Richard Stocking has held many titles at Swift Transportation Co. – so many, in fact, he’s not sure of the number.
He started as a customer service representative almost 25 years ago and then served as a planner, driver leader, operations manager, area sales manager, terminal leader, regional operations leader and regional sales leader. He headed Swift’s Trans-Mexico division and was an executive vice president and chief operating officer.
As of Jan. 1, the 46-year-old will become the sole chief executive of Phoenix-based Swift after the retirement of industry stalwart Jerry Moyes. It’s a job that Stocking has worked toward since joining the trucking company in 1992. Meanwhile, he is sharing the title with Moyes.
Stocking, who attended college but didn’t graduate, touts his “Swift education” and his relationships within the company as reasons he’s looking forward to taking the reins as his mentor steps aside.
“I feel a lot of passion and connection to this organization because of all of those experiences,” Stocking told Trucks.com.
He will become head of a business that Moyes started in 1966 with one tractor-trailer and now boasts 18,000 trucks, 60,000 trailers, 16,000 drivers and 5,000 owner-operator affiliates. With more than $4 billion in annual sales, the business is the fifth-largest trucking company by revenue, according to the Journal of Commerce, which includes the U.S. Postal Service in its rankings.
Stocking takes over Swift at what’s proving to be a difficult time for the trucking industry.
Freight volumes are down, decreasing carriers’ ability to set prices. Line-haul prices – charges by carriers that often include a fuel surcharge – fell 2.8 percent year-over-year in August after decreases of 1.8 percent in July and 1.6 percent in June, according to Cass Information Systems, an industry research firm.
Analysts at Avondale Partners said prices would fall 1 percent to 3 percent in the fourth quarter as demand continues to soften. Swift’s second-quarter earnings report reflects the declining volumes and prices as operating revenue year-over-year fell 4.5 percent to $1.01 billion.
Stocking acknowledged the soft freight volumes facing the industry, but said that doesn’t change his plans to grow Swift. Companies can’t expect to only expand when times are good, he told Trucks.com.
“We have to grow no matter what economy we’re in,” he said. “We need to grow our margins, our income, our shareholder value and grow jobs as much as we can. I’m not a gloom-and-doom guy. I think we can be successful no matter what economy we’re in.”
He’s optimistic that volumes will improve in coming months and years. In the meantime, however, the company must be “very disciplined and make proper decisions” and have enough flexibility to adapt to a slow economic environment.
Making good corporate decisions, controlling costs and employing a strong and loyal workforce will be key to the company’s continued success, Stocking said.
John Larkin, an analyst at Stifel Transportation & Logistics Research Group, said while the industry faces challenges, Swift is in a better position than most to handle them.
“The headwinds are more industry headwinds than Swift specific,” he said, citing the company’s strong service record and leadership as reasons the company will remain competitive in a difficult environment.
Along with the tough economic environment for trucking, Stocking will have to work in the shadow of Moyes, who leaves a legacy as a larger-than-life figure within the industry for building Swift from one truck to the behemoth it is today.
One of his biggest challenges is overcoming corporate governance issues created by Moyes, including the outgoing CEO’s use of his Swift shares as collateral against loans and the company’s so-called dual-class stock system, which allows Moyes to maintain voting control because of his position as the company’s founder.
“Stocking may not have the authority that a CEO normally has because he’s in the shadow of Moyes,” said Michael Pryce-Jones, senior governance analyst at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “Preventing meddling down the line by Moyes is going to be a key issue. The board is walking a tightrope right now.”
The company’s board of directors could help Stocking by adding independent directors and ensuring Moyes doesn’t have the power to interfere with any decisions the incoming CEO makes, Pryce-Jones said.
Coming Tuesday: Feisty Swift Transportation CEO Jerry Moyes steps down
Stocking must also deal with a slew of government regulations that are coming down the road in the next two years.
Speed limiters and electronic logbooks, mandated under new government rules, will strain the industry over the next 12 to 24 months, Stocking said. The new rules will increase costs and slow down vehicles, making it harder for trucking companies to get shipments across the country.
Although he can’t control the economic environment or the regulations the company must adopt, Swift can do something about another major issue facing the trucking industry – finding enough drivers to move the freight.
It’s difficult to draw millennials to the industry, Stocking said, but Swift is being proactive in its attempts to recruit workers, and that goes well beyond paychecks.
“We have to show them what a great opportunity it is and that they can have a wonderful career as a truck driver,” he said. “We have to have predictability in home time. The younger drivers – they value home time as much as they do pay.”
It’s also a period of rapid technological change.
Although Stocking says such advances as fully autonomous trucks are still decades away, rapidly improving technology will help the industry.
“Our goal is to deliver a better life to employees by using technology,” he said. “We have advanced collision-avoidance systems, trucks with 12-speed automatic transmissions, even recorders in trucks that can mitigate or exonerate them in case of issues on the road.”
Technology also can be used to recruit young people to the driver’s seat, Stocking said.
Connectivity in the truck so they can stay in constant contact with their families is important to young drivers who don’t want to feel isolated. Ensuring safety, which can be advanced using technology, is another important factor for millennials considering a career in the industry.
Offering shorter routes for those who don’t want to be on the road as much, offering opportunities for husband-and-wife driving teams, and making the industry more attractive to female drivers are all initiatives the company has worked on, Stocking said.
“If they want to stay close to home, we have those opportunities,” he said. “If a driver’s wife wants to be trained so they can be on the road, we have those opportunities. There are a plethora of opportunities to choose from. It’s like trying to play all the keys on a piano.”
Advancement opportunities are another draw for would-be drivers, Stocking said. Swift puts an emphasis on finding ways for quality employees to move up in the company, something he can attest to as evidenced by his ascension to chief executive.
He wants to foster strong leaders. The more training and education an employee receives, the more knowledge he or she will have of the company and the industry.
Stifel’s Larkin said he believes Stocking is genuine in his belief that the best way to move a company forward is by hiring and retaining quality employees.
“We want to cultivate leaders on the front line who understand our corporate goals,” he said. “You set those goals, and you help people believe in and execute them. You have a strong sense of accountability to those processes and goals. That’s how you move a company forward no matter what kind of environment you’re in.”
Stocking said he’s looking forward to running the company for which he’s worked for nearly 25 years.
He said he’s optimistic about its future and expects freight volumes to return to normal, and sincerely believes that with advanced technology in the trucks, millennials will be drawn to the industry, which will alleviate stress on capacity.
“I think we’ll have a fairly good peak season between now and the end of the year,” he said. “I’m hopeful it will build in 2017, and we’ll be able to continue to win and gain market share if the economy gets better.