by John Henry on Monday, Jun. 12, 2006 12:00 am
Ralph Bradbury, right, president of Continental Express, and Pete Campbell, executive vice president, plan to restructure the Little Rock trucking company.
A year ago, in May 2005, he returned to the company he helped build.
"It feels really good," Bradbury said. "I was extremely happy and flattered when Mr. Harvey called me" to come back.
During his leave, Continental Express grew, but it was growth just for the sake of growth, and a long-term strategy was missing. The company had three different leaders during Bradbury's absence, the last being Kelly Wooldridge. (No one at the company would comment about Wooldridge's departure because of potential "legal proceedings.")
Now, Bradbury said, his first goal is "getting our feet back under us." That calls for looking at the entire operation and "streamlining things."
The truckload carrier posted $110 million in revenue last year, up from $105 million the year before.
But Bradbury — and Harvey — are trying to position the company for sustained growth, and the plan actually calls for it to be a bit smaller, at least temporarily, while the restructuring is under way.
When Bradbury returned, the company was running 600 trucks and 1,900 trailers. He wants to drop that down to about 500 trucks and 1,200 trailers while the streamlining is taking place. Continental's biggest customers are Best Buy, Circuit City, Menlo Industries, General Electric, Toys "R" Us and Wal-Mart.
"When I came back, the first thing I noticed was a picture on the wall in the office of a train hauling trucking trailers." During his absence, the company had moved into intermodal transport to increase profits. And it did.
Like all companies that have to keep an eye on the bottom line, Continental will continue some of the highway/rail mix it offers, but Bradbury is reducing Continental's dependence on it. When he returned, about 23 percent of the company's revenue came from doing business with the railroads. That figure is now down to 19 percent.
"We also have to consider driver satisfaction," Bradbury said. "We have to think about the drivers and increase the length of their haul. You have to get them miles so they can pay their bills and earn a decent living." Using rail too much can cost a company good drivers, which are always in short supply.
Bradbury also has begun efforts to better communicate with the drivers.
"We know they have needs with their families, paying their bills, taking care of pets, just like all of us do. We're trying to be more specific in understanding those needs. Most of the time, a driver leaves because we didn't understand he had a particular need," he said.
It's particularly difficult when a driver has an emergency at home, which may be halfway across the country, while his load is headed in the other direction. It can be costly for the company to get another driver to pick up the load and carry it on to its destination while the original driver returns home to handle a problem.
Bradbury said he had a plan in place to ease that problem when he left — a plan that was abandoned while he was gone — and he is working to reinstate it.
Bradbury, who says his motto is "firm, but fair," admits he demands a lot from his employees, but he also believes in giving them rewards. "They deserve to thrive," he said.
In July 1999, Bradbury said, he and Harvey reached a mutual agreement for him "to do something else."
News reports at the time of the abrupt departure said he resigned over philosophical differences with Harvey, although there were some who said Harvey fired him.
Bradbury told Arkansas Business at the time: "The reason for the split is simply a difference in business values and philosophies."
Last week, he said, his departure was mainly a case of burnout and a need "just to figure out what I wanted to do." He said he and Harvey had remained friends. When Harvey called last year to talk about coming back, Bradbury, now 51, was ready.
"We've both grown older and, although our philosophies are different, as we spent a long time talking about the company, we realized that we were on the same page as far as our goals and objectives are concerned.
"We came back together to make the company successful for everyone, including the employees."
When he left in 1999, Bradbury had been a minority partner. He declined last week to talk about any ownership position in the company.
During his leave from Continental, he said, he did some consulting and also worked for Whiting Systems Inc. of Little Rock.
He started out working with some potential investors, including his older brother, Curt Bradbury, chief operating officer of Stephens Inc., to launch his own fleet of trucks from somewhere in Little Rock, but trucking had taken a downturn.
"The timing wasn't right," he said, "but I always expected to get back into trucking. Fear of failure is the biggest motivator."
Bradbury's interest in trucking began at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, where he earned a degree in business administration with an emphasis in transportation. It was there he became friends with Grant Davis, who headed the transportation department at the school.
After graduating, he worked for the Arkansas Transportation Commission as a senior rate analyst. He then worked for a couple of trucking companies before linking up with Harvey.
Asked about his mentors in the industry, Bradbury points to J.B. Hunt, who founded the largest Arkansas-based trucking company, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. at Lowell; the late Sheridan Garrison, who founded American Freightways at Harrison, which he later sold to FedEx Corp.; and Robert Powell of USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren.
But there's also a group — a club, of sorts — called the Amigos that is made up of Bradbury; Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick Transportation in North Little Rock; Robert Weaver, CEO of P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. of Tontitown; Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association in Little Rock; and Mark Brockington of Little Rock, an insurance executive who specializes in the transportation business.
"Ralph is a unique person with a unique style of management that has evolved over the years — as has the industry," Kidd said.
Although he came from the old school where management was more authoritarian, Kidd said, Bradbury is a seasoned executive who can study balance sheets in the morning and joke around with the drivers in the afternoon.
"He understands how to move freight and how to make money while he's doing it," Kidd said.
Williams, who recently served as chairman of the American Trucking Associations, said the friendship of the Amigos originated through meetings at the Arkansas Trucking Association.
"All of us have an ability to communicate," Williams said. "We share ideas. We have a mutual respect for one another."
That respect has turned into a "real tight friendship," Kidd said.
The trucking executives have competitive personalities and are out to win, but there's probably not as much competition between them as one might expect — except over truck drivers, Williams said.
"If hard work and tenacity will get it done, then Ralph will do it," Williams said.
On the Road Again
Last month, Continental settled a lawsuit that arose from a tragic accident in Tennessee. In July 2004, a Continental driver hit and killed a Nashville police officer who was helping someone else on the side of a road. The driver pleaded guilty, but the family of the officer filed a civil lawsuit against the company for hiring a trucker who had a record of reckless driving.
Bradbury said he couldn't talk about the terms of the settlement other than to say that it wouldn't hurt the viability of the company.
Obviously happy to be back at Continental, Bradbury said, "Fortu-nately, the company was able to keep most of the old hands around." He said he's particularly grateful for Pete Campbell, the executive vice president who has been with the company for 16 years, and Randy Day, director of operations and part of the original group.
A football player at Central High School in Little Rock, a baseball player at the UA and now a top-notch golfer, Bradbury couldn't resist a sports analogy.
"Some might compare my management style to that of a good coach, but I've got damn good athletes playing for me."
On the other hand, when he first returned, he said, he "asked quite a few to leave."
On other issues:
• Labor: "The driver [shortage] issue is at a crucial point. We need to be more cognizant of driver needs."
• Biodiesel: "I don't know how it will affect the industry."
• Fuel prices: Despite what most think, "not all of the fuel price increases is passed along. If it continues, it will affect the mentality of everyone and the economy will slow down, so we'll all be affected in a negative way."
• Ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel: "It will increase our maintenance costs, but it's a positive for the environment, which is a good thing."
On issues such as on-board re-corders and weight-length limits, Bradbury said, "As long as everyone is on the same level playing field, we as an industry will get through it."
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