Of course the fastest-growing company in Chattanooga is a freight brokerage. Trident Transport was listed by Inc. 5000 as the number one growth company in Chattanooga and the 400th fastest-growing company in the United States last week. We pointed out last week that 106 transport and logistics companies made the list, and frankly, we’re not surprised that the most dynamic companies in Chattanooga are in our industry.
Chattanooga, in the heart of Freight Alley, is home to some of the largest transportation companies in the country, including Kenco, Covenant Transport, and US Xpress. Access America Transport, a freight brokerage founded in 2002, was acquired by Coyote Logistics in 2014 for a reported $260M. These companies have created a rich legacy and culture of freight in Chattanooga, making it a hotbed for startups in transport and logistics.
FreightWaves walked across the street (literally) to Trident Transport to have a conversation with President Heath Haley, VP Carter Garrett, and VP of Operations Mark Harrell. Trident was founded in November 2013, and went operational on March 3, 2014. The first day of operations, when the brokerage was based in an apartment, Trident moved a load and netted $50.
Harrell said that although brokerages are often perceived to be easy to start with low barriers to entry, establishing trust with carriers is difficult with a brand new MC authority. Harrell and Haley told stories about truckers asking how long they’d been in business, and when they responded “4 days,” they heard a click on the other end of the line.
“We didn’t have any money behind us,” Haley said, “so we had to do the right things from the beginning. We didn’t take crazy risks and everything we’ve done has been financially sound.” Haley and Harrell, brothers-in-law, didn’t have backgrounds in freight, but Garrett was an Access America alum from its early days. Haley said when Trident first started, they occasionally resorted to paying carriers even before pickup to establish trust, and emphasized the role of luck.
“All success to some degree is dependent on luck. In our early days, we didn’t get burned on any loads, and we didn’t have any big insurance claims and so we were able to survive,” Haley said.
This year, Trident is on track to do $32M in revenue, after doubling every year of its existence. The culture of the company will be familiar to logistics vets: the brokerage thrives on youthful energy with beer Fridays, a ping pong table, an arcade with Galaga and Golden Tee, and a money machine that whips up a tornado of cash at bonus time.
“We play in a stressful place,” said Haley, adding that “a stressed-out employee helps no one.”
Trident’s executives say they strive to empower their brokers without constraining them in any way: while their office is staffed 24/7, they let their people come and go as they please and make as much money as they want. There are no required sales targets, Haley said, saying that one broker might be happy making six figures a year, while another might be perfectly content with $75k or $50k. Trident looks for driven salespeople “with attitude” more than graduates of logistics programs; now they have forty to fifty total employees working for them, having added ten in the past two weeks.
The brokers are organized in a pod structure of teams. When a broker’s book of business reaches a certain point, she’s allowed to add people to her team, and gets to make the hiring decisions herself.
“Everyone has the same path to promotion. Some people want their teams to be thirty people; others are comfortable with four or five,” said Harrell. There are no bonus caps at Trident—the team said they want their brokers to make as much money as they want.
“When we make a hire, we emphasize to our new people that you really have the chance to start your own business and grow it to be as big as you want,” said Haley. There are currently nine teams of brokers at Trident divided into east and west sides of the office that compete with each other.
Garrett said that Trident found some early success with its Entertainment division, which moves difficult, awkward freight for live events, often in the middle of the night after a show. Historically, that business was largely dependent on close relationships with specialized carriers, but Trident opened up an option to broker that capacity. Moving tougher freight has actually protected Trident from some market downturns, Garrett said.
While Trident developed a unique brokerage option to move live show equipment with major customers it can’t disclose, the company still faces some of the issues common to other brokerages. “Explaining the freight markets to our shipper customers is still the biggest challenge,” said Haley.
So far, Trident has been riding the wave of exponential organic growth. Harrell said that the company was opening to considering a strategic partnership with another brokerage if they found an opportunity that made sense, but they haven’t written any acquisitions into their growth plan. Trident uses McLeod’s TMS and doesn’t have any proprietary software of its own, but plans on hiring software developers in the next year or so.
Heath Haley said the team had no plans for an end-game or exit, or even a real goal besides continuing to double revenue every year.
“We’re pretty young, and we want to keep this thing going as long as we can.”