Judy McReynolds has never spent much time thinking about her next rung on the corporate ladder.
It wasn’t a lack of ambition on her part but more of a reflection of her dedication to whatever tasks her current position put at hand. That professional outlook has certainly paid off for McReynolds, who used her brainpower and people skills to rapidly advance in the corporate world.
“When I think about my career, it’s not that it never occurred to me to run a business, but I was just focused on doing a great job in the role that I was in,” said McReynolds, who is CEO, president and chairman of the board at ArcBest Corp. in Fort Smith. “I think the care and concern for the company result is also a part of the way I think. It’s more about the company and the results that you’re going to get than it is [about] me and my personal needs. If you approach things that way, you’re typically doing something that helps the company get better.”
McReynolds, now 54, was named CEO of ArcBest, a leading trucking and logistics company, in 2009 and started in the job on Jan. 1, 2010. She had joined the company in 1997 — when it was known as Arkansas Best — as controller before a promotion to chief financial officer.
McReynolds, brilliant with numbers, knew what she was getting into. ArcBest had reported a financial loss of $127.9 million in fiscal year 2009.
“I had two thoughts about that,” McReynolds said, growing philosophical. “One, results do matter. The other was I certainly had a lot of opportunity to make it better because it had been so rough.
“This was just the result of the deep recession, the impact on our company. It was a big challenge to tackle.”
Emerging Business Model
From that dark beginning, McReynolds and ArcBest have emerged strong and very profitable. ArcBest reported a loss of $32.6 million in 2010 but finished $6.8 million in the black in 2011.
After a financial step back in 2012, when the company lost $7.7 million, ArcBest began a run of four consecutive profitable years with growing revenue: in 2013, income of $15.8 million on revenue of $2.3 billion; in 2014, income of $46.2 million on revenue of $2.6 billion; in 2015, income of $44.8 million on revenue of $2.66 billion; in 2016, income of $18.6 million on revenue of $2.7 billion.
When McReynolds was named CEO, she said her goals were to double the size of the company in five to 10 years while diversifying its services within the transportation industry. Arkansas Best’s revenue was tied up almost completely in ABF Freight, its less-than-truckload subsidiary that counted for about 95 percent of its 2009 revenue of $1.5 billion.
McReynolds’ plan was to use ArcBest’s strong customer relations to expand its non-asset divisions by offering logistical services. Seven years ago that was a fresh idea; now any transportation company that hasn’t diversified this way is an anomaly.
For McReynolds, the plan wasn’t so much divine inspiration as old-fashioned business fundamentals. Not content to stay behind a desk, she met with customers, who told her the same thing: We need help with logistical issues.
McReynolds said it was a result of “elevation of complexity” in the transportation industry. Companies that just wanted their goods shipped in a timely and professional manner may not have been as familiar with the technical and operational issues as the pros.
“What we realized in those conversations is our traditional less-than-truckload business provides a lot of options for customers; it’s a network built based on local markets, but it wasn’t giving the most efficient answers in some cases,” McReynolds said. “The other thing that customers would say [is] ‘I have one or two people in my transportation department, but I can’t manage all the details of the challenges of my supply chain. I want to hand this to you so you can combine these things for me and get my product to market.’”
Changing the business model of a billion-dollar company is easier said than done. But McReynolds went out and did it.
In 2011, asset-light revenue at ArcBest was a little more than $200 million. In 2016, it was $640 million.
“Judy McReynolds has many great qualities,” said Lavon Morton, a former ArcBest senior vice president. “The two that make her an outstanding leader and an outstanding CEO are the courage to stand by her convictions in the face of adversity and the ability to translate her vision of the future into a coherent strategic plan.”
Sweetness and Light
Morton was instrumental in McReynolds landing at ArcBest. McReynolds took a job as an accountant with Ernst & Young in Little Rock shortly after graduating from Oklahoma with a degree in accounting.
Morton, then a partner at Ernst & Young, was able to see McReynolds’ skills firsthand. Morton later went to work at ArcBest and recruited McReynolds, who had joined PAM Transport Services in Tontitown after leaving Ernst & Young.
Her accounting background gave her a huge advantage, McReynolds believes, because the diversity of her clients at Ernst & Young allowed her to see how other companies in other industries handled their business.
She was named CFO in 2006, a promotion that gave McReynolds access to full board meetings. More important, it gave board members opportunity to see McReynolds’ abilities up close. When it came time to choose a CEO in 2009, McReynolds was the choice.
She guided ArcBest through the logistics expansion, negotiations of a five-year contract with its unionized drivers and the rebranding from Arkansas Best to ArcBest.
Along the way, she became a powerful symbol of female leadership, something she does not dwell on.
She said in a 2011 interview with The New York Times that she never allowed herself — or anyone else — to make gender an issue in her career.
Again, easier said than done, but McReynolds is adamant that she has never felt it to be an issue, simply because she hasn’t allowed it to be. On March 8, McReynolds spoke at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith for International Women’s Day and was asked that question.
“I sat there and honestly could not think of an issue other than what I said to the person, ‘Sometimes the expectations can be lowered because of you being a woman in a particular role,’” McReynolds said.
“‘What you have to do is prove them wrong, exceed the expectations.’”
McReynolds said she would give prospective business leaders the same advice whether they were men or women.
“Recognize that there are difficulties in life both in your business and your personal life,” McReynolds said. “Just accept the fact that you are going to have difficulties, OK? Then approach the solutions to those difficulties and obstacles with a positive attitude.
“If you’re a young person thinking about how you’re going to succeed, just recognize that it’s not going to be sweetness and light.”