Chris Spear’s appointment as the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations is good news for Arkansas.
Spear assumed leadership July 9, but he is already a familiar face to the Arkansas trucking industry. He served as legislative director for U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., from 2000-01, and in 2015, Spear was a speaker at the Arkansas Trucking Association’s annual meeting in Hot Springs.
At the time, Spear had just been named the ATA’s vice president and chief of legislative affairs. “I understand the dynamics of Arkansas,” Spear said after his original appointment.
Spear left the ATA in October 2015 to become vice president of government affairs for Hyundai Motor Co. He returned to replace Bill Graves, who retired after nearly 14 years as president and CEO of the ATA.
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, has developed a friendship with Spear through association meetings in Washington.
“I’m very, very excited about the new hire and the energy, the new strategy and the new leadership style,” Newton said. “I think the industry will actually benefit from having a more directed, tactical approach to moving legislation, advancing the priorities of the industry. It will be done with someone at the helm who is very inclusive and communicative. I think everyone will have a better understanding of what is going on and will be given the opportunity to weigh in and be helpful. That will make our industry stronger.”
Newton repeatedly stressed that her praise of Spear was not meant as a slight to Graves, who will remain as a consultant with the ATA through the rest of the year. Spear and Graves differ, though, because Spear made his bones working the legislative floor while Graves was a two-time governor of Kansas before taking over the American Trucking Associations.
“People who come from that environment come with kind of a bubble, and I don’t say that disrespectfully,” Newton said. “You have some element of distance with what is going on on the ground. Chris has none of that. He is the guy on the ground. Having someone with that kind of experience is going to bode well for us.”
Spear recently named four of his five appointees to his leadership team. Elisabeth Barna, a long-time executive with the ATA, was named COO, but the others were outside hires, including the new general counsel, Jennifer Hall, and new executive vice president of advocacy, Bill Sullivan.
Both have deep connections to Congress. Hall was the co-chief of staff for the House Transportation Committee, and Sullivan was legislative director for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
Newton believes that the new leadership will also open new channels of communication within the organization. The American Trucking Associations, like the Arkansas Trucking Association, is made up of many companies of all sizes and influences.
“I think he was exceptional when he was at ATA two years ago and everyone loved working for him,” Newton said. “The industry — both the people who run companies and sit on the board of ATA and the people who run state associations across the country —are very excited. They perceive him to be the right person at the right time to step in and be immediately effective.”
In December, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion transportation infrastructure funding bill that satisfied a long-term legislative need of the industry, but other goals exist. The American Trucking Associations certainly appears to have a seasoned group to pursue those priorities.
For Arkansas, it’s good news because Spear developed some ties to the state while working for Tim Hutchinson, whose brother, Asa, is now the governor of Arkansas. Asa Hutchinson also spoke at the Arkansas Trucking Association’s convention in Hot Springs, and he announced a highway funding working group that included Newton.
Spear “has the connections from when he worked for Tim Hutchinson, and he and I have maintained a really good relationship,” Newton said. “We’ll be able to use that for our association. I would anticipate you would see our association utilize that network.”