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Trucking visionary Don Schneider dies at 76, shaped post-deregulation industry

By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
January 13, 2012

Donald J. “Don” Schneider, a trucking industry visionary and chairman emeritus and former president and CEO of truckload giant Schneider National, died Jan. 13 in De Pere, Wis., following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Schneider was 76.

Trucking industry and company colleagues say it was nearly impossible to overstate Schneider’s importance to the industry in its post-deregulated era following the Motor Carrier Act of 1980.

Along with J.B. Hunt, Swift Transportation’s Jerry Moyes and perhaps a handful of others, Schneider accurately foresaw changes and shaped the way the industry would perform for decades following deregulation.

He predicted that shippers would demand more and better services such as Just-in-Time inventory replenishment and time-definite services. Unencumbered by government rate regulation, Schneider anticipated the rise in low-cost, non-union operations such as his own company, J.B. Hunt, Swift, Werner Enterprises and hundreds of other now-landmark operations in what is now the $300 billion truckload sector.

“Don Schneider was a visionary, bringing business acumen and technology to blaze a trail and set the standard in the modern day development of our industry,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves said in a statement. “The transportation and logistics industry has lost one of its most passionate and influential voices.”

An extremely low-key individual, Schneider’s modest and shy exterior belied his extremely high intelligence and foresight. An MBA graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Schneider parlayed his vision and operations wisdom into personal fortune. In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked Schneider as the 117th wealthiest person on its list of 400 richest individuals, with a net worth in excess of $3 billion.

But one would never realize that from a casual meeting with Schneider. Usually dressed modestly in a blue denim work shirt, Schneider was typically shy of the press—unless a reporter warmed him up with a few questions about his beloved hometown Green Bay Packers. He was a founding member of the Packers board, the team’s director emeritus and an avid and knowledgeable NFL fan.

It often seemed that Schneider would much rather talk about quarterback Brett Favre than his company’s newest service offering. But once Schneider opened up about his company, one found him to be engaging, forthright, smart and funny.

Trucking was in his blood. His father, Al, started a storage and transfer service in 1938 from converted horse stable. He dropped the storage element in 1944. Don took over trucking firm in 1983 after receiving his Wharton M.B.A.

Schneider was an early adopter of satellite tracking technology and one of the first large TL carriers to expand into logistics and other specialized services. Through his direction, Schneider became one of nation’s largest haulers by buying up competitors. Today, privately held Schneider National ranks as the second-largest TL carrier in the country with 15,500 drivers and 48,000 trailers covering more than 8 million miles every day. It did $3.7 billion revenue last year and, although privately held Schneider does not release exact income figures, is believed to be solidly profitable.

Schneider was one of the first U.S. trucking companies to expanding internationally with operations in China, Czech Republic and Mexico.

Schneider was born on Oct. 19, 1935, the same year his father, Al (AJ), sold the family car to buy his first truck. That laid the groundwork for what would become, under Don’s leadership, one of the most successful, recognizable and respected transportation and logistics companies in North America.

The younger Schneider started working for the family business while in high school in the early 1950s, first as a mechanic’s helper and then as a truck driver. He continued in this capacity while attending St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., in the late 1950s, using the job to fund his college education.

To mechanics and drivers at the Green Bay-based company, he was known as “Donnie,” a term of endearment he earned and one still used affectionately by retired drivers today. To the majority of Schneider National’s shop, driver and office associates, one of the industry’s most accomplished icons was simply known as “Don,” a man just as likely as they were to wear blue jeans, a denim shirt and cowboy boots to work.

Julius Borley has been working for Schneider National for more than 60 years and remembers Don’s down-to-earth style.

“Don thought of himself as a regular guy and always wanted to stay in touch with the drivers,” Borley said, according to a company release. “When I stopped driving and became a company tour guide, he always asked us to bring the drivers to his office during the tour. Don’s door was always open. He wanted to meet the guys behind the wheel to let them know how much he respected how hard they worked and to thank them for working for Schneider. That’s the kind of man he was.”

Schneider graduated from St. Norbert College with an undergraduate degree in business and married his wife, Patricia (Pat) O’Brien, in 1957. After serving a 13-month military tour of duty in Korea, Schneider returned to this country and enrolled in graduate school at the Wharton. Upon earning his master’s degree from Wharton, he returned to the Green Bay area in 1961 to join his father’s trucking company as a manager.

He also taught finance at his alma mater, St. Norbert College, during this time. In 1976 Don officially became president of the then $82 million company. His father, Al, passed away in March of 1983.
Schneider led the organization bearing his family’s name for more than 25 years. During that time, the company grew, survived and thrived during some of the modern trucking industry’s greatest challenges, including deregulation in the early 1980s. Schneider brought both business savvy and a keen ability to anticipate customer needs to the business, as well as a steadfast belief that with innovation, hard work and the commitment to excellence of associates, anything was possible.

Don’s commitment to technological innovation was instrumental to the company’s success. Schneider National was the first in the industry to adopt satellite-based communications and positioning in its trucks. Don’s vision extended beyond trucking as Schneider was a pioneer in providing intermodal and logistics services. In 1993 Schneider founded Schneider Logistics as a wholly owned subsidiary of Schneider National. Today Schneider Logistics is a leading solutions provider, enabling customers to effectively manage the flow of materials, funds and information throughout their supply chains. His vision and talent extended beyond the transportation industry as he formed Schneider Communications, a regional telecommunications company, in 1982.
Schneider retired from the day-to-day responsibilities in 2002, selecting then chief operating officer Chris Lofgren to succeed him as president and CEO. Don continued on as chairman of the board for the privately held firm until 2007 when he reached the board’s mandatory retirement age.

“Don Schneider was one of the finest individuals I have ever known,” Lofgren said in a statement. “He was true to his convictions and committed to his values. I will be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to work for and be mentored by Don. He entrusted our management team to continue his vision of providing exceptional transportation and logistics services at a fair price, while enhancing the standard of living worldwide. Our Schneider National family of associates shares our deepest sympathies with his wife, Pat, and the entire Schneider family during this sad time.”

Schneider shared his time and talents with a wide range of academic, industry, business and community organizations. Most notably, he served as chairman of the Business Advisory Committee for Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, was a member of the Advisory Board for the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, was a director on the Federal Reserve Board in Chicago and served on the Board of Directors at Fort Howard Paper Co. and Franklin Electric. He was also a member of the Board and Executive Committee of the Green Bay Packers and sat on the Board of Trustees for St. Norbert College.

“Don was a very valuable member of the Packers executive committee for over 20 years.  His business skills were extraordinary.  He was a great sounding board for me, and I relied on his advice on numerous occasions,” noted Bob Harlan, chairman emeritus of the Packers. “Don also had a tremendous passion for the Packers and was as enthusiastic as any fan we have on game day,” Harlan added.
Schneider was also an active philanthropist in the Green Bay area, having chaired the capital campaign for Notre Dame Academy, the annual campaign for United Way of Brown County and provided the lead gift for the St. Norbert College athletic complex – Donald J. Schneider Outdoor Athletic Complex – in 2008. In 1982 Schneider founded the company’s charitable arm, the Schneider National Foundation, to bring about positive change in the communities where his associates live and work. The foundation has donated millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours to charities in need since its founding.

According to long-time fellow associate and personal friend, Wayne Lubner, Don spoke often of the importance of building a company that was “built to last.” At the very heart of this philosophy was Don’s steadfast commitment to the core values of safety, integrity, respect and excellence. These core values guided many of the decisions Don made for Schneider National and are still the decision-making bedrocks used by thousands of associates today.

“Don’s strength of character and instinctive leadership have been felt well beyond the transportation and logistics field,” Lubner said in a statement released by the company. “His competitive spirit, persistence and drive in everything he did made him such a remarkable leader and incredible man.”
Schneider is survived by his wife of 53 years, Pat, five children, 13 grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and “18,222 members of his Schneider National family around the country,” according to a release supplied by the company.

About the Author

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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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