Perseverence Pays: Hard work drives Heartland president Mike Gerdin
A University of Alabama graduate with a degree in Broadcast Journalism, Bentley spent 15 years as a trucking Publisher before becoming the Editorial Director for Randall-Reilly's Recruiting Media division.
The lobby of Iowa City, Iowa-based Heartland Express is filled with awards and accolades the company has received throughout the years, and on the day Best Driver Jobs recently visited the facility, the fledgling fleet was actually adding two new trophy cases.
The boardroom is just as impressive, with mounts of hunting trophies from all over the world; but when you get to the office of President Mike Gerdin, there is less style – and a lot more substance.
Mike represents three generations in the trucking industry, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Wilford, and his dad, Russ. The two elder Gerdins were entrepreneurial by nature and made a career as “turnaround specialists” for trucking companies. “They would buy fleets, fix them, and sell them,” Mike said. If they were to make a reality TV show about their exploits, it would probably be titled, ‘Flip This Fleet’.
In 1978, about the time Mike’s grandpa was ready to retire, the Gerdins purchased Scott’s Transportation, a small fleet in Swisher, IA. They decided to keep this company, which would later become Heartland Express – with Russ at the helm. To say Mike grew up in the business would be an understatement. Perhaps a small, unassuming frame hanging on a wall in Mike’s office may best illustrate his story.
It contains Mike’s first “official” paycheck from Heartland Express, and he never cashed it. Dated September 2, 1983, it was only for $18.75; but to Mike it is priceless. The check represented his “arrival” at the company, although he could actually be considered a veteran by then. At the age of 6, Mike started washing trucks for 25 cents apiece and continued to do so for years before officially going on the payroll as a part-time employee. As a teenager, he then changed oil and tires, unloaded and cleaned out trailers, and swept the shop floor.
Heartland became a publicly traded company in 1986, and Mike had a desire to learn the business side of trucking. While earning a BA degree in Business Management from Luther College in Decorah, IA, he would work in the corporate office during the summers and started at Heartland full-time after graduation.
Mike started in operations, and he worked his way around various departments (including safety) for a few years. In 1997, just three weeks before Mike was to be married, Heartland bought A&M Express, a 300-truck fleet in Kingsport, TN, and Mike accepted the position as their President. He and his wife moved to Tennessee, but after three years, they moved back to Iowa when Mike became VP of Regional Operations at Heartland.
Soon after, the company continued their growth by purchasing Great Coastal Express, their fifth acquisition since Russ Gerdin took Heartland public. That was 2002, and for a few years it seemed that the debt-free company was invincible.
Then tragedy struck.
In 2006, Russ was diagnosed with liver cancer, and Mike was quickly promoted to President – a position he was prepared for thanks to the experience of running the A&M Express subsidiary and the mentoring he had received from his father over the years. Many of the trucking company presidents profiled in this series have listed Russ Gerdin as their mentor, and Mike said his father was the most influential person in his life as well. He credits Russ for his work ethic. “I think the best thing I learned from my dad was his belief that Heartland works harder,” Mike said. “He believes we couldn’t always be the smartest, but we could outwork the competition.”
With Russ’s vision and Mike’s energy and enthusiasm, Heartland Express pressed forward and built a new corporate headquarters in 2007. When the economy dipped, many fleets began shifting their focus from long haul to more regional operations, but Heartland was well ahead of the trend. “We’ve been regional for more than 20 years,” Mike said. As such, Heartland continued to hone their niche Just-In-Time inventory skills and focused on reliability for major shippers like Sears, Unilever, Lowe’s, and Kellogg’s. “There is no recession on service,” Mike said.
Sadly, Russ would lose a five-year battle with declining health in October, 2011, but Mike is carrying on his legacy of being the best truckload carrier out there. “We never wanted to be the biggest, just the best,” Mike said. Based on profitability, best-in-class service execution, customer satisfaction, and overall company performance, it’s hard to argue that Heartland hasn’t accomplished that goal.
In 2011 alone, the company won 19 Carrier of the Year awards and the Logistics Management Quest for Quality Award, which Heartland Express has received for the past nine years. Additionally, Forbes Magazine has recognized Heartland as a Best 200 Small Companies in America for 18 of the past 23 years.
Heartland currently operates almost 3,000 trucks, but is expanding into new markets. Within the past five years, Heartland has been expanding in the Western 11 states, concentrating on growth markets like Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and San Francisco. So far the strategy has been working. In 2005, Heartland opened a terminal in Phoenix with zero trucks, and now they have 300 based out of that facility. “The West will keep us growing for years,” Mike said.
Mike says the biggest roadblock to growth is driver availability. “We are picky about who we hire, and that shows up in our lack of accidents and on-time delivery,” he stated. Heartland has category-leading CSA scores that prove safety is at the core of their corporate culture. “We are tough on drivers to log legally,” Mike said. As such, Heartland began installing PeopleNet EOBRs in February, 2011 and completed the entire fleet in two months. “At first, there was some resistance, but now our drivers love it,” Mike added.
It’s hard for Mike to say what the best driver benefit is at Heartland, because they do so many things well. Heartland’s operation provides great home time, and the company offers some of the highest pay and newest equipment on the highway. The oldest truck in their fleet is a 2010, and the average age is only 14 months. The company trades trucks before they reach 400,000 miles, so in essence, experienced drivers get a new truck every two years. Heartland has a new trailer fleet as well.
Treating their drivers this well has resulted in a high retention rate, and Mike says he enjoys interacting with some of Heartland’s ‘old timers’ – many of whom he washed their trucks as a young boy. “I like listening to their four-wheeler stories and enjoy hearing them give advice to our younger drivers,” Mike said.
Mike loves to hand out million miler awards, and as an avid runner, he certainly understands the efforts that go into achieving a long distance award. Mike has completed 18 marathons thus far and also finished the Ironman Wisconsin, an ultra-distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run.
Running for long distances can be monotonous, and running a large financially and fundamentally sound company can be a grind as well; but Mike has a sign on his desk that serves as motivation. It simply says: The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather is a lack of will.
The message represents the lessons instilled by Russ and echoes Mike’s belief in perseverance. Mike thinks perseverance is the key to success – both professional and personal. Away from work, Mike loves to hunt and fish and is also very active with his wife and three boys. He coaches his kids’ sports squads and led one of his son’s baseball teams to a state championship in 2011.
There is a perseverance quote by John D. Rockefeller that perhaps sums up Gerdin even better:
“I do not think that there is any other quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance. It overcomes almost everything, even nature.”
Rockefeller was an American industrialist who founded Standard Oil Company and revolutionized the petroleum industry. As kerosene and gasoline grew in importance, Rockefeller’s wealth soared. Often regarded as the richest person in history, he defined the structure of modern philanthropy. As customer and driver needs continue to change, Heartland Express’ Mike Gerdin is redefining the way to run a modern trucking fleet.