Trucking along Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

After an acquisition that didn’t go well, Doug Grane and his brother abandoned that growth strategy and instead decided to grow Central States Trucking organically. And their goal in 2003 was ambitious — to double the sales of their family business by 2007.

Buying businesses might be a quicker and easier way to grow, but Grane has steered the company into the fast-growth lane by an aggressive sales effort to customers. And that strategy succeeded — Central States posted 2006 revenue of nearly $36 million and this year, Grane expects to hit the $42 million mark — double the company’s 2003 sales.

Smart Business spoke with Grane about the importance of recognizing who you can’t do business with, why one state-of-the-company address isn’t enough and the value of thinking like an underdog.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of fast growth?

Some companies may have an inclination to overpromise and underdeliver. Our emphasis was to tell the customers what we could do, keep our promises, be on time, work with them on solutions and get better every single day.

We couldn’t become complacent. Just because we had success the month before didn’t mean we were guaranteed success the next month. I can’t tell you how many phone calls that we get from companies that want to do business with us. But we’re very candid with them. We say we’re really not a good fit at this time.

So as much as you might want to accept new business, part of the key to growing over the long term is to partner with the people that you want to partner with and for the right reasons.

Q: What are the most critical elements in sustaining successful rapid growth?

It’s your people; it’s making sure that your people know and understand what you expect of them. Be clear with people in terms of their reviews; communicate the values of the company tirelessly.

Let them know what your culture stands for. For Central States, it’s safety, simplicity, speed and solutions. I tried to come up with words that everyone would remember. Every once in awhile, I’ll quiz an employee on what the four values are, and they do pretty good. Our values mean something to them.

Q: How do you keep your employees focused on growth?

I give a state-of-the-company address to everyone in the company. I give them feedback on where we were for the past year as compared to our goals, what we focused on in the past year and what we want to focus on for the upcoming year.

Everyone in the company understands what our vision for growth is and how we’re going to get there. It’s not just a once-a-year state of the company. I also do it mid-year, so in the middle of summer, I let them know what our plan was at the start of the year. I give them some feedback in the middle of the year because 12 months is a long time for people to keep everyone focused and on track.

It’s a chance for me to get all of our employees focused on what our goals are for the year and how we’re best going to be able to take care of our customers and meet their needs.

Q: What are the dangers of fast growth?

We know that one of the biggest pitfalls for a company that is growing rapidly is resting on its laurels and becoming complacent. In one of the state-of-the-company presentations a couple of years back, the theme was ‘Think Like an Underdog,’ and this was the theme for our 25th anniversary year.

How do you get a company that’s doing well not to rest on its laurels and not say, ‘We’ve been around for 25 years, we’ll be around another 25 years?’ I said, ‘You know what? The marketplace right now is Darwinian — it’s survival of the fittest; it’s adapt or get left behind. I said, ‘Even though we’re 25 years old, think like we’re in business for the first year.’

So how do you communicate that edge? How you live that on a daily basis is you remind them not to take anything for granted. We’ve still got to earn the profits for the company.

Q: How do you keep growth from overwhelming your ability to keep up?

The key thing for a mid-sized family business is we’re looking for the long-term relationships. Maybe sometimes with a public company, you’ll read how they’ll jack up quarterly earnings, or you’ll get a CEO who will pursue a very short-term strategy to jack up the stock price.

Even though you’re in the fast lane, you want to focus on being of long-term value to your customers. If you ever feel at any given time that this rapid growth isn’t working, have a cooling-off period; there’s nothing wrong with that. You owe it to your customers that you already have to take care of them.

If you’re growing too fast where you’re not taking care of your current customers — the top line can go up and down. It doesn’t have to be growing by double digits every year.

HOW TO REACH: Central States Trucking Co.,