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FreightWaves Carrier Summit: U.S. Xpress CEO talks digitization, taking over family business (with video)

“We want to be one of the leaders, one of the innovators.”

FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller interviewed his brother Eric Fuller, CEO of U.S. Xpress (NYSE: USX), Thursday in a wide-ranging discussion that touched on running a family business, change management and Variant, U.S. Xpress’ new digitally managed fleet that aims to transform over-the road trucking.

After working in various management roles at U.S. Xpress for over 20 years, Eric took over as CEO of the asset-based truckload carrier in 2017. Simultaneously his father, founder Max Fuller, became chairman of the board.

The changing of the guard coincided with an effort to transition the Chattanooga, Tennessee-headquartered business from a high-growth entrepreneurial organization to a more “mature organization that was a lot more intentional about how it operated,” Eric said.

Elaborating on that mission, he said the goal was to be more metric-driven and data-oriented and to prioritize process and workflow.

What was it like to take over a company from a founder who is also your father?

“A founder never leaves,” Eric replied. Although it took time for father and son to figure out a good dynamic, he and Max Fuller work well together. “We’ve got a good rhythm,” he said.

Soon after Eric took the reins at U.S. Xpress, the company went public. Then the freight markets collapsed, followed by the trade wars. The challenging market environment put tremendous pressure on the company and its new public-facing CEO, Eric acknowledged.

Under the critical eye of industry analysts, U.S. Xpress pushed full steam ahead with its new strategy.

“Our pivot was broad digitization of the company,” Eric said.

Spurring his foray into new technology solutions were concerns that digital brokers were taking market share from U.S. Xpress. But as Eric talked with Silicon Valley disruptors, he also saw an untapped opportunity.

“I felt they were missing the connection with the asset, and the data that the asset provides,” he explained. “I thought you could take that level of technology, the automation, and apply it to asset-based technology.”

With the help of machine learning rock stars at Georgia Tech and a new chief information officer, U.S. Xpress launched Variant, a digitally recruited, dispatched and managed asset-based fleet, complete with brand-new gray Freightliner Cascadias equipped with digital dashboards.

Why did U.S. Xpress decide to purchase a new fleet and recruit a new driver pool instead of trying to fix its existing — and struggling — over-the-road business?

It’s difficult to force a 35-year-old company to change, Eric said, and leadership wanted to separate Variant from the carrier’s legacy reputation.

So far the metrics are strong: Variant generated more than 500 basis points of operating ratio improvement in its truckload business, Eric said. Turnover declined by 70% and safety incidents by 30%.

Will Variant shape Eric Fuller’s legacy?

“We want to be a carrier that is thought of in the upper tier,” he said. “We want to be one of the leaders, one of the innovators, and we are working toward that.”

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Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]