“Always Better, Never Best” Binkley’s philosophy
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.
When Richard Binkley’s dream of following in his father’s footsteps as a train engineer was derailed by strict vision requirements, he had to seek an alternative career path. After playing two years of college basketball at Southern Illinois, he spent the next three years alternating between school and work before finding himself unloading automobiles on a rail crew in New Orleans. Binkley learned that one of the fleets hauling those cars was hiring, and he soon embarked on a career in trucking.
That was almost 40 years ago—and he’s never looked back.
Binkley spent the next 31 years with that same organization, Jack Cooper Transport, relocating to five different states and learning all aspects of the auto transport business. With that knowledge, experience, and clear vision on a figurative level, Binkley was the perfect fit to take over the reins as president of Houston-based US AutoLogistics (USAL) eight years ago.
Recovering from the recession
Binkley’s leadership was needed, as the recent recession was tough on the auto transport sector. LeaseWay Motorcar Transport Company went out of business, while Allied Systems filed for bankruptcy twice before its recent acquisition by Jack Cooper. However, USAL continued to survive and thrive.
Since 1980, USAL had operated as GST Transport Systems—a small, privately owned auto transport company that hauled exclusively for Gulf States Toyota. Binkley diversified the company’s portfolio, acquired Birmingham, Alabama-based Alaplex AutoTransport in 2011, merged both operations, and changed the name to US AutoLogistics in 2012. Today, USAL operates from nearly 20 locations primarily throughout the southern United States.
The future looks even brighter, as the Seasonally Adjusted Annual Rate (SAAR), a term that depicts the auto industry’s selling rate of vehicles, has returned to pre-recession levels.
Driven by demographics
Another key to USAL’s success is the same as the oldest maxim in real estate: location, location, location. From population to ports, the Gulf Coast states (and Southeast in general) are rapidly expanding. Regions with high population growth attract business development and economic efforts, and this area of the country has emerged as a new distribution and logistics powerhouse over the past few years. With its advantageous location, international trade prowess, and transportation assets, the region’s economic growth has largely been driven by automotive manufacturing.
It started in the 1990s when Mercedes-Benz built a factory in Alabama (a state which later landed Hyundai and Honda). Toyota soon began producing trucks in Texas and later built a plant in Mississippi. Tennessee is now home to manufacturing facilities for Nissan and Volkswagen, while neighboring Georgia produces cars for Kia and BMW, respectively.
As a result, USAL’s customer base now consists of OEM manufacturing plants; vehicle processing centers; and railheads for Toyota, Honda, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Subaru. This concentration of shippers has allowed USAL to operate primarily on a regional basis and get their associates home most weekends. The increase in freight has also put Binkley in a position to expand further.
Trucking is an entrepreneurial business, but fleets often lose touch as they grow. That’s definitely not the case at USAL where Binkley is maintaining a small company approach to both associates and customers. “We provide multiple avenues with which to communicate, speak up and ask questions,” Binkley stated.
Espousing a mantra of “always better, never best”, Binkley has built a company where the driver associates are on the top of the organization chart. This associates-first philosophy is critical, because they are the ones who take care of customers and owners. Binkley says positive peer pressure pulls their associates up, and everyone else supports their efforts. “I’m at the bottom of the chart,” Binkley added. “I try to stay out of the way and let people do their jobs.”
That may sound like lip service, but after spending a day at USAL’s Houston headquarters recently, I observed Binkley practicing what he preaches.
Binkley understands a car hauler’s DNA but has learned that the work–life balance is different for everyone. He has a laser-like focus on making a driver’s health, happiness, and well-being important at USAL. “The key to success is how you treat people, and at USAL we care about the individual,” Binkley said.
During his tenure, he has implemented several new initiatives—regularly scheduled recognition and celebration events; a business conduct program which focuses on ethics and value-driven behavior; quarterly performance reviews to keep drivers engaged and on-track to peak performance; and a variety of complimentary health and wellness activities and discounts that encourage a healthy lifestyle. Many of these programs cater to what USAL’s driver associates do on-duty as well as off-duty. “It’s like having a toolbox, and we provide as many tools as possible to help our drivers be successful,” Binkley said.
USAL trains their 490 associates to do the right thing, and then do it again. “Everything else will take care of itself,” Binkley said.
All of this training is conducted at USAL’s state-of-the-art headquarters—a 35-acre, Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED)-certified facility in North Houston. A member of the U.S. Green Building Council, USAL designed its “green” headquarters to conserve water and energy. The facility is constructed of substantially more recycled materials than traditional buildings.
While USAL has achieved the highest rating possible as a SmartWay® Transport Partner by helping to reduce the carbon footprint of its 400+ vehicle fleet, the company also understands the value of greenbacks as well.
USAL’s pay is in the top tier amongst all trucking companies, with their average associate earning $92,000 per year. “We have a great compensation and benefits plan where everyone shares the same package,” Binkley added. “With our pay-for-performance program, we all get a raise and a bonus or no one gets one!”
Benefits include medical, dental, vision, life and disability insurance; a prescription drug plan; a 401(k) investment plan with employer match; tuition assistance; adoption assistance; and flexible spending accounts. However, Binkley says USAL’s best benefit may be their short-term disability plan plus five days paid all-purpose leave in addition to vacation.
USAL places top priority on selecting and utilizing the finest fleet equipment and technology systems that help them deliver product safely and damage-free. Their new- to late-model transports include both open-rack and enclosed trailers equipped with 100% soft tie systems to secure vehicles. This allows their drivers to safely and legally secure vehicles for transport while reducing physical effort, resulting in a more productive workforce while meeting their on-time promise.
“The chains still used by many companies are more physically demanding, but our drivers simply secure the tires with soft ties,” Binkley said. “This places less stress on the body and helps prevent rotator cuff problems and other injuries so common with car haulers.”
S.O.L.D. on safety
USAL is also committed to providing a safe environment for both their associates and the general public. By uniting their values with safety and quality practices, USAL drivers are trained to transport and deliver vehicles with the S.O.L.D. approach:
This commitment has resulted in one of the best safety records in the industry and several associates have accumulated at least one million accident-free miles during their careers. For the past six consecutive years, the company received awards in both Highway and Industrial Safety from the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which is based on the carrier’s overall accident and injury rates.
In 2011, USAL was the Small Fleet winner for ATA’s prestigious President’s Trophy, which recognizes companies judged to have the best overall safety program relative to others within their operation type and size.
On the grow
ATA’s definition of “small fleet” is 25 million miles and under, but Binkley has gradually grown USAL beyond that point in the past three years. Using their network, USAL is projected to haul 700,000 vehicles and run approximately 34 million miles in 2014.
Binkley could be on the brink of even more rapid growth soon. “We need to hire and train drivers in a lot of areas, but have immediate openings in the Southeast,” Binkley said. “We could use 25 drivers in our Birmingham location alone to support our customer base in Alabama and the surrounding states.”
However, the driver shortage plaguing the trucking industry could be his biggest short-term challenge. It is especially tough in his market sector. “The auto transport attraction has not been there, and actively recruiting drivers has been an educational process for us,” Binkley stated. “We’re not used to being self-promoters.”
Binkley added that driver turnover has become an issue as well. USAL’s attrition rate for 2013 was 15%, which was the highest it’s ever been. It is still extremely low compared to other trucking companies. “We do not lose people over performance issues, but last year we had 12 driver associates who went to other auto transport competitors and thought the grass was greener. As of today, six of them have returned to work for us,” Binkley said. “I hated to lose them, but I’m even happier they returned.”
A great career choice
Some of their auto transporter competitors are union operations, but USAL has remained a privately held company where Binkley emphasizes open communication and personal accountability. “At USAL, your success depends on you,” Binkley stated. “The best drivers should value that, and we are looking for drivers who want to be the best.”
A minimum of two years CDL experience is required to work at USAL, but previous auto transport experience is not. The company offers a paid, comprehensive five-week training program. Binkley said USAL is also hiring military veterans with heavy-haul experience. “We provide a great structure and framework for success. Show me a successful company, and I’ll show you successful associates. This is a great company for people looking for a career opportunity in auto transport,” Binkley added.
After seeing the philosophy of a true trucking leader who is always striving to make things better for his driver associates, why wouldn’t you want to work for USAL?