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Four Bits and the Rest is History: Steve Russell leads Celadon Group

By: Tim Brady

Brad Bentley

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.

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Twenty-seven years ago, 50¢ would buy a cup of coffee and probably a doughnut alongside. But who would have thought that same fifty cents would lead to the formation of one of the largest truckload carriers in America?

Steve Russell, founder, chairman, and CEO of Celadon Group, enjoys telling the true story of the giant motor carrier’s start.

Russell was mentally kicking himself one April afternoon in 1985 while driving from his New York City office to home in Greenwich, Connecticut. He didn’t have the exact change like he always did and so idled in the cash lane, slowly moving up car by car. Someone in the other lane honked a car horn at him. It was a man who’d worked for Russell ten years earlier.

This was before cell phones too, so he yelled over the traffic noises and asked for Russell’s home phone number. They met for breakfast the next morning, and it turned out to be an historic moment.

By the time breakfast was finished, so was a new business arrangement for Russell, the former president of Hertz® Trucks (now Penske). He’d put up thirty thousand dollars of his own money to lease fifty tractors and a hundred trailers, which he would then subcontract to Bekins Logistics® to move Chrysler® auto parts into Mexico.

“The greatest challenge during the early days of Celadon related to cash flow. I started the Company with $30,000, and that was it!” Russell recalls. He also says not having two quarters that day caused all of this to happen: “It was the lucky break that changed my life!”

When he had to choose a name for the new company, he remembered a University of California study years earlier to find the prettiest-sounding word in English – which was ‘celadon.’ Indianapolis was also carefully selected for Celadon’s headquarters city as the motor carrier grew, because the city has four expressways that cross each other, making it a perfect hub.

Since he’d been president of Hertz trucks at the tender age of 33, Russell had experience in the industry. “My vision was to build a trucking company that offered services to Mexico and Canada. Today, about a third of our business begins or ends in Mexico, and about twelve percent begins or ends in Canada.” Celadon also transports freight across Canada and Mexico. With approximately 150,000 annual border crossings, Celadon is believed to be the largest provider of international truckload movements in North America.

Was there a point at which the native of Brooklyn, NY knew the company would succeed? “Quite early on, I believed the company would be successful. We were the first U.S. trucking company to allow trailers into Mexico. That was clearly a good strategy.”

Russell says, jokingly, that the only thing he’d ‘do over’ might be location: “On a freezing cold day in Indianapolis, with ice all over the place, I wish I’d started the company in Tampa or Tucson. Oh, well!”

Celadon, of course, is now thriving, with 4,000 employees, 3,300 trucks, 10,000 trailers and more than 550 million dollars in annual revenue. What will Russell never change? “We are a driver-focused, long haul carrier, with young trucks. The average truck is 1.8 years old, we don’t have our drivers load and unload (we hire lumpers when necessary), and we are a long haul carrier, so our drivers get excellent miles.”

And where would the irrepressible CEO like to take the company now? “My objectives are three-fold: happy employees, happy customers, and happy shareholders.”

Russell is active within the industry and in his local community. He is a member of the American Trucking Associations’ Executive Committee and has served as chairman of the audit committee. He was selected by the World Trade Club of Indiana as its 2006 Global Business Person of the Year and was recently inducted into the Central Indiana Business Hall of Fame. What advice would he give someone who wants to start a trucking company today?

“I believe that with CSA and changes in the Hours of Service, many smaller fleets will have trouble competing.  Big successful fleets, such as Celadon, have young fleets. Many smaller, not financially-strong carriers run very old trucks.  The average age of over-the-road trucks used to be four years; according to the American Trucking Association, it is now 6.8 years old. A driver can’t be happy in an old truck that breaks down, or in an old truck that gets stopped at Inspection Stations, causing the driver to get ‘demerits’ on their CSA score.”

Armed with a BA in mathematics and an MBA in finance and marketing from Cornell University, Russell turned a small investment into one of trucking’s greatest success stories.Readers just might want to take two quarters and tape them to the dashboard, as a reminder of what could happen with a tiny bit of cash, a ‘coincidence’, and a lot of hard work.

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