Keen Transport Inc.'s Chris Easter recently completed a transition that's been years in the making when he became the Cumberland County trucking and logistics company's first nonfamily CEO after 45 years.
As Keen Transport moves into 2014, it's positioning itself for expanded business in specialty hauling, Easter said. He also wants states to "harmonize" their transportation regulations so there are fewer barriers to trucks moving products and equipment around the country.
The management is rooted in 2011, when Los Angeles-based Platinum Equity acquired Keen Transport, Easter said. At that time, there were plans for an eventual transition, but former CEO Bill Keen stayed at the helm to add his expertise. Today, Keen remains an employee.
Easter became president and chief operating officer in November 2012. His CEO title was official Jan. 1. He spoke to the Business Journal about the company's future.
Q: In the past two years, you've gone from president and COO to CEO of one of Central Pennsylvania's prominent trucking companies. How big of a change is this for you?
A: It could've been a stressful period, but it's been a good year for me and the company. After 45 years of Keen family leadership, it could have been a difficult transition. But my views aligned nicely with the family way of running the business, so it's made that transition better.
In November, Bill Keen said this was a time of "great strength and momentum" for the company. How are you building that momentum?
What's transpired from a business perspective is that we've been able to add new customers and business segments. So we've increased our customer base and the diversity of our business base. We don't do just transport, but also logistics services. Some of our largest customers have had (slow) business, so the new customers helps make up for that.
I keep telling my employees we haven't lost business. When the economy picks up, we have a much broader customer base to build on. Our private equity company has also been able to invest some dollars into the company that we wouldn't have had otherwise. We can use that to replace trucks and other equipment.
Why did the company close Cressler Trucking? Was that because of declining business?
Keen is more focused on specialized transport and logistics, where the Cressler division was the van or flat-bed trailers of nonspecialized freight. We wanted to invest in more-specialized segments instead of compete in that other area. ... You have a limited pie of dollars to invest, and we wanted to maximize how we invested that money.
You're a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as a transportation officer in the Army. How does Army logistics compare to the private sector?
The similarity for what I do today is specialized transport. In the Army, you're dealing with heavy loads and ammunition. And you're focused on service, because you're not there to make money. Whatever it took to get the job done is what you did.
It's different in the private sector, because we're focused on service at Keen, but at the end of the day you have to make money. I tell our drivers, "You're the one our customers see on a daily basis, so service is important."
What transportation regulations are companies contending with in 2014?
One thing important for us in the specialized area is working with the states to harmonize the regulations between the states. For example, when you see an oversized load going down the road, you see these big flags to get the attention of other drivers, which is the way it should be. But in some states, red flags are OK. In another state, you have to use orange flags. It would be nice for them all to say (one) color is OK. In one state, they place a weight limit on loads, but another state (has a lower limit). So we might end up routing around that state.
Sometimes we have to go all the way around a state, which costs hundreds and hundreds of dollars extra, but we have to do it. It would be nice for the states to standardize those regulations.
What's your New Year's resolution for business?
Our top priorities haven't changed: Take care of the product and take care of our customers. Our top initiative will be technology, whether it's the on-board computers on our trucks or using iPads to manage the office and our inventory. We're really going to push technology to make us better and make us more efficient. <
Chris Easter, 51, joined Keen Transport in 2012. Prior to working at the Middlesex Township trucking company, he held various management positions at companies, including Schneider Logistics and Wal-Mart. Before that, he was a captain in the U.S. Army's transportation and logistics operations.
Easter holds a bachelor's degree in engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In his spare time, he plays war-strategy games.
Easter commutes from his home in Savannah, Ga., where he lives with his wife, Carla, and their two teenage sons.