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Gary Salisbury: From owner/operator to CEO

TORONTO, Ont. – Growing up on a dairy farm, Gary Salisbury, president and CEO of Fikes Truck Line and chair of the Truckload Carriers Association, initially saw the trucking industry as an escape from long workdays.

TORONTO, Ont. – Growing up on a dairy farm, Gary Salisbury, president and CEO of Fikes Truck Line and chair of the Truckload Carriers Association, initially saw the trucking industry as an escape from long workdays.

At the time, a trucking career seemed comparatively simple, Salisbury recounted during the most recent Driving for Profit seminar.

“All I knew was I didn’t want to be in the dairy business, where you were up at 4 a.m. and not getting back into the house until eight or 10 p.m.,” Salisbury said. “So I chose the trucking industry where I had to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

The affable Salisbury became a star-eyed owner/operator in 1981, and quickly learned there was more to the job than cruising down the open highway without a care in the world.

“I was not a good owner/operator,” he now admits. “I didn’t treat it like a business and I think that’s the downfall of some of our guys today. I treated it like a lifestyle. I couldn’t tell you what my cost-per-mile was; if I had money at the end of the month, I was making money and if I had month left over at the end of the money, I wasn’t doing real good.”

At that time, the idea of one day running the company he was hauling for was unthinkable. When moderator Lou Smyrlis asked Salisbury how he would respond if someone were to tell him then that he’d one day be CEO, he retorted: “I’d say ‘Put down the crack pipe’.”

Yet, Salisbury’s success story is proof that hard work, passion, empathy and a positive attitude can take you a long way in the trucking business.

The human element
After putting in some time behind the wheel, Salisbury accepted a job as dispatcher with Fikes Truck Line, a Hope, Arkansas-based open deck carrier that now generates about $70 million in avenue revenue.

It was in that role that Salisbury learned about the human dynamic of managing a fleet. His experience from behind the wheel gave Salisbury the ability to appreciate how dispatching decisions would impact the O/O on the other end of the phone.

“I was able to understand that when an owner/operator calls in, the one thing he has is time. And during that time, all he does is think,” Salisbury explained.

“If he goes from Chicago to Dallas, he gets to Dallas and gets unloaded and picks up that phone and if the dispatcher is uncaring and says ‘I’ve got this load out of Dallas going to San Antonio,’ well, that’s not what (the O/O) had in his mind. For the past 10 hours he was thinking about going back to Chicago…A lot of (dispatchers) don’t know what it feels like to hear ‘I don’t have anything, call me back in an hour’.”

Salisbury learned dispatchers must “sell the freight” to the owner/operator, especially in a company like Fikes which has a ‘no forced dispatch’ policy.

“What helped me in management was learning you have to be a mediator, you have to be a salesman whether you are selling to the customer or to the owner/operator,” Salisbury said.

He credits Jim Smith, chairman of Fikes and its owner since 1981, with taking a chance on young owner/operators and bringing them into the ranks of management.

“Jim was patient and he mentored all of us who came in,” Salisbury recalled. It was from Jim that Salisbury learned a golden lesson: “Even today, we tell our executives to start training their replacement. You need to have someone in place who can do your job better than you can. They make you look good and if you want to move up in the company, you have a replacement that does your job better than you. That’s a very difficult thing to do.”

Salisbury’s climb through the ranks of Fikes Truck Line culminated in 2008 when he was named president and CEO, hot on the heels of a record year and now staring an ugly recession in the face.

At first, Salisbury said he was unfazed by the economic slowdown. The company was running 550 trucks and success was coming easily.

“Historically, Fikes had always grown during a recession,” Salisbury recalled. “We had a very loyal customer base and we always did well. I thought ‘Well, it’s going to slow down for others, but not really for us.’ The reality is, it did. By the end of the first quarter (of 2009) we were a little over half a million dollars in the red and we had to lay some people off; we made some tough decisions.”

Fikes shrunk the fleet from 550 trucks to 450 by the end of the first half of 09.

“We buckled down, stopped spending money,” Salisbury said. The hardest part though, was letting some long-term employees go.

“That was one of the most difficult days,” Salisbury said of the day he had to notify some long-serving staffers their job was being cut. Putting on a brave face the next day was equally challenging.

“People say I’m callous, I’m really not. But as a leader, you have to give the people that are still there hope,” he said. “You have to keep a positive attitude. The next day you have to come in like it’s a new world. You still have to have respect for those who are gone, but you have to come in and be very positive.”

The turnaround came quickly for Fikes Truck Line. It dealt with a severe shortage of flatdeck freight by diversifying and adding military freight and logistics to its portfolio.

“We have learned that successful companies, when they stopped adapting, went out of business,” Salisbury said. By the end of 2009, Fikes had repaid its line of credit and returned to the black.

“It continues to be a challenge today, things have gotten better this year but not where we’d like to see it,” he said.

Fikes remains a smaller company than it was at its peak, now operating 300 trucks. Salisbury said the company is very cautious about the types of new business it takes on.

“Our number one strategy is to do a credit check on customers,” Salisbury said. “We don’t care if it’s good freight and it pays well; if you don’t get paid, it doesn’t help you much.” He said the company doesn’t allow outstanding invoices to exceed 30 days and is averaging 23. “If it goes that way, we quit hauling their freight.”

O/O-friendly freight
He also said Fikes – a fleet comprised entirely of lease-operators – only seeks out owner/operator-friendly freight.

“If I’m going to sell a lane, it better be a lane our guys like to haul and it better be easy to haul,” he said. “If it needs 8-ft. drop tarps and takes six hours to load, you may haul one load and that’s it.”

Like many trucking companies here in Canada, finding qualified owner/operators is proving difficult for the carrier.

Fikes’ short-term answer is to seek out O/Os who may have been unsuccessful in the past due to circumstances, help them secure non-traditional financing to purchase an affordable used truck spec’d to Fikes’ liking and then to provide them with the business training they need to ensure their success.

Seeking a career path
Long-term, the company is trying to find ways to attract younger workers, and Salisbury feels strongly the answer is to provide them with a career path beyond driving the truck.

“The younger generation doesn’t want to go to work for a company for 30 years and then retire,” he said. “When we were raised, you’d go work for a company, stay there and get the gold watch. This new generation wants electronics, they want satellites and they also want to know ‘If I drive this truck for five or 10 years, what do I do next?’ We’ve got to grab that guy or gal early when they’re coming out of school, show them a career path they can be successful in and show them that the trucking industry is not just about driving a truck.”

While Salisbury isn’t the first trucking exec to identify the need for a career path, his company may be one of the best at following through. Just as Salisbury transitioned from owner/operator to company executive, much of Fikes’ management ranks today consists of former drivers.

For his part, Salisbury said while he now knows truckers work every bit as hard as farmers, the trucking industry holds one decided advantage.

“I don’t have to milk the truck,” he joked.

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