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Reflections from trucking legends


AUSTIN, Texas – To be a successful business leader sometimes requires you to step outside your comfort zone.

That was one of the takeaways from a panel discussion featuring trucking legends, hosted at the American Trucking Associations Management Conference & Exhibition here this week. Tommy Hodges, chairman of Titan Transfer in Shelbyville, Tenn., said he had to overcome being introverted in order to successfully grow his business.

“You have to be interactive. You have to greet people and you have to greet people with a smile,” he said. This was initially a struggle for him, since his introverted personality made him more comfortable away from the limelight. Hodges admitted he has been able to overcome this, and most business associates wouldn’t think of him as an introvert. “That’s not the Tommy Hodges most of you know,” he said about his outgoing personality. “That’s the one I work hard every day to be.”

Hodges got his start in the trucking industry early, when his girlfriend’s father gave him a job at a local trucking terminal.

“He put me to work on the docks loading trucks,” Hodges recalled. “It started my passion for learning the business from the ground up. Many people wouldn’t recognize the business today if they saw a glimpse of what it was back then.”

He said the company moved three million pounds of freight per day across an LTL dock, and had only one forklift.

“We did everything by hand,” he said.

The culture was a lot different then as well. He remembered going to school at night to get his master’s degree, when the professor asked the students what industry they wanted to work in. When Hodges said he managed a trucking terminal, the professor said it was no wonder he wanted to get a degree and find a new industry.

“That cut me like a knife through the gut,” Hodges recalled. “It has been a lifelong mission of mine to improve that perception internally. The way we perceive ourselves – we’ve made so much progress in that.”

But he acknowledged it was a rough industry at the time.

“The Teamsters didn’t have a good reputation in the marketplace, and a lot of places were pretty much dominated by thugs,” he said. “They settled their differences out on the apron of the dock. We don’t do that today.”

Donna Weinrich, president of Weinrich Truckline, remembers being the only female to show up at ATA meetings and industry conferences.

“The first time I went to a meeting like this, I got off the plane and thought ‘What are you doing here?’” she recalled.

She is fascinated by how technology has changed the industry.

“My technology was an electric typewriter, a calculator, and a phone you had to dial,” she said. “You’d probably have to go to a museum to find those.”

While technology has improved the industry and drivers’ livelihoods, Don Bowman, chairman of D.M. Bowman, said new challenges have emerged.

“Along with the great technology we have in the trucks has come serious congestion,” he said. “Our drivers have to put up with far more congestion than we ever did. It’s a real problem for the industry.”

Another challenge is attracting drivers. Weinrich said attracting drivers is easier as a small carrier with a truck driving background.

“With my family, growing up as children of a truck driver, they know how important it is to these drivers to have home time,” she said. “So, we try really hard, if they let us know what they need, to do that.”

When all else fails, Weinrich has another tactic at her disposal: “Every once in awhile I treat them to homemade pies.”

One of the greatest changes witnessd by all the panelists, was deregulation.

“It was going to put trucking out of business,” Hodges recalled. “We would not have trucks. It was going to be the death of trucking.”

And it was the death of 97 of the top 100 carriers at that time.

“But it opened up the door for what you see as the top 100 carriers today,” Hodges said. He recalled how divided the industry was over the idea of deregulation. Many carriers had operating authorities on their balance sheets worth millions of dollars that evaporated overnight. But the change was ultimately for the better, as those authorities were often offered as political favors.

Hodges also noted the ATA has changed for the better, evolving from an old boys’ club to an association that represents carriers of all size.

 


James Menzies

James Menzies

James Menzies is editor of Truck News magazine. He has been covering the Canadian trucking industry for more than 15 years and holds a CDL. Reach him at james@newcom.ca or follow him on Twitter at @JamesMenzies.
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