Shelley Simpson is executive vice president, chief marketing officer and president of integrated capacity solutions and truckload for J.B. Hunt. Earlier this year, she received the Women In Trucking Association’s Distinguished Woman in Logistics Award for 2016 Her business unit is now in the top five of third party logistics companies in the trucking industry, according to WIT. We talked to her in May. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
HDT: Congratulations on receiving the Women In Trucking Association’s Distinguished Woman in Logistics Award. What does this award mean to you?
Simpson: I’ve been with the organization for 22 years and have seen the industry change so much. Where before many of us females didn’t know there could be a great career inside transportation and logistics, we now realize that there are opportunities for really anyone. So it’s always nice to show potential people that might be interested in this segment that you can have a great career in transportation and logistics, just as with other organizations. I think we’ve moved perception from this being just trucking into so much more.
HDT: How did you get into trucking?
Simpson: [Laughs] Well, that’s an interesting story. I was graduating from college in marketing and was going to be your local State Farm agent. I had a gentleman in one of my classes tell me he got a job at J.B. Hunt in the marketing department. I was like, "What do you mean, marketing? It’s trucking.” I was working at a preschool in college making $5.25 an hour and I thought this would be a great transitional job — it paid $2 more an hour. I was just going to come there for the summer.
HDT: Obviously it ended up being much longer! What made you stay?
Simpson: I think it’s so important for so many people that great mentors come along in their career. Sometime that summer the VP called me in and asked me about my career ambitions and said he thought I could have a good career in sales. That’s the first time I thought, there’s something more to this company. I had seen the corporate environment and loved the family atmosphere here inside J.B. Hunt.
So often when we’re young in your career, we lack vision. The sooner our leaders can help connect them to the vision, [the sooner] it can help connect them to a long term career.
HDT: Of course the company has grown and changed since then. What has that been like from your perspective?
Simpson: We’re a very entrepreneurial organization, obviously founded by an entrepreneur, but the company has moved from product-focused, from moving loads from a to b, to really thinking about solutions for our customers. We’ve become very solution-oriented to think about how the goods or services move all the way to final consumption… this has really changed our view of the type of work that we do.
HDT: You have basically moved up though the ranks over the years.
Simpson: I have. I really believe a lot in mentoring. I’ve had a lot of really great mentors along the way ... a lot of people that allowed me to think about how I integrate my priorities in life. I met my husband here, started a family here, all while trying to maintain a good career, and I had mentors professionally and personally. How do I think about being a new mom in the workplace, how do I balance. I stepped back and went part time from 2003 to 2005, and that probably glued me to the organization in a way most people can’t understand, because I really saw the company understanding the value of me personally and not just professionally. It made me think that they really care that I am healthy across the board.
HDT: I know a lot of women, in fact a lot of people in general, would be afraid stepping back like that would affect their career.
Simpson: I felt so fortunate an organization would be willing to do that. When I came back to work … the team was happy to have me back on board. As i’ve gotten older I realize we all go through seasons in life where those competing priorities make it difficult, that's men and women, and any time you can be in an organization that realizes you’re more than just what the company needs, that the company wants you in the company long term and wants you happy long term.... I don't think a lot of people would think that about a “trucking” company — although we are not just a trucking company anymore, we are a transportation and logistics company.
HDT: Although it started in trucking, I know today that’s just part of what J.B. Hunt does.
Simpson: We do quite a bit of truckload business. When I started, the asset-based business was much larger, but today we’ve evolved into doing different services. We split into four different business segments. Moving on the rail is a big part of what we do; it’s better for customers and for the environment. But we still employ thousands of truck drivers. We do our own dray work on the intermodal side and have trucks and trailers in dedicated and trucking business. The irregular route business, we do less of that, but brokerage has become a large part of the business as well. Owning all the assets might not make sense for us. We want to do the right business for those assets and complement that with the right business [hauled by] other people.
HDT: Tell us a little bit about your current position: vice president, chief marketing officer and president of integrated capacity solutions and truckload.
Simpson: I love all of it. I’m not unlike a lot of people here with a passion and love for our company, and long careers here. I am [one of the youngest on] our executive leadership team. So I think inside the organization people just understand who we are and how we do business.
I think the fun part is articulating our vision and strategy to our employees. It’s really the sales and marketing for our organization, how we grow our organization.
We doubled our revenue from 2009 to 2014. We really want to triple our revenue. We spend a lot of time with our customers understanding what they need and how we can provide the right answers. That’s one component of what i do. I also lead the truckload — the asset-based part — and ICS, the non asset-based. When I started in ICS that became our fourth business segment. I was on the front end of starting our brokerage and logistics segment, in my first executive role. in 2011 I added the marketing role and two and a half years later truckload. It makes sense: The type of business we do between the truckload and ICS complement each other and how we manage that for our customers.
HDT: So if you’re focusing on providing solutions rather than the equipment…
Simpson: We really can give them the best answer. If our team brings in enough opportunities for us to look at, then figuring out what best fits our own assets along with other peoples’ assets becomes much easier. The other component is we … can look at what part of that business can move to dedicated or intermodal though other parts of our organization.
HDT: What are you proud of having accomplished there?
Simpson: I think that our model is a very diversified model. That’s not something I did; I’m just proud to be part of the company. We constantly evolved, reinvented ourselves. How do we innovate more and more for our customers, allowing growth. That’s not something I uniquely did, but being part of that is exciting.
HDT: Overall, what do you see as the biggest challenges the transportation and logistics industry faces?
Simpson: Certainly we always are thinking about government regulations. [Mandatory electronic logging devices] are coming next year that I believe will have a pretty big impact on the industry. We have to think about how we prepare for that, but anytime governmental regulations come into play it’s something we have to think about.
Certainly intermodal has changed the way we do business, and I believe it can continue to. There are still millions of loads moving on the highway that really need to move into intermodal. That’s one of the things we're focused on, is how we educate more of our shippers.
Industry wise, certainly the driver shortage is a constant discussion for us, how do we make this a better job, with more home time, better pay — and I would say more consistent pay is important as well. What do we need to do to attract new applicants?
HDT: In a 2014 article, you were characterized as having a passion for diversity. Tell me more about how you see a diversified team, the benefits, the challenges.
Simpson: I do have a passion for diversity … and the ideas and the culture and different backgrounds that we can bring into a team to create a great answer. It’s really about how I build a team with different strengths, from different backgrounds, you get better ideas and thought leadership.
Diversity absolutely has a bottom line impact. We speak 23 languages; that’s just one example of how we use diversity to push our business forward. It’s not just gender or ethnicity; it’s really much broader than that.
HDT: Tell me about GROW, which the company introduced last year and which I understand was largely your brainchild.
Growing and Retaining Outstanding Women (GROW) is around 400 members today, and it’s not intended only for females. It’s about growing women inside our organization. GROW has four pillars: Recruiting and retaining women, professional development, community involvement, and collaboration and connection.
HDT: Specifically looking at women, what challenges do they face in this industry?
I think a lot of it comes down to competing priorities. I’ll speak from an office employee standpoint; obviously there’s a different challenge in the driving part. Trying to balance out everything that’s competing in your life.
But also you have to learn how, when you’re one of very few women in a meeting, whether it’s a business meeting with a customer or in your own organization, how do you connect and create value. I’m now the older woman that mentors and I find it interesting often that younger employees starting fresh in their careers have the same questions as someone who’s been with he company 10 or 20 years. They’re thinking about the family, about making the blend happen. and not give up too much along the way. Having a great career and having a great family … how do you make connections happen?