Joyce Sauer Brenny, a St. Cloud-area farm girl, had to pass on the partial-scholarship offer from nearby College of St. Benedict to make some money after she graduated from high school.

That was more than 30 years ago. She took a job with a lumber company for a then-decent wage approaching $4 per hour, hauling railroad ties to Duluth.

“It was more money than working at McDonald’s,” Brenny recalled. “I grew up driving a tractor on the farm, and I never minded working by myself.”

Brenny liked the work, but not the odd hours and working conditions demanded by some trucking companies.

Today, Brenny is co-owner and CEO of Brenny Transportation of St. Cloud, a logistics and trucking outfit she founded with husband Todd after they and a few other fed-up employees left another trucking company in 1995.

Now at 100 employees, Brenny Transportation added 23 workers last year and plans to add another 20 this year. Business is good, she said, and it’s grown to $9 million in annual revenue.

Brenny Transportation, since 1996, has moved freight from St. Cloud to places as near as St. Benedict’s and as far as Wrigley Field, Churchill Downs, West Point and Time Warner in New York City. Its vehicles have touched every state except Hawaii.

Brenny, 54, is most proud of the fact that her growing company is the employee-centric business that she and her husband envisioned when they quit the other trucking company, which has since gone out of business.

The final straw for Brenny at her former employer was when, as general manager, she couldn’t get a raise for the company dispatcher, Bonnie Supan.

“That guy said no to a 10-cent-an-hour raise, and I said she is probably going to quit,” Brenny recalled. “He said everyone is replaceable. That’s true. But we didn’t have to work for him. I worked for that company for eight years and I never forgot what he said.”

Brenny decided to build a company that paid fairly and treated employees right. And focused on safety and trucker dignity.

Supan is now the general manager of Brenny Transportation.

“It starts with our employees,” said Brenny, 54, who eventually earned her college degree, attending night school at the St. Cloud campus of the College of St. Scholastica. “If they are happy and they project positive energy, that’s portrayed in the work we do. You can tell when they walk into a business.”

The shipping manager at one of their customers said, “You guys spoil us.”

“That hit me,” Brenny said. “It was a huge compliment.”

Brenny pays at-or-above market wages and bonuses tied to productivity, longevity and even volunteer work.

The company pays for most health and other insurance, and offers a 401(k) retirement plan.

Brenny pays truckers for some idle time, not just miles, and tries to get everybody home by Friday.

“The drivers often stop in on Fridays to say “hi” to Todd or me, have a cup of coffee and tell us about the week,” Brenny said. “That makes me feel special. They could have left.”

Brenny — whose firm ranks 27th on this year’s Minnesota Top Workplaces small company list — said she participates in the survey because her “employees are more apt to tell the truth to an independent party.”

She has also learned from past surveys. For example, the team indicated it was not happy with the paid time off system. That led to discussions and adjustments.

Joyce and Todd Brenny also need to think about their succession plan. They are the sole owners of the company and are now in their 50s.

They are in the early stages of exploring an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP. The Brennys like the idea of a multiyear sale to employees through cash flow generated by the business.

Experts say carefully crafted ESOPs can be a great way to build employee wealth — as long as the company is growing and doesn’t take on too much debt to finance the sale.

ESOP companies tend to be higher-performing companies than others because the high level of employee engagement.

Todd Brenny, who still has his commercial license, started as a driver and now oversees a Brenny division.

“A few times a year, Todd and I will take a load [of cargo] to make sure we stay connected to the challenges of our heroes, the truck drivers,” Joyce Brenny said. “Without them, we wouldn’t have anything! America runs on trucking.”