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2012 McCullough/NITL Executive of the Year: Nice guys finish first

American Trucking Associations (ATA) President and CEO Bill Graves is named NITL Executive of the Year for his leadership in shaping the nation’s ground freight transportation system and his affable, endearing management style.
By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
November 01, 2012

He’s no longer Governor of Kansas, but the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) President and CEO, William Preston “Bill” Graves, still carries the dignity and political acumen of the office. Around Washington, whenever anyone talks about Graves, they rarely mention his last name, but simply the title “Governor.”

Speaking quietly but carrying a truckload worth of industry knowledge and sources, former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves now leads one of the biggest and most revered trade associations—the venerable federation of 50 trade associations that for eight decades has influenced, lobbied, and educated Congress, federal agencies, and even presidents about the essentiality and operations of the $700 billion U.S. trucking industry.

The then 41-year-old Graves was inaugurated as one of the youngest governors in Kansas history in 1995. He would serve two terms, winning re-election in 1998 by the largest margin in the history of the state as a moderate Republican leading the Sunflower State. In January 2003, Graves completed his second term as governor of Kansas, capping 22 years of service to the state.

Following that experience, it seemed almost serendipitous that the ATA would turn to the affable Graves to help achieve the herculean task of representing the disparate interests of ATA’s 37,000 members—ranging from $54 billion-a-year giants like UPS to thousands of small mom-and-pop truckers.

When Graves was named as the nation’s top trucking lobbyist nearly 10 years ago, the appointment to ATA completed a full circle in the governor’s life. His first job back in Kansas as a young teenager was working the docks at Graves Truck Line, a company his family operated for 70 years out of Salinas before succumbing—like thousands of other carriers—in the post-regulatory era following the Motor Carrier Act of 1980.

“I learned at a young age in life about work,” Graves said in a recent interview with Logistics Management (LM) in his office in Arlington, Va. “In fact, I was actually surprised the other day when I got that annual recap that the Social Security Administration sends out that gives you how many years you have been paying Social Security taxes. The first year I paid into Social Security was 1966. I was 13. So, that would have been the first year that dad had me doing something, probably sweeping the freight dock.”

Besides sweeping the freight dock in Salinas, Kan., Graves learned a few more things along the way. Those attributes include how to treat people, how to learn from past experiences and, perhaps most importantly, how to get along with even those with whom one may disagree.

For his achievements in guiding ATA, his impact on shaping the nation’s ground freight transportation system, and, not coincidentally, his ever-polite and endearing personality, Bill Graves is this year’s recipient of the National Industrial Transportation League’s (NITL) prestigious Executive of the Year Award, also known as the McCullough Award. The award is named after John T. McCullough, a former chief editor of Distribution magazine, a predecessor of LM. Graves will receive the award on Monday, November 12, at the opening session of the 105th Annual Meeting & TransComp Exhibition in Anaheim, Calif.

“This award is about leadership,” explains NITL President and CEO Bruce Carlton, noting there are certainly many outstanding and powerful people in transportation. “But leadership is a rare quality that combines a number of sometimes more subtle traits. Gov. Graves is certainly one of Washington’s outstanding and powerful people, but it’s his leadership skills that set him apart.”

With Graves at the wheel, ATA has pushed for several safety initiatives, including a requirement that all new heavy trucks be equipped with speed limiters; a proposed national speed limit of 65 miles per hour for all vehicles; increased seat belt use; and greater drug and alcohol testing and recordkeeping of the nation’s 3 million long-haul truck drivers.

ATA under Graves also supports efforts aimed at improving the safety of the trucking industry by requiring the use of electronic logs to monitor drivers’ hours-of-service. And in one of the best “man-bites-dog” stories in Washington transport history, Graves and the ATA are actively pushing for an increase in the federal tax on motor fuels—unchanged since 1993—to help pay for better upkeep of our nation’s infrastructure.

So far, that latter call has fallen on deaf ears in tax-averse Washington, but Graves isn’t giving up on so fast. Recognizing his members’ wishes, ATA has also organized an effort to combat the use of tolling and public-private partnerships to pay for improvements in roads and bridges.

Graves has also pushed the trucking industry to become greener. He’s overseen ATA’s efforts to promote the industry’s record on sustainability, ranging from support for better fuel economy standards for large trucks (coming in 2014) to promotion of the EPA’s SmartWay program that recognizes truckers for their environmental improvements.

But mostly, Graves’ achievements take a backseat to his warm and likeable personality. At a time when Washington politics are more cutthroat and partisan, Graves sets himself apart through his quiet nature and desire for compromise.

“My standard phrase is: ‘It’s OK to disagree, but don’t be disagreeable,’” he says.  “Because at the end of the day we’ve got to work through whatever immediate problem we have. Next week and next month and next year, we have to go through a lot of other problems that are likely to confront us.”

That ability to communicate through partisan waters was not lost on NITL voters in naming Graves this year’s top service award. As NITL’s Carlton says, “We all know people whose ego eclipses their intelligence and skills, but Bill Graves is just the opposite. Quite honestly, he is one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever worked with. You sit and talk with him and he’s completely self-effacing and generally interested in you and what you have to say.”

About the Author

John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.

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