Hugh Ekberg was approached three different times to join CRST International before he finally agreed.
“I didn’t know anything about trucking, and it wasn’t until I met with the owners in Iowa that I finally agreed to it,” shared Ekberg. “It really piqued my interest, because of their strong position in the market, and the private-owner structure that was designed to run and lead the business.”
Ekberg grew up in an engineering family — his dad and brothers were engineers and in the steel business. Ekberg worked in manufacturing most of his career and had always focused on operations, working on the front end on the sales and marketing side.
In 1999, he was hired by Hirsh Industries, a furniture-manufacturing company out of Des Moines, Iowa, as the company’s president. He also worked for The Weitz Company, a large construction company based in Des Moines, that serves nationwide.
Ekberg was the president of Kohler Co. until he was hired by CRST in 2016. He began at CRST as the chief operating officer and was promoted to president and CEO on October 1, 2018.
CRST was founded in 1955 and has had the same ownership since. Ekberg said that with the same family owning the company, it has grown successfully and has fared well through acquisitions brought on by the company. He said CRST has the largest team fleet in the industry and this has been achieved through acquisition and development.
According to Ekberg, CRST has 6,000 trucks, with 1,500 in the team business. He added that the company also has a healthy flatbed business, plus about 1,000 independent contractors. CRST also play a vital role in the home-delivery business, Ekberg shared, noting that this part of the business includes delivering for custom auto shows or specialty shows with antique and high-end cars.
“We just did an acquisition that is very specific for home delivery with NAL Group, which is in the Top 5 for home delivery and installation,” said Ekberg, adding that the company’s acquisitions over the years have allowed them to “have the most completed service models, which include flatbed freight, dedicated services, and home deliveries.”
“We want to be a one-stop solution for our customers, and we have been successful over time through these acquisitions,” noted Ekberg. “In the past, CRST has used several different brands that came through acquisitions, but now we have all those capabilities in one powerful brand.”
He said the company is in a unique situation that allows customers to be more efficient and grow in their business, which gives customers the ability to drive productivity and efficiency.
“Our key to success is going to rely on our ability to build the strongest team, by attracting and retaining top talent, and give the organization those who have the responsibility and authority to drive efficiently and understand the customer,” he said. This involves “meeting the customer’s needs and building the capability to serve the customer at the highest level.”
He said CRST wants to ensure the company is doing something every day to make the drivers more successful. He said the company’s culture is understanding what the success is based on, which is achieving organic growth by winning the customer and beating the competition.
“One important cultural element is ownership,” said Ekberg. “And ownership is a different word than accountability, which can have a negative connotation. We need to understand the actions needed for success and take ownership of the results. We are working hard to drive a culture of ownership that is focused on serving the customer.”
Ekberg said CRST’s business relies on the ability of the drivers of the trucks and the teammates on the road, as well as the independent contractor and their truck. “We have to focus on giving them everything they need to be successful, because that’s where customer interactions happen,” he said.
Ekberg added that the trucking industry has an “extremely steep” learning curve, so the company has moved toward integrating a new single operating system with more flexibility and more efficiency. Ekberg noted that this change will help drive better decision-making for the company.
CRST’s team business is heavily tied to retail and getting products into stores, and not sitting in inventory for a long time, which can feature some time-sensitive freight.
“We have a significantly large footprint in the retail sector, so when everything was shut down for about 10 weeks (during the COVID-19 pandemic), it had a huge impact on us,” he added. “We lost volume. We weren’t immune to it, as we had employees on furlough. But we have benefited by being in the home-delivery business, so that has been a positive for us.”
CRST provides time-sensitive, high-speed freight as well as construction products with a dedicated business to automotive, retail, paper, and grocery. Ekberg said they do work with Walmart, Home Depot, and other big retailers. He noted that CRST does a little bit of everything.
“As retail comes back, we are seeing things come back. April was the absolute bottom, and our current spike in numbers has everyone concerned for another shutdown,” he noted.
While many people have faced economic downturns in the past, this was the first downturn happening during a global health crisis.
“It presented a unique challenge, but for us, one of the most important things we learned was our ability to be productive and effective in a more remote work environment,” he said. “We were forced to figure it out, but it produced significantly long-term benefits, because now everyone has the ability to do video conferencing, and it has become a standard way of doing work. A lot more flexibility is definitely possible, and it helps us attract and recruit the best talent.”