Mike Bruns | The Momentum That Builds a $200 Million Dollar Company

August 13, 2020
Listen this episode on your favorite platform!
August 13, 2020

Mike Bruns | The Momentum That Builds a $200 Million Dollar Company

Listen to this week's episode with Entrepreneur Mike Bruns. Mike founded trucking company Comtrak with one driver after working for three bankrupt companies prior. Twenty-three years later, Mike sold Comtrak with $200,000,000 in revenue and 1,500 employees.

Listen to this week's episode with Entrepreneur Mike Bruns. Mike founded trucking company Comtrak with one driver after working for three bankrupt companies prior. Twenty-three years later, Mike sold Comtrak with $200,000,000 in revenue and 1,500 employees.

My conversation with Mike is unconventional and engaging. It's not your typical business conversation. Mike talks about getting scrappy, how we as people develop, the driving force behind opening up 21 locations, how much money is enough money, the importance of philanthropy, how he wants to make an impact, the aspects of life that won't change, what makes a bad acquisition and much more.

If you like the show, please share it with your friends and leave a review.

  • 2:38 Target on your back
  • 2:50 Don't give people ammo
  • 5:02 Don't let someone run you out
  • 5:26 Forced to be perfect
  • 7:45 Who don't you leave?
  • 10:02 Someone you would hate to lose
  • 11:04 Mindset
  • 17:50 Don't let them get in your head
  • 21:16 Always doing business a certain way
  • 26:00 Gatekeeper
  • 26:50 Skilled workforce
  • 29:31 Education
  • 30:25 Equal Opportunity
  • 30:33 No Lip-service
  • 31:34 Starts at the top
  • 33:28 Diversity on corporate boards
  • 38:05 Why do we keep doing the same thing over and over again
  • 41:08 What creates sustainability
  • 45:58 Smile, shake hands, then be sent to the gatekeeper
  • 46:20 Life is too short
  • 47:12 You can't take it personally

Episode Transcript

0:00:02 Sam Coates: My guest this week is Mike Bruns. After working for three bankrupt companies, Mike founded a trucking company, Comtrak, in 1983 with one driver. Mike sold this company 23 years later with 1500 employees, 200 million in revenue, and 21 terminals. This is a unique conversation because Mike does not focus much on sales or profitability. When he talks about all the lessons learned with people, creating momentum, buckling down when a major setback occurred, and how quick expansion is able to take place. In addition to these topics, Mike also talks about how he views money, how humility is the secret weapon, giving back, what a well-run organization looks like and more. I hope you enjoy this week's episode, and as always, thanks for checking out the show.

[music]

0:01:01 Mike Bruns: And what I love to do, I love to do it, I did it a lot of times, is take somebody and reinvent them. And what I mean by that is you give them a job that... See, what's happened, I think, Sam, is so often, once we become 25, maybe 30, I don't know what the cut-off is, it's probably varied, but once you're that age and you're in the certain job description type thing, it seems as though you're labeled for that, and I guess that's who you're gonna have to be the rest of your life. Somebody said, "What are you?" "I'm a banker." Maybe you are a banker, I suppose, but did you ever wanna be a banker? I still don't know what I wanna be when I grow up.

[music]

0:01:49 SC: Hello, folks. We all know it's hard to appreciate good insurance until you need it. It can also be a pain finding the right kind of coverage each year. That's why it's helpful to find someone who cares about knowing your insurance needs, who will be prompt with communication and be competitive with price. So when you need a auto, home, renter's, business, and life insurance, then you contact Matt Haaga with State Farm Insurance. Go to matthaaga.com, M-A-T-T H-A-A-G-A dot com and contact them. Matt Haaga State Farm is licensed to provide coverages in Tennessee and Mississippi. We do have listeners to this podcast from all over the world, so please make note that this insurance offer is for the state of Tennessee and Mississippi in the United States. Now we're gonna get back to the show.

[music]

0:02:52 SC: What are some of the things that might be overlooked, or people might not understand, or some people might not be comfortable really talking about when you... Within the span of 20 years, building a company from one truck, what are some of the things that are overlooked, or when you look back, that really stick out, that you learned that are just very significant?

0:03:16 MB: Boy, I tell you what, that's a great question to start out with, Sam, because there are so many things. And quite frankly, I'm learning even still. I'm gonna be the smartest guy you know when I turn 90, okay? But at any rate, when you first get involved in a business like that, Sam, and you're trying to make Friday's payroll literally, there's not a lot of time to think about anything, to be frank, you're kind of in a reactive mode. And I think at some point when you shift and you're in a proactive mode, because for once you can make the payroll and you're not worried too much about some of the other idiosyncrasies of a business, and you can start looking towards the future, boy, when that takes place, that's the real fun part, because it really becomes a part of working for your employees, and once you have the mindset that you're not working for them, they're not working for you, when you have that mindset, then the sky is the limit and all kinds of things start falling in place.

0:04:18 SC: What did that look like when you would come in each day? And I know it would vary depending on if it was 15 employees or 200 employees or close to 1200 employees. When you would be driving to your office in the morning or when you would be traveling, what kind of mindset would you have in the morning, when you would come in and know that you work for your employees and you were gonna serve them or you were gonna serve the culture, you're gonna serve the company in the best way you could? How could you... How'd you learn how to do that while also being a strategic thinker, learning how to execute, knowing how to move the ball forward? What did that look like?

0:04:58 MB: You're way too complimentary. I had the smartest people in the business working for me, most of which had never been in the business before. But I did have the... I surrounded myself with the very, very finest people. And coming in to work in the morning, it's an interesting question because my job description was to make sure all the employees were taken care of because if they're okay, I'm okay, the business is okay, and the customers are okay. And when we had three employees, I would come in and I guess I would spend 10 minutes with each one talking about stuff. And as the company grew, I made my morning rounds, and everybody knew when I showed up in the morning, not to bother me until my rounds were done. And my rounds, when I left, took over three hours. I went to every single employee in the building. They all knew where I would be at any given time because what time it was, it's 10:30, and they know by that time, I'm probably in the IT department, as an example.

0:05:56 MB: It would take a long time to do that, and sometimes people would say, "Jeez, you're spending a lot of time communicating with everybody and maybe you need to go make some strategic decisions or something like whatever big shots are supposed to do with a corner office. I never wanted to retire to the corner office, quite frankly, I wanted to be with my folks. And I learned so much, so much, whether I was shaking the mechanic's hand, the shop manager who, by the way, was a woman. I learned so much from the people by listening to them that when we were in conferences with our senior people, the senior VPs of the company, they would always just be mystified how much I knew for someone who wasn't in all of their meetings. I really found a lot of those meetings to be boring, but these informal meetings throughout the morning, meeting all my... Not meeting my folks, but conversing with them is a wealth of information.

0:06:54 MB: Bumping into a driver in a hallway and saying, "Hey, you got a minute?" "Yes sir, I sure do." Sitting down with them and asking them questions. We changed more policies and procedures and approaches to business because we listened to the people who are on the street. They knew more than anybody else. And I could go on and on about that because I see so many companies that the hierarchy of an organizational chart determines one's value, and it has nothing to do with value.

0:07:27 MB: Our organizational chart specifically had seven vice presidents that reported to me and two cleaning people. The cleaning people were full-time. They kept our headquarters spotless. And they reported directly to me because dirt was a universal language that everybody understands. And I wanted our place to be a place that when we had customers that would visit, drivers that would be recruited, whatever the circumstances, I wanted them to leave knowing that it was this cleanest, most spectacular building they had ever been in. So my point in that story is, is that if you asked the cleaning people what they think about certain things and that, you're gonna get a lot of information. And I think that so many companies would dismiss the person at the bottom of the org chart as unimportant, surround themselves with the senior VPs and never know what in the hell is going on in their own company.

0:08:29 SC: How would you create a system, a process, and obviously be a part of that, but where you would be boots on the ground, understanding the things going on in a very granular way, and you would be very involved with the frontline force and the people serving the customers within your organization? And then you would also be thinking through things, making, just kind of formulating decisions and thoughts on maybe why some need to be improved or why it need to be better, but then also empower your VPs or the people that were maybe technically over the person that you're speaking with that was the mechanic. I guess, how did you use that as a force for good and not as a force to where you were just making all these decisions from your hub, but you created a lot of alignment and you created momentum within the organization? That seems like a very challenging way to...

0:09:26 MB: Yeah, that's a great question because that is a tap dance. It's real hard to play. You certainly wanna have an open door policy. You wanna make sure that the mechanic is welcome in your office, that the driver is welcome in your office, that the cleaning person, whoever. And at the same time, when they come up with a good idea, I think what you're asking me is, how do you double that back and report it back to the vice president for execution? And there's ways to do all that. I mean, obviously, if you involve that particular VP and bring him in on the frontend to it, you can work it to where it pretty much will become his idea as well. And [chuckle] it takes practice to do all that. But we certainly... We had an open door policy, so everybody knew that a lot of ideas would come forth and a lot of them weren't so hot.

0:10:15 MB: And you had to handle that with good gloves as well by telling the driver or somebody else that had a good idea that, "Geez, that's not gonna work and here's why." But I think if you have empathy for the person that's bringing the ideas to the table, whether they have a necktie or a uniform on, if you have empathy for their feelings and how they're feeling about, or at least how you think they're feeling about the situation you're in, I think each case is a little bit different. But it's not as difficult as one might think. It was interesting because when cell phones came out, everybody in the company, there might have been 25 people, I don't remember, but everyone got my phone number, well, including the drivers, they can call at anytime.

0:11:00 MB: And then what happened was we got more drivers and more office and we grew, and when I left, when I sold our company and left, roughly, 1500 people had my cell phone number. If you were a driver in Los Angeles, the first day on the job, you got my cell phone number. And that meant that that driver could call me. And one of the questions that I always asked the new recruits that would come in for orientation, is I would say, "With 1000 people having my home phone, how many of you think... How many calls do you think I would get in a week?" And boy, they would sit back and some would say, "I bet you get 500 calls a week, sir," The next would... They'd all guess and I would say, "No, I get about one, maybe two a week." And I say, "Why do you think I only get one or two calls a week, when we have all these employees all across the company, and no one ever calls me?"

0:11:52 MB: And no one could ever answer that question very well, maybe one or two in the course of a year. But I said, "The answer is because since the VP knows my phone number, and he knows that the direct report to him has it, the direct report to him, that everyone has it, guess what everyone has to do? They have to behave. They have to do what's right." You might have a difference of opinion, but everyone has to do what's right. Because if a driver in LA is discriminated against and not given a proper load, that dispatcher in LA knows that driver can call the owner of the company.

0:12:31 MB: And because that culture was set throughout the company, there was never any calls. There wasn't the circle of folks that this... I called it the smoke room, the smoke-filled room that could make all the deals and do all the stuff, and everyone would wonder what was going on. Everybody knew what was going on. There were no secrets. And I think that's part of a culture that makes a successful company.

0:12:55 SC: Backtracking a little bit, but the last company that you were with before you started Comtrak was called Spector Freight, right?

0:13:07 MB: Yes, sir.

0:13:08 SC: And so that was the second transportation and trucking company that you were with before, when you were in your early 30s, before you went out and started Comtrak, is that right?

0:13:19 MB: Yes, sir. I had a stint just a little bit, a couple months, with another company called Intermodal Transportation. It was a very great place to work, but it's not worth mentioning in a career path, but a great outfit.

0:13:31 SC: What do you think about you, uniquely, kinda gave you the desirability to take that risk? Just to go out and not know if you're gonna make payroll, etcetera. The way that you described it. What do you think is about you personally, the way you're wired that way, for you to really go for it after that second company did not make it?

0:13:50 MB: Well, the good news about working for two companies... Well, actually three, three companies that went bankrupt in transportation, you mentioned two, and I mentioned the third one, they all went bankrupt. And the good news is none of that was a waste of time for me, because you get to learn exactly what not to do. And I can remember with all three to various degrees. One was a publicly traded company, one wasn't, one was family owned. But I got a sense for how these companies were going bankrupt. I didn't know much about trucking, still don't. I really don't care. Trucking is immaterial to what I was doing for a living. In fact, I hate trucks. They're big and annoying. [chuckle] I don't like trucks. But anyway, I think it was important to understand that I watched how they treat people, and I knew what buttons to push. And the bosses that I had, they didn't know how it felt to do some of the things they did to me and the others. And I would think, "I can't believe you're doing that."

0:14:54 MB: And do you remember when you were younger, you would think to yourself, "Well, they must know something I don't know, 'cause I can't believe they're doing that?" And then you realize they don't know any more than you know. And I knew enough about people and how to treat people that trucking was just a by-product of what we were doing. I mean, yeah, I had to know a little bit about it for sure. But I did learn how to treat people, and I knew I could do it. Now Intermodal was a little bit easier to get in, Sam, because you had an owner operator, so you didn't have to buy a truck. Then you had a trailer or a container. Well, you didn't... The railroad or a steamship [0:15:34] ____ on that, so the capital to get in it was less than many businesses.

0:15:40 MB: And quite frankly, I had nothing to lose. If I had saved up a bunch of money and had a reasonably comfortable life, it would be a real hard decision to go out on my own and risk it. I had nothing. My wife was working at Wendy's making taco salads after I lost the job with Spector-Red Ball. So when you ain't got anything, you know, someone says, "Man, you risked it all." I didn't risk anything. I didn't have it. [chuckle] So it was a lot easier to do. That's just the way it was.

0:16:13 SC: Were your parents, growing up, were they the kind of parents that encouraged you to take risks?

0:16:19 MB: I met my father when I was 60 years old, so that ought to tell you something right there. When you're kind of on your own and a lone ranger, you have to do all kinds of things. So going out on my own at 31, in many respects, I was on my own a lot longer than that.

0:16:34 SC: Yes, sir. [0:16:35] ____ So that answers that.

[chuckle]

0:16:38 MB: I didn't mean to put a damp towel on it. Everything's fine. It's just awesome.

0:16:42 SC: So going back to the three companies before and how to treat people, what buttons to push; Can you maybe just give some... A few examples of, A, what are the type of buttons to push to create the kind of environment you want, and then what were maybe let's say top 3-5 mistakes or things that those companies would do that would just provide a lot of damage or consequences? And I'm sure that also relates to just business and organizations in general.

0:17:16 MB: Sure. Let me say this, that one of the biggest lessons I learned, Sam, and it was so valuable early in life, after I started the company, was I wanted someone with experience. I had to have experienced people. That was mistake number one. It was much better, as I learned, as I got older, to hire someone with the raw characteristics of a good person, honesty, integrity, hard work, concern. That's who you wanna hire. You get hung up on, "Well, I worked at Roadway Trucking for 20 years." So what. So what, my God. If you hire the right ingredient, you can teach any business. Maybe computers, maybe not, I don't know, but certainly in the trucking business. If you hire the right person's character, the rest comes easy. I had to learn that lesson.

0:18:10 MB: The second lesson I learned, which was invaluable, was that I'm not gonna change the person that I hired. So if I hired somebody who was real creative, but they would be great in marketing, let's say, but they never get there on time. So I had to, "Man, by God, we're gonna change your hours from 8 o'clock to 8:30 in the morning." They're not gonna get there at 8:30. They're late people. And what I learned was, you have to take the person for what their value is, and there's going to be limitations within that value, just like myself, and you capitalize on what they have, but don't try to change someone. They are not gonna change. Maybe a little sandpaper here and there, and you can kinda shape them a little bit different, but you're not gonna take a chainsaw to somebody and make him a studious, on-time guy that's nerdy, if he's a back-slapping salesman. It ain't gonna happen.

0:19:11 MB: A salesman, he's not gonna get his expense account in on time and in order if he's worth a damn, at selling. It just isn't gonna happen. And people constantly promote the salesmen to the sales manager and get all pissed off because he doesn't do right. He's not a manager. He's a salesman. Well, the list is endless. So if you learn about people and what category that they fall in, and I always have four categories for people which we can get into if you want. But that allowed me to understand the person, appreciate what value they bring, and don't try to make them into anything else. So that was another big lesson that I learned. And so I've learned all kinds of lessons, but when it comes to specifically for people, if people could remember those two or three things, then that saves a lot of time and a lot of aggravation.

0:20:05 SC: You said that was a lesson that you've learned, when would you say you started to learn that lesson or lessons like that? How many years in?

0:20:14 MB: Four or five years in, yeah. It took a while for me. Yeah, about four or five years, I would say before I got it through my thick skull that that's what we gotta do here, but it was a great lesson because it stuck with me forever. When I meet people now, I don't make... I mean, I didn't make judgement on them before, but try to make someone... Part of the reason I was able to learn it, reasonably quickly, as we gathered more people is because in the old days, Sam, I had to do everything myself because by God, I knew how to do everything, and there was only one employee for a long time namely me. So I knew how to send out a bill... I knew how... And then I realized, and it was really interesting that people that I was hiring were doing better than I could do at various tasks.

0:21:01 MB: And then I realized that they could... They were better at everything I was doing. There wasn't a task there that I could do better than anyone else. And it was really an interesting kind of a... That's when you fully appreciate what you're starting to assemble. I would tell you that... You haven't asked this question and you might, but I'll answer a question that happened, I knew we had made it as a company when we received an award from Cargill Salt, no big deal, we are the carrier of the year, which is not a big deal in itself, although was it was an honor. But I knew we had made it because I had never ever talked to anybody from Cargill Salt. It was no longer about Mike, it was our company. There was people that made the sale, there were people in customer service that handled the business, there were dispatchers... There's a whole array of people servicing, including the computer department, servicing this customer, I never met him, I never talked to him. And yet I was asking, I get out on an airplane and go get a plaque, which I didn't do, but I knew that we had made it 'cause it was no longer anything to do with Mike.

0:22:12 SC: You seem to be... I mean, even the way that you told me when we started talking this afternoon, you said that you're gonna be the smartest 90-year-old that I know and you're far from 90.

0:22:22 MB: I'm getting there, man. [chuckle]

0:22:26 SC: But even the way that you're talking about these lessons, you're describing them in a way to where you're honest about the lessons that you're always learning. You're honest about when you learned these lessons throughout your career, there's a lot of optimism. At least it feels that way in your tone, where we learn that rock and roll, let's keep running forward and we're just gonna keep learning lessons and you know probably gonna be less rigid with certain things, with people. Or there's gonna be things that we're not gonna waver on, we're gonna have these standards, etcetera. But you seem overall just sort of kind or optimistic within your own self and the lessons that you've learned and then also the people that you're working with and who you're trying to empower, there seems to be a positivity there, to where it's not... Where you just don't sound real hard on previous mistakes that you've made. Is that accurate?

0:23:23 MB: Well, yeah, I mean if you made a mistake... Obviously, you gotta make mistakes or you ain't doing anything for God's sake. But yeah, no, there's no question about that Sam, there's no sense in crying over a mistake that was made. You know, it's an interesting point you bring up because I would tell you that the biggest reason... Oh, and there are so many, but I would tell you that one of the most important lessons I learned and the biggest reason for our success were our mistakes. And I'll tell you what I mean by that. In the old days, when I started out and we were late with a load, I'd get on the phone and I would call up and I would say, "Man, I'm really sorry, you know, jeez I hope we're never late again with our load and blah, blah." And then if we were late again, I'd have to put it on a little thicker, I suppose.

0:24:09 MB: But what I learned from as we got older and more mature and certainly myself was a mistake is the biggest opportunity in the world to make up and get more business, especially when it's customer-driven or even employee-driven. If you've made a mistake with an employee, same thing, but if you talk about the customer... I'll give you an example, we were hauling for Freightliner, and Freightliner is the company that makes trucks and they were in Portland, Oregon. And we dragged a container in Birmingham, a local move, and we were supposed to put it on a train in Birmingham and send it up to Oregon. And they called tracing the thing a couple of days later, and oh, lo and behold, that dang thing is still sitting in our yard in Birmingham, it never got to the train. We dropped the ball. I put a team of drivers on, this is a long time ago, when I put two guys on that thing, and we ran all the way non-stop, except for fuel to Portland, Oregon. And we delivered the load at 8 o'clock, right at the nose, at 8:00 o'clock on Monday morning as they needed it to not shut down their assembly line.

0:25:16 MB: Freightliner couldn't believe we did it. But they called me up and said, "What do we owe you? How did do you do it?" I said, "We ran a team." "What do I owe you?" And I said, "You owe me 65 bucks." They said, "65 bucks? It cost you more to do that." I said, "Well, that's the charge to go from somewhere in Birmingham to the railroad in Birmingham, 65 bucks. So send me a check for 65 bucks." Well, it wasn't about an hour later, I, along with many other plants for Freightliner in the country, got an email. I was copied, it said, "Effective immediately, please, all companies will use Comtrak for all transportation needs, blah, blah, blah." Well, the bottom line was, in the old days, I would have got on an airplane for $2000 flew up to Portland, got on my knees and begged for forgiveness for missing the load. This time I made up for the mistake, charged them 65 bucks, and I tripled my business by doing it, because the mistake and how we handled it, was exactly what got us the business. So...

0:26:18 MB: Yeah, we all make mistakes, but I think the key for us was always, "Let's give this mistake the biggest wow factor they've ever seen," because how could they possibly leave you if you're doing that kind of... You know what I'm saying.

0:26:33 SC: Yes, sir. You've talked about your company Comtrak, you've talked about giving programs that the company had, you've even talked about within your own life, that at a certain point you realized that enough money is enough money, and talk about doing good with money, which I hope we can get into at some point. You've talked about starting from scratch, with just you and one truck driver. You grew Comtrak from, like I said, one truck in close to 20 years, $100 million in revenue in trucking, with the exception of the owner operators, it's a very asset-intensive business. So, there's a lot of reinvestment on capital. When you would just encounter situations like that, or you'd make decisions on reinvestment, how... Would you always, a lot of times go with your gut instinct or were you real precise on margins and budgets? How did you think through making decisions like that, where some people would say, "Oh, that doesn't make any logical sense, but I'm gonna go ahead and I'm gonna do this and I'm gonna make it right?" Regardless of if it makes any financial sense, but that lo and behold can cripple your business, which you put down on a spreadsheet, anybody else would do that all day long if they knew that, but a lot of people don't understand the emotional connection that could drive decisions like that.

0:27:49 MB: Right. Well, from a financial perspective, we were probably the most conservative truck line in the business, I didn't wanna get big for the financial side of it, we weren't gonna get any bigger than I could pay cash. I did borrow money one time when we built our first headquarters, it was a $2.5 million deal, I borrowed $800,000. I had the money, I could've paid cash, but I didn't want to because... But that's the only time we borrowed, we'd pay cash for the trucks, but I didn't have always the best new trucks, I didn't have Chrome bumpers, I didn't have all that crap that people put on their trucks to make it look fancy. I bought a lot of trucks that were used from Werner, they had a real good program with their trucks, and so I was real conservative.

0:28:38 MB: I wasn't cheap, but I never was flashy and never spent more money than I had. And so the only reason that we would grow, quite honestly, we never had to finance any growth if we decided to go out to LA or wherever we'd go, it was because there was opportunities there, it was customer-driven or there was a couple different ways why we would go and open up or employee-driven, but I never... And I had a conservative CPA. I hired her away from the company that was doing public and accounting, and that was 1987, and she's still with me today, she takes care of me. So, what's that? 33 years now, she's been with... She's conservative. And so we weren't flashy, and sometimes I was criticized for that.

0:29:23 MB: Jeez, I wouldn't take that much if you got this much money in the bank, I just never felt comfortable, and even now, after selling the company, my wife drives a 2009 Pilot, we're not a flashy deal. So, I think that was the tone of the business. Now, we did have... We certainly shared our money with the employees, so it wasn't like we were cheap, but we just weren't... We were conservative, that's all... I don't know if that answered your question or not.

0:29:56 SC: Yes, sir, it does. It sounds like you and your wife, and still do in a lot of ways, lived a very simple lifestyle in a lot of ways, and definitely when the business was growing, you were very disciplined and to the profits that y'all extracted, you all invested a lot of money back into the company and you did that out of actual cash earnings. And so you maintained a very healthy balanced sheet all along the way, and you are all in on the company and it was very fast paced. So, when you had an opportunity, you were able to do that very quickly. But then also if a mistake... Mistakes were made or things were needed, you could move aggressively because you didn't have a lot of restrictions from, in a lot of ways, a cash standpoint for the things that really mattered because you always had a lot of capabilities or capacity to kinda make those... Make those calls a little bit more. Is that a fair way of summarizing it?

0:30:53 MB: That's fair. But just for the record, I do live in a real big house and a lot of acres, and I do a lot of work around here all day long, people always ask who the owner of the business is because I don't look like I should own the company or own the business or own the house, but I'm not sitting here crying [0:31:10] ____ in a old little shack, but I do think that sharing with the employees was probably one of our best things to have done within the company 'cause they're the ones that did it.

0:31:22 SC: Do you think a lot of these lessons were just... Were rooted in your experience growing up and working for these companies and then starting out on your own with not a nest egg like the way you described it, to where you know what it's like to really scrap and really go after it. Would you say that that's kind of where you learned how to be conservative?

0:31:45 MB: No question about it. That's exactly where I learned it. That's exactly what makes me proud of it. I have nothing against second generations, but I raised both... My wife and I raised both our kids second generation, and they didn't get involved in the business. I steered them away from it. They had to do their own, obviously, if they had begged me to work at Comtrak, I would have done it, but I wanted them to have their sense of pride, their sense of ownership, that they could create themselves. When my son was 14, he started his lawn business, and for his birthday, he got a trailer. And on the trailer he could haul a lawn mower and the supplies and all the [0:32:26] ____ and that. And it was a pain in my ass to have to drop him off every Saturday and he'd get on the phone and the customer would say, "I'm done here, can you move me over to the next lawn?" I could have easily written him a check for whatever, that's what a lot of rich people would do, they'd write their kids a check and they wouldn't even have to worry, but I wanted to teach him and my daughter the hard work ethic, and they both learned it, they're both on their own and I'm... I'm more proud of them than I could ever be of Comtrak, because of who they are and what they represent in the community, and it's fun to be getting older, and I'm no longer Mike's.

0:32:58 MB: I'm not Mike Bruns, I'm Danny's dad or I'm Paul's dad, those are very high compliments to receive from people that... "Are you Danny's dad?" Or, "Yes, sir." "Are you Paul Bruns' dad?" "Yeah." So, but you have to teach that and I think, to your point, raised on the south side, Chicago, in very humble... Everyone likes to brag about, who was the poorest? And I never thought we didn't have any money but I worked from the time I was 8 years old, and that's not an exaggeration. My grandfather had an electrical contracting company, and I worked for him in the summer. I wound up extension cords in people's basement, and I was the gopher, run out to the truck and get a drill bit or whatever. And I always had money and I always worked hard, and I really liked that, so I wanted my kids not to lose that ingredient, so to speak.

0:33:50 SC: When was the first year that you opened up the second and third location for contract after you founded it in 1983 here in Memphis?

0:34:00 MB: I opened up Birmingham in 1985, and Birmingham was the first example of... Actually I sold 15 terminals that I stayed on long enough to open up six more. I think we had 21 terminals when I left. But Birmingham was the first one to open and it proved what I'll tell you, that I opened up terminals based on three issues. If the customer demand... Not demanded, but, "Please, would you open up somewhere?" And if we had a great relationship with that customer, we would open up. And as an example, we had a terminal in Durant, Oklahoma. Well, that's where Big Lots has a huge warehouse. Big Lots, you know what they are. And so we had to open up there... We didn't have to, we mutually accepted to do that. The second reason I would open up as is if it... That was sponsored by the customer. The second reason would be if someone was a competitor, this only happened once or twice, and the guy was a real fire ball, but he was leaving and he wanted to come to work for contract.

0:35:05 MB: I did not like that because we would be taking away some other competitors, but there was a circumstance or two we opened up a facility like that. But the third and the biggest reason that we opened up other facilities was exactly like we did Birmingham. And we opened up Birmingham because in 1985, the first guy I hired was a real crackerjack. He was great. The second guy I hired was just as good, and I had a relationship with them. I realized I had two right-hand guys and it wasn't gonna work because... So I opened up Birmingham because the other guy had a background in Birmingham, moved him to Birmingham, and then I had two number one guys again. So I opened it up to make sure I didn't lose... And if I named one of those guys number one and one number two, wouldn't matter which was which, one of them would end up leaving. I could just sense that. So I opened up a terminal and put that guy in there and he stayed with me forever and it just worked out great.

0:36:10 MB: Well, that's what continually happened, is I wanted to stay ahead of the employees. The whole growth in our company, Sam, had nothing to do with money, had nothing to do with greed, or let's become the biggest... I didn't give a damn about size. I wanted to always be the best. But I was always running ahead of my employees and looking back and seeing who's next... What else are we gonna do? When we became active in computers, it was the same thing, I had to keep running ahead of those computer department people, because we wanted bigger and better ways to tell customers where their freight was and what we were doing. And it became clear that we were gonna be the leader in delivering information, not delivering loads, but delivering information.

0:37:00 MB: But my whole point is it was always, not customer-driven so much, but it was always employee-driven. If you don't grow and offer challenges to people, and promotions, and new insights, and new experiences for them, you don't have a company, you got just a place to go to work every day. And I wanted to provide something that every year was new things happening, because it causes excitement. I have a daughter that works in the radio business, and they're very successful, but the radio business is a dying business, and the only reason I bring it up is because going to work in a dying industry sucks, it just sucks. Going to work for a company that you just can't wait for the next Thanksgiving dinner to tell all your relatives what your new job is, because we've grown so much. That's where you wanna go.

0:37:53 SC: Yes sir, and you were opening up more than one location, new location, a year. You said 21 locations, you started your first... Opened up your first one in Birmingham in '85, you started in '83, and you sold in '06. So each of those terminals had what, 30 employees at least?

0:38:12 MB: They all... Dependent on the size, our smallest terminal was Chattanooga and yet interesting, it had the best operating ratio. She had 12 drivers up there, and that was the smallest, like I say, three people in the office and they printed money, they printed it. And that was a perfect example of what I was saying earlier, this gal had no clue about trucking. She asked me in the interview if the tractor came apart from the trailer, how does that work? And I hired her to run the terminal. [laughter] 'Cause she had such a loyal charisma about her... The drivers... There was no turnover. Just... That thing printed money, but she didn't know that the tractor and trailer came apart.

0:38:55 SC: What have you learned about reading people, because I doubt, just based off of all the things that you've shared so far that you weren't using data or software personality profiles, it sounds like you were just... You were meeting with people, you were obviously checking them out, checking out their resumes, but then you're looking into their eyes and you're discerning who you thought would be the best fit. What advice or what things can you pass on about the way that you've learned to read people, and then how you saw that to fit the need within the organization.

0:39:32 MB: Well, I don't know where I learned to read people. I certainly wasn't born that way, but I think of it in these terms, as all of us get older, and you meet someone today when you're just 69 now, I'm almost 70 years old, but when I meet someone now, it doesn't take me real long, maybe two, three minutes to size them up and have a really good picture of what I think I've just... Who I've talked to, what they're made of, and all that. In the old days, you weren't that quick. Now, that doesn't mean I or anybody else bat a thousand, you just don't bat a thousand, but I think your batting average improves with age or practice.

0:40:13 MB: But if you're let's just say the entrepreneur or the business president who walks by everybody in the office and he doesn't look at and he doesn't say, "Hi." Or do anything, and he walks directly to his office in the corner, and then he has meetings all day and they involve, at the most, 10 different people, he's not getting any practice, he's not getting any practice in improving his batting average, but if you talk to every single person in your company every single day, or at least most of them, at least certainly the ones in Memphis, your betting average is starting to get a little bit better just because you're meeting new people all the time, and you get to size them up and then you hit... I don't know, I think that's probably the answer to that question. I don't know anything for sure, but it seems to me it would make sense, wouldn't you? Or don't you size people up quicker today than you did 10 years ago, and you still don't bat a thousand though. Right?

0:41:07 SC: Right. Yes, sir. But I'm taking advice here, I'm not giving it. So that's why I'm listening to you.

[laughter]

0:41:12 SC: But with her, for example, you saw somebody you said that was loyal, that was willing to learn, that worked really hard, and was gonna take care of that operation and those employees, and you felt you saw that in her eyes, or you saw that through her behavior, I will bet on her all day long.

0:41:29 MB: Absolutely, and what I love to do, I love to do it, I did it a lot of times, is take somebody and reinvent them, and what I mean by that is, you give them a job that... See, what's happened I think, Sam, is so often, once we become 25, maybe 30, I don't know what the cut-off is, it probably varies, but once you're that age and you're in the certain job description type thing, it seems as though you're labeled for that and I guess that's who you're gonna have to be the rest of your life. Somebody says, "What are you?" "I'm with a bank, I'm a banker." "Maybe you are a banker, I suppose, but did you ever wanna be a banker? I still don't know what I wanna be when I grow up." My point is, I would love to take somebody...

0:42:17 MB: I had a gal who I ordered flowers from and she sold the flowers, she always looked at conference florist in Memphis, and I would call her up and she... God, she was fast on the phone, I mean quick thinking, funny, and finally, she was so impressive from that standpoint, and I said, "How much they pay you over there?" And she said, "7.50 an hour." I said, "Why don't you come... " I got a job for her. Well, she rose through the ranks, she made six figures, well into six figures by the time she left, she was... Did all our marketing, she was as sharp as you could be, but I took the person who had for 15 years been told she's a florist, a posie poker, and she'd done... She didn't belong there, but she thought she did. Well, what happened is, she turned around and her career blossomed, and more importantly, or just as important, can you imagine the loyalty those type of people have for you having been the one that said, "You don't belong doing that. Well, I'm gonna try you over here."

0:43:20 MB: Yeah. I had a driver in Nashville, he was at our banquet at Christmas time, and he was... I sat next to him and his family, and if you were in the office, if you were a VP or somebody with a necktie and you went to the banquet, everyone had to sit at a different table. I couldn't stand when all of management sits at one table like... But anyway, I sat with him and got to talking to him, him and his two kids, and his wife, and I got back in the airplane flight as we flew to every terminal in every city, for Christmas, and I said to my right-hand guy Bill, I said, "Get that guy out of the truck. Pull him out of it." "What are you gonna do with him?" I says, "Let's start a driver recruitment. That guy can serve, easily, that guy has got it going." Well, he's still with the company, he's still with the new company, he has not made under $250,000 a year in 10 years.

0:44:13 SC: All because you made that move at that... Because of the company.

0:44:16 MB: He drove a truck, he drove a city truck in Nashville, Tennessee, a good year, he made 45k, and every year he calls me up on Thanksgiving, and he says, "You're still the one I'm most thankful for in... "

[laughter]

0:44:28 MB: But I mean, and I don't mean that, it ain't about me, it's about taking somebody like that and because, mind you this, we made a killing when that guy went into driver recruiting, we were smoking everybody, the guy knew how to do it, and so it wasn't about me, he made us see it was about him.

0:44:49 SC: I wanna get specific enough to where anybody hearing this can actually think about ways to apply the insights, the experience, the advice that's being shared, but also I don't wanna go two and up because I'd love to personally, but probably not great for this podcast, but take the gal that you hired, that was at the flower shop that served you whenever... And you hired her to run, to do marketing for contract, or take him, the gentleman that you're talking about that started the driver program, when you would see the raw skills or you would see the raw talent that somebody had, and then you would find... Think of a good place within the company or a good opportunity for them and for the company, what did that look like? Did you... Like when you talked to the gal from the flower shop and you hired her, how did she... What did she receive from you or what did she receive for your people, so then she could actually get familiar with whatever it is she was gonna figure out how to do? And then how did you encourage her or how did the system itself encourage her to really operate at her full potential and just to keep growing? I'm curious how you actually do those things practically.

0:46:02 MB: Well, when she was hired over I'm gonna say she... Back then it was 1992. Well, damn near 30 years ago now, but she was hired in as a clerical person to do accounting work. We didn't have any openings. She was gonna leave and go somewhere else at some point with somebody, another flower shop. But I wanted to get her in, steal her from the market and let's worry about details later. Let's size her up. Because I didn't have a marketing, hell we weren't even big enough to... We didn't have much marketing going on and I was the marketing guy, I suppose. She was an admin. In fact, still did a lot admin before she became involved in the marketing side. But size them up, see who they are, what they're capable of doing. I didn't have the capability to look much beyond a year, Sam. I wouldn't want you to get overwhelmed by some of my decisions. They were work in progress as I was making them, to be honest with you. I hope that's not a deflation for you, but it's what it was.

0:47:07 MB: Let's get them out of the marketplace, let's get them in here, and we'll worry about details later. I always liked to hire someone that I met on the street. And someone would say, "What are you going to do with them?" I'd say, "I don't know yet. We'll figure something out." Let's just get them. We'll worry about... I had a guy that's Colonial Country Club. He would load bags, he was the guy that would put your bags in the trunk. And I said you like working here man?" He goes, "Nah. Not really." But I knew he was the hardest worker, nice guy, holy Christ. So I hired him. And Bill in operations says, "What are we gonna do with him?" I say, "I don't know Bill, but I gotta get him off the street." "Well, he's not on the street. He's working at Colonial." I go, "Yeah. But that's not good. He's too good to have over there. Let's get him and we'll worry about it." Well, he's the operations coordinator, and he's still there.

0:47:57 SC: What are some of the things when you think back, and I know we're gonna talk about the future, 'cause this is just a part of it. But I'm curious just with the trucking industry with Intermodal, with all the different types of transportation with trucking right now, and how things have changed and are changing with companies like Uber Freight or Flexport. Just how digital platforms, how do you think about contract and the incredible amount of growth that you've had and that you had in the company that you built, and then maybe how that would look differently today with how technology continues to just drive transportation here within the United States.

0:48:42 MB: Well, I think that technology, boy, it would be so much easier to run a business today and any business with the technology we have. I can remember waiting to get on a phone booth in Atlanta, Georgia when I was traveling waiting ten minutes to get one call in. It's all different. We all know that. I think today is... Any business is so lucky to have the technology. But I think that there are certain basics that won't change. And in the transportation business, I think there's gonna be more warehouses. I think there's gonna shorter lengths of haul. I think Intermodal is gonna begin to continue to grow. I think there's gonna be trucks that are battery operated and driverless and all those kinds of things. But in order to be successful, I think we would have to capitalize on what we think is gonna happen and when. But I don't think it's nearly as important as still gets down to the people. Until we have driverless trucks and robots, I think people are the difference in any business. And leadership is the difference in any business.

0:49:56 MB: And I've been a part of organizations now. I've been real lucky that while the medical industry is changing, all industries are just changing. Everybody's trying to protect the future and predict the future. And yet isn't it interesting that when there's a leadership change in one company or another, the company dips or goes up, goes up to new heights, damn near goes out of business with leadership changes. And it has nothing to do with the technology. Everybody's getting in on that, but it has to do with leadership. So, I think sometimes we overrate our crystal balls and what it'll mean to us if we are the ones that figure out first what's gonna happen. And quite frankly, I don't think I've ever had a plan that was longer than two years. I just didn't know what was gonna happen. But I could react to what happened even if I wasn't first because I had the best people. And I think that that doesn't get old-fashioned.

0:51:00 SC: Yes, sir. Earlier, you gave three reasons about three principles on this when you would get a new market. The first one you said, when the customer would just tell you over and over again that they wanted you there. Talked about what the competitor... I didn't get that completely what you were... Was it when a competitor would leave a market? The second reason, is that what you were saying?

0:51:24 MB: Well, when there was a hotshot in the terminal that wasn't your company. He was working for someone else, and he was very unhappy, he wanted to leave. And that didn't happen often, and I never stole anybody. I didn't believe in that. Our reputation was too... But when somebody quits, and he's gone... I had a terminal manager in Atlanta, Georgia for, I don't know, two years, real good guy but he just wasn't cutting it. 'Cause believe me, we keep talking about how wonderful I got this crystal ball, how great I made decision. I blew some, boy. And I had this guy, this real great guy, but he just didn't live up to my expectations. We had 15 drivers in Atlanta on a good day. There was another guy who worked for our competitor. He quit. Long story, was out of work for... I grabbed him and got him in. Didn't usually do that, and we went up to 150 drivers within a year. So, it proves my point.

0:52:19 SC: Yes, sir. The demand from your customers, what I'm hearing you say and even when talking about technology and platforms and roll ups. But the things that drove your growth, an incredible amount of growth, trucking is hard, transportation's hard, but to do 21 different locations within... Right at 20 years, over a location a year, but it's still that human experience. And to me, it just seems very clear how to connect the dots and you're not taking the credit, you're not asking for credit, but you're talking about your team, but the way that the team took care of the customer, that created that much of a desire in the customer's mind to where they wanted you to be in every market that they had, things being moved. So then that drew the growth, and then because of those relationships, that dictated a fair price, which then ensured a positive cash flow model in these locations, and what I'm really talking about with your thoughts on technology in future transportation and trucking and things like that. There's still those fundamentals and those aspects, at least the way you've described it, your success that you still feel is very important moving forward.

0:53:31 MB: Right. Yeah. Those you hit the nail on the head, Sam. Keeping those employees, keeping the basics, keeping them happy, making them like their job, love their job. Can't wait to get it to work. We had so many people that I'd have to get out, man, you've got so many vacation weeks backed up, you gotta start taking it. And then they still come to work. But my point is that a happy employee is the one who gets your business for you. I mean, golly, what better deal to call up and tender some loads or orders to somebody who's happy in a real live voice and wants to talk to you. Pretty soon, like I mentioned, what that Morton saw, Mike who. It ain't about Mike. It's about all these other people that all these other guys and gals that we do business with, they've made friends, they're liked and they never have a bad word to say about the company that they work for, and that's the people you wanna do business with. So we grew and we did that because of those basics, the basics called employees, not because I was some brainchild that knew what was gonna happen in the damn industry in the next year or so. I didn't know what the hell was gonna happen.

0:54:49 SC: Yes, Sir. I know that you have been very involved, the President of the board, emeritus of... Head of the board for each villages. You're on the board of the CC Foundation. You're on the Board of Visitors. Right? For the university of Memphis. Is that correct?

0:55:05 MB: Yes, Sir.

0:55:06 SC: And you've talked about when you're quoted in saying that just how much it means to you to support organizations that are well run, and I know we're talking today about more in detail about well run looks like. That from a non-profit standpoint or from a startup standpoint or from a growth company standpoint, what does well run mean to you when you're analyzing an organization and you're looking at either supporting it from a philanthropic perspective or from an investment perspective. What's your perspective on that?

0:55:39 MB: Well, it kind of puts everything in a capsule form for what I've already said to a degree, Sam, and that is that a well-run company... The first thing that a CPA would say is, well, let me see your books, we'll see if it's well run or not, and that's important. I got that. But a well-run company to me had everything to do with culture, and I would tell you... I'll give you a story to tell you how it works. When I was purchased, they gave me... The company, paid for the company, bought the company, and then they gave me $250 million spending money to go out and buy as many trucking companies as I could. Because they wanted to get as big as they possibly could at trucking.

0:56:23 MB: That was my budget. And I went and visited, oh my god, trucking company after company, and every quarter I would come back and report to the CEO and all of my equals. And they said, "What do you got Mike?" And I'd say, "I didn't get anybody." "What's wrong?" "Ah, the culture. It's a terrible culture. We don't need to do it." And it got to a point, after I left in four... I left after four years because I never found a company, and I didn't find a company because they weren't well run, they weren't well run. If the culture wasn't right, it wasn't gonna be well run and we're not gonna make any money. There's exceptions to that, I suppose, you can... Revenue hides a hell of a lot of sin sometimes. But the bottom line was that I would go to seek a well-run company, but my methods of finding the well-run company certainly had to do with, are they making money and all the balance sheet and all the numbers that you need to look at.

0:57:30 MB: But if the culture sucked, I'm not getting into it, we're not gonna do it, we're not gonna fix this thing. We can take the 40 million, 30 million you wanna buy this for, and just think if we put that into the marketplace to go get drivers, we could build a fleet of 100 trucks and you wanna pay 30 million for a guy who's got 100 trucks and the whole company is worth a damn because of the culture. I can get you 100 drivers with $30 million overnight. And that was the difference. So it's a great question because my answer is probably different than a lot. A lot of people will send in a team of CPAs and do due diligence, oh my God. FedEx has learned that lesson better than anybody, and I don't mean to pick on them... I admire that company but they set aside $750 million to put the TNT merger together. And they're now up to $1.5 billion because it wasn't what they thought.

0:58:33 SC: So when you're going in or even when you were looking at those trucking companies, what are the questions you're asking, how you going through it, even if it's only over a few days. We don't have too much into detail, but I'm just curious. What are the things you're looking at to try to understand to get a firm understanding of what the answer to that question actually is?

0:58:54 MB: Sam, it gets back to what we were talking about earlier, batting a thousand. I never batted a thousand but I could tell you one thing. If I pull into their facility and there's crap all over and there's wind blowing newspapers all over and it's a pig sty. There ain't much sense in me going in there now is there? It just ain't gonna work. I won't say that I ever just turned around and left, but let's face it. We talked about keeping a terminal clean and all that kind of stuff, come on, if you go into a place and it's a pig sty, there's no need to go any further. So that's a short answer to a longer question, if it is nice and clean and you continue to move forward, basically, you wanna talk to the dispatchers. I would talk to the owner of the company or the president or the operations manager, and I'd get their line of stuff. They were wanting to sell and they had their little spiel, but then I said, "Hey do you mind if I talk to dispatcher too or do you mind if I mosey you around?", and then you go find out the real answers. And that's good... How you make your decision because the real answers come from real people.

1:00:00 SC: Yes sir, one of the things you're most excited about you said, you're gonna be the smartest 90-year-old that I've ever met, and I know others, but just at this stage of your life, with the work that you're doing in the community and elsewhere through maybe some of the other investments that you have in other companies. I don't have any insight into that. And I don't really care to get any specifics, but I'm just curious, you seem like a learner. It doesn't seem like you're just banking on the past. What are you learning about right now, what are you most excited about, how have you learned to transition from Comtrak being such a large part of your life to moving on to new things and just continuing to grow?

1:00:41 SC: Well, great question, Sam, thanks. My goal now, I wanted to make an impact when I was in trucking, and I feel like we did, we made an impact in the Intermodal arena, which is a small sliver of life, small sliver of business on a long life, but we did. And now my focus is making an impact and that's a real important word for me. And that impact can either be a person down the street who one little twist to change or help, advice, check could make an impact or a huge organization, but when I get to be 90, if I do, I'd like to look back and feel like I made an impact on people and made them better. I've learned that it didn't take real long to realize that money does not make you happy. In fact, quite frankly, it's probably runs counter to that. I know so many rich people and they're so miserable. But it's interesting because making someone happy or changing someone's course is so gratifying, and it makes me so happy. And if you can lead your life even as you get older, like I'm getting, and you're making someone happy or an organization pivots and becomes happier and healthier, that makes me happy, and so it's kind of weird that making someone happy makes you happy, and it's like two for one. It's a two for one. How can you beat it? And it doesn't have to do with money, it just has to be... Do how you treat somebody, you write them a note or call them on the phone or... You called me, I think you were surprised that I was so easy. Would that be fair to say?

1:02:38 SC: If I hadn't known you before, I would be even more surprised if I hadn't met with you before, but you seem like it didn't surprise me because of what you just said of how you love making commitments and you love impacting people.

1:02:52 MB: Yeah, but I just think that the rewards for doing that... When we... We had earlier talked about things I learned, and I gave you one last learning lesson on the company thing because it had everything to do with what we're talking about now. When the company was young and we were starting to do well, and I had a little bit of money and maybe even a little bit of time, I became involved in the non-profit side specifically with Youth Villages, and I would leave to go to Youth Villages meetings. I probably did that for three or four years, and that I didn't tell anybody at Comtrak, I didn't say a word, I just did it. And it was the biggest mistake I had ever made because everyone knew I was going somewhere to do something, but I didn't involve the people.

1:03:40 MB: And one of the biggest shaping of culture that took place when I finally learned less than the number 24 that I was learning was that involving my employees, our team, with what I was doing from a non-profit side, charitable side, actually shaped the company like it was the icing on the cake, because we were kicking butt in the marketplace, no question. But we were missing an ingredient and I didn't know what the ingredient was until I stumbled in it. And it was called be involved culturally. Our company began to become involved with other people that were less fortunate. So all of a sudden now, I think that there's a responsibility... Lemme back up, there's a responsibility of employers to provide a way for the people that work for them to volunteer, to share in their need. People wanna help, most all people, they have a heart, they wanna help and they don't know how, they don't know who to volunteer for, they don't know what to do, and the vehicle by which they need to use is the very company that they work for.

1:04:48 MB: So all of a sudden as we began more and more involved in let's take Youth Villages, 'cause that's the biggest for me. And all of a sudden, now we got Christmas coming, and various parts of the company are sponsoring this cottage in that group home, and this... Everybody was involved, and it brought a whole new dimension to our company because people that wanted to volunteer and they wanted to share their heart, were getting to do so. And then all of a sudden at the Thanksgiving table or the Christmas table for dinner, when they were at home, they'd be talking about not how many truck loads we delivered or we opened up a new terminal in St. Louis, they were talking about what we were doing as a company to help others, they were proud of it, they felt good about it. And that made them feel good about their company, and their family felt good about them for feeling good about their company 'cause wow, that company really helps all those people, and I'll never forget the time when we put the 4 x 8, just the size of a plywood, we put the banners on our trailers. We had 750 trailers. We put Youth Villages banners on there.

1:05:58 MB: And I did that because Youth Villages was having an awareness problem, and they said, "Mike, we have got to get our name out there and nobody... You say Youth Villages. Nobody even ever heard it. What can we do?" I said, "I'll tell you what we can do. We'll put those... Will put decals on our trailers, and then our guys are going all over. They're driving all over, and that'll help you. Everyone will start to see who Youth Villages is." Well, I was wrong. Yeah, I was right that people got to see who Youth Villages was, but what I underestimated was the fact that now all of a sudden we got a driver pulling a Youth Villages trailer, and all of a sudden on the CB Radio, another trucker says "Hey driver, drag truck driver. What's that? Youth Villages?" And our driver says, "Oh yeah, that's... We help kids. We got kids that need help," and don't you know this guy's chest is starting to bump against the windshield because he's driving for a company, he takes care of kids. So all of a sudden, he gets to the dock and they say, "Hey, get the kids' trailer in here. Let's unload that one first. Let's get him out of here." So the whole point of my story is that by helping others, it just fed this culture and people were proud to work for a company that shared their resources with so many... To share their resources and time with so many people.

1:07:20 SC: Yes, sir. Something that just sticks out to me is what seems to be a driver with you at Comtrak, with the people, the team that you worked with, and then your class, it was about making your clients happy and it was about making your teammates... I'm hesitant to say employees 'cause I would bet you don't even like that word...

1:07:44 MB: Not really.

1:07:44 SC: But just... And is the same thing to the way that you're talking about at this stage as well, and to me, what also sounds like is you wanna be a part of non-profit, other organizations, other companies to where they are bought in that passion for that mission, and then whatever it needs to take to execute it, but that it's truly serving the receiver, the client, and then serving the team, the organization inside of it. And it seems like that's what you were thinking about that kinda was what you were thinking about day in day out for even maybe 12 months ahead, but that's it. It wasn't some long-term strategic plan, but then that was the snowball that then carried all that growth across the United States.

1:08:27 MB: That's right. Yeah. I was never smart enough to know much for about a year, more than year in advance. [laughter] That's for sure. But no, it worked out real well. You know another thing, I told this story once or twice before and I'll tell it to you because it's a quick one. But it has to do with the double whammy, and the double whammy I just told you about the decals was, I didn't figure that our company would be or the drivers would be so proud, it never even entered my mind. So I learned that one, but I... When I would have big shots come in from various companies, we did business with Ashley Furniture and Walmart or Sear... You name it, they would come and visit and they would walk around and tour our facility. We had a spotless facility, as I once said, but anyway, the double whammy I learned was the two for one, I guess you call it, it was when I would take these big shots around and we would bump into one of the cleaning ladies, and I would say, "Belinda, or Ruth, this is Joe. Joe is the vice president of Walmart." And the guy from Walmart would be like, "Oh Jesus. This is weird," 'cause she's got a cleaning outfit on and... And she would walk up and say, "Well, hi, nice to meet you," and shake his hand.

1:09:45 MB: My purpose in doing that was that so that Ruth could go home that night and sit at her kitchen table and say, "You're not gonna believe who I met today. I met the vice president of Walmart." What I didn't bargain for, once again, the double whammy was... The best part about it was the vice president of Walmart, he would get out of an airplane, go home, and he would say, "You're not gonna believe who I met today. I met a cleaning lady, shook her hand," because I'll bet he never did that before in his life.

1:10:23 SC: Dignity, respect for... Respect for all. And we're all the same.

1:10:29 MB: It put everybody on it. And that's what I say about that org chart, it put everybody on the same playing field.

1:10:34 SC: Yes, sir. Are there any seasons or any years of... Let's say those 20 years specifically, when things were moving really fast, did you ever have any just off years or hard years, maybe not as a company, but just personally like, did you... Is there anything you could speak about being an owner, a leader, a founder, and just where even amidst this really great story and all the people that have been impacted and benefited and a lot of opportunity that's been created, not just in our community, but across the country, and even organizations such as Youth Villages that have been significantly impacted. Can you talk any about maybe any years that just maybe some adversity or some struggle that you just got through.

1:11:22 MB: Yeah. I would tell you it's clear which year that was, it was '99. We were cooking around... Well, we were at 50 million bucks on revenue, and the BN Railroad was 18 million of that. And the BN Railroad cut a deal with the Norfolk Southern, and they said they're gonna interchange the traffic that would run from the West Coast to the East, and they would give it to the Norfolk Southern. And what that meant was that all of that freight that once was given to Comtrak, since we were the Burlington Northern's Eastern Railroad track, except we ran it on the highway, all that revenue would go away. And so the BN was very cautious and they were nervous about it they said, "Mike, we hate to do this. It's really gonna set you back." When you're cooking at 50 and you're gonna go down to 32, that's a whack.

1:12:20 MB: And that was a tough deal. Now, they gave us a little notice, but quite frankly, they made us hall, their freight until the very end, they couldn't dribble it off, I wish they would have phased it off, but they did it till the very end, and then one Saturday night, they pulled the switch and all of those trains would no longer stop and have our trucks pick them up, took up their loads. It would go off to the NS, it was the right thing for them to do. I love that railroad, and they called me down to BN Santa Fe, and they called me down to Fort Worth after a month after it stopped, and they gave me a check for a half a million dollars. I don't know how they pushed that through, there was no contract or anything, but they gave me a half a million dollars for my hand shaking 'cause I didn't let them down at the bitter end.

1:13:04 MB: But the point of my story was that that was the nights that I laid in bed, thinking, "Man, I can't go bankrupt because it's not a pride thing, it's not a financial thing, I got too many people counting on me." The first day we had a meeting after that whack. There was a lot of talk about who we're gonna lay off and where, and I said, "We're not laying anybody off," and they said, "We gotta lay some... " "We aint laying anybody off. You can't claim that we're a family and we're all in this and we're family and all this stuff, and then the first big problem we get, then we're not family anymore, so we're not laying anyone off, we have to figure out other ways." Well, we didn't lay anyone off. I had people painting fences, I had people painting walls, I had people building trailers...

1:13:54 MB: Not trailers, but the cooking where we'd haul a cooker around throughout the country and give hamburgers out when it was driver appreciate... I had people doing things they had never done before, but we never laid anyone off. Personally, I got back on airplanes and ran around, walking in doors I'd never thought I'd go back into, but... And getting freight. And it took only about a year. Everybody kept their job and... But when you go in to a customer and you say, "Look, I really appreciate your business, but I need as much as you can give me, Bob. I just lost this much revenue with the BN Santa Fe, and I'm not laying anybody off, I'm not gonna do it." And when people hear that you're gonna do that, they'll find freight for you, and we made up that 18 million, quick. And the companies we proved to the very people who were in the company that we mean business, when we say we're a family, we never, ever laid anyone off.

1:14:54 SC: This is... I mean, there's so many things we've talked about that have just challenged me personally, taught me so much. This has been so good. Even with that specific season in 1999, you're talking obviously more than a third. Did you just take the loss until you got all that business back within a year?

1:15:15 MB: That year we didn't... After those 12 months, while it was gone, we didn't lose money. Which kind of makes you wonder how much money we're making on the dang thing, but no, we did not finish that year, and I think it might have been '97... Don't quote me on that, but I get my... I thought I always knew that for sure, but whatever... We did not lose money, we made it up quick, and I'll tell you in '08, if you got time for another one very similar to this one...

1:15:42 SC: I've got all the time that you've got.

1:15:44 MB: When I had been bought, I was two years in with the father company, so to speak, and '08 hit and it was a tragic time for business and everybody was losing their butts, and I reported directly to the CEO who was a good guy. Still... And is still a dear friend. But I think he had six direct reports IT, finance, marketing, sales, trucking, whatever, all the people who reported to him, and we all were given X amount of dollars to cut our budget by. And I had to come up with $2.1 million and lay off people to come up with that. So now here I am, the guy who was the father of this company, and no layoffs, we're all family, and that... It was a tough night because I just couldn't do it, I couldn't lay anybody off, so... At least while I was there anyway it wasn't going to happen. So after a week when we could reconvene and I was by phone and everyone in Chicago was around the table, and they started talking one by one, they had to report how many people they laid off and how much money they brought to the table to make '08 could be a good year for a publicly traded company.

1:17:01 MB: And it got to... There wasn't a lot of giggle... There was a lot of... Too many people were happy in a room talking about that as far as I was concerned, but it got to me and it's, "Mike, on the trucking side 2.1 million. What do you got?" And I said, "Well, actually, I got 2.2 million." I said, "So, I'm... " And they said, "Who did you lay off? How many people did you lay off?" I said, "I didn't lay anybody off." They said, "What?" I said, "I didn't lay anybody." I says, "I got 20% pay from the seven people that report to me, all my vice presidents, they've all agreed to give 20%," and I says, "I just sold my company two years ago, I don't need any money, so I will work this next year for nothing. And then we changed a lease or two on this and that, so we came up with 2.2 million." And it was dead silent, and the head of the company says, "Man you... Wait a minute, woah, woah." I said, "Lemme just say this... " I said, "I'm not afraid to lay anybody off, but where I was... Come from, we start at the top and we work down. And you have to at least set the table, if I have to lay someone off in a couple more months, I can do it, but not until we've done what we needed to do at the top. And that's when I'll lay off, but I got your money. Your money's clean. It's good. It's all there."

1:18:25 MB: And he said to me, he says, "I'll catch you online, or offline, after this call is over." So, he called me, he says, "Just keep doing what you're doing. Don't lay anyone off, don't do anything. You're not taking... You're not gonna work for free until your VPs keep your salary. Keep doing what you're doing." But, I think, that where people make a mistake about that is to turn around all those people that I had working for me. Do you know how many single moms we had inside of a cubicle that were making, not a lot of money by any means, and they had bills to pay? They had a husband that was a dead beat, they're divorced, that blah, blah... The list is endless. And that's not the person that you need to cut. If someone's making $300,000 a year, he's gonna have to take a little break there, pal. And that's what we did. And we never had to lay off the person in the cubicle that was trying to save for the band uniform, never did.

1:19:23 SC: When you said, "We're not laying anybody off, and you found jobs to do." Did it ever cross your mind that it might not work out, or you might actually have to lay somebody off? And then, what was it like, in your own mind, to go back through doors that you talked about that you'd never thought you'd have to go back to again, to really... To rebuild that business and to really get scrappy in that kind of way that, where it had probably been a few years before you had to kinda be that scrappy?

1:19:50 MB: I actually enjoyed it, Sam. I liked going backwards to appreciate going forward. I really did. I was more determined, at that point in my career in business, to get a job done that I was the day I opened up, because I had more responsibility than that day I opened up. If I opened up and died, or failed, in a year, what was my impact? Nothing anyway. Who cared? But now, I had to perform. And going in the back doors of warehouses that I thought I didn't do anymore, it didn't bother me at all. In fact, I was proud to do it, because, I was... I don't know. I knew we were gonna do it, I just... I worked hard, at that time, and then, it made it even better, and, like I say, especially, letting people know that I wasn't gonna lay anyone off. And then, they became a part of the process. Those customers felt a bonding, of sorts, that they gave me more business, because... And it wasn't... Obviously, it wasn't because we lost... We didn't lose that business 'cause we didn't perform, it was just the way it had to be. It was... But, anyway, no. I don't regret that. I forget what your question, exactly, was aimed at. I hope I answered.

1:21:10 SC: You hit it. Square on the head. So, just as we wrap up, is there anything that you feel like is valuable, important, just key to think about, or to learn, when you're either talking about owning and operating existing business, leading an organization, maybe owning, investing in multiple companies, or just really working hard and trying to provide value to your organization, or to your group, or your craft in the best possible manner you can? Is there anything else that sticks out that you feel like we haven't covered today that would be helpful to hear?

1:21:45 MB: I don't think so. I would say though that if anybody asked me if I had one particular characteristic that I think is very important, and there's multitude of them, but, I think, humility is the secret weapon. It might not be the most important sometimes, but it's the secret weapon, because, I think, people like to work for people that are like them and not better. People like to give business to people that are not better, and there's such a difference between being different from someone and being better than someone. I never had a... I would always hate when a driver would say to me, "I know I'm only a driver, Mike," and I would say, "If you ever say that again to me, we'll never have a relationship, because I can't stand that."

1:22:43 MB: In fact, we had a driver who had gone 2 million miles without an accident, without a ticket, driving a 65-foot long vehicle. Never a ticket, never an accident. And when I got up to give him his award, I said to everyone, and I meant every word of it, that, "Wouldn't it be cool if I was as good at my job as he is at his job?" There's no telling where we would be, because I'm not as good as my job at what he is at his, 2 million miles. That's a 100,000 miles a year for 20 years, no accidents, no tickets, no late. He's perfect. He was my number one guy, but my point is that he's no less than me, we're both different. There's no way I could drive a truck for 20 years. I couldn't drive one for 20 minutes, but that doesn't make me better, 'cause I have a pencil in my hand, and he's got a steering wheel. We're just different.

1:23:44 SC: Yes, sir. What point did you realize that, maybe, having some more money than what you needed, it wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, when you referenced that earlier? What point was that?

1:23:56 MB: Probably about 2-3, years into it when you used to look at Sears catalog when you were a kid? The wish list, or whatever. I used to look at the Sunday newspaper, and all the stuff I sure wanted that would be really cool, couldn't afford any of it. And then, when I've got all that stuff, [chuckle] I realized that they really didn't mean a damn thing. So, an easy lessons... Easy lessons in life.

1:24:23 SC: Yes, sir. Well, this has been such a great conversation. Thank you so much for spending time with me this afternoon, and I can't wait to get it out, but just love spending time from you, and hearing from you.

1:24:35 MB: Well, I've enjoyed the fact that you think that I might know something. So, that's pretty cool.

1:24:41 SC: Yeah. I think I do, and I think a lot of other people do as well.

[music]

1:24:44 SC: Hey, everybody. Thanks for listening. I hope you learned, at least, one thing today that you can apply to your own life. If you liked the show, please make sure and leave a review, and be sure to tune in each week as I'll be releasing a new episode. Hope you have a great day.

[music]

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber