If professional truck drivers are called — and well they should be — “Knights of the Highway,” then there is a transportation company in Arizona that should be a knight among carriers.
We’re referring to Knight Transportation of Phoenix, a carrier with an interesting history and impeccable reputation.
Knight Transportation is now part of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings — the nation’s fifth largest transportation company — thanks to a 2017 merger that brought together two of the titans of the trucking industry, both headquartered in Phoenix. Ironically, both carriers are an integral part of each other’s history.
Right out of high school, Knight Transportation founder Kevin Knight went to work for Jerry Moyes and Moyes’ father, Carl at Swift Transportation, which opened for business in 1966.
By 1990, Knight was executive vice president of Swift and president of Cooper Motor Lines, a division of Swift.
His brothers, Gary and Keith, and cousin, Randy, were also a part of Swift.
Also in 1990, Swift was getting ready to go public, so the Knights decided to venture out on their own and start Knight Transportation.
Three of the four are still part of Knight Transportation.
Kevin is executive chairman of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings and continues a lifelong dream of being in a leadership role at Knight.
“I probably won’t walk out of this (office) building,” he said in a 2006 interview.
The other Knights remain involved, too.
Gary is vice chairman and Keith remains engaged full time in various aspects of the company.
The current CEO of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings is Dave Jackson, who like Kevin Knight, joined the trucking industry after completing his education.
He started with Knight Transportation 20 years ago.
“I was less attracted to trucking and more attracted to the culture at Knight,” shared Jackson.
Jackson was born and raised in Phoenix and had heard different things about the company over the years, and as a result of an acquaintance with one of the Knights, he found himself choosing Knight Transportation as a subject of research in his finance classes at Arizona State University, studying the carrier’s financial statements and SEC filings.
What Jackson found was a company with good financial returns and a good growth trajectory.
“I thought ‘Wow, this is an up-and-coming company, one that cares about its drivers and employees,’” he said.
His intention was to work at Knight for a couple of years, learning the trucking business, and then going to graduate school. But his love for Knight kept him there, where he said he’s been given opportunities far beyond what he could have expected.
“I’m still learning,” he said.
Jackson became CFO in 2004 and was named president and CEO of Knight Transportation in 2015, two years prior to the merger. Now he holds the title of president and CEO of Knight-Swift Transportation Holdings, leading both Knight Transportation and Swift Transportation.
Even though he’s years beyond studying Knight Transportation while at ASU, he hasn’t stopped learning.
“I love to study this industry,” said Jackson. “It’s such a complex, competitive, fragmented industry, and it comes with so many challenges. But if you can understand the competition and understand how you have your company positioned, you have an advantage.”
During the merger talks, the two carriers decided to maintain their respective current branding.
“The drivers chose that brand to begin with for a reason,” he said.
If the carriers had merged the brands and come up with a new name, Jackson said they would have run the risk of alienating drivers, who might then choose to leave.
“We wanted to minimize the disruption our driving associates would experience, so we felt it best to run the two brands independently,” he shared.
Behind the scenes, the merger provided the opportunity to leverage economies of scale when it comes to things such as equipment, technology and accounting.
Jackson was quick to respond when asked about what he enjoyed the most about leading Knight Transportation.
“It’s the people. We just have the most unbelievable people, day in and day out,” he said.
“They come in trying to give their best and do so in an unselfish way. At Knight, they don’t sit around the table with personal agendas. They’ve developed a passion for eliminating waste and for becoming very efficient, and do so in a manner that teaches other people in a way that empowers them. It’s very fulfilling to see the way our people work despite the tedious nature of the ever-changing trucking industry. It’s very fulfilling.”
Knight’s culture is also one of autonomy based on open communication.
“We very much believe in empowerment. We are a decentralized business where each of our terminals have their own profit and loss statements,” he said. “It’s not about the terminals supporting corporate. Instead, they receive a lot support from us. We want them to be successful.”
Jackson wants to make sure the company’s culture is felt among drivers.
“We’re hiring all over the place, and I get to meet the ones who come through Phoenix,” said Jackson. “I’ll always ask the question, ‘Have you had a chance to feel the culture and what we as a company are all about?’ They usually nod their heads in the affirmative.”
Knight’s turnover rate is in the upper 50% range, about half the average for large carriers in 2019.
Jackson shared that he has been particularly proud of drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has potentially placed professional truck drivers in harm’s way.
“Our drivers have totally stepped up,” he said. “And, we’ve been fortunate that there have been loads to haul.”
In return, the company has taken steps to make sure drivers have access to the necessities of life during the crisis in the form of 80 truckloads of provisions that have been dispatched to 23 terminals. The company is also providing additional compensation for drivers who stay productive in these times.
Assessing Knight Transportation’s overall success, there is no doubt that the company has followed the advice set forth by Kevin Knight in that 2006 interview.
“When I retire, I would want to make sure that our people were still committed and understood the importance of being hardworking and were committed to learn and grow,” he said “Don’t forget where you came from, and don’t ever think you are as great as other people are telling you. Because if you do quit learning, you’ll quit changing; you’ll quit adapting, and I think that’s the key to our success.”
Then and now.