Marcia Taylor isn’t your run-of-the-mill CEO. She’s a soft-spoken matriarch, who transformed Bennett International Group LLC from a small, five-truck contract carrier into a $266 million logistics and freight services powerhouse.
The key to her accomplishment? She attributes her early success to fostering a family-oriented culture and deliberately sidestepping head-to-head battles with conventional competitors.
“We grew organically by adding services to meet the unique needs of our customers,” Taylor says. “We were positioned outside the mainstream, so we were used to competing against just four to five firms.”
Riding the coattails of customers helped the company expand beyond long-haul trucking into lucrative new segments like warehousing, logistics and vehicle transport.
Over time, Bennett International built a stable of disparate companies and service lines with random reporting lines while earning a reputation for being one of Atlanta’s best employers. In fact, the company has been recognized as one of the top workplaces in the area by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
But the recent recession illuminated the shortcomings of the company’s unorthodox structure as domestic revenues sagged and the management team struggled to win new contracts, especially in burgeoning international and government segments.
“I think we became a bit complacent before the recession because things were going well, and we were making money,” Taylor says. “In hindsight, I can see that we weren’t as efficient as we needed to be and our management structure prevented us from offering clients bundled services or a single point of contact, which were essential to winning bids and new contracts.”
Realigning a family-owned company is never easy. Here’s how Taylor got Bennett International back on track without sacrificing key staff or its family-oriented culture.
Prioritize people over profits
Taylor wanted to avoid draconian staff cuts and the potential loss of institutional knowledge that could impede Bennett International’s ability to rebound when the economy improved. In addition, she didn’t want to violate the trust of long-term employees or tarnish the firm’s vaunted employment brand, so she reduced ancillary expenses, watched cash flow like a hawk, and asked everyone to make small sacrifices.
“I’ve always believed that if you treat people right and give customers great service, the profits will come,” Taylor says. “Our goal was to come out of the recession in a better place and we achieved our mission because our employees were willing to pitch in which helped us avoid massive layoffs.”
Taylor asked employees to take off one day per month without pay, while the management team worked on reorganization and hunted for new sources of revenue. The camaraderie was so strong, that financially secure employees helped their cash-strapped co-workers by volunteering to take off additional days without pay.
“Our employees supported our long-term strategy because we didn’t make hasty decisions and kept them in the loop throughout the realignment process,” Taylor says. “CEOs can reduce fear during times of crisis by being candid about their motives, prioritizing the needs of their customers and employees, and avoiding cuts that might hinder growth and profits down the road.”
So far, it seems that Taylor’s penchant for delayed profit gratification is paying off. Bennett International is projecting revenues of $275 million in 2013 and Taylor says the organization can sustain 20 percent annual growth for the foreseeable future without increasing overhead, thanks to its increased efficiencies.
Exploit synergistic opportunities
Given her intimate knowledge of logistics, it’s not surprising that Taylor took a methodical approach to Bennett International’s realignment initiative. Her management team pinpointed the needs of current and prospective clients and redefined the firm’s core services, while looking for ways to streamline and consolidate its vast slate of offerings.
They also looked for ways to extend their capabilities by leveraging the firm’s prized fleet of owner-operator truckers, who have primary relationships with Bennett International and a vested interest in the company’s success.
In turn, Taylor earns the loyalty of owner-operators by treating them like family, which is smart, given the current and projected shortage of transportation professionals.
“We looked for synergistic opportunities to combine several services under a single umbrella and leverage our existing assets and owner-operators so we could up-sell current customers and attract new clients by offering them a package of services,” Taylor says. “Second, we wanted to be more efficient by leveraging our existing technology and consolidating back office tasks without inconveniencing our existing clients.”
The goals served as the linchpin for the reorganization initiative and a rallying point when the team disagreed or veered off course. In the end, they were able to segue from a company with a host of competing fiefdoms into an integrated firm with several divisions. Plus, realignment created opportunities to consolidate billing and accounting systems and eliminate redundant processes that increased overhead while adding little value.
For example, the team created an international logistics division by bundling project cargo, cold chain and other services that had been housed under different entities giving the firm expanded capabilities in full spectrum logistics planning and support. They also created Bennett International Transport and Bennett Distribution Services to enable rapid expansion into key segments of the international marketplace.
Early realignment efforts spawned new contracts from clients with international needs and the U.S. General Services Administration, and validated the efficacy of the team’s strategy.
While some CEOs might hammer out a major reorganization plan in a few hours or days, Taylor’s team worked on the initial blueprint for nearly six months.
They often argued behind closed doors but eventually reached consensus by listening to each other and staying true to their goals and the company’s values.
“I think it’s healthy to disagree but you need ground rules so the discussion is respectful and fruitful,” Taylor says. “We’d take a break when we reached an impasse. I’ve always thought that sleeping on a problem is a great way to break a stalemate.”
Match the right people to the right jobs
Once the new divisions were created, Taylor faced the difficult task of realigning the company’s senior management team with its new structure. She took stock of each person’s strengths and performance before asking them to take on new roles. The fact that the senior management team includes outsiders and her two sons added to the complexity of her mission.
“I believe in putting people into roles that give them an opportunity to grow and maximize their strengths and talents,” Taylor says. “The decision to realign employees is difficult, but it gets easier if you put them into positions where they have the best chance to succeed.”
Taylor referenced the needs of clients and the company’s history of exceptional customer service to bolster support for her management realignment strategy. She’s an advocate of values-based decision making. Her business decisions support the company’s mission and core values. She also uses data to make tough calls but says executives make the best decisions by balancing data with intangible factors and thinking about what’s fair.
“I think if you have a lot of passion for your ideas and convey a clear vision, people will accept change,” Taylor says. “It may take time, but if the logic is there and your decisions don’t conflict with your values, people will eventually come around to your way of thinking.”
Taylor takes her time when making difficult decisions but defends her sluggishness by saying that she’d rather be slow and accurate than have regrets, especially when her decisions directly impact the financial health of the company and its nationwide team of more than 3,000 contractors, agents and employees.
While Taylor acknowledges that she and her children don’t always see eye to eye, she says they’ve found success as a family-operated company by fostering open communications and supporting each other through thick and thin.
“We’ve learned some valuable lessons from this experience, and we don’t plan to repeat our mistakes,” Taylor says. “By leveraging our excellent reputation, repositioning for growth, and remaining true to our customers and what we do best, I believe our company and our extended family will continue to do well for the foreseeable future.”
How to reach: Bennett International Group LLC, (800) 866-5500 or www.bennettig.com
Garner support for your plan by prioritizing people over profits.
Create operating efficiencies by exploiting synergistic opportunities.
Match the right people to the right jobs.
The Taylor File
Name: Marcia G. Taylor
Company: Bennett International Group LLC
Education: High school graduate
What was your very first job?
I was an apprentice pharmacist in a small, solely-owned compounding pharmacy in Mt. Vernon, Ill. There were only four of us on the staff so I learned the benefits of a family-oriented culture at an early age. The pharmacist would extend credit to customers who couldn’t afford their medications so I also learned the importance of ethics and the value of prioritizing people over profits. Profit is important but it’s not the primary goal. If you treat people right and give them great service, you’ll have loyal customers, plenty of referrals and profits will follow.
Who do you admire most and why?
I admire Margaret Thatcher for sticking to her guns when she felt something was right. Although our styles differ, I appreciate the way she went about things. She was a tough lady who accomplished a great deal because she wasn’t afraid to take a stand and voice her opinion on difficult issues.
What is your definition of business success?
When your employees and customers are happy, you greatly increase your chances of success. Set high standards, focus on being the best instead of the biggest, and success will follow.
What was the best business advice you ever received?
Don’t rush to judgment or make rash decisions. Step back and think things through. And when you’re facing a tough decision, rely on integrity as well as facts and think about what’s fair. I’ve found that by practicing values-based decision-making, I make the right call most of the time. Plus, it’s hard to undo the damage when a leader makes unethical choices.
What’s the secret to working with family?
Set ground rules and then hash things out behind closed doors. Always speak with a unified voice when addressing the staff and don’t take things personally. Businesses come and go but you can’t replace family.