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Werner’s Derek Leathers turned pro, just not in football

Werner Enterprises President and COO Derek Leathers enjoys a laugh with driver Charley Endorf, who has been with Werner since June 1976. (Courtesy: WERNER ENTERPRISES)

By LYNDON FINNEY
The Trucker Staff

6/1/2011

OMAHA, Neb. —You’ve probably seen them, those National Collegiate Athletic Association promotional TV spots that run during the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments when future professional athletes are running up and down the court.

For almost 20 seconds, there is no dialogue as NCAA student-athletes participate in a variety of sports.

Then comes an authoritative voice: “There are over 400,000 NCAA student athletes and just about all of us are going pro in something other than sports.”

Count Derek Leathers as one of the “about all of us” group.

He grew up in Houston, raised by his step dad who did some truck driving and had friends who drove a truck.

“I used to get to ride along as a kid and used to like the road and trucking in general,” he recalled with a hint of fondness in his voice.

When he graduated high school, he headed to New Jersey where Princeton had offered him a football scholarship.

“At the time, it was the No. 1-rated school in the U.S. academically and as a football player they recruited me as well so I could do everything I wanted to d play a sport I loved, but at the same time get a great education,” Leather explained. “And I was pretty certain I wasn’t going to go pro someday. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience at Princeton. I loved every minute of it.”

With an economics degree in hand, it might have been a natural progression to go into banking or some other financial career, but collegiate friends had already gone that route and offered Leathers some advice.

 “The common theme was that the money was good and it was intellectually challenging to be in banking, but there wasn’t a lot of people interaction or hands-on work involved and they all commented that was a big negative for them,” Leathers said in a recent interview with The Trucker.

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 So instead of dealing with dollars and cents, Leathers he was more suited to the hands-on world of tractors, trailers, diesel, oil, grease, steer tires, fifth wheels, you name it.

To say he made the right decision would be an understatement.

On May 10, Leathers became president and chief operating officer of Werner Enterprises as part of management changes that followed the “retirement” of Clarence Werner as Werner chairman.

Werner founded the company at age 19 in 1956.

Schneider National hired Leathers right out of college.

“The opportunity for a 22-year-old young man to come out and manage 40 to 50 drivers right away was pretty unique and I liked the opportunity to meet people and manage people and learn from them,” Leathers said. “It just seemed right.”

Neither did it hurt that the job was in North Carolina, something that Leathers now admits was probably more important to him then than it should have been.

“I was ready to get back down South somewhere,” he said.

Eventually, Schneider moved him even further south — all the way to Mexico — where he became head of the carrier’s Mexican operations.

Werner hired him in 1999 to head its Mexico operations.

And it didn’t take long before he was moving up the corporate ladder.

Within 18 months he assumed responsibility for Canadian operations and in 2002 added the company’s domestic one-way truckload division to his leadership duties.

“That gave me a well rounded experience and got me re-oriented to the U.S. products because at that time I had spent a lot of years working outside the borders of the U.S.” he said.

Then in 2006, he was asked to lead the Werner logistics efforts and its expansion into Asia and in 2008 he became chief operating officer.

And now president has been added to his title and responsibilities.

Leathers is ready for the challenge and believes the future is bright because of the strong foundation built by the Werner family, including Clarence Werner’s two sons.

Gary L. Werner is now chairman, moving from his former role of vice chairman.

Gregory L. Werner is now vice chairman and retains his role as CEO, a position he assumed in 2007.

What’s it like to be part of a family-owned and operated company?

“A couple of things come to mind: stable and long-term credibility,” Leathers said. “It’s a real honor for all of us to work in a company where the founder is still involved and is now our chairman emeritus. Make no mistake, regardless of the title he’ll be dialed in and involved. We like to say to people we’re the best of both worlds. We’re a publicly traded company with access to public funds, but yet family-managed and led with a family culture. That’s really almost a perfect world because you get the kind of values and ethics and hard work being rewarded you see in family businesses, but yet the capital structure and the ability to grow and expand and fund your growth that’s reserved for publicly traded companies. In our case due to the quality of the family that’s involved and their knowledge and expertise, the public markets respond favorably to the involvement as well and really understand it for what it is, and it’s a big asset.”

Leathers said a commitment to an overall portfolio is what makes Werner stand out from the competition.

“If you look at carriers out there today, most everybody has migrated to one, two or three niches of business,” he said, while acknowledging such moves were understandable because of the recent economic duress. “You have strong dedicated carriers that don’t go much beyond dedicated; you have strong truckload carriers who don’t do anything except long-haul truckload. You have strong regional carriers. But you don’t see many true portfolio companies. Werner is one of those. We bring a very serious international presence with $300 million of international business. We bring serious brokerage business at $150 million-plus. We’re a strong and growing player in regional. We have one of the largest team fleets on the road today. Our portfolio really separates us. And then the second one is our family values. The fact that the company is still run by the family and it’s family-like is a positive.”

And that family culture extends beyond the walls of the headquarters all the way to the drivers’ seat, he said

“I had the opportunity recently to talk with a group of our most senior drivers. It was intriguing because like any group of associates they are always going to have things they think we can improve on and push us to be better,” Leathers said. “At the same time, each and every one of them to a person had some story or moment where sometime in their career in times of great need, Werner was there for them and stood by them in those tough times. Whether it was an illness in the family, a death in the family or some other sort of catastrophic event, as big as we are we’ll still able to operate like a small company. One example: Years ago we started an employee relief fund. A couple of times a month, everybody brings in $2 in order to wear jeans and the company matches it dollar for dollar. That fund supports drivers, mechanics or anybody else who fall on tough times through a variety of programs to wrap our arms around them like you would ordinarily see in a small family business.”

Leathers is proud of the driver Wall of Fame of drivers who’ve driven safely over one million miles.

“That now counts into the several hundred drivers actively in our fleet today who have over a million miles and many, many of those drivers when you see them walking the halls will be dressed very crisply in Werner apparel and are proud to wear the Werner logo and it’s something that makes us proud every day,” he said.

And the future?

“We want to continue to grow the company and grow the portfolio without losing those core values that are the foundation of who we are,” he said. “As an example, we’re a trucking company at our core and our roots and we want to stay proud and true to that. As other companies show interest toward intermodal or logistics or other things, and in our opinion have sort of forgotten their roots, we don’t want to see that happen here.”

But that doesn’t mean Werner won’t move beyond its current scope of service, it just means that the company won’t lose sight of what enabled it to be among the 15 largest for-hire carriers in the U.S.

“We’re proud of our roots and proud of our heritage and will always be a player in the trucking landscape. But at the same time, our vision is to expand that footprint to a larger landscape,” Leathers said. That’s why we’re in Mexico and Canada and now also in China and Australia and will continue to expand around the globe where our customers need us. We’re going to continue to expand in our logistics services and our vision is to create the same kind of value and the same kind of excitement in our customers in our logistics portfolio as we do everything in our trucking portfolio. It’s not an either-or proposition, it’s an and proposition. That’s what’s going to drive us going forward. Obviously, while we’re doing that we have to make sure that we increase value for our associates, our drivers, our shareholders and our customers and there’s always an interesting balance in that, but we think we should focus on the portfolio first and the rest will take care of itself.”   

Lyndon Finney of The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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