Cliff Beckham said he felt weird as he sat at his office computer and prepared to confirm a sale of some of his USA Truck stock.
“I felt like I was doing something wrong, like I was cheating on a test,” said Beckham, who announced Aug. 7 he would step down as chief financial officer of USA Truck effective Sept. 30. “At the same time, it was a bit of a victory lap.”
Beckham, 42, has been with the Van Buren trucking company for 20 years after starting as a $20,000-a-year staff accountant. He worked his way up to be named CFO before he was promoted to CEO in 2007.
Beckham’s tenure as CEO was not a fairy tale come true. After a profitable 2008, the company posted five consecutive years of net losses. John Simone was hired to replace Beckham in February 2013.
Beckham was part of the hiring committee that selected Simone and agreed to stay on as CFO to help with the transition. It is a bit like a head coach in football being fired but then staying on as the new coach’s offensive coordinator.
“I have never heard of it happening before,” Beckham said of the arrangement.
Despite the unorthodox coupling, Beckham swears that it worked. He said he and Simone sat down “like a couple of guys” to get a feel for each other and figure out how to work together.
“He never put me in my place,” Beckham said. “My entire mindset was to help John’s team and the board. It couldn’t have worked out better. There was zero friction.”
Beckham had been talking with his wife, Lynn, about stepping away from the company once Simone’s turnaround efforts took hold. That happened when USA Truck reported earnings of $700,000 for the second quarter of 2014, the company’s first profitable quarter since 2011.
Beckham told the board the next day he was resigning. He made it public a few days later.
“It didn’t feel right not staying,” said Beckham, who was born and raised in Fort Smith. “I felt a tremendous responsibility to the company.”
There are no next plans, Beckham said. He said he is exhausted from the grind of the past few years, which included two failed takeover bids amid the financial struggles.
He said he is glad he left after the positive second quarter and not immediately after Simone was hired. Now, Beckham isn’t leaving with his head hung low, carrying his personal effects in a box.
“It was an interesting reaction from my family,” said Beckham, the father of two sons and a daughter. “My wife told me not to try to dictate what’s on TV during the day because she doesn’t want me to interfere with her routine. The children are excited about Daddy being around more, but they have the attitude they will believe it when they see it.”
Thanks to conservative living and USA Truck’s generosity — the company is letting Beckham keep a $75,000 bonus he received in April — Beckham doesn’t have to make hasty job decisions any time soon. For 20 years he invested his disposable income in USA Truck stock, the same stock he nervously began to sell, for the first time, on Aug. 11.
Over the course of a week, Beckham sold more than 40,000 shares for almost $750,000. He said he plans to keep a large chunk of USA Truck stock — he still has more than 28,000 shares — but the sales both diversify his holdings and cushion his unemployment.
“It makes some sense for me to take some chips off the table,” Beckham said.
Beckham said he will take his time because he wants his next job to take up the next 20 years of his life. He doesn’t want sympathy because he had a great experience at USA Truck and he’s proud of what he was able to contribute.
“I was a lower-to-middle class kid and I was the first in my family to go to college,” Beckham said. “This company has literally allowed me and my family to live the American dream. I’m one of the luckiest people you’ll ever meet.”