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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

LM Contributing Editor John Schulz had just that experience recently. Here are the highlights from that conversation:

Logistics Management (LM): What influence did your father and Graves Truck Line have on you in later life?
Bill Graves: My dad was a very hard worker in a farm family and transitioned into trucking after a stint in the military during World War II. He also developed a pretty well run trucking company in the midst of The Depression days. I learned a lot about customer service and taking care of people, and that benefitted me certainly at the ATA and the years that I was involved in the political arena. 
My dad was always a giver and was always very involved in his community. He understood the importance of helping people who were less fortunate, reaching out, finding solutions, not being part of the problem. That’s also been very beneficial to me, both in politics and here at ATA because we clearly have a very diverse industry. My job is to sort of keep a steady wheel and try to do what we can each and every day to help our members be more successful.

LM: How do you represent the interests of the entire industry given all of its diversity?
Graves: The ability of ATA to represent our members is both our greatest strength and our greatest weakness at some moments. Our guys are very opinionated. I mean, these guys work hard every day, and they don’t suffer fools lightly. And so they have definite opinions about what would be good policy for the trucking industry, and from time to time we discover that we don’t agree on those things. My job is to use some of those diplomatic skills that I developed over the years to hold everything together and try to find a path forward. And I’m very proud of the way our members have responded to some pretty tough issues. When I came here 10 years ago, the idea that we would all coalesce in supporting a fuel tax increase to fund infrastructure was probably not something you would expect. In a variety of ways, we have figured out a path forward. 

LM:  How has your experience as governor of Kansas helped you with your work at ATA? 
Graves: You have a bit more of a buffer as governor, but your job is to represent the interest of all the people you work for. Being head of ATA feels more like being a mayor or a city councilman—there’s a lot more direct access with your constituents. But that’s the kind of feedback I like. When the phone rings and the person on the other end has an issue, you get right to the heart of things in a hurry. 

LM: Is your Rolodex of movers and shakers in Washington the fattest of anyone in town?
Graves: Right now over on Capitol Hill there are a dozen individuals that I served with. Take Roy Blunt, U.S. Senator from Missouri. Roy and I were secretaries of state together back in the ’80s; so I have known him now for close to 30 years. So relationships matter a lot in this town, and having been a former governor gives me some leg up relationships. 

LM:  How has your background with Graves Truck Line helped you run ATA?
Graves: Coming to ATA as the grandson of individuals who operated trucks, drove trucks, and ran a trucking company I wasn’t considered just an outsider that was dropped into the middle of ATA. In fact, my father took me along to ATA annual meetings and events probably back when I was a teenager; so, this organization and the state associations have been part of my life for probably close to 50 years. 

LM: Everybody I talk to compliments your style and demeanor. How would you describe your management style?
Graves: I’ve never quite understood anyone who finds value in an angry or contentious or confrontational
management style. That may serve you well for a very brief period of time, but eventually that wears people out—and it wears our your welcome. And so I have always tried to get along with people. It starts with my wife and daughter, it extends to the staff at ATA, and it certainly extends to all the members of ATA. I don’t have time for the ‘smallness’ that I think accompanies contentious, difficult people. 

LM: Let’s get into a couple of immediate issues facing the trucking industry: It’s very unusual to find an industry that is basically saying to Congress “raise the taxes,” but isn’t that what the trucking industry is asking Washington to do?
Graves: I believe it’s not a question of if, but when … they are going to have to increase the federal fuel tax. Every day that we discuss this, a key public policymaker will say something along the lines of “well, that’s just not going to happen, that’s just not politically possible.” We need to think outside the box and be creative. I haven’t heard one person actually present a case that there is a good alternative. There are some alternatives, but none of them are remotely close to the efficiency and effectiveness of the fuel tax to fund infrastructure. I’m confident that we’ll increase the fuel tax at some point; but it will probably come at a crisis point in this country before we will wake up and do that. But we are going to keep leading the chants, and we’re not going to back away until somebody shows me an alternative path forward that’s better.

LM:  Are there too many regulations in trucking right now?
Graves: That is a great question, and it’s one that, to some extent, is a difficult one to answer because we often ask the government to regulate things that affect our industry. The nature of doing business in this country today, whether you’re in trucking, banking, construction, or running a restaurant, is going to involve a lot of government regulations. The goal is to try to shape those regulations in a way that they’re manageable and beneficial to the industry and people we serve. 

LM: What’s the status of the hours of service? 
Graves: I don’t expect anything to change dramatically. I’m optimistic that we’ll be successful in our challenge to the hours-of-service rule, which principally involved the 34-hour restart provision. We’re struggling somewhat already with driver shortages in this industry. Not nearly where we were in 2006 and 2007, but we think once the economy recovers, it will be a significant problem again. We just can’t afford to minimize the effectiveness of those safe drivers that we have available, so I remain optimistic that we’ll prevail.

LM: How would you describe the current financial state of the trucking industry?
Graves: I think the state of the industry is pretty good. In a way we’re not unlike the rest of U.S. business in that everyone is very cautious right now about significant investments in expansion of their operations, and a little uncertain about what is going to happen to the U.S. economy. 

I think that until we see the outcomes of this election, until we have some sense of what the economy is going to do, everybody will continue to sort of sit very conservatively and be cautious about making any massive new investments or commitments.

LM: What was your reaction to being given the McCullough Award by the National Industrial Transportation League?
Graves: Let me first say that I was surprised. I am obviously very honored, probably a little unworthy because there isn’t anything that ATA has been able to accomplish that is not happening without all of the people that I am fortunate to be surrounded with here at ATA. Our job is to go out each and every day and to figure out a way to take care of our customers and provide the service levels that they need. We keep the U.S. economy moving in the back of trucks each and every day, and that is something that I am extremely proud of. It’s an award that I am
flattered to receive.

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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