Love is at the core of great leadership, and it sets the foundation of any thriving, competitive business. These are words to live by because that love eventually does translate: the love you show to your employees and to your customers finds its way back to you, one way or another. Mitch Luciano is currently serving as the President and CEO of Trailer Bridge, Inc. In conversation with Steve Farber, he reveals the importance of the love you show for the people involved in your business – be they employees or customers. Let love lead the way you lead today!
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Great Leadership With Mitch Luciano
I’m going to take you back in the time machine once again to one of our sessions at the Extreme Leadership Experience. I want to let you read the presentation by Mitch Luciano, President and CEO of a company called Trailer Bridge. Given our theme here, Love Is Just Damn Good Business, and the radical leap framework, which you’ve heard me talk about several times, love, energy, audacity and proof. If you take those things and wrap them all together, then use it as a lens to look at business and ask yourself, “What businesses out there in the world at large would be good examples of operationalizing love as a business practice? What industries would you look to?” This is an example of one of those industries that you would not look to automatically. Trailer Bridge, simply put, is a shipping company. Their turnaround story is quite miraculous. Mitch is at the helm of that incredible story. That’s a bit of a pun being at the helm of something involving his shipping company because they ship. They ship containers of goods from the mainland, primarily to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. You’re going to read all about it here.
Mitch has been with Trailer Bridge since 2012. He originally joined as the VP of Logistics. He spent nineteen years beforehand in the transportation and logistics industry with large international and domestic logistics organizations. He’s an expert in the field and he was tapped on the shoulder by the board to turn this company around. You are about to read the story of how he did that. Pay close attention. It’s an amazing story and you’ll enjoy being a fly on the wall in the audience of the Extreme Leadership Experience. Here he is, Mitch Luciano. Enjoy.
Once a month I talk to the company in a town hall. I’ve got my Trailer Bridge people sitting back there. I talked to a group of twenty people at a Rotary Club one time, but that doesn’t count. Steve had called me and asked me if I’d come. My first response was, “I don’t know if I want to do that.” Our director of corporate developments, Indie, came in and said, “You have to do this.” This is the most public thing we’ve ever done with Trailer Bridge. We don’t like to do press releases. I like to keep it everything low key and be successful. That’s my goal. I don’t like attention from me and for the company. I know we’re potentially in this amazing book and that scares me, but that’s all right. I’m going to give a quick snapshot of Trailer Bridge. Steve and I are going to get an opportunity to sit down and answer some questions. What we did, who we are, who we were and what we did to get to our spot?
We’re simply a shipping company. We own barges. We take them from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico and Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Our customers are Walmart’s, Rooms To Go, Unilever and American Honda. One of the things we always try to identify is what’s our ‘why.’ Why are we doing this? Our people on the other end of these shipments, it’s important to them. Our why became critical for us in September of 2017 when the hurricane destroyed Puerto Rico. Our why became important. We have that service that’s what we do. We also have logistics offices around the country that we do domestic shipping for clients like US Foods and other clients here in the United States.
Who are we? The company started in 1992 by Malcolm McLean. Back in 2011, the company filed bankruptcy. John Wroby and I joined the company in November of 2012. I would suggest you don’t join the company when they come out of bankruptcy. It’s difficult. I joined as a VP and John joined as a Director. We did a customer survey back in 2013. We were chosen for the price. Service was not even an option for customers. It was all about price, which meant that’s what drove us into bankruptcy. We were a low-cost carrier. Since that time in 2012 we joined, we have four CEOs, four different people. One was there probably about a year and the other three were about 3 to 6 months, give or take. We had no trust. I know that looks good. My wife kept asking me, “What is the cake?” I was like, “It looks good.” Layers look fantastic, but they’ll kill a company.
We had many layers. We had VPs, assistant VPs, senior directors, director, senior VPs. We had them all over the place and we peeled them all away and got down to the basics again. Back then, our average EBITDA in 2012, 2013 and 2014 was roughly a $24 million loss on $100 million company. We’re only $100 million company and we’re losing $24 million. They came to me at the end of 2014 and they said, “Mitch, we would like you to be the president and CEO of the company.” I was like, “I don’t want the CEO title, I want nothing to do with CEO title. It has a bad rep in this company. I’ll take the president’s role. That’s fine, that’s fantastic, but we’re going to do a lot of crazy stuff. You’ve got to have to trust me a little bit.”
We are owned by New York City Hedge Funds, distressed buyers. They said, “We have nothing else to lose.” At the time, they’re looking at liquidating the organization and getting their money back. I said, “Give me a few years.” We got rid of the resistors. That’s the first thing we did. Resistors being those that said, “You have no idea where you’re doing. This isn’t going to work.” My response was, “You’re right. I have no idea what I’m doing. I don’t know if this is going to work, but it’s something different. We have to change.” That’s not the way we do it. We haven’t done it that way for the last twenty years. I reminded those people the last twenty years got you into bankruptcy. We have to change the way we do it. We got rid of them.
We talk about change, the people change the results. In the first two years, we changed over 50% of the employees. We got rid of them. They either resigned or were terminated, but we were kind about it. We probably spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance. We made sure we did it respectfully and a lot of these people are OVP of Sales. He and I still golf. I sent him into early retirement and he was thankful because his wife ended up getting sick and he thanked me for doing that down the road. Even though you have to make difficult decisions and I had to make them one with the team. It was for the betterment of everybody else. Everyone else had a job. That’s the hardest part. You’re getting rid of one bad apple, everyone else still has a job. The company doesn’t go anywhere.
We start hiring high character and energetic people. There are a couple of different groups in our company like the maintenance team. I can’t hire someone without experience, which is not a welder. I can’t hire someone to weld if they don’t know what they’re doing. Other departments, I hired people without experience. I want high energetic, high character. When you ask someone, the only question I asked them during an interview is, “Tell me about yourself.” That’s it. I don’t ask them anything else. You find out right then in the first two minutes who they are. If they start talking about the resume, I say, “I don’t want to know about that.”
If they start talking about their family, I want to hire them because if family is most important, that’s what’s most important to me and what’s important to the company. We started to respect and genuinely love the team. One of the things I told the group, “It’s exhausting.” Every single minute of the day, we all have to do it. All the leaders have to do it. It’s rewarding. I get filled up from it as well. When I go home and I have three older daughters between 10 and 17, and I have an 11-month-old son. My wife says, “Here’s Nile.” I’m like, “I need fifteen minutes.” It’s exhausting, but then you’re right back into the family. It’s tough. Luis then indicated to me one day and said, “I hired Indie back in 2015,” I always like to say 2014, but it was 2015 as our new director of HR. As soon as I became the President, the HR Director knew. She knew we did not get along at all and she handed me a resignation immediately. I was like, “We saved us a lot of time.” I hired Indie. She came to me after a few weeks and said, “We need leadership development.” I said, “I 100% agree with you but one promise, you have to read Radical Leap.” I had never met Steve. I have never even read an article from Steve. I read his books.Do whatever you can to not miss a single minute throughout the day. Click To Tweet
Our VP of Sales gave me Radical Leap. I still have it. He’s still my VP of Sales. He has followed me along with my career. He gave me a book. I said, “Read this book.” This was a Friday. She came in on Monday. She goes, “This is it.” I go, “I know.” I go, “Go read Greater Than Yourself.” I never told her about Radical Edge. We developed a series of three parts. The first part is, Looking at Yourself. We do the DISC assessments, we do assessments from your peers and you’re getting an evaluation from your peers. It’s tough to bellow the first time you ever get one because they tell you things that you do not want to hear. The second part is around Greater Than Yourself. It’s about taking it to the team and then having a GTY project.
The final part is about taking everything you’ve learned and taken it to the world, showing our customers in the world, how we make that happen? Indie had written that part. I was like, “You read Radical Edge?” She goes, “No.” I was like, “You need to go read that now.” She came back and she goes, “Oh my God.” I go, “I know. I don’t know how you did that, but there it is. That’s perfect.” We know all the leadership program. It stuck for about 8 of the 10 people, maybe 7 out of 10, about 70%, and 80% success. The 2 or 3 parts of the resistors never want anything to do with it. Eventually, they made their way up. We pushed them out or they resigned either way. What did that turn into? We started to genuinely listen to people. I’ll never forget.
There is a first town hall that we had suggestions from employees. One of them was as simple as it was, an ice machine. People were tired of the trays in the freezer. I’ll never forget, a couple of days went by. I was like, “Anyone knows if we have the ice machine yet?” “We haven’t done that yet.” I got online and I ordered the ice machine. You have to make sure you do what you say you’re going to do. We genuinely listen. We took our heads away from the computers to listen. We all walked into our boss’s office. You start talking to them and they don’t change. They don’t move. They’re still typing away and you’re like, “Listen to what I have to say.”
We all have these employees inside Trailer Bridge. We have them everywhere. As soon as someone comes in and says, “Do you have five minutes?” You know it’s 30 and it’s not going to be about work. Everyone knows how I’m going to talk about is going to be about the bowling over the weekend. I’m like, “Here we go. Bowling. I’m going to listen 30 minutes about bowling.” I listen and I hear what he has to say because it’s important to him, which means it’s important to me. We started respecting each other, ethics, integrity, honesty. It’s simple. We had people that were lying on their expensive porch, all those little things. We had to do everything right. It was important. Work hard, play hard.
We have some people that are playing a little harder than they’re working. We’ve had to have that conversation. They’re taking it a little too seriously. We’re like, “We work hard first, then we play hard.” We do play hard. We spend a lot of money on our employees, a ton. Our Christmas parties are for a couple of 100 people or near $100,000. I’m a big believer in spending money to make money. I remember I’ve got the New York City Hedge Fund guy’s behind it. They’re the first people on the table I bought. They thought I’d lost my mind. They’re like, “Absolutely not.” I said, “Trust me.” We’ve stopped all the excuses. There are no more noes. We don’t do that. We always tell customers, “I don’t have the answer for you. Let me look into it.” We find a way to do it, always. I see this everywhere. I know Simon Sinek has it as well. Simon says in this order exactly, “Happy employees, happy customers.” He says, “Happy shareholders.” It has to be in that order. No questions asked.
What happened was in 2017, we were the number one place to work in Jacksonville. In 2018, we were the number two place to work in Jacksonville and we got back from the ceremony and told the company where we had a town hall that afternoon, “We took second.” They all went, “Oh.” I’m like, “You guys filled out the survey, not me. You did it. This is on you.” They were disappointed. That meant a lot to me, but they were because they want to be number one. When you’re number one, you want to stay there.
I tell everyone that we’re number one in our industry from a service standpoint. Our competitors and we only have two, are gunning for us. They’re bigger than us, but we make more money than they do and they can’t figure it out. In 2017, we were customers choice TV for service, not price. We still had some that were still priced, but it’s all about service. It is 100% about service. Operating expenses lowered it down to 87%. It used to be about 102%. We lowered them down. We focused. We got to focus on both sides of the equation. We can’t focus on revenue. You got to focus on the other side. EBITDA from 2015 to 2017 was greater than the 23 years combined. In 2018, the largest revenue in EBIDTA year in the history of the company. My magical shareholders, John sitting in these conversations, what are you going to do next? How are you going to grow?
When we took over, we were a $100 million company. In 2019, we’re at $200 million. Our goal was $500 million by 2023, which is in our industry, it’s about one person per $1 million is a safe bet. We’re going to have about 500 employees by 2023. How do we keep this up? That’s our gap. How do we continue to do this? Lastly, that culture of love and I joke about this. The lunch table heard this from me. That play hard work hard, people are taking the love thing too physically. Unfortunately, I had to let some people go because of it. As my three counterparts sit back there, they’re like, “That’s right.” It’s tough. I genuinely love these people.
I have a couple of amazing employees. They’re great at what they do, but they crossed the boundary. They lost my respect and my trust. They can’t be there anymore because the problem is the whole company knows. Everyone knows. I’m the last kid in the room that knows, like everyone, “You didn’t know that?” I’m like, “No. Tell me.” We’ll have to make some of these changes, but we built this around the culture of love and it’s genuine love. In our company, I was telling people that 22 to 72 years old. We’re about 50/50, male and female. We have Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, African-Americans and Whites. We have everything. We have Southern Georgia. We have catfish, a rooster. We have 25 employees in Puerto Rico. We have four employees in the Dominican Republic. We have this mix and all these employees around the country in these offices. We have this such dynamic mix. I love it.
If you go and you looked at my LinkedIn, it will show you, “Every four years, Mitch Luciano does something different.” About four years in, two years after I became president, people started coming to me and my company going, “Where are you going next? What are you doing?” I was like, “I’m not going anywhere. I love this.” I’ve been at the company since 2012, my longest tenure at any company. I love it and I want to grow. I love the people I work with. I love the genuine hugs I get.
People describe their teams when their team’s not around. I love them. Steve said, “When you’re saying that and then the team’s around, they’re awesome.” My team knows I end every town hall with, “I love you guys.” I go up to JJ Mendez, who is our Director of our Maintenance Department. He’s about 5’10″ Puerto Rican, big guy and military guy. I give him a hug and I tell him I love him every time. That’s okay. At first, they thought it was weird, no doubt. A lot of people thought it was weird, but everyone doesn’t now. You see this. If people don’t like it, we tell people, “If you don’t want a hug, I’m uncomfortable with the hug. That’s okay too.” It’s created this culture of success. Is The Radical Leap leadership the only thing? No, it’s not the only thing. There are a lot of other things. Unfortunately, for the people of Puerto Rico, we had a lot of shipments. We made a lot of money off that hurricane. We didn’t jack up our pricing. We kept it where it was. We were busy with supplies to Puerto Rico. That helped our bottom line. Our people wouldn’t have done it and been there 60, 70 hours a week sometimes if they didn’t love where they work. They would have left at 5:00 and said, “I’m out. I’ll deal with this tomorrow.” We’re like, “No, there are families in Puerto Rico that need this stuff.” They stayed and made it happen.
That’s what was important for me and it’s important to the team. I have an amazing team. I’m lucky. Do you want to be successful? Surround yourself with successful people and you will be successful. Don’t be the best in the room, I’m not. My team is much better than I am at everything we do and that makes me look successful. That’s it. Sorry, I never prepare for these things. I do this but I look it over a couple of times and wife’s always like, “Did you say you know what you’re going say?” I’m like, “I have no idea. I don’t like being prepared.”
I love the ending. That’s it. I’m going to use that. Have a seat. We’re going to chat for a little bit. We’d love to hear from you and I also have a couple of questions for you, Mitch. From a personal note, one of the things that I love about this is you demonstrated to me and our team the power of these ideas. You read the books and then did the stuff. The question that I get asked a lot is, “I read your book and I like it. It could use a little more of how-tos, a list of to-dos.” I’m always reluctant to do that because I feel like every company is different that it’s more about facilitating a process where those ideas will emerge from the people that are there. In the first part of this, we didn’t even know each other and then you appeared one day. Indie and several of the team came to our certification program, “We want to tell you what we’re doing,” which is quite remarkable.
Indie and I facilitate the training. It’s three sessions, two days each session, over about a 5 to 6 months period. We take them for two days, let them go back to their place. They read the book, they do a little bit of homework and then come back. After the first round, I don’t know if someone came to me or I imagine someone came to me with the idea of, “We’ve got to send somebody to San Diego to go to this Extreme Leadership Training.” I sent Indie, Jacob Nate and Amanda, and they all came back jacked up. They were super excited. Everyone wants to start facilitating the training where like, “Slow down.” That’s how we got to meet Steve.
As I got to know you guys, we spent a lot of time talking on the phone. I interviewed you guys for the case study, which made its way into the book. One of the things that struck me, you mentioned, “Happy employees equal happy customers equal business.” It’s what we were talking about. If you want your customers to love you, you have to create a culture that people love working in. You can’t do that unless you love it yourself first. That’s the whole case for love as a business principle. You embodied this. There’s something in you that said, “This is the right way to go.” When they tapped you on the shoulder and you said, “I’ll take president,” you were coming from that place. I heard some pretty remarkable stories about what your team has done for customers. Can you give us an example or two of some of your customer experiences that have come out of this group?
In our industry, we have a lot of brokers. Every industry has a broker system. When I said we only had two of the competitors, only three providers. It didn’t make sense to me that we would work with a broker. There are only three of us. How does a broker exist? I’ve referenced, if there are only three mortgage companies, we use a broker to mortgage your house. You go to the three companies and get your best rate and move on. We moved away from a lot of brokers. We fired them. A lot of customers didn’t get it. I hear people laughing in the background, “We don’t want to work with you.” We’ve legitimately fired customers. It pissed off a lot of people. They thought we lost our mind and we were going to go out of business. Those customers that appreciated it and honored it, they jumped on board.Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do. Click To Tweet
There are videos of Trailer Bridge outside of that, Steve. Thank you. We get a lot of attention to those. I appreciate that. The customers, they get a person. We’ve gained a lot of customers in our industry because when you call us, you get the same person every time. You don’t get a team of people that don’t know what the last conversation was about. You get the same person. That’s one of the key elements of our success. Customers love that. Customers love to praise our efforts. They love to praise the people and what they do. It’s our people who make it happen. That’s our slogan, “We Make It Happen.” It’s our people who do it every day and they make it happen.
We gained a lot of customers from it. We had a lot of impact after the hurricane. When the hurricane hit, we delivered two containers of food, water, generators, fuel and everything to our employees. We had some people say, “Why are you only delivering those to your employees?” I said, “Our employees in Puerto Rico need to get to work so they can support the people of Puerto Rico and the customers. If they’re not at work, they can’t support the people.” We sent all this down. We flew down. Every week, we had to rent a private jet. We flew down every single week to go down there. We were on the streets clearing out trees, delivering cases of water to family members from Jacksonville.
Someone said, “My mother lives here. I can’t get a hold of her. Can you please do me a favor and take five cases of water, a generator and fuel?” We did that. From catfish and rooster on that first trip. Catfish was there too. I was there and everything in between. There’s only eight of us could go at a time. It’s as big as the plane can fit. There are no commercial flights. Customers appreciated that. They were enamored with it. Like, “You are doing all this?” “Absolutely. Why wouldn’t I? Why would you not do that?” That gained a lot of trust. We’re busy. Everyone in this room knows it’s not a growing economy. It’s dying off slowly but surely but we’re still making money.
I remember a story about somebody coming from Puerto Rico to the US for a job interview.
There’s a young gentleman that came. He thought he had a job lined up in Orlando. He moved his car via Trailer Bridge for, $400 or $500, whatever. I only know what we charged Northbound. He got his car, he drove to Orlando. He thought he had a job. He gets to the company and they go, “We made a mistake. We’re sorry. You don’t have a job.” He was moving to Orlando. He came back. I don’t know if he stayed in Orlando with friends or family. I don’t know where he’s going, but we got a phone call and he said, “I’ve got to go back to Puerto Rico, but how much does it cost to send my car back?” “On the way down, it’s about $900 to send your car.” He goes, “I don’t have $900.” Someone came into my office, I said, “What would you think about giving him a break? $300 or $400. We’ll give him the friends and family rate.” I said, “How about you give it to him for free? What is $900 to us?” To him, it’s everything. That $900, even $400, is going to be the difference of him staying, getting the rest of the stuff back, food for probably a month when he gets back to Puerto Rico because he doesn’t have a job down there either. That had a huge impact. He came into the office, found Amanda or somebody, I don’t know who one of our account managers, and thanked him personally and gave them a huge hug.
There was the other time, the other reference is a gentleman had moved a dump truck or something equivalent to a dump truck from Puerto Rico. I got this letter in the mail one day. I didn’t even know the story. I had no idea until I got this letter. He pulled out of the port in Jacksonville and he had got about a couple miles down the highway and his dump truck broke down. He didn’t know who to call. He was from Puerto Rico. He flew up, grabs his dump truck and it broke down after a couple of miles. He talked to the guys at the port. He goes, “Let me call them, see if they can tell me someone to call.” He called them up and he goes, “Anybody you can recommend?” “We’ll come and do this ourselves.”
The two guys on the port drove up to him, fixed his truck, got it started and he moved on. No one said a word. These guys didn’t say anything to anybody. Nobody knew until this gentleman wrote a letter to me saying, “You have an amazing two gentlemen at the port.” They had no reason to do that, zero. It was no benefit to them, but they did it because they could do it. Number one, they knew how to fix it. Number two, I took it as they love where they work and they want to do this for this gentleman they just met.
Do you have customer service procedure manuals?
You don’t have a document that says, “If somebody calls you for a jumpstart, you proceed to step 2 or 3?”
This is a built-in expectation.
I don’t even know if it’s a built-in expectation. It’s what’s in our hearts. It’s what they do.
What I find interesting about this is I’ve heard those stories before. I had to remind you of those. To me, through extraordinary stories and the fact that I have to remind you of those, I can infer from that it’s like, “This stuff happens a lot. This is what happens.”
It’s what we do. It’s a common nature of the people that we hire. They’re genuinely good people. For those that we didn’t hire, they were layoffs all the time. It was a little bit easy for me. They didn’t trust anybody. I said, “Give me a chance. What do you have to lose?” I got them an ice machine and a ping pong table. They thought I walked on water like, “Come on, let’s do this.” The ones that were good people, it came out of them.
The other thing I love about that, Mitch, is it might’ve gone by fast. They want to shine a little spotlight on it. They wanted an ice machine, you said, “Yes.” The ice machine didn’t automatically manifest from the ether. Somebody had to order the ice machine. Who orders the ice machine? The president of the company orders the ice machine himself. Why? Because you said you’d get them an ice machine. How can I get simpler than that?
I thought I heard the one with the Sonic. I had a good, crunchy ice. They didn’t come in that way and I was disappointed. I was like, “I have good ice.”
I have to admit I know nothing about ice machines.
It’s frozen. It’s good ice.
We’ll turn it over to you for questions. I hope you’re percolating on what you want to ask Mitch. You can ask for advice and application, anything goes. One more thing, from a dollars and cents figure, I want to put it in sharper leaf, so we don’t miss the point. A company that came out of bankruptcy, toxic environment, bankrupt, four CEOs in three years, four heads of HR and about the same time, something like that. People were dying to get out of there to number one and two best places to work in the City of Jacksonville. Most Profitable Performance in the history of the company, growing like crazy. Who are your best recruiters? How much do you spend on recruiting firms?
About 60%, maybe a little bit less than that, it’s from the employees of the company. We have a small, $250 referral of a new hire and we get about 60%. My thing is they’re on the hook too. If they recommend somebody, I like to remind them if that person fails, you’re failing with them. Make sure they don’t fail. We have some that too that don’t make it. The other part is, we have job sites and we use some recruiters for other high-end jobs. The managers of some of these offices in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We don’t have a recruiting station there, so we have to hire a recruiter. Outside of that, but most of it is from internal.
How much of what happened back when the company has emerged from bankruptcy?
Nobody would recommend it. They were leaving.
That’s one example of how this is impacted the bottom line. You’re saving money on recruiting and getting better talent, which I’m assuming is going to affect your turnover rate and all that. I’m not the shipping and logistics person. I know that might shock you. There was some formula that you would use when you’re shipping a container, for example, to Puerto Rico in terms of in the old days. It had to be full to a certain percentage?
Yes, our barges, each one’s a little different but on ease of math, they handle about 300 containers. If they didn’t have 70%, we call it utilization, 70% of the barge was full, they wouldn’t sail it. We sail every Wednesday and Friday. They would hold it and then put the freight on the next day.
If I were a customer who had something on that barge, it would be delayed.
For 2 to 5 days, depending on which sailing it was.
Because you didn’t fill it.
If it wasn’t above 70%, yes. That wasn’t my decision. I didn’t do that. Those are the four CEOs before.
A decision to not sail until we hit this percentage is an internally focused decision. In other words, what is better for us. With no consideration for the customer who was originally told, “It will get there by X date.” What happened after that?
Effective immediately when we came on board, I remember the first couple of barges that were maybe 60%, 65% and they’re like, “What are we going to do?” I go, “What do you mean ‘What are we going to do?’ We’re going to sail.” They go, “We’re going to lose money.” I go, “We’re going to lose a lot more in a couple of years if we don’t sail.” We sailed every single time no matter what. We have some moments where a big barge pulled by a tug and a 300-foot tow wire. Tugs are not working right but we spend every penny we can to get that tugging going. We do everything possible.Love is the core of great leadership, and it sets the foundation of any thriving, competitive business. Click To Tweet
It would occur to me that is another example of the ice machine. You said, “We’re going to sail,” so we’re going to sail. You said, “We’re going to get an ice machine,” so we got an ice machine. It’s the same thing. It’s the same principle on a bigger scale. What was the effect long-term then?
2018 was our best year. We’re not publicly traded, but if you dig deep enough into our owners, you’ll find our information. I have no problem saying this is out in the public. Long-term, we were full. The hurricane has some residuals obviously, but after the second half of the year, we’re full and we’re making a lot of money. That’s a long-term effect.
To put it completely in layman’s terms, which is the only way I can talk to them about your business, this is what it sounds like to me. We used to wait until the barge was X percentage full or we wouldn’t sail. Then we said, “We were sailing anyway because that’s what we told our customers we would do and we’re about our customers.” As a result of that, my inference, you started to develop and as a result of that, the different reputation from being a price-based service to a service-based service and the result was long-term, you pretty much always sail full. How do you translate love into more dollars and cents than that? What questions do you have for Mitch?
I’m curious, it was such a radical leap that you made for your company, which sounds like it was the best thing you could do for that company. How did that translate to your home life?
In all honesty, at the beginning of 2013, I joined this company in 2012. I have three daughters. I mentioned that 10 to 17 with my first wife and we got divorced in May of 2013. I met my current wife in July of 2014. I was working for a miserable company in a miserable spot in my life. When you get divorced, you have three kids and you only see those Thursdays. Every other weekend, you’re pretty lonely. It’s the truth. If you’ve ever been through it, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, it’s lonely, but you get through it. It helped because then Anna and I got married on February 28th of 2015. It helped me be a better husband. It helped me be a better dad. I genuinely listened. It’s tough to listen to a sixteen-year-old daughter who tells you how life is, but I learned how to listen. That’s the hardest part probably when we say we listen. Everyone speaks in a different tone, I always call it. It’s a different way and you have to learn how to hear how they speak. You have to listen to them. I did that probably for my daughters the most and it had a big impact. I would tell you that I’ve never been happier.
I want to go a little bit deeper. What was it that got you in 2012 to be able to say, “Trust me?” In your own life where you could say, “Trust me, I’m going to take this company in a different direction.” I’m curious about you and who you were to be able to have that confidence?
The true story is John and I were at another company and we were doing work with Trailer Bridge. The owner of that company did something and I was a COO at the time and John was running the brokers group. I knew the bank, the owner broke a covenant loan. I walked in his office and said, “You did break a covenant loan. They’re going to be here by Wednesday to shut you down.” He goes, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” They were in there by Wednesday and they shut it. The chief restructuring officer showed up from Wells Fargo and I went, “That’s it. We’re getting closed.” He came in and turned off all the computers and we were closed. I had gotten a previous job offer from Trailer Bridge I turned down because I committed to this company. I immediately called Trailer Bridge and said, “Is the job still there?” They said, “Absolutely.” Friday morning, November 9th, nine of us walked in the Trailer Bridge to start the new logistics group. At that time, I was a VP. I had this whole C-suite and senior VPs above me. I couldn’t say, “Trust me.”
I’ll never forget one of the old HR ladies, I was walking through the hallway one time and I had a smile on my face. She goes, “Why are you always smiling?” My response is, “What is my alternative?” That’s how Trailer Bridge was. I wasn’t in a position to make a change. I heard somebody asked the question, “If I have a leader that doesn’t believe in this, how can you make that change?” It’s difficult if the top doesn’t believe in it. It’s challenging. You can change the world for the people around you, but having that above, it’s tough without a doubt.
Having you here, I love what Indie did with the extreme leader, extreme service, and extreme team. That development of those programs for your company and how you guys are using it. I’m curious if you have any tactical tips if you’ve done anything to roll into specifically around love, energy and audacity to roll into one-on-ones, performance reviews, comp reviews and things like that to happen within the organization?
I try to use to do the annual evaluations, which probably never happened. We try to go through people’s personnel files and there’s one every four years. We got rid of them right away because typically, the employee is in there for one reason, not hearing a word you’re saying. They’re in there to find out if they’re getting a raise or not. It’s all about comp. It’s not about devaluation. That’s all they care about. We got rid of them. Indie as a Yogi and my wife is one as well, yoga teachers. We had this start, stop, and continue. We begin with that as quarterly evaluations, then we changed it to love it, learn it, fix it. People give peer-to-peer, supervisor to a colleague, colleague to a supervisor. You give love it, learn it, fix it.
It was supposed to do it every quarter. I admit, I failed. I don’t get them all done every quarter. I always use the example of Indie. She’ll walk into my office and go, “I need to love it, learn it, fix it right now.” I’m like, “Let’s do this.” It may not be in writing, but it’s a verbal. That’s one of the things we tried to establish and it’s worked. At first, when we started doing this for peer-to-peer, people would complain about, “You need to fix the cologne you’re wearing or perfume. It’s annoying me.” We had to get over that hump. It was a three-year project. When we started this, I said, “It’s going to take us three years and if we have one day that we do not push this forward, it’ll all go back to where it was.” It’s constant. There were a lot of times that you didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you had to keep doing it. We had to keep changing along the way a little bit, tweaking it. The biggest one to that point was the love it, learn it, fix it.
Thank you so much for sharing and congratulations to your team for doing such a phenomenal job. You talked about investing in your people, spending money. I find when I’m starting to work with companies, that’s a sore point for them and I try to explain it, “It’s going to be worth it. Here’s what you need to do.” What advice would you give to people in the room who are maybe leaders of companies or owners about spending money on your employees and how that pays off?
Spending money for employees, every company’s a little bit different. It depends on where you live, what you like to do. For us particularly, the biggest thing for me was the people we spend most of our day with. We spent more of these individuals than we do our own families. Technically, we didn’t know each other’s families. That was the first thing we started doing. We started having events, whether it’s the Beach Day in the summertime that families can come to, and you started meeting spouses and you started meeting kids.
For Halloween, the kids got to come on Halloween and everyone had candy at their door. It was Trick or Treating in the office and the kids that dressed up. We have block Christmas parties in Jacksonville and Puerto Rico. We fly people in that are from outside the offices. We do Jaguars Football Games. We get a big Suite. It costs us a lot of money, but everyone talks about it. We had 3 or 4 games for the Jaguars and a suite, maybe you guys want Jackson Jaguar Stadium, but they have a couple of pools. One of them was the pools and we had 50 tickets. We give out 25 to people in the company because they get to bring somebody.
That’s the big goal. Right before we had that game, Jaguar has approached us about doing advertising in the stadium. We spent $60,000 to advertise in the Jacksonville Jaguars Stadium. We’re not a consumer business. We’re not Pepsi or Budweiser and everyone’s like, “What are you doing?” That first day, my phone blew up for people that were in the stadium going, “We’re on the billboard.” That meant the world to them.
To your own folks?
To our team. That meant the world to them that we’re advertising in this public space and that people know who Trailer Bridge is. I guarantee you, by Tuesday I made all that money back by more business, by our account managers asking for the business. When we go home and we say, “Joan Smith, that this it is.” A lot of you know who Joan Smith is. Why did he talk about it? I don’t even know who that person is, but your spouse knows who they are, you can have a conversation about work. They’re into it too. That makes you feel better about your job. When you’re having a conversation with somebody important to you, whether it’s family or friends, whatever it is and they know. Can I put a dollar amount on it? No, but do we spend more every year? This is the first year we may pay back a little bit.
Maybe this is stating the obvious, but you can’t look at the money you’re spending on employees outside of the environment that you’ve created for them. In other words, it’s another way of saying, “We love and appreciate you.” Whereas a lot of companies don’t work on that we love and appreciate your part. They throw money at it to buy the loyalty, to give them a perk or whatever. That’s a different thing. Money in that context is powerful. Without that foundation that you’ve established, you wouldn’t get the return on it. It would be spending money.
At the town halls, we have suggestions from employees and one of the suggestions was, “Why do we spend much money on company events when I’m being denied a raise?” I address everything. I don’t care what the question is. I don’t care what it is I address, I put it on the board. It’s hard sometimes. You have to be honest with people. Say, “Number one, company events do not indicate salaries. One does not impact the other. Number two, whoever wrote that, you probably didn’t deserve a raise.” I said it publicly as I could. Everyone quickly found out who it was. They came running into my office, “Do you know who that was?” I’m like, “Let’s don’t worry about it.” It doesn’t matter who it was. I have to respect that they said it and I’m going to give them an honest answer.
It’s not about making sure that everybody’s happy all the time. You have the hugs, you have the, “I love you,” and all that but it’s also, “I’m going to be direct and truthful.”
Mitch, how did you feel in your gut before work when you first came to Trailer Bridge? During those first years any, how do you feel in the morning in your gut before you came to work versus how do you feeling in the morning in gut now when you go to work?
I have to admit it’s short of saying, “I hate it.” I only use the word hate, but I genuinely didn’t like it. If it wasn’t for the eight other people that joined me at that time, I wouldn’t have made it. John knows this. John and I sat next to each other for two years. If it wasn’t for John and Trevor and Kyle and Jeff and Steve, and we had a few others that no longer with us, but if it wasn’t those guys, I wouldn’t have made it. I didn’t like getting up in the morning. We always say this at work, “I want people to get up in the morning and be excited about going to work.” You’re going to have days like, “I don’t want to go to work. This is going to suck. I know how busy it’s going to be.” We have our barge days, Wednesday and Friday are busy. “This is going to be a tough day,” I get that. That’s normal. You don’t want to have that feeling of, “I don’t want to get up.” I felt that way for quite a while. If I didn’t meet Anna back in July of 2014 before I got the opportunity I have now, I would have probably felt that way for another 6 to 12 months, but I did. She made me happier already from the get-go. This job fulfilled me, having the opportunity to do what I do. I love going to work. I could take my girls to school. I have them every other week for the whole week. I can take them to school. I go to work and I love it. It fills me up in the morning.
I hope you enjoyed reading the Trailer Bridge story from the man himself, Mitch Luciano. I am inspired by that story every day. I’m a storyteller and I love to tell that story. Ever since I heard Mitch present it in the way that you read it, I tell the story virtually. In every keynote that I do, I’ve mentioned it and use him as an example in virtually every podcast that I’ve been a guest on. Every chance I get, I tell the Trailer Bridge story because it’s such a beautiful example of how operationalizing love, how taking the approach of love and turning it into the way that we do business, translating it into the actions that we take on every level as a business. Not only does it create great feelings among people, but it generates tremendous bottom-line results as evidenced by what they’re doing and continue to do at Trailer Bridge. 2018 was the best year in the history of the company. They’re expanding all around the US and they are on fire. I get inspired by them every day. I hope you took some great inspiration and some ideas from that as well to apply in your business. Until next time, I’m reminding you to do what you love in the service of people who love what you do like Mitch and the team at Trailer Bridge.
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- Extreme Leadership Experience
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About Mitch Luciano
Mitch Luciano has been with Trailer Bridge, Inc. since 2012 originally joining the company as the VP of Logistics, and currently holding the role of President & CEO. Prior to joining Trailer Bridge, Mr. Luciano has spent over 19 years in the Transportation & Logistics industry with large international and domestic logistics organizations, NYK Logistics North America and C.H. Robinson, along with start-up ventures in the logistics and system development arenas.