want to provide better wages and better benefits to the people in the area.

And we’ve always kept our hours the same, we’ve never cut someone back. We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do that. There’s a time, of course, times when financially you just have to, but we’ve never gotten to that point because we feel that it’s important to have those people here. You can’t build a trusting relationship if you hire someone and lay them off in the next breath when things become difficult.

They give us their all when we need it, so we try to give them our all in return.”

—Natalie and Justin Brown, MPR Supply Chain

Bellaire, Belmont County