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Trucking Trendsetter: Max Fuller of U.S. Xpress is a change champion

By: Brad Bentley

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.

U.S. Xpress truck and president

Every industry has innovators, but few executives are actually remembered for revolutionizing an entire marketplace. Sam Walton did it in the retail world. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell changed the landscape for computers and software. Trucking has Max Fuller of U.S. Xpress.

As Chairman and CEO of U.S. Xpress Enterprises, Inc., this forward thinking leader has been responsible for helping develop several trucking improvements while building the nation’s third largest privately-owned truckload carrier.

Mr. Fuller recently sat down at the company’s headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn. to share his keys to success.

Experience pays

Max grew up in trucking, although he admits the Fuller family’s initial involvement in transportation wasn’t planned.

Fuller’s dad, Clyde, became a used car dealer in Athens, Tennessee after serving in World War II. In the late 1950s, a guy traded Clyde a tractor-trailer for two Volkswagen Beetles – a car he had recently begun importing that had become a big seller. When Volkswagen switched to a franchise concept in the early 1960s, the elder Fuller decided to unload his inventory and seek other opportunities. When Clyde could not sell the tractor trailer on his lot, he chose to put it on the road – and a trucking company was born.

This new entity became Southwest Motor Freight, and Max worked his way through college changing oil and pressure washing trucks at his dad’s fleet. After graduating from the University of Tennessee in the early 1970s with a B.A. degree in Finance and Business Administration, Max went to work for his dad and held various executive leadership positions over the next 10 years. When Clyde sold Southwest Motor Freight in 1984, the fleet was Tennessee’s largest trucking firm. He left Max, his stepson, David Parker, and his protégé, Pat Quinn, to work with the company’s new ownership.

Less than a year after Southwest changed hands, Fuller, Parker, and Quinn left the company. With deregulation in its infancy, the trio initially planned to start a fleet together but would soon go in separate directions. While Parker started Covenant Transport on the west side of Chattanooga, Fuller and Quinn co-founded U.S. Xpress, Inc. on the other side of town.

An amazing journey

U.S. Xpress picked up their first load of freight in January 1986 and began to make their mark on transportation with a foundation of 48 trucks. In less than two decades, the company used innovation, early adoption of technology, embracing change, and a “can do” culture for success to become the fastest truckload carrier to reach $1 billion in annual revenue.

It didn’t take long for Max Fuller to be widely respected as a true innovator either. As early adopters of technologies such as satellite communications, automatic traction control, auto-shift transmissions, wide-base single tires, air brakes, and anti-rollover control, U.S. Xpress equipped itself to meet the demands of customers while simultaneously improving the company’s safety record.

“We were one of the first companies to use Qualcomm and even helped them develop their software,” Fuller said. “We became one of fastest growing fleets by leveraging technologies and often had a five-year jump on our competition, because we could exceed their services.”

Through his leadership, U.S. Xpress was not only recognized as a service, safety, and technology leader in the trucking industry, but on a national level as well. In 2000, the company earned an award for innovation from the Smithsonian Institute.

Fuller’s involvement with designing a new style of truck may be his most lasting achievement though.

Raising the roof

While at Southwest Motor Freight, Max was put in charge of purchasing and always enjoyed spec’ing trucks. With several Army buddies in Southern California to network return freight, his father had pioneered the team driving concept. Max had found that the Kenworth trucks of that era were the most practical for those cross-country, 48-hour drives. Fuller implemented similar long haul runs in the early years at U.S. Xpress, and when a flamboyant former Kenworth sales executive named James Hebe joined Freightliner in 1989, he wanted Max to buy his trucks.

“We felt like Freightliner did not have what our team drivers needed, so I challenged Hebe to go back to the drawing board – literally,” Fuller recalled. When Hebe presented Fuller with the opportunity to help design a more practical solution, Max reached out to the heartbeat of U.S. Xpress’s foundation – his drivers. As a result, 64 U.S. Xpress drivers had input in developing Freightliner’s raised roof condo tractor, which would become the most popular truck in the history of our industry.

U.S. Xpress alone has bought 52,000 raised roof Freightliners since that time, and Fuller takes pride in shaping an industry icon that allows professional drivers to do their job safely, productively, and comfortably. “One of my philosophies is that drivers should have the best equipment in the market place, and our company trucks are spec’d more like an owner operator’s,” Fuller said. “U.S. Xpress has an aggressive trade cycle and strives to always have modern, well-maintained trucks on the road.”

Fuller has also pushed hard for brighter headlights and more comfortable seats in trucks, bringing in safety technology from Europe. Earlier this year, Truck-Lite unveiled the world’s first custom LED headlights for the truck market. Designed for the Freightliner Cascadia® model, the custom headlight is now available as an aftermarket retrofit option from Freightliner dealers across North America.

Rolling with the changes

New technology is just one example of how Max and Pat embraced change.

Fuller says he tried to emulate the success of other carriers but learned early on about ‘rise and fall’ of many fast-growing fleets. “There were many trucking companies who would get big, and then they were gone. I wanted to avoid that,” Fuller stated. “To survive, we reinvent ourselves every five years. Supply chains change. Customers change. If we don’t change, we die!”

With 6,000 trucks and 19,000 trailers, U.S. Xpress is still striving to deliver new strategic services including expedited team services, regional services, dedicated contract carriage, demand critical and intermodal solutions, as well as logistics, brokerage, and international services.

About 50% of U.S. Xpress’s freight is dedicated, and the company continues to diversify. With more manufacturing moving back to North America and the 2014 expansion of the Panama Canal, Fuller says U.S. Xpress is concentrating on America’s Eastern shipping ports and rail yards.

Moving forward

U.S. Xpress has made 24 acquisitions over the years, including buying minority interest in several regional fleets, but with “reregulation” of governmental and state agencies

Fuller said he expects future growth to be more organic. “We want to grow conservatively in this new environment and be more cautious now than in the past,” Fuller stated. “Our industry has seen a net shrinkage for the past 13 years and contracted by 20% since 2000. With an oversupply of trucks, truckers and companies have paid the price, and now there are a lot of constraints on drivers and productivity.”

Fuller has always focused on the driver and tried to deliver on their expectations. However, he says converging trends like an aging workforce and the added safety and health regulations have put pressure on the driving community.

He is trying to create more longevity in the company’s workforce and recently implemented a wellness program that focuses on nutrition, exercise, and weight loss. Additionally, Fuller encouraged his truck stop vendors, like Pilot Flying J, to offer healthier dining choices. And they have responded.

When this post was written, Pilot Flying J had just launched a new fast, casual dining concept at select travel centers nationwide with a variety-filled menu featuring hot soups, home-style platters, steel-cut oatmeal, fruit, fresh-made salads and cold sandwiches, a frozen yogurt bar, and much more.

Despite industry contributions spanning four decades, Fuller has no plans to retire anytime soon. After the unexpected death of Pat Quinn in 2011, Fuller began developing a new management team to ensure that US Xpress is a long-term player in trucking. “We have hired for the next generation with younger managers in their 30s and 40s.” His son, Eric, is now Chief Operating Officer, and Fuller has also brought in an arsenal of young talent with experience in the intermodal and Mexican markets.

Pay for performance

Truckload carriers, encouraged by first quarter tonnage trends, are increasingly optimistic that rates will rise and shipments increase in 2013. Fuller says the good news is if freight rates go up that driver pay will increase.

“Our industry has become a lot more productive since deregulation, but driver pay has not been proportionate,” Fuller stated. “We need relief from our customers but are working on a new program with enhancements to driver pay based on performance.”

Giving back

“Trucking has been good for me and my family since 1958, and I have lots to give back,” Fuller said. He loves to travel and does a lot of speaking engagements for our industry. Fuller has been a frequent presenter on safety innovations and the effective deployment of truck technology, as well as cutting-edge information technology solutions for the office. His speaking credits include presentations before the National Transportation Safety Board and the Department of Transportation. Most recently, he spoke about the driver shortage during this year’s Truckload Carriers Association Annual Convention.

Fuller estimates the driver shortage to be 125,000 and says we need to bring more drivers into our industry. “All of us have to do a good job of training as well,” Fuller explained. “U.S. Xpress got very committed to this when we changed directions.”

U.S. Xpress drivers have always received competitive pay and benefits, enjoyed steady weekly miles, and driven well-maintained trucks with the latest technology. However, as recently as five years ago, U.S. Xpress only wanted experienced drivers. Fuller then began focusing on entry-level drivers and putting them through a finishing program. It was another step in what has become a true career path at U.S. Xpress.

Whether you prefer to drive solo or team, U.S. Xpress now has local, regional, and long haul opportunities for experienced drivers, contractors, and recent driving school graduates. They also offer a lease-purchase plan for those looking to become independent contractors. Dedicated contract carriage opportunities – including some that allow you to be home every night – are also available.

Creating more diversity in U.S. Xpress’ driving force may be Max Fuller’s proudest accomplishment. “I have tried to establish a culture for success with a family atmosphere at U.S. Xpress, and I want everyone to be successful. I measure success in people being satisfied in what they are doing, and a stable driver pool is part of that,” Fuller stated. “Our drivers are at the core of what we do and are a big reason we are able to take on the challenges others avoid. When you work for us, you can be proud of the company you represent,” Fuller added.

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