Judy McReynolds: Facing Trucking Industry Challenges Head On

Judy McReynolds took the helm of Arkansas Best Corp. at one of the most difficult times in the history of the trucking company. Arkansas Best, based in Fort Smith, has been hit hard by the Great Recession, as have been almost all transportation firms. The company reported an almost $100 million net operating loss in 2009.

Arkansas Best employs about 10,000 people around the country. It is the parent of ABF Freight System Inc., the seventh-largest trucking company in the state based on revenue. ABF, a less-than-truckload carrier, had revenue of $1.4 billion and accounted for about 94 percent of Arkansas Best's revenue in 2009.

McReynolds, 47, who succeeded Bob Davidson on Jan. 1 as chief executive officer and president, sounded upbeat as she described her first few months as the only female CEO of an Arkansas-based publicly traded company, though acutely aware of the challenges facing her and the firm.

"Transportation has been in a much greater decline than the broader economy," said McReynolds, who before being promoted to the top spot had been senior vice president, CFO and treasurer of Arkansas Best. "We're all still trying to figure out why that is. It may have been inventory corrections, or it may be that we're more closely tied to the housing market, some things like that.

"The business that we have is at very low levels and so one of the more difficult things is working through solutions to that and trying to get the groundwork laid for more profitable things to come. That's the primary focus that I have as well as the ABF people have in trying to turn this thing around."

Although McReynolds stressed that Arkansas Best doesn't give detailed guidance on its finances, she noted that ABF's daily tonnage levels "are up just a minor amount, about 1 percent this year so far. We're encouraged by the fact that we're not seeing further declines.

"And what you hear from others in the transportation industry is that we're seeing some signs of stabilization," she said. "That's a positive thing.

"Something that we're all searching for is, What is the new normal? What is that? I think what you've got to ask yourself is ... will we have an economy where people [will be] spending at the level that they were?" McReynolds said. "Consumer spending is kind of the source of freight on trucks. I'm prepared that perhaps we don't go back to where we were in, say, 2004 and 2005, which were some rather strong years for the economy and our company. I'm prepared that that may not be the case because people are not going to take the risk to spend at the levels that they were before because of what's happened over the last couple of years."

Asked how shareholders might feel about that, she said, "What we have to do as a company is to make the most of each revenue dollar that we have. And I think our shareholders will be pleased if we're able to do that." McReynolds said Arkansas Best remained committed to its goal of earning for its shareholders a 10 percent return after taxes.

McReynolds, married and the mother of two teenaged sons, downplays the role her gender has played in how she's perceived in a male-dominated industry, but acknowledged that it had earned her attention - all, she said, positive. She also noted that being a wife and mother had helped prepare her for what at any time would be a very demanding job.

"Some of the organization skills that you learn being a woman or a mother - they're perfect for organizing your time and trying to figure out what rises to the top of the list," she said. "That's something that I use every day."