Adjusting from one leadership to another is certainly hard for employees, but so much so for the leaders themselves. Inheriting a workplace culture calls for courage and patience, particularly if it is a horrible one. Steve Farber sits down with the top brass of Trailer Bridge, Inc., President/CEO Mitch Luciano and Vice President Indie Bollman, to share how they completely turned around their company’s dull and unproductive culture into a working and meaningful one. The two discuss how they got rid of the “rotten eggs” within the team and how the working environment shift impacted their revenue. They also talk about creating deep connections with employees by exceeding expectations in understanding and addressing their needs – even if it means installing an ice machine in the office.
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From Failure To Success: The Trailer Bridge Turnaround Story With Mitch Luciano And Indie Bollman
My guests are Mitch Luciano and Indie Bollman from a company called Trailer Bridge. Mitch is the President and CEO. Indie is the VP of Organizational Development with the HR Function and Leadership Development. Those are her bailiwicks. If you have followed me on social media or read my book, Love Is Just Damn Good Business, you will have heard about Trailer Bridge. I’ve talked about them extensively. I’ve written about them and done a couple of videos. They’re an incredible company. They do shipping and logistics out of Jacksonville, Florida and have been around for many years. They have made it on to Best Place To Work list. They come from a history that is less than stellar. Mitch, Indie and the team there have turned that company around and turned it into a phenomenal place to work and a place to do business with. We’ve got a lively conversation for you. We are talking about Love Is Just Damn Good Business at Trailer Bridge. Enjoy.
Thank you for having us.
People that have been following my work, been to our events before and have seen my social media stuff, likely they have heard the Trailer Bridge story, but I don’t want to assume that everybody has. I’d like to know it again because it’s an incredible story of a turnaround, evolution and resilience. You guys are such a great model of love, energy, audacity and proof of the Radical LEAP Framework in action. I’d love to know it again in your words. Mitch, let me start with you because you had jumped in the stream before Indie came along. Talk a little bit about those dark early days.
I joined Trailer Bridge and nine of us did back on November 9th of 2012. It was a Friday. We came on board as an ocean transportation company to drive their new logistics group. I came on as a VP of Logistics. Those first two years, I spent there were challenging. There was a time that somebody in the HR department asked me why am I smiling. My response is, “What are my options? Do you want me to walk around all pissed off at the world?” That was one example of many.
Did you get asked that question because smiles were not normally seen around there?
The people that had worked there for many years, their smiles were gone. Their concern every day was, “Is this going to be another day of layoffs or were they going to get cut back?” The biggest mistake most companies make is they cut the people who do the work instead of the people who sit above that. You get very little impact on the financials from cost savings, a huge impact from revenue. At that time, we had four different CEOs in my two years there, two as roles of consultants and two as actual CEOs. They all had a different philosophy and way of doing things. Three of the four commuted. They would come in from different parts of the country.
You they didn’t get to know the people on the weekends or build any relationship with the team. I remember sitting back going, “There’s no way. You can’t pull this off on a company that back in 2011 had filed bankruptcy and was in over $100 million of debt for a $100 million company. This won’t work.” These consultants are making their $30,000 a month and showing up on a Monday afternoon and leaving out on Thursday morning. It was difficult to watch and sit back.
How old was the company at that time?
It was incorporated in 1991, the first sale in 1992. Our company had gone through all kinds of changes in its past life from private to public to private. You name it. They went through it for such a small organization. It was shocking. It was dark times. There were lots of times that I sat at my desk. As a VP of Logistics, I sat on the floor so I got to hear things that were going on and it was challenging. There were many days where I go home and be like, “Did I find the right spot? I don’t think I found the right spot.” I wanted a place because in my personal life, I was going through some challenges. My ex and I were getting through a divorce. I wanted to find a place that I could focus on my kids and make sure they are the most important thing. I got this place that’s bringing me down too. I’m like, “What is going on?” We were fortunate that those nine people we had remained positive. We had a job to do. They only knew one thing and it was success. We were going to be successful in building out that logistics group and hopefully, that sets an example for other teams.
Was it as a result of what you did with the logistics group that the board came to you, tapped you on the shoulder and said, “How’d you like to be our next CEO?”
At that time, one of the interim CEO was still there. It was two years later, almost to a T. It was the Thanksgiving week in November of 2014. I’ll never forget, one of our chairmen called me and asked me a question about our ocean customer logistics that they want to get rid of it. I was like, “No, you don’t.” I gave him the reasons why. He goes, “Exactly.” I get the story now that some of the other board members were not in for it. They were like, “This is a logistics guy. I don’t know about this,” but our chairman was so adamant about it. He’s like, “What the hell do we have to lose?”
They called me when I was in California taking a break and they gave me a shot. I thought they were going to fire me. I was like, “They are going to fire me. They realize the logistics group runs great even without me.” They did it. They offered me the president’s role, reporting to the board, the chairman and to the interim CEO we had at the time. That was in November of 2014. In March of 2015 is when they let the CEO go and offered me that role. I said, “No, thank you.” They were stunned. They were upset. I was like, “This title has a bad reputation in this building. I don’t want the title because I have to continue to establish who I am with the rest of the company.”
You took on the function of CEO at that point, but not the title?
Not until December of 2015 is when they offered me a board seat and I said, yes. They said, “You have to be the CEO.” I’ll never forget. I was in New York City at a board meeting and I said, “I’ll have to think about it.” I walked out of the building, walking down Park Avenue, going to our hotel room. Our now chief financial officer looked at me and he goes, “What is wrong with you? What are you doing?” He said something that changed my mind. He goes, “If you don’t take it, these guys could put a CEO in over you.” I was like, “That’s a good point. I’m going to take this.” Do I want to be reporting to somebody else? No, I don’t want to do that. At that point, we had established some credibility with the Trailer Bridge team. That was very important to me. At that point, Indie, I believe you were on by then, in the middle of 2015. It took us a year. I kept saying it’s going to take us three years to establish trust and credibility. I thought it was a good time.
Indie, you came on board after Mitch had taken on the president role?
Given the history and past of the company, what was it about the opportunity for you that drew you in?
When Mitch and I first met and it was over a cup of coffee, I was looking for a new role. The Director of HR role is what I was looking for in the area. We met and it felt like if it was even five minutes that passed, I understood very clearly what he wanted to do. I understood the heart of the matter and how he wanted to accomplish it. I was jazzed about it and it seemed to work. I got him and I knew where he wanted things to go. I said, which was weird in an interview to say to someone, “I’m your girl. I think I’m the one.” Fortunately, he agreed not too long after.
In July of 2015 is when I joined as director of HR. I found out subsequently that there had been four HR directors in the previous four years. Not that it would have changed my mind, but you didn’t mention that, Mitch. I would say, “That’s okay.” I was undaunted and excited to see that roll out. I didn’t know the specifics of how we were going to do that, but I knew the impact that coming at a team and having leadership lead from the heart. I knew what that could do. I was excited to work somewhere that would let that go, let it fly and let it happen.
In that first meeting over coffee, you got what it was that he was trying to do. What was it that he was trying to do? How would you characterize that now?
He wanted to create a work atmosphere that people genuinely were happy and loved what they did. You can’t lose with that. That’s a win-win all the way around. It was not only an exciting and new industry for me, but I understood, “This is what this looks like. This is someone that wants to take a group of people.” He did tell me some of the history and where they were in terms of morale and some of the things that had happened with the company. To turn the company around, Mitch was very clear. He wanted to turn around how people felt about their jobs there every day. That was exciting stuff for me.
Mitch was the guy that people used to ask him, “What the hell are you smiling about?”There will always be some people who will refuse to change for whatever reason. Click To Tweet
I found out about that later too. He’s right. There were not a whole lot of smiles and laughter when I joined, even though, as he mentioned, he had begun to start the turnaround with a great group of core people. The team at large and the leadership philosophy hadn’t quite come together yet. I understood from him as well and in my early experience that it had to gel and work together. We started putting smiles on faces by focusing on the people.
To bring us up to speed on that story, there was a time to say that people were not happy in their jobs and did not love working there is an understatement. That’s where a smile was something to be called out. Mitch, you’ve given the opportunity to take the helm because part of the motivation was, “What the hell do we have to lose? Give it to the logistics guy and let’s see what he can do.” From that outset, did you have it clear in your mind that when you were given the reigns as it were, that you knew exactly what you wanted to do with the culture or was it something that you grew into?
I knew the first thing we had to do was change the attitude and part of that was changing the people. That was going to be the number one thing. No matter what we did from a business principle aspect or marketing or customer acquisition, any of that stuff, I had to change the mindset of the people that sat in the room every single day and worked with customers and vendors. We had to bring some excitement. We joke about this, people had to feel like their job was sexy. We ship containers. How sexy is that? We had to find a way so they woke up in the morning and they were excited about going to work. We’ve all had that job where you wake up and you’re like, “Maybe I should call in sick. I really don’t want to do this.” I get them excited.
I’ll never forget because it was in Starbucks on 3rd Street in Jacksonville Beach. In five minutes, we both knew. She’s 100% correct. I told her, “You’re going to scare the hell out of these people. You’re going to come in with your bundle of energy and it’s going to scare them. I’m going to watch it and love it.” On her first day, “Everybody, how are you doing?” I was like, “Here it comes.” People were coming into my office like, “What is she doing? She’s an HR. Why is she so excited?”
“She’s making eye contacts.”
It’s like, “I got to run to the bathroom,” kind of thing. We knew that we had to change. In those first two years, we had 56% turnover of people. We knew we were going to have to do that because it was part of that, “That’s not the way we’ve done it.” My response every time was, “That drove you into bankruptcy. We have to do things differently.” They always said, “How do you know this is going to work?” I was like, “I know that if I have happy employees, happy family and they see us all equal. No one is some CEO or president, I go out and have a beer or have lunch with them and everyone’s the same, then we will drive something special here.” It worked.
Indie, what I infer from what you said, given that they burned through four heads of HR in a short period of time before you got there, HR had a certain reputation inside the company and you didn’t fit the mold.
No, I didn’t. The mold was gossip and no smiles, as Mitch said. There was a lack of energy and I’m not sure people were excited about what they were doing and certainly not excited about what Trailer Bridge was about and how they service and take care of people. I’ve always seen the HR function as a service to employees. It’s there to help them. It’s not there to control or dictate. We’re not standing around with a little pad of making notes only. It’s the opposite. How do we take care of them and help drive that culture of them being happy at what they do and knowing that they have someone to go to?
There was some resistance early on with the existing staff at the time to make that change. They may have had many years of being used even way before Mitch joined the group being able to dictate and create, maybe even a little fear with some of the people that they were being watched and checked. I completely pulled that rug out from under everything and said, “No. We’re going to take care of them. We’re not here to get anyone in trouble. It’s not our function.”
Mitch, when you said, “We need to make this a place that people are excited about coming to work and they love working here. Smiles on their faces are more the norm versus the aberration.” What did you do to begin to change the mindset there?
One of the very first things we did and it was right after Indie had come on board because that first half of the year was trying to get to know the people. We asked them what they wanted from Trailer Bridge, “What is your expectation from Trailer Bridge?” They gave it to us and that became our TB12. Everyone thought that the executive sat in a room and came up with the TB12 and that wasn’t the case at all.
You set the values.
They are all over, in every single office we have and building, and that’s important to us. Some of the values connect more with others than other values. That’s the point. Not only what do you expect Trailer Bridge to do for you, but what do you need from us? I’ve joked about this before, the ice machine. It’s one of the very first suggestions we got. I’ll never forget, a couple of days went past and I’m asking around, “Does anyone have an ice machine yet?” No one did. I got online and I ordered the ice machine and we had it installed. That little nugget, no pun intended, was the key to the next step to like, “He fulfilled what he said he was going to do.”
I told all the leadership, “If you say you’re going to do something, you better do it because they’re watching us like a hawk. One mistake will set us back. We had to commit, but we also had to be upfront and say sometimes, ‘We can’t do that. This is impossible.’” We did little things like the new furniture that came in. I was like, “Cut down all the old, very high cube, can’t see anyone. They hide in there and they’re probably on the internet or I don’t know what they’re doing.” We cut down that. People were pissed about that, but now they love it because now they hang out with each other. They love the comradery right there. People wanted two computer monitors. I’m like, “Get them two computer monitors. Why is this such a big deal?” We did that.
We started with every little piece and it compiled. When they saw the results from a customer sending an email thanking them for the amazing things they’ve done, they’re like, “That’s cool. I like this.” I like the people I’m hanging out with. They get to set in interviews and also interview people, not just a manager. Other people get to make decisions on it. All those little pieces added up. We have been fortunate enough to be in the Best Place to Work. It’s incredible.
When you asked them, “What do you want from Trailer Bridge?” There are few things. First of all, that you guys were willing and eager to ask the question, which they had never been asked before. Also, there were two categories. One is the things that were important to them that led to the set of values and the other were tangible things like two computer monitors, an ice maker, different furniture and a place to hang out with each other. There are the material category and the values category. They’re related to each other because what you said is, “If we tell people we’re going to get them another computer monitor or an ice machine, we have to make sure that we do it,” like when we say what’s one of the TB12? Give me one example.
Honesty and integrity.
That’s an example of honesty and integrity. If we say that honesty and integrity are important and then I tell you, “We’re going to fulfill your deep profound desire for an ice machine, we’re going to make it happen.” What that’s doing is building credibility.
When I came on board, the ice machine issue had begun. I will never forget my first week, there was all this activity around this ice machine and I could not figure out what is going on with this ice machine. I found out later from Mitch that he had begun to open suggestions. As he mentioned, “Guys, wide open, tell us what you want. I can’t give you everything, but we’ll do what’s reasonable and seems to help the culture, the morale here and make this a better place.” Even when I came on board, the onslaught of suggestions was pages long and it took a while. To Mitch’s credit, he would go over every single one.
We had some humdingers which we won’t go over here. Wine and customer service Wednesdays. We had that one. He couldn’t say yes to all of them and I’m not even sure that mattered. What mattered was genuinely asking the question to hear the answer and when something was committed to, we did it. That continues now and that was a different subject than what are the attributes you want from leadership and from each other here. That formed the TB12.
On the one hand, in changing the whole experience of working there, changing the culture over time, there are these tangible things that you could point to, but did you ever lay it out as a spoken objective to the entire company? It says, “We want to change Trailer Bridge from X into Y or did you go about the work of doing it?”
It takes a little bit of both because every month we have townhalls. Within the townhall, we would outline some things we’re doing specifically to change the culture, the company, and the direction we’re heading. Did we ever come out with some big strategy business plan and release it to the employees? No. It’s pieces at a time and it was, what are we working on?
Talking about strategy or a business plan, it’s more of an intent. Did you ever state the intent that this is what you are trying to do?
We knew we had to change. Honestly, it was the fear. We knew that we’re fearful. Every day they came in, they wouldn’t voice their opinion sometimes because the previous leadership would ridicule them. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest idea, but it was some of the best opportunities. They don’t come across as the greatest idea and also, you’re like, “That could be special.” We did, but not in a broad blanket statement. It’s pieces at a time we would outline and tell them what we’re doing. We knew the culture sucked. We said that out loud. “We know many of you are looking for jobs right now.” I remember in one of those first townhalls I asked, “Give me a chance. If you don’t like it in the next 3 to 6 months down the road, then I will be more than glad to work with you on your exit strategy. I’m perfectly open to that, but at least give it a chance.”Happy employees equal happy customers equals happy owners. Click To Tweet
Did anybody leave?
There’s one townhall where I was like, “There are 3 or 4 of you, you know exactly who you are, that are rotten eggs in this building.” The very next day, one of them resigned. “Either you exit or I’m going to send you out soon.” We had some of those that knew they were not going to be part of the strategy going forward. It’s like, “This is not what I want.” They left on their own.
The broad sweeping intention was we want to win here. We have a great opportunity. We have enormous potential, but we’re not going to get there with the culture that we have now. The intention which he said clearly many times, “We have to be better and how we treat each other and how we treat our customers. We have to be better at the story that we tell to the market to who we are, what we stand for and that’s how we’re going to win and never go backwards.” I remember, Mitch, that was so clear and your messages when I joined, “This is how we’ve always done it. That doesn’t fly anymore. We’re moving forward. With a great amount of love, we want you all on board with us, please be with us because this is the direction we’re going in.”
With the so-called rotten eggs, I’m trying to imagine maybe it’s because I’m biased, maybe it’s because of my own perspective on the world. Why would anybody resist being a part of the culture that you were trying to create? Why would anybody resist building a place that people love working in? What’s going on with these people?
I’ve been asked that question a lot. Even to this day, there’s this rotten egg seat in our company and someone’s got to go sit in it. I’m like, “Why do you have to sit in there?” It doesn’t have to be filled. I want to get rid of the chair altogether, but someone always has to sit in it. It has nothing to do with Trailer Bridge. I hate saying this. I think some people are not happy with life. There are other parts of life and they don’t want to come up, “If I’m miserable, I want all of you to be miserable with me.” They then go, “This isn’t for me. These people are too happy. This drives me crazy.” I don’t know why people have to do that, but there are people in the world that have to do that. It’s the way it is.
There was a lack of trust. They saw this breath of fresh air, new ways that we’re doing things that were going about. I don’t think they were trusting that the leadership would see that through. They were thinking, “Maybe we’ll keep our head down and let this latest and greatest idea pass from people before all of us.” That’s another piece of doing what we said we were going to do. We had to build that trust.
One of the things that you guys did was encouraged the sharing of information versus the hoarding of information.
That was a big piece. A lot of people were hoarders and we’d ask them to put stuff on, “Do me a favor. Show me the process. Put it on a piece of paper,” and they wouldn’t do it. I was like, “If you don’t, I’m going to have to let you go and it’s going to be painful, but this isn’t rocket science here. You don’t have the secret recipe. We’ll figure this out.” We did that occasionally. That sent a clear message that even somebody who had several years at the company that had all this knowledge and was valuable because of only that one primary reason, they had all this in their head.
We were willing to take the risks to say it’s more important to us as an organization down the road that we work together and share instead of sitting in an office and hoard. There are several people that were very upset when we got rid of some key individuals, but it was always fine. Six or twelve months down the road, Indie and I would get these calls, “I was upset back then, but now that we are this far removed from it, what a great decision you guys made. Thanks.” I don’t take these lightly, but they saw it down the road and that meant a lot.
They saw us try very hard to get those people to be part of where we’re going. It wasn’t just, “Go.” It was, “We want this, all of you. We want to work together.” Ultimately, there were some people that were not going to change for whatever reason as we’ve already discussed.
It’s an important point because a lot of times when we talk about building an environment that people love working in, this whole Love Is Just Damn Good Business approach to things, the way some people interpret that is, “That means lowering our standards.” We want people to love working here. It’s like, “Everything’s cool. Do it however you want to do it as long as you’re happy.” What you’re talking about here is the tough love side of the equation. Yes, there’s love for individuals, but I could love you and fire you because my love for the organization is going to take precedence over your individual experience is what we’re trying to do together. Oftentimes, I would think that HR gets put in the tough love seat because of the nature of the HR work.
The overriding nature of our work is to support the employees there. Sometimes that includes helping them when they leave. One thing I’m very proud of is that we try hard in nearly every circumstance to help someone leave so that they don’t have a terrible transition. It’s only in difficult situations where we have few that we’re unable to help. For the vast majority of the time, we honestly love them right through, when they leave and try to help them as they transition out. Sometimes that’s the most loving thing to do. It doesn’t sound that way to most people until you look into it, because if someone is unhappy and they cannot thrive in the environment that you’ve created, they’re never going to thrive.
The decision comes whether by them or by leadership that, “This person is not going to be able to turn that engine on for us. They don’t believe in what we’re doing.” It’s heartbreaking to keep trying to have them succeed in an environment that they cannot. Even though feelings are hurt at that moment, to have them go find somewhere that they thrive and they’re happy, and there’s nothing wrong with that environment, it’s just not ours. It may not seem the best example to everyone else at that time, but to Mitch’s point, six months down the line, everybody is happier. The team is grateful that action was taken because it’s hard for them to watch too.
You said something about love and business. Some of the expectations go away. I don’t know why people think that because it’s the exact opposite. When people feel the love for each other, their expectations and accountability rise. People like, “I do not want to fail my teammates. I’m going to do more than I should and I don’t know why.” When I talk about this outside of Trailer Bridge, they’re like, “That’s all touchy.” I’m like, “No, it’s not because they don’t want to fail any of us.” No one wants to fail. They’re going to work twice as hard to get something done. If it means they’ve got to log in on a Saturday, they’re not complaining about it anymore, and all those little things. It’s because they know we care and we genuinely love them.
We’ve done a great job of establishing why we do what we do there, that it’s to serve people and each other within our offices and within the company, but also how we serve people through what our company does every day. All companies serve people in some way but getting clear on how ours does that is a big part of all of our training and bringing people on board at this point.
You said that people started to get notes from your customers. What was interesting about that to me is you’d been talking about the changes that you made internally with developing your values, making sure that people are heard and getting what they need, and having a free forum to express their ideas and ask for the things, etc. You didn’t say anything about what you did specifically for customers. You said that they started to get notes from customers. What’s the connection between what you were working on internally and the experience that your customers have?
I change it up every time a little bit, but happy employees equals happy customers, equals happy owners and good results. It’s basic and simple and we use this example all the time. When you’re calling your credit card company or your cable company and you get that person on the other end of the phone, you know within the first five seconds of interacting with them, whether they like their job or not or at least they pretend they like their job. You can hear and feel that smile on their face. We knew if that had to build that culture of genuine love and positivity inside a Trailer Bridge and people are attracted to that.
Customers are making decisions going, “Maybe Trailer Ridge is a little more expensive than their competition.” For 3% points, “Do I want to deal with John Smith over at the competition or do I want to deal with Ann Jones at Trailer Bridge?” I was like, “I want to deal with Ann Jones.” They go the extra mile. Trailer Bridge used to be the company of, “No.” It was very specific what we did. I said, “No more noes.” If you don’t have the answer, we may go back and say, “We’re not able to do that.” Every anything the customer needs, we will find a solution because this is what we do.
Give me an example. What was a fairly typical no that you had to say to people in the old days?
“Is there any way you can pick up the shipment tomorrow morning at 9:00, instead of tomorrow at 4:00?” We have drivers. There are some physical limitations for a driver to get to certain locations sometimes. Maybe he couldn’t be there at 9:00, but maybe that driver can be there at 1:00. You can offer that or we have this logistics group over here that we created. Maybe we can pick up the shipment with a different driver, bring it into Jacksonville and then put it in one of our containers. There are solutions. “No, we can’t do that,” turns into, “If you want our driver to be the one to pick it up, we can be there at 1:00 or we can get there at 9:00 in the morning, but it’s not going to be one of our drivers. It can be a contracted driver. We’re going to bring it into Jacksonville and put it in our container.”
The nuance of no is so much easier sometimes, but that wasn’t an opportunity. Customers start paying attention and listening. We expand that out into customer outings, getting to know people and getting to know them personally. We built an account manager program where you know not just their name, you know their spouse’s name, their dog’s name, their kid’s name, their birthday. You know everything about that person. The first two minutes of conversation should be about how their daughter’s volleyball game went and not about work, unless they’re busy and they will get right to work. Get to know them. That’s your extended family as well and that’s what made a difference.
I’d like you to tell me this story. I’ve heard this story before, and it’s one of my favorites if you recall. It’s the story of something about going somewhere for a job interview?
That was a young man with a car.
There’s a lot of the population from Puerto Rico that moves to the States. The gentleman had interviewed for a job over the phone. I don’t know that he ever traveled here and he got the job. He had to move his car and his personal belongings, which he put in a suitcase from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville. He paid $250 to Trailer Bridge to move the car up. He got his car, drove Orlando for his first day of work. He got to work and they said, “We’re sorry. We rescinded the offer. We couldn’t get ahold of you.”Always find a solution to anything the customer wants. Click To Tweet
That was all the money he had. He had nothing left. He had to move back to Puerto Rico, but he needed his car and he showed up back in at the front desk. He was like, “I had my car shipped from Puerto Rico up here.” This was 3 or 4 days later. “I need to have it shipped back.” Shipping things South is a lot more expensive than shipping things North. Our typical car rate is $800. They quoted him $800 not knowing the story. There’s somebody down there and they started talking to him and he shared his story.
That person immediately came up to my office and said, “This young kid downstairs shipped his car with us. He’s got to go back. He has no money. You could tell he was destroyed. He has a dream to find a good job in Orlando.” I was like, “Ship the car back for free.” She looked at me and goes, “Are you serious?” I said, “You told me he had no money. What am I going to do? Charge him $50? If he has no money, we have to trust him. What is the difference to us if we have space? To him, it gets him home. It gets his car home, which he’s probably going to need for another job in Puerto Rico.” It’s not the first time and hasn’t been the last time we’ve done stuff like that. It’s was the right thing to do. That’s one of the things we always preach to people. Sometimes it’s not the easiest thing, but it’s the right thing.
Have you ever heard back from him or his family after he made it back to Puerto Rico?
When they got down there, his mother contacted somebody down in Puerto Rico and was incredibly thankful for what we did for her son.
You said that nowadays people pay an extra few percentage points to work with Trailer Bridge. In the old days, you guys were like the discount place because that was the only way to get the business or what?
The reason they went into bankruptcy was it was more important to fill up the barge with containers than get the right rate for the container. We changed that model immediately.
I want to jump forward for a little bit and then I want to back up again. If I’m putting all this together and I don’t know the statistics, the numbers of what’s happened to Trailer Bridge, I’m going to guess if you’re charging more than you used to and you’re getting these great customer responses that it’s showing up in the bottom line, it’s showing up in the numbers. Spell that out for us. What happened after you started working on changing the culture, the customer experience, and the employee experience. How did it show up in the Trailer Bridge balance sheet as it were?
As an organization, we had some amazing years there. 2017, 2018, 2019 were killer. The best three years greater than all the years combined previously. The years were that good. The revenue did grow a ton. It grew a little bit but it gave us the opportunity, the profits were there, to reinvest into Trailer Bridge and grow logistics and start these. We have a government division. We have an NVOCC which is an international freight broker. Our logistics group has grown tremendously over the past few years. The ocean business is our stable stock and the heart of who we are. That’s what I always say, “Puerto Rico ocean is the heart of who we are.” We’ve grown our Dominican business.
We have a New Mexico division. All these things have transpired because we became profitable. We pay down our debt. We have zero debt. We have a ton of cash on the balance sheet. It’s like, “I’m spending money as fast as I can to grow these other businesses and I keep going.” The number hasn’t changed, it’s the same amount of cash. I’m like, “We’re making money over here to grow these ones over here.” Indie and I got the great opportunity to sit down with the executive team, going over a plan for $750 million in revenue in four years. A few years ago, we were a $110 million company with 110 employees.
Now we’re on a run rate of $220 million with 220 employees. We doubled in size in four years. We built a balance sheet foundation and financials that’s rock solid. The point where people don’t understand even 2020, I have one owner and I love talking to him because he’s always telling me, “I own several other businesses and I’m telling you, they’re not making money. It’s 2020 and you’re making money. I’m impressed with what you guys are doing.” He was fascinated with what we did and how we did it. I’ve been asked this question several times. My answer is always the same, “We went into 2020 with a solid foundation and a culture of caring.” When we went isolated and there are offices in their homes and stuff, work from home, we already had it. It wasn’t a challenge for us to do this and continue to work with people. I know you asked about the balance sheet. It’s fantastic. It’s impressive.
Indie, you have had several awards now recognized in Jacksonville and other places as the Best Place To Work.
We have had a couple of number ones as Best Place to Work. In 2020, we were the Best Place to Work in Jacksonville, and also at Inc.com, we were one of their Best Places to Work as well. We have some other things. We’ve won some wellness awards and things like that. We got number one in Ocean Carrier for 2019. That was a big one. We are proud of that. To Mitch’s point, we had that solid foundation which all began with paying attention to your people and what they need. That carried us through a difficult year. Our hearts went out to all the people in the businesses that have had challenges in 2020. Pedal to the metal we said, “We’re going to come out this the other side bigger and better because we’re going to keep investing in our people and in the growth of the company,” and here we are.
How much of the workforce is working from home nowadays versus coming into the office?
Some teams have to like our mechanics, they can’t be a mechanic from home. That skews the numbers, but about 50/50.
Are you having to do anything different or turn up the heat on certain things in order to keep the connection and the culture vibrant while people are spread out?
It’s staying connected. We knew in the beginning that a lot of people that were going to work from home have never done it before unless you know how to do this, you got to have some discipline, get up, take that shower, put on your work clothes. Not fully dressed like you’re going to the office, but get to that desk, get quiet space. I know it’s very difficult for a lot of people. A lot of moms and dads have kids that have to take care of. We knew that and we worked with them. We said, “We understand. We’re going to get you to support. We’re going to give your kids laptops.” Schools weren’t giving them out. We went and bought laptops because there are kids in our family that didn’t have those things. We wanted to take care of them and their families because you are worried about your family. If we help take care of their families, they’ll do a better job for you because then they have less worry on their plate.
What about from the training perspective? I know you got a lot of attention on training.
That’s one of the things that helped to assist and support the turnaround back in 2015. Shortly, after finding out what everybody was looking for in leadership and from each other, we started a very strong focus on training and development. That began with our leadership program, which Steve, as you know and thank you is foundational that they built on LEAP, Love, Energy, Audacity, and Proof. That is now and eight-month leadership development program, that’s Trailer Bridge’s program. That then led to many other training programs that we have, and that culture of getting or enhancing the skills.
When Mitch came on board, everybody was doing their own thing. We recognized early in 2015 that we need to come together and in one way, we’re going to do things. Mitch said, “Here’s my favorite book on leadership,” and it was yours. I read it and we developed the program and that’s going on still. In 2020, we put a little bit of a wrinkle in it because we chose not to do that virtually, but we’re picking that back up in 2021. That culture of training and that mindset of constantly developing, we didn’t slow down on that. In 2020, we were set to launch a large upskilling initiative throughout the entire company, identifying what each of our employees needed over the next four years. Mitch mentioned the business target that we want to hit in four years.
The executive leadership team, we all said, “We’ve got to get our people trained.” When you hire a lot of type A go-getters, they want to learn and grow. We have to grow and give them a place to grow, but we have to teach them too because they’re hungry for that top talent. They don’t want to sit still. At the beginning of 2020, we’re poised to launch this big company-wide upskilling initiative. As we all know, Mr. COVID showed up, but we decided to do it anyway. Right in the middle of everything going on, business is great.
We’re training people like crazy all over the place. The skillsets that were enhanced out of that were cool. We’ve seen a lot of changes with that. Just as important, the heartfelt feedback that we’ve gotten from the employees and what that meant to them to still feel invested in and cared for, even through time that they saw other loved ones, partners, friends and family that was struggling in workplaces, that we came about it the opposite. We were like, “We’re going to plow right through this.” I’m glad we did.
What strikes me in that what you guys are doing, it’s that combination of the tangible material and the relationship element. I’m still hearing both, “Some of our employees’ families didn’t have laptops for their kids to use who are now having to go to school at home so we got them for them.” That’s powerful and tangible. It’s something that I’ll never forget and, “We’re continuing our training, making sure that they’re supported and keeping people connected.” That’s more of the relationship and the skill side of things. It’s all the above versus just throw money or benefits at people. That’s a great thing, but in a vacuum, it’s nowhere near as meaningful as the way that you guys are approaching it.
At the beginning of COVID, one of the things I noticed in a lot of other companies was I saw leadership hiding because they didn’t know. What do you tell the employees? What do you say? They’re going to have questions. I don’t know what to do. They’re not coming out of the office or not communicating or sitting at home. We did the opposite. We were out front. We’re not changing. In March 2020, I went through all of them and said, “I know you have a lot of spouses and families been laid off. We’ve seen it happening in our industry a lot. I promise you all that unless you deserve to be terminated, I will not lay off a single employee up to July 1, 2020. I don’t know what’s going to happen between March 2020 and July 1, 2020. I make that promise to you. If we fight through this, we will be stronger on the backside of this than we’re on the front side of this.”
At the time I’m like, “I don’t know what this COVID thing is going to do to us. I don’t know how it’s going to tear us apart potentially, but we’re going to do everything we need to do to protect our employees and make sure you have a job.” There was a June 2020 townhall. I was like, “We’re not laying anybody off. We’ve fought through this and we’re kicking ass. Let us keep going and growing.” That’s what we did. We hired 55 out of 220 employees. There is no other company out there that hired 25%. It’s not because people left. It’s because we were growing.Leadership change doesn't necessarily need a top-down approach. Sometimes, you have to initiate change from within. Click To Tweet
Fifty-five employees since what timeframe?
In 2020, 25% of our staff we hired in that year. We were bringing people on, not letting them go.
It’s unusual nowadays unless you work for something like Zoom. Indie, I want to go back one more time to the training element of things because I know that’s a passion of yours. It was something that you and Mitch decided early on in your tenure there. Background on this, the way that I first heard the Trailer Bridge story was that you, Indie, and several of your colleagues came to San Diego for our Extreme Leadership Facilitator Certification. All that had happened and had started before we even met which is wonderful. It started with Mitch handing you The Radical Leap?
I had joined in July and a couple of weeks in, I realized that all of the members of leadership there at that time weren’t united. We didn’t have this collective mindset of how this culture was changing and it was becoming vibrant and dynamic, but that’s great. Leadership has to be able to keep doing that. We all knew we were going to grow. That meant more people needed to be able to instill that sense of vibrancy, our why and excited about what we were doing. To Mitch’s great credit, I went into him and I say, “I think we need a program that is going to bring our way, our methodology of leadership together. I’d like to put one together.” Anybody who’s familiar with your materials, Steve, in OS!M, I had one that day because Mitch says, “Go for it.” I was like, “Now I got to go do it.”
I expected to have to pull out a chart and read a graph. He’s like, “That sounds great. Go for it.” We talked a couple more times and I said, “What is your philosophy? What do you want to be for this to look like with our leaderships?” That’s when he handed me your book. I read it over that weekend. It was that fast. I came back in and that following Monday, I said, “I got it. I get this. I can plug into this. I’m going to go put something together,” and I did. We’ve been doing that ever since. It has morphed and grown prettier than it was before, and much more fun. I got a little more sophisticated with my graphics and things, but I think the content from the beginning and thank you, Steve, for the foundation of that.
The Radical Leap, that’s the book. It’s true that when you foundationally start everything from a place of love, it changes all those other things, including the tough love decisions. We rolled that out and we’re on our seventh group. We’ll be starting our eighth group at the end of 2020 or at the beginning of 2021. It’s longer. It’s spread out, it’s covering more areas of leadership. That’s an important one. All of our leaders go through that. People that are identified as being leadership material, our up and comers. Originally, it was designed to bring us all together, how we wanted to lead our people, and keep this incredible culture that we have going. We also have to think about that next generation of leaders. How do we get them in? We have all these new people joining us. We have to be ready for that growth and to keep it going. We keep doing that every year. If it changes, we add things as needed where we are in the company. Every year, we’re still doing that.
It gets back to the question that I asked. In the beginning, you get very clear about the intent of what you were trying to do? That’s where training all kinds of training fit in when it’s done right. It’s teaching the skills, whether it’s leadership training or any other kind, teaching the skills that they need to thrive in their company. When it comes to leadership training, what a lot of companies will do is they’ll say, “We could use some better leaders around here. Let’s bring in a training program and that ought to do it.” That can work with individual leaders. It can turn some lights on and it can be a good investment, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what you guys are doing because you’re working on the whole picture.
The training is about the culture and the culture leads into the training. That’s the magic formula. I’ve been doing this leadership development stuff for many years now. I’ve seen all kinds of companies do it and try it all in kinds of ways. The conventional wisdom says, “Real change has to start from the top down.” That’s the ideal scenario. It’s not always an option. Sometimes you have to initiate the change from within. In some cases, Mitch, your personal story within Trailer Bridge is an example of both because you did engineer this from the top down, but you didn’t start at the top, you started as VP of Logistics. You showed what you can do there through your style in your team, and then you had the opportunity to expand that to the whole company. That’s a great example for all of us to say, “I’m not the CEO, what can I do?” You start where you are and see what impact you can make from there.
This was a few years ago now, but I remember I was in San Diego, going to your event and having the fortunate opportunity to speak with you and all the individuals that were there. There’s one young lady that asked a question that if her leadership doesn’t believe in this, how do you do this? I can’t recall the author that was up on stage at the time, but it was on day one. He had said, “If you can start at your level, hopefully and ultimately, try to change them and show them.”
When I spoke the next day, I remember I specifically pointed her out and said, “Leadership can kill it pretty quick, that’s the hardest thing.” If they don’t believe it, you can do all you want and you got to drive some of these initiatives and they’re going to be like, “Am I making money? What’s my ROI on this?” You’re like, “I can’t technically put a solid ROI on this,” but leadership still has to be involved. I did have the fortunate opportunity to see things from a different view before I got the opportunity to make the decision to say, “Now it’s me on the line. I get to make this decision.”
The great thing that Indie developed inside that leadership program was the a-ha moment that all these leaders get. They finally go, “I get it. I understand that I may not be able to do all of these things, but I can have my impact in changing the world.” It’s not the whole globe, it’s your world that you’re in. Change the world. That resonated because it’s tough to put this on paper or to read this and you’ll get one leadership style.
It takes 6 to 8 days to understand what our leadership style is and what our purpose is inside the organization. We’re very fortunate. One of my favorite moments is leading that, getting the opportunity to move and to lead that because seeing their eyes on the first day, they’re like, “Whatever.” The second day, you start catching a few. The third day, like, “There’s another one.” By the time you got to the 5th and 6th day, they’re soaking it in. They can’t get enough. They don’t want it to end and they want to keep going.
I’m lucky I have Mitch. I knew from that coffee shop, right from the beginning, I didn’t know how it was tactically going to roll out, but I did. I felt strongly that I understood where he wanted to go. I knew that I had that support, provided I delivered on those things. I came up with some ideas that we could roll out and we didn’t know all of them were going to work. We do a company-wide feedback thing. A lot of people had not done that, where they offer feedback to each other about their performance and what they like and don’t like about each other and how to get better. A lot of training around the intention of that, which is it’s all well-intentioned.
“I’m here to support you. I’m here telling you, try not to say something that way anymore. This will make you better.” That takes a while. Our new people’s eyes get big the first time they did that. When we tell them it’s anonymous, they don’t always believe us, but we do. I know that I’m lucky I have the support for that and the leadership program. As Mitch was saying, it is the most fun I have at work. Developing those and leading those with him, Mitch and I are still doing that. We’re still co-facilitating that program. I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way.
That speech that you mentioned, Mitch, for the readers, I published it as one of the show’s episodes. It is episode number seven. I encourage people to go back and check that out. As I was reflecting on this full circle feeling that I’m having in that, we met originally through you guys coming out to San Diego because you’d already been working with the material. You developed The Radical Leap, The Radical Edge, and Greater Than Yourself all into these wonderful modules or experiences at Trailer Bridge. The full circle experience is my book Love Is Just Damn Good Business to have Trailer Bridge in there as a case study and an example. To have you guys on the show, to have you talk about it together, it feels good.
People take a lot of pride. I have several of those in my office at work. When people come in and talk about, they hear about you, and then they read the books. They’re like, “This is exciting. I want to read the latest.” I go, “I’ve got one right here.” They get so excited. They’re like, “Really?” I’m like, “Yeah. Have that. Good luck.” What’s interesting is people understand a lot of the books we use, and they get ahead. They’re like, “I’m going to leadership. I’m want to read all these ahead of time. I’m going to know what they’re going to teach me.” I’m like, “It’s not going to work like that, but good luck.”
I encourage people to do that. That’s always a good thing. You guys have been posting some cool stuff on LinkedIn. I know Mitch, you had a couple of great articles that I reshared in my LinkedIn, but for people that would like to learn more about Trailer Bridge, connect with you guys somehow, what’s the best avenues for them to do that?
Linkedin is a great one that you mentioned. I’m also @TrailerBridge. You could reach out to Trailer Bridge to my email which is IBollman@TrailerBridge.com. Our website is TrailerBridge.com. It’s a great place to be caught up on what we’re doing. Check out that TB12, which we remind ourselves all the time to live by. I’d love to hear from people. Our marketing is very employee and culture-centric. A lot of our applicants come in because of that very message right there. Our services are in there too, but our customers like seeing the culture that we have. They equate how happy our employees are with how they’re going to be treated and they’re right.
Thank you for taking the time with me and with us. It’s been a great pleasure. I can’t wait to see you hit the $750 million spot. That’s going to be cool. Let’s do a reunion episode. After the world opens up again, I’d love to come out and pay a visit to you guys. One last little color commentary because I came out and spent the day with you guys not many years ago. I will never forget walking through the open area in the middle of the office at the end of the day and having to duck for my life. The Nerf guns was hilarious.
In every single person, there’s a little kid. The kid comes up.
It’s not the typical thing that you see in a shipping and logistics company. Thank you very much and thanks to you all for tuning in. Until next time. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- Trailer Bridge
- Love Is Just Damn Good Business
- Mitch Luciano – LinkedIn
- Indie Bollman – LinkedIn
- The Radical Leap
- Episode number seven – Past episode
- The Radical Edge
- Greater Than Yourself
- LinkedIn – Steve Farber
- Linkedin – Trailer Bridge
- @TrailerBridge – Twitter
About Mitch Luciano
About Indie Bollman
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