It had been 6 months since the funeral and George still wasn’t used to coming back to an empty home. He had difficulty adjusting after 57 years of marriage to being a widower. He walked into his living room and in his daily routine, reached up to the cuckoo clock on the wall and reset the weights. He sat down in his leather chair, and looked at the clock on the wall. He loved the log chalet around the dial, the little bird that appeared on the hour and the pinecone weights. He bought it when he was stationed in Germany in the Marines years ago. It was George’s first present to her. The clock had faithfully tracked the time all these years. It had kept a lot of time.
George had devoted decades to his family and his trucking business. He had loved working, owning and building his own business and taking his family on business trips. His success was a product of the opportunities created by deregulation in 1980. He had lived his life as a prominent businessman in town. But in recent years things had been growing increasingly complicated. He didn‘t see his children much anymore. They were grown and had families of their own. George, Jr. was a software engineer and lived in San Jose, California. Susan lived in Chicago. George was all alone without family in Jackson, Tennessee with his old house, his old trucks and trailers, an old terminal and his old body.
He still went to work every day. George was “old school” and still referred to his people as “the help.” He noticed that recently his employees were wondering, sometimes openly, what he planned to do with the business. He didn’t like these questions. Although the employees were loyal and most had spent many years working for George, they couldn’t help but notice that George’s health was failing. His hearing and eyesight were deteriorating. He wasn’t as sharp as he used to be. As he walked around the office each day to chat with the office help and drivers, he had developed a stoop. He didn’t hold his head as high as he used to. His body was aging.
George had another dilemma. His equipment was aging as well. He realized he needed to buy more equipment. The maintenance on his fleet of 2006 Freightliners was increasing rapidly. It was becoming difficult to recruit drivers to drive these trucks, and several had quit suddenly after a couple of hot and frustrating days in the shop. All the drivers were requesting APU’s. The local dealer wanted $8000 apiece. George remembered when trucks didn’t even come with air conditioning, much less APU’s. His fleet managers were telling him that drivers were leaving for companies that had them and better CSA scores. His recruiters were advising him to update his fleet and raise driver pay. The FMCSA had just finished an audit which the company failed. They suggested (in reality, more of a threat than a suggestion) that George hire a safety director and equip all his trucks with electronic logs at a cost of another $1400 a piece, not to mention new computers in the office to track them.
George did some checking on new equipment and was shocked. The trailers he had purchased years ago for $18,000 now cost $30,000 and the tractors he used to pay $100,000 for now cost $130,000. The dealer blamed the EPA. George hadn’t bought trucks during the last two EPA engine mandates. Yet it seemed that more and more customers were not giving rate increases. To the contrary they wanted decreases.
George hadn’t borrowed money for years. The bankers he had done business with for 40 years in his hometown were waiting in the lobby. But something was different. His longtime banker, Jerry, had retired a few years ago. In the lobby were Brandon and Josh. They looked to be about 30 years of age. After discussing the potential loans in the conference room for about 45 minutes, Josh looked at George and said, “George, the credit committee asked me to inquire about something so I hope you are not offended. I have to ask, ‘What is your succession plan?’” Brandon and Josh looked at each other uncomfortably. George had just looked at them and walked out of the room. The meeting was over.
After his daily nap George drove to his most important customer for a meeting. The company was the largest employer in town. It was a local paper mill. As he drove by he smiled as he saw that about 80 percent of the trailers at the mill were his company trailers. George was good friends with the plant manager, John, for many years. George built his company to 100 trucks and 300 trailers over the years through this friendship. His trucks would fan out all over the county from the mill every day. George used brokers to get the trucks back. John and George were both the top officials in the local Shriner’s and presided over the “Liar’s Table” at the Trails Inn for breakfast each Monday morning.
In John’s familiar office, he delivered the bad news to George. “George,” he said, “the times are changing. Things are getting so complicated around here, I am thinking of retiring. The company is implementing a new transportation management system and putting all their business out to bid. This decision comes from the home office. The young people around here don’t seem to understand relationships. All they care about is software and numbers. I think they are pushing me out, and after thinking on it, I might let them. I have a good retirement account and I’m getting tired of fighting the battles.”
A couple months later, in St. Louis, another trucking company had a senior management meeting. The topic was the potential purchase of George’s company. Tom started the meeting, “What we are considering is the potential purchase of Jackson Trucking. We have signed an NDA. The owner is elderly and looking for a way to exit the business. Sadly, his wife died a few months ago and none of his children are interested in the business. He has 25 employees he would like us to keep and an old terminal with a large shop in Jackson, Tennessee of which he is very proud. He has 100 old trucks and 300 old trailers. He’s worried about capital gains tax. You all have a copy of the financials. I would like everyone’s input.”
“I’ll start,” replied Tim, the CFO, “In looking over this information it appears that all the equipment is old and would have to be replaced. That would require a capital investment of over $20 million. It looks like a local bookkeeper does his books. The financials are not audited, so you have to take some of it on faith, but it looks like he’s been running about a 98 OR the past few years. I don’t think it will support the investment”
The Senior VP of Sales weighed in next, “I have looked at the customer list. About 40% of their business buckshots from a local paper mill to points all over the country. Their average rate per mile is around $1.35 loaded plus fuel. This is way too low and I don’t know how to fix that. About 30% of their freight is from brokers who quote “all in.” without fuel. They have a dominant shipper which represents 40% of their business. I have dealt with them before. They are never going to be a relationship account. All they care about is the cheap rate. In fact, we just received their bid package and decided not to bid.”
“How are their drivers?” Tom asked. The VP of Ops weighed in, “Well, it looks like about 20% of their drivers live outside of our network. We haven’t done all the due diligence, but it appears that another 30% won’t meet our qualification standards. That leaves a potential of 50 drivers. If half of those quit during a transition, then we’re looking at only adding around 25 drivers if we do this deal.” “We won’t need much of their office staff, especially if you’re talking about just a handful of drivers and a terminal out in the middle of nowhere.” Tom rendered his judgment, “I like George, but I can’t find anyway that this makes sense for us.”
“Hello, this is Susan,” she said as she answered the phone. She heard George’s familiar voice. “I just heard from Dad’s old friend, John.” I’m flying home to check on things. It seems that Dad missed the front step and fell after work today. He’s in the Jackson Hospital. The doctor said it’s just a few bumps and bruises, but they are keeping him a couple days for observation and to run some tests.” “I’ll be on the next plane,” Susan replied and hung up the phone.
At the office, everyone was worried. “I think I should apply down at the mill for a job.” Joe said. “I’m sticking it out,” replied Jenny. “He’s a good man and he deserves our best. He’s having a tough year, that’s all.”
The next day, George, Jr. and Susan sat in their old home in Jackson. “The doctor’s said they couldn’t find anything wrong with Dad. We can bring him home tomorrow,” Susan said. George looked at the wall and saw something he had never noticed before. The cuckoo clock had stopped. No one had rewound it.
Copyright 2012, Tom Kretsinger, Jr.