For the second time this year, a large and venerable truckload and logistics carrier with powerful family connections has tapped a highly regarded executive in his mid-40s, and outside of the family orbit, to run the business.
Late yesterday, Phoenix-based Swift Transportation Co., the country's largest truckload carrier by sales, named Richard Stocking, its president and COO since 2010, to become co-CEO with founder Jerry Moyes, who announced he will retire Dec. 31. The two will share the CEO role for the rest of the year, though Stocking has immediately assumed all day-to-day responsibilities, Swift said. Effective Jan. 1, Moyes, 72, who founded Swift in 1966, will become its chairman emeritus and a member of its board.
The Swift announcement comes almost four months ago to the day that Omaha-based Werner Enterprises Inc., a company dominated by the founding Werner family for 60 years, named Derek J. Leathers, who had been president and COO, to the CEO's role. Weathers succeeded founder Clarence L. Werner, who had come out of retirement the year before to run the company after the retirement of his son, Gregory.
The parallels between Stocking and Leathers are striking. Both are 46. Both spent years climbing their firms' corporate ladders; Stocking started at Swift in 1992; Leathers joined Werner in 1999. Both succeeded aging titans who entered the trucking field before it was deregulated in 1980, and each of whom started their companies with one truck that they drove. Stocking and Leathers could have written their tickets anywhere in trucking, but chose to stay with their long-term employers. Both represent the new wave of U.S. trucking leadership: executives who know nothing of regulatory protection and everything about a fiercely competitive open market.
Stocking and Leathers are "the two top leaders in the truckload space right now," said C. Thomas Barnes, president of logistics technology firm project44 and the former president of Con-Way Multimodal, which booked billions of dollars a year of freight with multiple modes, especially truckload carriers. The old Con-Way unit is now part of Greenwich, Conn.-based XPO Logistics Inc., which one year ago today announced it had bought the parent company for $3 billion.
Other trucking executives have followed similar paths. Michael Gerdin succeeded his late father, Russell, the late founder of North Liberty, Ia.-based truckload carrier Heartland Express Inc., as its chairman and CEO. Paul Will succeeded the late Stephen Russell as CEO of Indianapolis-based Celadon Group Inc., a truckload carrier which Russell founded. The four CEOs "collectively represent the generational shift taking place within truckload and in transportation broadly," said Benjamin J. Hartford, transportation analyst for Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., an investment firm.
Stocking was considered a virtual shoo-in for the top job at Swift, and his ascension was just a matter of waiting for Moyes to retire. As president and COO, he oversaw solid growth in the company's core truckload segment, especially in the turbulent years following the Great Recession. Stocking is known as being very process oriented, with a sharp focus on eliminating waste. From the end of 2010 through the second quarter of 2016, Swift's debt levels have been cut in half, according to Baird data.
"Moyes was a visionary, as is Stocking. But they have different types of visions," said an industry executive, who asked to remain anonymous. Moyes' vision, and the strategy that accompanied it, may not be in step with what Swift needs to compete in today's market, the executive said.
Stocking takes the reins during another difficult period for freight transport providers. In its third-quarter update, released today, Swift said that contract pricing for truckload services remains weak, while overall revenue, excluding the impact of diesel-fuel surcharges, is down 2.5 percent year over year. Refrigerated transport and intermodal loads continued to be flat to down. The segment dedicated to services for specific shippers was the only relative bright spot. Despite the seemingly subpar data, John G. Larkin, lead transport analyst at investment firm Stifel Financial Corp., said the numbers actually came in better than expected.
Moyes, who grew Swift into a giant partly through the acquisition of 13 trucking firms since 1988, took the company public in 1990. He left the company in October 2005 after a Securities and Exchange Commission probe into alleged insider trading, in which Moyes did not admit or deny wrongdoing. In May 2007, Moyes took Swift private for $2.4 billion, only to take it public again three years later.
Today, Swift has nearly 20,000 trucks and about $4.2 billion in annual revenue.