EKA Insights Interview: Ryan Farrell

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By Arune SIngh

The only thing harder than being first…is being second.

Meet Ryan Farrell, who in 2020 became only the second President of Wilson Logistics in the company’s nearly 40 years of existence.

Though he initially joined Wilson Logistics in 2015 as the Chief Financial Officer after working at top companies from JB Hunt Transport Services and Maverick Transportation, Farrell was hand-picked by Founder & CEO Darrel Wilson (whose EKA Insights interview is here) to lead the company into the future.

With over seventeen years in the transportation industry, Ryan is charting the course for Wilson Logistics in perhaps the most uncertain and unpredictable times imaginable. 

The EKA Insights Interview series continues with special guest Ryan Farrell in both an unedited video interview and in a written transcript below (which includes some edits for clarity and flow).

EKA: When I look at your career, it’s full of ambition – but sometimes achieving the things we want come with unexpected challenges. What surprised you most about becoming president of Wilson Logistics both in the positive way and maybe in ways that you didn’t expect?

Ryan: The first thing that pops to mind is the timing. I was named President of Wilson Logistics right before COVID hit [in 2020]. Becoming president of an organization that’s only had one leader in its history has its own challenges but then when you throw COVID into the mix, it’s kind of baptism by fire, if you will.it was a crazy year but I’m still working with the same people I’ve been working with for a very long time when I was CFO and that helped the transition..

Having the title of President is a tremendous honor that also comes with another layer that is the expectations of you. While I wouldn’t have chosen the first year of COVID to take the reins of the company it also provided a lot of learning experiences. I can’t look back and say we made every decision perfectly but I think we did very well given the information we had.

I got introduced to more sides of the company than I had been responsible for in the past and I came out of that respecting Darrel even more as I got deeper into the company, deeper into his head and his thinking. 

You know what they say, “With great power comes great responsibility” and you feel that a bit more with the title in place. 

So, if that makes Darrel your “Uncle Ben” for all those Spider-Man fans out there, was there one big piece of advice he imparted that’s helped a lot? IS it like a US Presidential transition of power with a letter left behind?

Well, it’s more of a co-leadership as Darrel hasn’t stepped away and we’re in the trenches together I can learn how he does things. There wasn’t a single piece of advice that’s helped as much as learning more of his leadership style.

A lot of what he does is throw out the overanalysis and says to take it back to the nuts and bolts. If we’ve got the right nuts and volts and if we’re doing everything right getting from Point A to Point B, then we’re servicing our customers right. And if we’re making a certain amount of money at the end of each week to pay everyone, then you’re 99.99% of the way there.

Sometimes you can’t see the forest for the trees because you’ll get the smartest reports in the world, down to the finest level of detail. And that’s not going to help you to make that decision that you knew in your gut that you’re going to make anyways. So, a lot of times that stuff gets in the way and just adds more complexity. The thing that I’ve learned from Darrel was that you can be too smart for your own good sometimes and it’s all about getting the nuts and bolts right.

As you’ve spent these last few years in the trenches during such an unpredictable time, especially for the logistics industry, what do you think the successful leaders during this period have in common?

I think a certain level of compassion is needed from every leader.

You know, we weren’t a company that traditionally allowed people to work from home – we’re a Mid-Western trucking company, so if you’re not at the office then you’re slacking off, right? That was the mentality so we had to learn to be more flexible and if you didn’t put your employees first then you probably didn’t come through the other side with a workforce like we did that believes in you and is willing to get in the trenches with you. 

So I’d say that flexibility and compassion are key.

Do you think the kind of compassion that people need has changed as the pandemic has continued?

Some of that is driven by generational changes as well, so it’s not just the current situation even if that did maybe put it into hyperspeed. I think I grew up on the cusp of it.

When I went to college and came out the other side, I expected to work 50, 60, 70 hour a week to prove myself and that was just it. The idea of work/life balance would have to wait until I was a little bit further in my career. And I’m not saying that was right, but it was the expectation I had in mind.

Over the years we slowly started seeing work/life balance become more important than pay and then especially during COVID, when everyone took a big reset and asked “what’d really worth it?”

At the same time, we have a lot of frontline workers because we have truck drivers and truck driving isn’t something you can do from home at least not until you have trucks piloted by drones or whatever. 

So you can’t just completely change your corporate culture but you’ve got to add that layer of flexibility. And I think every business needs to learn from this without allowing it to dictate your culture. If you weren’t a work from home entity then you can’t go fully work from home because it just won’t work. Everyone’s got to change with the times but you can do it in a way that honors the roots of the business that you’re in.

Absolutely, you’re talking about purposeful adaptation and that dovetails well into the next question. You’ve talked about shifting generations and shifting work habits, so how do leaders best bridge that divide? What does successful mentorship look like today with such diverse workforces and viewpoints?

I think it comes back to valuing people.

If you look at our workforce, we’re headquartered in Springfield, Missouri and it may not be known as one of the most diverse places in the world, but we’ve got people from a variety of backgrounds and with very different points of view. One thing we’ve always prided ourselves on is that at the end of the day that we don’t care if we agree on every social or economic issue, but we do care about what we do during our time together. Do you treat others with kindness and respect?  Do you do your job in a way that you believe you can go home and hold your head high that you did your best that day? And as long as you’re willing to say yes to all of that then I think you’re a valuable employee.

I think that’s something that is cross generational – valuing people for their input and for being good people. And we keep doing that so we have a diverse driving population and we have a diverse workforce.  You need to show people, no matter their generation, that they are valuable to you and you’re willing to listen to them.

The other part of it is that it can’t just be one- way – I need to be able to listen to input because that’s when I’ll know where I may need to change. That’s the kind of company we all want.

That kind of compassion makes me think of my conversation with Darrel where he pushed back against the idea of failure because we learn something from everything we do. So there’s a bit of compassion you need towards yourself too. On that note, I’d love to hear about the greatest challenge in your career and what you’ve learned from that.

I’m overly analytical and everything, I’ll say that, so when you asked about my biggest challenge the first thing I’m going to is “my own head.” And, really, in all honesty that’s it.

I’m my biggest challenge because I’m a perfectionist by nature.

I believe – maybe my employees would say differently – but I believe I extend a lot of grace when it comes to failure. Because like Darrel said, really, it’s just an opportunity, we shouldn’t even call it failure the very few times is their true failure. It is a learning opportunity. Now, if you have two of the same learning opportunities, maybe that second one was failure, right? 

There’s two things I tell everybody – first, if you’re coming into trucking and you like it, then you might just be a little crazy and second, if you make it beyond a year you’re definitely crazy and here for life.

And I also tell people that everybody makes mistakes, so we all get to make that mistake once. That’s your learning opportunity, especially if it’s a big deal. If that happens again, then we talk.

So, you know, for me, it is extending that same grace to myself, because I like to hold myself to a higher standard. And so if I don’t meet that standard, it does not go over well with me. So I’ve had to learn that obviously I can’t do everything perfectly. I’ve had to learn to accept that move on and learn just like everybody else. That’s the self-talk that goes on with my overly-analytical brain.

The other side of all that is comparing myself to Darrel, who is a completely different person than me. He is an operator through and through, right? I’ve come up through a different area of transportation so I just haven’t had the same experiences and I do things differently. So, trying to compare yourself to former leaders, others in results, is a big mistake and one that I have definitely been guilty of myself. 

Darrel and I complement each other well because we have two completely different styles. But we expect the same thing at the end of the day, and we try to get the same result. 

It sounds like you and Darrel encourage each other to be the best versions of each other and find the intersection of those strengths, which sounds like the perfect recipe for working together. That has to be especially powerful in such chaotic times. So, what are the changes that you think we need to see for the industry not just to survive but also to thrive as we move forward?

The first thing is elevating the driving job and that’s something that’s been said for years. But it was a heartwarming moment when you say non-trucking publications in 2020 list frontline workers and truck drivers were on that list alongside doctors and nurses.

We’ve got to elevative the job of truck drivers. It is the backbone of this country. You can talk about all the automation you want, and I am all for it, but to think we’re getting away anytime soon from needing a driver is probably a mistake. 

And we’ve got to invest into technology as trucking is not known for being an industry full of bleeding-edge technology. That’s a long-term payoff and I don’t think you can find anything short-term we’ve got to change in general

It’s no secret that a lot of people are struggling with driver recruiting these days – even the White House is talking about it and they’re putting out apprenticeship programs. The funny thing is that the same strategies are there for most people from a recruiting standpoint – providing the best equipment and more home time than anybody. It really comes back to us as an industry to make the shift to elevate the job. We’ve got to look throughout the industry, see where the bottlenecks are, and  as an industry come together to solve these issues, otherwise, we’re gonna have supply chain constraints for the next however many years.

As an industry, we’ve got to get more bleeding-edge technology, we’ve got to value the employees that are already there, we’ve got to be able to attract new talent – into the office and into the seat – and we’ve got to make everyone work together.

That’s the other thing – as a company we’ve got to make sure everything in the office is in service of that driver because drivers are servicing our country. That also has to take into account safety and you cannot compromise just because we’re feeling the pressure of our customers and because everybody has loads on the dock. Our safety practices have to be as good or even better than they’ve ever been. So, really, I think it’s about holding ourselves to a higher standard as an industry just all across the board.

I think we’ve all become accustomed to two-day shipping from Amazon and often don’t understand how things get to us, especially when there are delays. If you could impart a lesson to folks about truck drivers and their role in the industry, what would it be?

Imagine being over the road away from your family for two weeks at a time, not in your bed.

Imagine a cold snowy night, and the only thing you can think about is being back home next to your family or nervous about where you’re going to pull off, because every lot’s full and you’re coming up and your hours of service are winding down.

Then there’s the motoring public that are breaking right in front of you. And you know  if you accidentally hit that car then people will think you were distracted by your phone. 

 So you just think about the millions of decisions that these people have to make every day to keep us safe while on the road, while also managing the expectations from hours of service from safety. 

And it’s easy to get distracted in our cars, right? I know, when I drive from here to the office, I’ve got a thousand things on my mind and  it’s tempting to pick up that phone and text or it’s tempting to make that phone call. 

And you know those tight turns you make in your car? Well, they’re doing it with 53 feet, right and that is a hard job. It demands a lot out of them. And as a president of this company, and CFO, I honestly wish I could pay them 20%, 30%, 40% more. The problem is that there’s this grand balance of things and in order to do that, I’ve got to get my customers to pay more. But if I do that above my peers then I won’t get the loads anymore and I won’t have anything to pay the driver. 

And so for the most part, drivers are underpaid. They’re overworked. And it’s just not a job that most people would jump toward. There’s some drivers that do love the life on the road, so I don’t want to paint it as all negative because there is still that sense of American adventure out there and getting out over the road, seeing the country and all that. But at some time you got to get in the city and deliver that load too so it’s not all just shooting down the highway. 

Again, it comes back to empathy. Would you do the job? And if not, why? Well, they deal with that every day. 

They have to deal with it so we don’t have to.

Right. Exactly. 

That’s a great place to leave it today, Ryan. Thanks for joining us today on EKA Insights and for your time.

Thanks so much, I appreciate it.

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