USA Truck's New Management Navigates a Learning Curve

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014 12:00 am  

USA Truck CEO John Simone, an experienced turnaround artist, put together a 27-point plan that has helped the Van Buren company’s stock price almost triple in the past year. (Photos by Kat Wilson)

VAN BUREN — Cliff Beckham woke up on New Year’s Day with one thought running through his head: “Thank God that year is over.”

Beckham is the chief financial officer at USA Truck Inc. of Van Buren, a company that certainly had an interesting 2013. The trucking company brought in a new CEO and several new executives, fought off — for the time being — a hostile takeover bid by a competitor and saw its fifth consecutive annual net loss.

Still, Beckham doesn’t dread the coming year as he did this past one. While USA Truck did lose money last year, there is a palpable and growing sense of optimism at the company’s headquarters.

Beckham and USA Truck CEO John Simone spoke of the past year and their expectations for the future on Tuesday, which happened to be the one-year anniversary of Simone’s appointment as CEO. Simone replaced Beckham, who helped in the decision-making process that selected not only his replacement but his new boss.

“It is a highly unusual situation,” said Beckham, who has been with USA Truck for 20 years. “We needed to bring in a CEO with more operational experience. I welcomed that change. I just want to win.”

Simone, who has a crushing handshake and a poker player’s countenance, has 30 years of experience in the transportation industry and is a veteran of several company turnarounds. When he took over at USA, Simone didn’t hit the ground running; he hit the ground learning.

He gave himself 100 days to research and diagnose the situation at USA Truck, which had lost money for four consecutive years. After those 100 days, he didn’t set a timetable, just an in-depth plan of action to right the declining fortunes of the 30-year-old company.

“All turnarounds are different in how long they take,” Simone said. “There were a couple of ‘aha’ moments. We looked at every aspect of the business, everything that we do.”

Simone’s plan was to fix all of USA Truck — or try to — at once. To do this, he needed to learn the areas of weakness in the organization and then put together a team of industry veterans to attack those areas.

During the next few months after his 100 days of assessment, Simone brought in several executives, such as Jeff Lester, who was named executive vice president in charge of risk management in August. Most of the hires — both at the executive and management levels — had history with Simone at his previous stops at places such as Ryder, Greatwide Logistics or LinkAmerica.

Simone kept many of the old guard at USA Truck in place. Beckham moved back to CFO, and Simone said he provided invaluable insight into the history of the company and into some of the organizational problems that had plagued it.

“I don’t have a scorched-earth approach,” Simone said.



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