The passing of a change agent

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It will happen to all of us that at some point. You get tapped on the shoulder and told not just that the party's over, but slightly worse: The party's going on, but you have to leave.” –Christopher Hitchens, noted essayist, journalist, and war correspondent, prior to his death from esophageal cancer this year

It’s an inelegant term at best, “change agent,” but it really does fit the late Pat Quinn, co-founder, co-chairman, and president of trucking conglomerate U.S. Xpress Enterprises, who sadly passed away December 13 this year after a long battle against brain cancer.

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Quinn (at right) – along with his long time business partner, fellow U.S. Xpress co-founder and co-chairman Max Fuller – in many ways helped reshape the trucking business, as they were some of the first executives to make a huge push into the world of in-cab communications and deliberately focus on recruiting more women to enter the truck driving career.

[You can view more photos of Quinn over his career in trucking by clicking here.]

Indeed, U.S. Xpress now employs about 1,000 women drivers – more than three times the industry average – and has gone so far as to make spec’ing changes to its trucks to accommodate them.

In fact, I remember covering U.S. Xpress’ forays into the world of automated mechanic transmissions (AMTs) 15 years ago in my junior reporter days not only to make the truck driver’s job simpler and easier by eliminating the need to shift gears, but also as a way to make it less daunting to female applicants.

[Providing more information electronically to drivers also remains an ongoing stratagem at U.S. Xpress. Below, Dale Langley, CIO, and Tim Leonard, CTO and VP of IT, discuss how U.S. Xpress continues to push the electronic data boundaries but saves a lot of money at the same time, too.]

Quinn in particular spent the second decade or so at U.S. Xpress looking for ways to elevate the truck driving profession, helping to develop what eventually became National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, now an annual event in the U.S. geared to celebrating the work of truck drivers throughout the country.

“Early on, we knew the industry needed to change its approach to drivers,” Fuller told me in a recent interview. “We needed to make drivers excited to be a part of the trucking industry and Pat really took that to heart.”

Fuller made no bones to me about how Quinn served as the “people person” for U.S. Xpress over the years, dealing with customers and performing a variety of public outreach efforts, while Fuller concentrated on sharpening the carrier’s inner workings in terms of spec’ing trucks, establishing routes, etc.

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“At the end of the day, [trucking] really is a people business,” he told me. “How you deal with people – be they customers or drivers – is what’s going to make you or break you down the line. Pat really believed in that and it’s what helped us be a success.”

They must’ve done something right, for U.S. Xpress has grown from a very humble start with just 48 trucks into a billion-dollar 8,500 truck behemoth over the last quarter century – surviving and thriving in some of the most tumultuous times in trucking’s history.

Fuller (on the right in the photo at left, with Quinn during U.S. Xpress' 25th anniversary celebration) and Quinn’s partnership survived and thrived as well over the last 25 years, too; something due in large measure to “old school” business leadership principles, Fuller told me.

“When we started out, we both recognized that the two of us could not make every decision – and that neither one of us would always be right,” he said. “The most important principle we shared is that egos have no place in business – you can have one at home, but don’t take it to work.”

Fuller explained that both he and Quinn agreed from the outset that what would be best for the company would be their ultimate objective in terms of addressing any number of business issues.

“At the start of all of this, we had two families that relied on us to make this business successful,” Fuller noted. “So we agreed from the outset that whatever decisions we made would be the best ones for the company, not for either of us individually.”

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[Indeed, both of their families remain intertwined with the company. Quinn’s oldest daughter, Lisa Pate, currently serves as executive VP and general counsel for U.S. Xpress, while his son, Brian Quinn, is the VP and GM the carrier’s international business unit.]

Fuller related that this central tenant of their joint business philosophy produced some interesting differences in their management styles. Known for being the more reserved and quieter of the two, Fuller freely admits to “being like a bull in a china shop” when he felt the company needed to make investments or engage new strategies. Quinn, by contrast, proved far more conservative, despite being the more gregarious of the pair, Fuller noted.

“He was far slower to pull the trigger than I am, but that helped create a very unique mix of operating styles for us,” he explained. “It made us slow down and really think about what we were doing, rather than just jump in and follow what other carriers might be doing.”

Quinn’s background as a lawyer helped as well along this line, as it allowed him to make carefully reasoned arguments for or against business decisions the two contemplated, Fuller told me.

It also helped Quinn handle a lot of larger industry issues during his tenure as chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) from 2001 to 2002 and chairman of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) from 2005 to 2007 – an ATA post extended for a year when then-incoming Clarence James “Mac” McCormick III died in a plane crash.

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Fuller believes, however, that perhaps Quinn’s biggest contribution to this industry – and one that will significantly affect its future – stems from his two-year stint with the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission that began back in 2006.

“He was initially the only ‘trucking’ person on that commission when it started, and he helped make decisions that probably won’t be felt by this industry for decades,” Fuller explained.

“He was really focused on trying to help lay the foundations for trucking to evolve and remain viable over the next 50 years or so,” Fuller added. “It’s why I always called him an ‘agent of change’ because he knew we – and the industry as a whole – needed to change in positive ways in order to survive. He also wanted the best for the entire industry through his commission work, too – not just for U.S. Xpress.”

Indeed, like other trucking titans that passed on in recent years – such as J. B. Hunt and Russ Gerdin at Heartland Express – Pat Quinn’s work both within the halls of U.S. Xpress and for the industry as a whole, will live on for a very long time to come.

“To me, Pat was more than a friend,” Fuller concluded. “He was a true partner and, most importantly to me, Pat was family. Pat left an indelible mark on U.S. Xpress and our industry. He will be missed.”

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