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Saul Gonzalez’s recipe for success at Con-Way

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.

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Saul Gonzalez, President of Con-Way

When you enter Saul Gonzalez’s office at Con-Way Truckload’s corporate headquarters, you notice the lack of clutter one might expect for an executive managing an operation with 2,800 tractors and 8,800 trailers throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. 

His desk is well-organized, but there is one item that seems out of place – a small bottle of ‘ghost pepper’ hot sauce. When I sat down to interview Gonzalez, I soon learned that the bottle was as much symbolic as it was about the hot substance inside.

After all, Saul Gonzalez has been spicing things up his entire career.

Married young and motivated to work, Gonzalez quit school at the University Of Texas-El Paso to drive a truck for a local textile company, delivering cut products to manufacturing plants. A plant engineer noticed Saul’s work ethic and approached him about managing a bunk bed company. Intrigued with the opportunity to earn more money, Gonzalez took him up on the offer. Since he was only 19 years old, his inexperience was met with resistance from some factory workers. “I had to win those people over with hard work and honesty, which would become a theme throughout my career,” Gonzalez reflected.

From bunk beds to brokerage 

A self-described ‘hustler’, Gonzalez soon had the bunk bed plant near the U.S.-Mexico border running smoothly. However, the peso was devalued in the late 1970s, which eventually led to the company having to shut down in the early 1980s.

Suddenly, Saul did not have a job, but that did not stop his entrepreneurial spirit.

He bought some of the plant’s machinery then started making and selling bunk beds on his own. Gonzalez eked out a living until a compadre mentioned a job opening with Rudolph Miles, who needed someone to clear shipments at their custom brokerage operation. The company soon opened a piggyback operation, and Gonzalez was a natural fit for their sales department.

Before long, Rudolph Miles and Danny Herman formed a team transit company together (dubbed Herman Miles Trucking), and Gonzalez went into sales for the new entity. “We were hauling a lot of automotive freight with teams, and that industry wanted what is now known as Just In Time (JIT) transit,” he said. Two years later, Danny offered Gonzalez the Director of Sales job for Danny Herman Trucking. Herman became a mentor to Gonzalez, who still speaks favorably of their time together.

Memories of Mexico

“Danny was a problem-solver and taught me a lot about the trucking business. Mexico was starting to boom and Danny wanted to be the first carrier to move freight from Central America to Alaska,” Saul said. “He and I began to travel through Mexico together. Many of the clothing companies were closing in El Paso and moving to Guatemala, so we also went there a lot.” Laredo was the biggest gateway to Central America, and Herman discovered his manager in that location was stealing from the company. Herman trusted Gonzalez and offered the position to him, and soon Saul moved to Laredo.

Meanwhile, Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI) had established a profitable presence in Mexico. Their VP of Sales asked Saul to be a part of their team, but he turned them down. Over the years, they kept running into each other. One night in Guadalajara, Saul met with some CFI executives who knew that his Hispanic heritage and understanding of the culture was advantageous.

This time, CFI made Saul an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he went to work in Sales for their Laredo office. He stayed there for a few years before CFI asked him to move to their corporate office in Joplin, Missouri. During his five years in Joplin, Mexico continued to grow, and CFI wanted to start their own fleet there.

So Saul moved to Guadalajara for two years but found it hard to get the necessary permits from the Mexican government. After moving back to Joplin, he was asked to work in Operations. He declined, and a year later Glenn Brown (then President of CFI) asked Saul to run the department. “I told him no again, but he soon told me I was running it,” Gonzalez recalled.

Unbeknownst to Gonzalez, he was being groomed for bigger things.

Climbing the corporate ladder

Gonzalez liked Sales so much that he was initially apprehensive about Operations but made the best of the situation. “I asked myself what I was going to do about it and knew the answer was to move forward and kick ass,” Gonzalez stated. “I had to win these guys over and sell them on why we did this as a team.”

There were early challenges, so Saul forced meetings where he would tell his sales stories of how hard it was to get an account and maintain it. “We needed a common goal, and I knew good communication would bring us closer together,” he stated. To create team building, Gonzalez started having camping trips – and his efforts proved rewarding.

Saul was promoted to VP of Operations and ended up loving the job. He served in that capacity for five years before CFI was purchased by Con-Way in 2007. After the acquisition, Glenn Brown began phasing out of his leadership position, while Herb Schmidt stayed on as President.

CFI/Con-Way was a big merger which required Schmidt to travel a lot while working on integration. Two years later, as Schmidt began thinking about succession, Gonzalez was named Chief Operating Officer. And when Schmidt retired in September 2012, Saul was promoted to President.

To lead the company, Gonzalez relied on his mantra of ‘Deal with the hand you are dealt’.  “I never asked or wanted to be President. It just happened, and I didn’t dwell on it. Like any other position I’ve held, I knew the ‘why’ didn’t matter,” Saul said humbly. “I understood there was work to be done, and I wanted to make the best of it.”

Gonzalez says Con-Way’s secret is its people and credits the team concept for getting him where he is. “I believe our greatest competitive advantage is people, so I surrounded myself with good personnel,” Saul said. “I think you have to look for ones smarter and better than you and set goals high to achieve more.” Gonzalez knows he has no control over regulations or other trucking challenges and immediately turned his focus on how Con-Way addresses industry issues better than their competition.

Learning Lean

His first order of business is taking Con-Way’s leadership team on a Lean journey, turning the organizational chart upside down through employee engagement. Gonzalez’s Lean concept for Con-way is loosely based on the Lean Thinking business book that was released a few years ago. The Lean business model is about continuous improvement, so in theory it never ends. “I believe in 3-5 years, we will see a different company. I am trying to drive away waste and want Con-Way to be in better shape when I retire someday,” Gonzalez stated. “I shoot for perfection but know we’ll never get there. We will never be good enough.”

When asked how the Lean concept trickles down to drivers, Saul said, “Seeing is believing.” He is a down-to-earth leader who likes to talk to Con-Way’s drivers on Day 1. Gonzalez is the second person they see in orientation, where he explains ‘Who Is Con-Way’.  “I want to make it seamless and easier for our new hires, so I ask them why are they here and what their goals are,” Gonzalez added.

Gonzalez then shares his strategy about Con-Way being a “house” with four rooms:

1. Safety

2. Customers

3. Drivers

4. Yield/Utilization

Gonzalez explains that technology is dramatically driving changes in trucking and reminds the drivers that Con-Way has invested in lane departure, anti-rollover, collision avoidance, e-logs, and other advancements to keep them safe and make them more efficient. “Safety is the first room in the house, and there is nothing more satisfying than the Facebook feedback we get from families thanking us for telling our drivers to pull over if rigs are not safe or the unexpected notes from drivers about how we reacted to a special need or emergency,” Gonzalez declared.

Beyond the classroom

Saul’s message doesn’t just end in orientation, as he and other executives regularly go on multi-day trips with drivers. “We need to know, or remind ourselves, of what a driver goes through,” Gonzalez said. “Being with them for a few days is not enough time, but it gives you an idea of the challenges.”

Saul says he is impressed with their drivers every time he goes on the road. “All of my trips have been the same, because they knew where to stop and, more importantly, where not to stop,” Gonzalez stated. “Professional drivers know exactly where the safer and better places to shower, eat, and rest are located. They have a knack for not only finding quality installations but also managing their time.”

Staying power

Telling Con-Way’s story during orientation and having an open door policy has resulted in a turnover rate of 67%, but Gonzalez credits the low number to talking about retention on all levels. “From our switchboard operator to the payroll department and terminal managers, everyone has a role in retention,” Gonzalez said. “We really go the extra mile in training our driver managers as well to make sure they would feel guilty if one driver leaves, and we didn’t know why.”

With Gonzalez’s background in sales, he also monitors the kind of business Con-Way brings in. “We analyze whether the freight has the ideal length of haul, and whether it is easy on and off, because one thing we can never get back is time,” he stated.

The entire industry has a problem with new trucks breaking down, and Gonzalez knows that equipment affects recruiting and retention. Con-Way constantly looks at how trucks are spec’d and has dealers bring in different models for driver feedback.

In fact, driver forums are a big part of Con-Way’s corporate culture. When considering changes to policies and procedures, Gonzalez likes to survey drivers to get a ‘pulse’ for their thoughts. “We also have a suggestion box and always follow up even if we do not use their idea,” Gonzalez added. “We are constantly tweaking and analyzing things we can do better for our drivers.”

As an example, Con-Way is considering an incentive-based performance pay program where drivers have the ability to make more money.

Cooking up careers

Away from Con-Way, you’ll often find Gonzalez at home doing what he enjoys most – cooking. Saul makes his own salsa, ages his own beef, and has a sizable grill collection. Gonzalez loves to tailgate and has even grilled for the Governor of Missouri. But his favorite time to cook is in the summer when Con-Way conducts numerous driver appreciation events.

On Con-Way’s career menu, Saul is providing a variety of jobs for professional truckers.

With an 850-mile average length haul, Con-Way offers opportunities for both single and team OTR drivers. The company also focuses on hiring as many military veterans and women as possible. Currently, 17% of Con-Way’s drivers are veterans and 13% are women.

Con-Way produces owner operators through Destination Ownership, a lease purchase plan, and conducts business management seminars focused on profitability and efficiency. The company has also partnered with a business services company to make their independent contractors more successful.

Con-Way Truckload has numerous regional operations as well, and drivers can even transition to local jobs via Con-Way Freight through their Driver Career Choice Program.

Collaborating with a sister company is an advantage Con-Way Truckload can provide that most carriers cannot, and their most recent example is a new U.S.-Mexico intermodal service launched in conjunction with Con-Way Multimodal. With changing global trade patterns and the rise in near-sourcing, Mexico is increasingly a manufacturing and distribution hotspot. Working with all major railroads, Con-Way’s new service presents opportunities for their drivers to pick up more loads and secure more miles.

“We match our drivers up with drayage opportunities to earn additional income when they have availability between regional and long-haul runs,” Gonzalez added. “Our professional drivers are the most important part of our service offering, and we will continue to focus our efforts on getting good freight for them.” The integrated service highlights Con-way Truckload’s expertise in Mexico through its CFI Logistica subsidiary, where it has 10 offices and 40 years of in-country experience – and was once the stomping ground for Saul Gonzalez when he drove trucks from Toluca to Laredo with Glenn Brown.

And, so it would seem that Gonzalez’s career has come full circle.

Much like how ‘fusion cuisine’ combines elements of different culinary traditions, Saul Gonzalez has broken down barriers and blended cultures to create a recipe for success at Con-Way Truckload. He is proof positive that trucking is like cooking – a good outcome is the result of careful planning, timing, and choosing the right ingredients.

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