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Fostering diversity is top-down, all-in commitment

It could be 25 veterans or 22 spoken languages but no excuses allowed.

Scott Auslund, chief operating officer of asset-based third-party logistics company Gulf Relay SCM and Laura Ann Howell, chief operating officer of commercial insurer Reliance Partners, on the FreightWaves LIve set in Chicago on Nov., 12 (Photo: Brian Straight/FreightWaves)

All the platitudes about the value of a diverse workforce comes down to one question: What are you doing about it?

For asset-based third-party logistics company Gulf Relay SCM and commercial insurer Reliance Partners, the numbers alone speak volumes. Chief operating officers Scott Auslund and Laura Ann Howell shared their approaches during FreightWaves LIVE in Chicago on Nov. 12.

Leaning in

“I think we have really leaned in heavily and that’s why we’re winning in this diversity space,” said Howell, who was named COO in 2018 before her 30th birthday, a diversity move in young leadership. More than half of Reliance’s 160 employees (52%) are female.

Reliance has employees assigned to dedicated phone lines who speak 22 languages — “a United Nations of insurance agencies,” said Howell, who earned one of her two bachelor’s degrees in Spanish. 

“A lot of our trucking companies, a lot of our carriers have dispatchers who only speak Spanish, only speak Russian,” Howell said. “Not only have we sold them products in the language their team needs to communicate, we can service and follow up on the back end.”

Managing the needs of such diversity — whether by recognizing the needs of a working mother or an employee’s observation of a religious holiday — Howell said senior leadership buy-in and empathetic managers and people leaders make the difference.

“If you are going to provide a flexible environment, you have to have really good boots-on-the-ground leaders,” she said.

Hiring veterans

A different kind of boots on the ground is making a difference for fast-growing Gulf Relay SCM, where 25 of the company’s 365 employees are military veterans.

“There’s some chaos involved … and most of the veterans I know do really well with organizing chaos,” Auslund said. “We may have been successful because we have given them an opportunity to shine in a somewhat chaotic environment as we’ve grown.”

Gulf Relay has 300 trucks today, up from just six in 2012. About eight veterans are in-office employees. The rest are drivers. None have risen to the executive ranks yet, but a few are progressing as “leaders of teams,” he said. “People are not just coming in to hit a number.

“We’re a really fast-growing company,” Auslund said. “I don’t know if that is what brought them, but they have added so much value to the company.”

Howell and Auslund said some companies can afford to hire a chief diversity officer or chief inclusion officer. But a C-suite executive is not critical to succeeding in driving a vision and practices to hiring diverse employees.

“Don’t make excuses,” Howell said.

Alan Adler

Alan Adler is an award-winning journalist who worked for The Associated Press and the Detroit Free Press. He also spent two decades in domestic and international media relations and executive communications with General Motors.