Women in Trucking: An Interview with Sandy Hakes

This is the first in a series about women executives in the trucking industry.

This is the first in a series of articles and interviews about the inspiring women in this field. Our first interview is with Sandy Hakes, President and Owner of Williams NationaLease, Ltd, a full truckload carrier that creates customized transportation solutions for their customers. Sandy took over the company from her father in 1998 and the company now has three locations; two in Illinois and one in Indiana.  In 2007, the company was awarded the American Trucking Association’s President’s Trophy for Safety, and Sandy herself was named Woman of the Year in 2013 by the National Association of Professional Women.

Q.     Sandy; thanks for talking with us. I know your father started this business. When did you realize you wanted to be a part of it?

A:        I’ve actually been working in the business since I was 12 years old. My Dad used to bring me to work with him and I would wipe off shelves and just do some small things around the office. On Saturdays, I’d answer the phones. Since he didn’t have anyone doing that, I got to pick it up and say hello. That was pretty exciting and grown-up for a 12-year old. Throughout the years, on weekends or during the summer, I would work there. I just knew, early on, that this is where I wanted to be. The company had a Dealership and a Leasing Division, so when my Dad was ready to retire in 1996, he asked my husband and I which one we would rather run. I thought, I’ll do the easy one, leasing (laughs).

Q.       Was being in the business all of those years helpful to you?

A.        Yes, I built up a lot of contacts over the years, before I took over the Leasing business. I actually started my adult career working at Central Illinois Trucks, a Kenworth and Volvo dealership, where I was the Sales Manager before moving over to the leasing company. So when I took over there, I already had a foot in the door as far as knowing who was who in the zoo!

Q.       What obstacles or challenges did you face in your early years in the industry?

A.        I guess my biggest challenge was just being the only woman at meetings. I always felt insecure; that I couldn’t really participate and ask a question because I was afraid the men would think I was dumb, or that I was asking stupid questions. So I smiled…and shook hands…and listened…a lot. And as I listened, I thought to myself, “I was thinking that” or “I could have said that.” I realized that I was no different than any of the men when it came to asking and answering questions. As time went on, I got more comfortable, and as I moved into senior and then executive management, I knew who my mentors would be.

You know, the big difference between a dealership and leasing trucks is that as a dealer, you want people to bring the trucks in so you can work on them; in leasing, you want those trucks out on the road and not in your shop, so you need to make sure that you have the right drivers and technicians. Managing drivers can be an issue, but it doesn’t have to be. Like any other group, drivers just want to be listened to. If they’re upset about something, give them your full attention and make sure you always give them an answer. It may not be the answer they were looking for, but at least they’ll know they were listened to. I have 180 drivers. I can’t please them all, but I at least have to try.

Q.       How has the industry changed in its attitude towards women in management and executive positions?

A.        Some of the old timers still have a bit of an issue with a woman at the helm. I run the business along with my two daughters and a son-in-law. And I have women who dispatch. That’s a bit of a shock to some of the seasoned guys who don’t know us. Years ago, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to have a woman instructing them on what to do, or differ with them on a topic. It’s changed a lot. I talked earlier about being the only woman at meetings and the insecurity and fear of speaking up. Now, women are accepted. Some men are still surprised when they see a woman owner, but there’s no negativity involved. When I started out, I was often the only woman at a conference or meeting, but that’s been changing over time. Now I see women at the meetings and that’s a good feeling. As some of the older owners are retiring, their daughters are entering the business where it used to be only sons. It’s really great not to be the only one. There’s no longer any intimidation.

Q.       When it comes to the trucking industry, what do you see as the main challenges?

A.        Definitely government with the regulations. The Hours of Service is affecting carriers and has caused drivers to lose quite a bit of income. I know it’s all about keeping people safe, and of course, all of us want that!!  But sometimes the people that make the rules haven’t lived the life. They need to experience it before making a law regulating it.

The Affordable Care Act is turning out to be a real issue as well. After years in the making, it’s going to be expensive, and not just for the transportation industry.

Driver shortage is a huge issue. Today’s Y Generation workers don’t want to work at a job that will keep them away from home for long periods of time. That’s affecting over-the-road companies significantly. Since both Mom and Dad work, there’s an expectation that both will share in home life. So where are we going to get people to supply the need for over-the-road drivers? I try to be a forward thinker. I think that women are a great untapped resource. Now if you’re driving, you’ll see women driving. Out of our 180 drivers, 5 are women and I’d like that to grow. So we need to advertise, solicit, and encourage women to apply.

Veterans are another great resource. We try to hire veterans and we just received an award from Ford Motor Company for Outstanding Achievement in Hiring Veteran Drivers in their “2014 Drive Proud Program.”  It is very exciting for us. The biggest obstacles to hiring are the insurance companies. They require two years’ experience driving tractor trailers before they will insure a driver.

Q.       How has new technology affected your company?

A.        Actually, a lot of our drivers have used PeopleNet or Qualcomm electronic logging devices so they’re used to utilizing the technology. Some of the drivers aren’t happy about the situation since they feel they’re being watched…and I guess they are.  Our customers want all the information possible about truck location including longitude and latitude, so we need to know where every truck is at any time. But once the drivers accept it, they find it easy to use. It’s a simple technology and so user friendly. Now drivers don’t have to even talk to a dispatcher other than letting them know they picked up or dropped off a shipment.

Another issue is finding good diesel technicians. Vocational schools aren’t getting a whole lot of applications for this. And it’s a shame because it’s a great profession. It’s a tough, dirty job, but a good mechanic makes good money. With new technology, you need to be a computer whiz; yet the guys that have been in the occupation for years has  adapted, even though they were hesitant at first.

I know there’s a lot of talk about CNG, but that’s not affecting my company right now. It’s only the big companies that can afford to experiment with it. I think it’s going to be a while before you’ll see a lot of it…it’s just too expensive.

Q.       The buzz is all about social media for business. How about your business?

A.        I personally don’t use it much at all, but the company does. I have my management team handling it. We haven’t noticed any real results, but everybody does it so you have to go with the flow. You’ve got to say “yeah” because they look at you funny if you aren’t on Facebook, or you don’t tweet, etc.

Q.       How have you managed to achieve a work/life balance?

A.        When I started running the leasing business, our girls were still young; so I made sure I spent plenty of time with them. But once they were grown, I would often get to work at 6AM and get home around 7PM. I was a real workaholic. I’m older now and single and I’m doing fun things and stepping back a bit. My girls both work at the company. One is there every day, one in the evenings. But they said they’re not going to do what I did. They intend to have a better, more balanced work and home life. They’ll manage in a different way and I have faith in them to make the company bigger, better, and stronger.

Q.       What advice would you give to other women who want to enter the industry?

A.        I’d tell them, “Hang in there. Don’t give up. Don’t be intimidated.” In reality, it’s a business like every other business. You have to be tough-skinned, not thin-skinned. Don’t let things bother you and don’t expect political correctness from drivers. Just go on about your business. This is really a great industry. Unfortunately, you only hear the bad stuff, like a terrible accident, etc. But that’s not the way it is. There’s a lot of camaraderie. We look out for one another. But it is a lot of work. I tell my girls that we work with pennies in this business (.01 per mile), but you add up all those miles and all those pennies and you can have a successful company.

Q.       Sandy, thank you so much. This has been very informative. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention?

A.        Yes. Years ago, we had Truck Drivers. Now we have Drivers of Trucks and there’s a big difference between the two. In the past, drivers had their own tool kits. They knew how to fix something if it went wrong. And they could drive anything. They were dedicated. Now the younger drivers are not taught the mechanics of a truck.  They don’t know how to fix them on the road because so much of it is electronic and that’s a whole new beast.  Also, a lot of the trucks are automatics and drivers who come out of that environment have to learn how to shift gears. Truck driving used to be a career; now it’s a job. And, in my opinion, it’s hurt the industry.

So for all the Drivers of Trucks out there:  Please know we appreciate your dedication and want you to be proud of what you do and PLEASE BE SAFE!

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Kate Freer

About Kate Freer

Kate Freer is Vice President, Marketing for NationaLease, and is responsible for go-to-market strategy, demand generation, branding, positioning, and communications. She has spent most of her 15 year career in the digital marketing space fostering brands in high-growth companies.

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