Eric Fuller, U.S. Xpress CEO, sat down with Trend to talk about the trucking industry, innovation and keeping it moving – literally – during the pandemic.
TREND: Many locals realize that trucking is big business in Chattanooga but may not understand the industry. Can you tell us more about what U.S. Xpress does?
Fuller: While U.S. Xpress began as a trucking company, we're evolving into a true digital transportation solutions provider. So, while our professional drivers move essential goods nationwide and work with a wide range of customers, we're also squarely focused on technology innovation which will keep us in a market leadership position for decades to come. In a fragmented, $800 billion industry where the 10 largest companies account for less than six percent of the market, U.S. Xpress stands out for our focus on technology, innovation and safety.
We've implemented a range of digital initiatives to drive innovation, streamline the value chain for customers and improve the driver experience. The latest example of this is our digital fleet and new brand, Variant, which we launched in 2019. We've grown that to more than 600 trucks and plan to have 900 by the end of this quarter.
We're also industry leaders when it comes to safety and were early adopters to life-saving technologies like roll stability, disc brakes and accident avoidance systems. Our tractors are equipped with speed limiters, which improve fuel efficiency and reduce serious accidents, and we carry higher than average liability insurances. U.S. Xpress is also among the few carriers who require hair drug testing of all drivers.
TREND: We hear U.S. Xpress talking about technology a lot lately, what does this mean for the company and the industry?
Fuller: Venture capital and Silicon Valley have invested billions in freight technology over the last couple of years. With the size and fragmentation of the industry, those with deep pockets and innovative ideas see real opportunity in trucking. That obviously puts pressure on the rest of us who are in the industry to keep pace.
At U.S. Xpress, we're taking things further than most incumbent companies and reimaging our business much like a true startup would. A few years ago, the words you would hear in our halls most often were "trucks," "drivers," "freight" and "capacity." Those are obviously still key components of our business but today you are just as likely to hear words like "algorithm," "machine learning," "data analytics," "optimization" and "automation."
TREND: With this sort of startup mentality, does that mean you're hiring in the tech space?
Fuller: To shake up the industry, we need skillsets from a diverse mix of industries and backgrounds. In the past two years alone, we've hired a wide range of masters- and even doctorate-level professionals in everything from IT to strategy to marketing. And we're drawing candidates from other markets and helping to further position Chattanooga as a great place to live and work. When I look at what I do and think about every day as well as the type of employees we are regularly hiring, we are a technology company within the freight industry. That's an evolution that has taken place over the last couple years.
TREND: Tell us about how the pandemic has impacted your workforce in the past several months.
Fuller: I'm truly amazed at how well our folks have performed during such challenging circumstances. When the pandemic took hold, we had 99% of our office staff up and running at home within a week, with minimal technology disruptions. We've been deliberate about continuing to connect virtually. So, while we don't see each other in person each day, we're probably more connected and accessible than ever. For the most part, we've seen increased productivity across the organization and many folks are thriving in this new workplace reality. But I certainly realize that many team members are eager to get back to the office and in-person meetings both internally and with the customers we serve.
TREND: The bulk of your more than 10,000 employees are drivers. How have they adapted to the pandemic and what are you doing to keep them and your customers safe?
Fuller: We've maintained a strict safety protocol throughout the pandemic, requiring masks at our terminals and when interacting with customers. We've minimized touch points when interacting with customers and provide masks and disinfectant to our drivers. We also regularly communicate updates and tips through our mobile app, tech units in our tractors, and even across social media.
I'm incredibly proud of our more than 7,500 drivers who have been on the front lines throughout this pandemic. Everything from your toilet paper to your Amazon packages are delivered with trucks. And we've kept this freight moving throughout this pandemic. It's really humbling to see the hard work and dedication these folks have.
TREND: What are some of the causes that U.S. Xpress is passionate about?
Fuller: At both an industry and company level, we have a strong focus on diversity and inclusion. Whether you're in our office working on the latest tech innovation, or driving our trucks, we want you to feel welcomed, supported and included. As we continue our evolution into a true transportation logistics company, this becomes even more important – and is vitally important for our customers.
Last summer, we established a Diversity & Inclusion Council made up of a cross-section of 15 team members with different backgrounds, beliefs and views. They're developing initiatives and programs that are now rolling out across the company.
U.S. Xpress is also a big supporter of military veterans. About 10 percent of our drivers served in the military, and we're regularly named one of the top military friendly companies in the nation. We're proud of that honor.
We also provide time off for our employees to give back to the community with organizations of their choice. Personally, I'm leading the Chattanooga Chamber's 2021 CEO Roundtable and am excited about the opportunities we have in the months to come to better promote local businesses locally, regionally and nationally. From a charitable standpoint, my wife and I are involved with the Austin Hatcher Foundation. They provide incredible support to families struggling with the devastating effects of pediatric cancer.