Each Challenge Has Been Essential
Brent Nussbaum, Nussbaum Transportation Services, Inc.
September 25, 2018
My father started Nussbaum Transportation in 1945 with one truck. He had an eighth-grade education, but his intelligence and extraordinary work ethic led to expansion and success. If my siblings and I wanted to spend time with my dad, we spent time working in the family business.
I tell people that my involvement with the business truly started at ground level—I cleaned bathrooms, performed maintenance work, washed trucks, and worked the dock throughout my teenage years. I loved it all: the physical nature of the work suited me, and I loved working with the big and powerful trucks. I learned a lot as I worked alongside my dad, but his most consistent message to us was: “If you take care of your people, everything else will take care of itself.”
The problem was, when I stepped into an operations role at age 19 after driving our trucks right out of high school, the people picture presented a challenge. We were a unionized company at that time, and many aspects of that environment frustrated me. I got tired of the entitlement and what I felt was an abuse of power I saw in that model; so, though we had good employees and I felt loyalty toward all that my family had built, I decided that spending my years working in a unionized business was not what I wanted to do.
I left Nussbaum Transportation in 1989 to start my own business. While I had a burning desire to venture out on my own, I didn’t do enough research ahead of time, I didn’t know my market, and I failed miserably. I went back to the family business after that misadventure, and it was a very humbling experience to return. Our employees accepted me back, as they saw my return as a sign that the business had a future. However, despite my love for those loyal employees, my heart still wasn’t there.
After a year, I determined that if I was going to be successful, I needed a formal education. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in International Business and Business Management and then went on to do a Master’s in International Management.
I got out of school and took a job as the VP of Marketing at a small company in Indianapolis that had the North American market for large format digital color ink jet printers that had the capability to produce truck/trailer graphics. This job became very frustrating due to the ethics of the company, and I desperately sought direction for my next step. Should I stay? Should I return to the family business? With these questions in mind, I sat at my desk on a Monday morning and said a prayer: “Lord, you know that if I’m going to go back, you’re going to have to make this really clear to me.” Within five seconds, a truck from our family business, emblazoned with our logo, rolled by my office window. I was headed back.
As I stepped back into the family business, we were facing significant challenges. We had started a non-union trucking company while I was away, and we were now running both that business and the unionized business. Despite creating that second, non-union company, the unionized company was struggling to compete in a non-union industry with lower operating costs. Shortly after I returned, I was approached by our general manager who wanted to purchase the non-union business. Although it was the most profitable of the two, I sensed God telling me to sell it. We went through with the sale, and I now found myself tasked with turning around a long-time unionized trucking company, operating marginally with huge legacy costs.
The next few years presented many tests in Perseverance, as we attempted to sell our LTL (less than truckload) division in response to the growing presence of box stores, which required truckload deliveries. We were not able to sell the LTL division, though, and were forced to inform our employees that we could no longer afford to keep it open. The layoffs that resulted were devastating to me. We kept our TL (full truckload) division and began rebuilding, still burdened by union operating costs, and founded another non-union trucking company, which we grew while simultaneously shrinking the unionized company. In 2008, the drivers of the unionized company decided that they wanted to get out of the Teamsters Union and took it upon themselves to gather enough votes. By an overwhelming majority, they ultimately voted the union out, and we combined both companies.
While this was a very challenging period, it was also one in which I was able to recognize that my return to the family business was an opportunity to pursue my Purpose. I had sensed a calling to missionary work throughout my adult life, but, until this time, this deep-seated desire had felt in conflict with my obligation to the family business. Once I returned, however, I came to realize that God wanted our business to become a mission. We began tithing monthly and operating our company on Biblical principles. This included a revision of our website to help visitors understand our beliefs, our mission, vision, and values (honoring God, being good stewards of His provision). Finally, we also began installing full-wrap trailer graphics depicting family scenes on our trucks to help the traveling public understand what we held most important—faith and family.
In our business, our definition of family includes our employees. Harkening back to my father’s belief that if you take care of your employees, everything else will follow, we have continued to build our company from that People First foundation. Another piece of advice he offered has guided me—he said, “a business owner doesn’t have to know how to do everything, he or she just needs to know how to hire good people.” Today, we follow that principle as we seek out employees who first have character and integrity and are bright and coachable; experience comes second to these qualities for us.We can teach them what they need to know about our business and industry.
Our People First approach has resulted in driver turnover that is a fraction of the industry average. And, this year, we followed our commitment to our employees by completing a partial ESOP. Our plan is to be 100 percent employee-owned in three years.
As I reflect on my return to the family business and the years that have followed, the message that emerges clearly to me is that in God’s economy, nothing in life is wasted. Each challenge and stage of my journey has been essential: First, I learned to pray and listen for His answer. Trying to start my own business and failing taught me humility. Going back to school gave me a foundation. Had I not taken the job in Indianapolis, I would not have learned about trailer graphics and how important a role they would play in conveying our company values. Shutting down a division and putting a couple of hundred people out of work was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my career, but it taught me empathy and to care for others.
At the end of the day, prayer, Perseverance, faith, and a deep, abiding trust in God have been the reasons for our 73 years of success. It is our hope and plan to reach 100 years!
Brent Nussbaum is CEO of Nussbaum Transportation Services, Inc.