A semi-truck hauling a trailer on a highway through the midwest

EKA Insights Interview: David L. Summitt

JJ Singh

That’s something David L. Summitt learned at the age of 20, when his father William R. Summitt passed away and left his son to take over the Bestway Trucking company.

In the ensuing nearly 40 years, Bestway has seen a plethora of changes (as detailed on their website), transforming into Summitt Trucking LLC and rapically scaled its business to provide nationwide services, with a particular focus on taking care of their drivers.

Today the EKA Insights Interview series continues with special guest David L. Summitt, who recently spoke to us about his path to leading  Summitt Trucking and his vision for the Company.

EKA: Let’s start with something a bit more existential - people are always talking about finding their purpose these days. We hear about that a lot in a world that feels like it’s changing more than ever before, so finding that purpose can be difficult. Did you feel like you found your purpose back in 1985 when you took over the family business or is that a thing you felt you had to do?

David: My father died unexpectedly on Christmas in 1985. A day or two later, after we buried my father, my mother looked at me and said, “I’ve got a sixth grade education, two mortgages, here’s your dad’s keyes, don’t let me lose the house.” I already had a full-time job somewhere else, so I had to step into this role and figure out how to allow her to keep her house.

That may not be the kind of purpose that people think about when we ask the question of ourselves, but that is definitely a specific goal and a very specific purpose - to take care of family.

I’m an only child, ain’t nobody gonna take my momma’s house. I was destined to make sure that didn’t happen.

I was roughly 20 years old, and I walked into a room where I had two partners and, you know, pretty much all of our drivers were in their 40s and 50s. It was a very hard thing to learn. I wasn’t respected - but you don’t get respect, you earn it. I had to work twice as long and twice as hard than most people to get that respect because I was my father’s son, right? And you just have to exceed their expectations.

Do you feel like there’s a disconnect today with how that idea of earning respect is viewed by different generations?

Yeah, absolutely. We see it all the time. 

The older generations grew up with our grandparents and parents either being in the wars or some horrific recessions that they had to overcome. And my children, who are somewhere between 23 and 33, didn’t experience a lot of that. They’ve seen Mom and Dad go to work, come home and life was good. They played sports, went to school and got to have their fun activities without the same kind of trying moments that make people stand up and either do it or not.

So there’s a lot of entitlement in this generation and I don’t do really well with things like that because I think if you earn what you work for, it’s yours. You deserve it. If you don’t work, then you’re not deserving of as much, right?

Absolutely - I think it’s definitely generational. I’m 41 this year and I work with a lot of folks younger than me. There are different standards - some of which are great, but the idea of certain work that needs to be done and some uncomfortable situations to get through already seems like it might be old-fashioned to some.

I watched a motivational speech by a gentleman named Simon Sinek, who I have a great deal of respect for and I think it was called “Millennials, How I Broke The Internet.” I thought that was an interesting title and the first question was about millennials and entitlement. Simon immediately goes into “I don't know that you want me saying what I really believe here because it might hurt a lot of people's feelings.” And he went on to say that, you know, when I was a kid and I played ball, if I came in first, second or third, I might have gotten a trophy or a ribbon or something. But he said today whether you win, or you lose, every single person on the team gets the exact same award. 

And what we're doing is we're teaching our children that for one, two, and three, it's no better, you're not going to be treated any better, than anybody else if you work hard. That means for those that are on the bottom, “wow, I'm actually not good. I don't deserve this that they're doing anyway.”I feel ashamed or that I shouldn't have it. 

So we're teaching some kids some things that probably, you know, they're learning differently than we did.

That leads me to my next question, which is about people succeeding or failing - whether on the diamond or something else. Sometimes life throws you curveballs when you expect to succeed or expect your life to go a different way. You’ve dealt with a lot of ups and downs in your career, leaving the company and then returning to make Summitt Trucking what it is today. What advice do you give people when they come to you for advice in dealing with the unexpected?

Well, there’s a few things and it depends on the severity of course.

But when you do get those curveballs, you can whine, cry and complain, or you can do something about it. I've always been one of those kinds of guys that feels like I've got all these employees working for me and they expect the paycheck - they're counting on me. 

It’s not just the husband or wife who works for me - they probably have a spouse and maybe two children. So you multiply the number of employees by four, which means if you’ve got 100 people working for you then you’ve got 400 people depending on you. I take that to heart.

I'm one of those kinds of guys that sees there's a door in front of me and I try to find a way either around it, over it or blow it up. You have to find a way to get to the other side. And to do that, you have to have passion for what you're doing. If you don't have passion, you're missing out on a large part of what it takes to get things done.

When people think about passion these days, they often talk about it as though it has to ignite every aspect of their soul. Whenever I’ve been interviewed for jobs, I always say it’s about creating a better quality of life for my wife and our family. That’s my passion and it trumps any other aspect of the job.

Absolutely. I've had situations where people have come and said, “Dave, I really don't want to go, but I have this opportunity.” We sit and talk and I would look at him and say, “Look, if that's what's best for you and your family, please go do that.”

I don't care if you are the single best employee I have - sincerely, I want what's best for our employees. I've repeated that over and over and over. And with that, hopefully, I've gained the respect of a lot of our people who are comfortable enough to come talk to me. 

The single most rewarding thing for me in the last few years was with my daughter Danielle who’s 23 and had just graduated Purdue with an HR degree. She came to me and said, “Dad, I don’t want to work for you. I don’t want to get into the family business.” 

So I said, “That’s fine. How can I help you succeed?”

She said not to worry because she’s got a job starting Monday - so she graduates on Friday and has a full time job on Monday. But she goes to work and it doesn’t work out. It wasn’t right for her and that night he was terribly upset. I said, “Danielle, don’t worry about it. It’s your first day out. You’re going to be fine. You’re a smart young lady. You’re driven so just be patient.”

Next day, she calls me and says, “I can't stand the thought of having this degree and sitting at home. I know you need some help. How about I work part time to help you?”  So she comes in and a month later she’s still here. She’s at the door, got a little tear in her eye and says, “I think I owe you an apology.”

I ask, “Why is that?” and she said, “You always told us as we were growing up that you had two families. And I would just get really mad. You don't have two wives, two sets of children, you know, what are you talking about?” And she said, “But I've been here 30 days, and I would like to become full time. And I don't think I ever want to have another job in my life. This company is truly like family. It's like cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters that you work with. It's just amazing.”

That’s beautiful. I think that a big part of that family and the people who matter to you are the drivers, right? Your website mentions “meeting and exceeding” their needs, but what does that mean to you in practice?

In all honesty, I drove a truck for three and a half years and I don't think that makes me a truck driver right now in today's world. 

Back then you had paper logs, loose regulations and safety protocols. And, maybe four logbooks. I’m not saying that was legal or you should do it, I’m just saying that’s how some of them operated it.

And with all that today, you’re demanding electronic logs, scanning documents and you’re demanding that they know the new DOT rules but there’s no real way for them to be communicated unless we communicate to them. There’s no classes that they can take or online subscriptions that really keep up with these things. You have to pick your information here and there, then put it together and then we send it to them, right? 

We're asking a whole lot of a driver, whose average age is probably 59 years old. Well, I'm 58, I never went to college, my dad died, I wanted to be an attorney. But I ended up being a trucker, and I'm proud of it - I actually have passion for it. 

But you're asking a 58 or 59 year old person to learn how to do things they’ve never done, then operate in a country where maybe they don't feel safe if they have to park their vehicle, or they're worried about getting a ticket, or they're worried if they run one minute over on the load.

We literally had a situation where a driver was pulling into a restaurant because the driver was out of service - he needed a break, right? He had like one minute when he came off the ramp. And he's kind of timed it that way and a little tight. But he's pulling in and because of the way the truck was parked next to him, he had to make adjustments and he got a citation for it. You know, a lot of the DOT officers, I respect them, I think they're great people, I think they do a good job. And they help keep our interstates and highways safe, right? 

On the flip side of it, some of them have not been given the education that they should get. And then they come out on the road and we end up with confusion over what a driver should or shouldn’t do. It becomes very complicated, right? But, in my opinion of a truck driver, when you look at what that driver has to go through where they eat, where they sleep, where they take a shower, the risks that they take to avoid accidents, congestion, acts of God - I could just keep rattling these off.

At the end of the day, we're paying these guys, you know, two years ago, maybe in the 50s. Today, maybe in the mid 60s, maybe 70. And in all honesty,  those guys ought to be making 100 grand a year. If we want to attract people who have the technology, technological skills to do what we're asking them to do, have the motivation to go do that job every day and fight this traffic and the congestion and so forth, then we should pay thrm well.

But our industry - and it's nobody's fault, in particular, not one person, no governmental person - it's just the way it's been. Our industry has allowed the drivers’ wages to remain lower than where I think they should be. And as a trucking company owner, how do I get that up? I can only do what my customers will allow me to do. And after I take everybody's wages and expenses out of the business, there's only so much leftover, so we try to give back as much as we possibly can. I would really love to see our industry shift to where we're actually taking care of these people and paying them more than what we are today.

Why do you think these drivers remain so unappreciated or misunderstood by folks at large? It feels like the pandemic should’ve made it clear how important these folks are to everything but there’s still a disconnect.

Well, COVID made it really clear when it became an emergency, when the drivers didn't have a restroom, and it was a hard time just getting fuel. And they couldn’t even get a sandwich. So you’ve seen the US citizens come out to rest stops with food and drink for the drivers because they knew the important role they had. 

And these drivers stepped up big time when everyone else was at home in their house, scared to come out, or not allowed to come out. These drivers were rolling up and down the interstate and we didn’t have a single drive that said “I’m not going to do it.” They actually felt really proud of what they were doing. They stepped up and they worked harder. 

So in that particular case, yes, they were given some consideration for what they're doing. But as soon as that emergency situation ended, they went right back immediately to the people driving an 80,000 pound rig that's very noisy, takes up a lot of room, you know, “you're following me too close,” “I don't like the fumes I mean” - the list goes on and on in regards to what the general public thinks of drivers.

But it is a necessity. And it is an underappreciated necessity in respect to the driver, right? Those drivers do a wonderful job, and they need to be compensated accordingly. And we're doing the very best we can. I think all of our competitors are doing a pretty great job as well. And that driver is the key to everything. That's the reason why I have a paycheck. I really think as a nation, we probably lost a little respect for these folks. And you know, let's face it, there are great and wonderful grabbers in our industry. What we’ve got to do is figure out how to help these folks become better at what they're doing. 

I agree they're truly essential workers. If drivers just stopped driving, I don't think folks fully realize the domino effect it would have on their lives and how the world would stop in just a few days. 

Yep. I don't know if that's a week or two weeks, or how long it actually is in reality. But I guarantee you stores would have empty shelves and I would only get worse until drivers were back out.

You’ve answered a couple of questions I had, which brings me to one of my last questions - do you have a list of the top three core fundamentals to your leadership and vision for Summitt?

You know, I've worked 40 years of my life. And I think I've worked very hard with passion, trying to make sure all these folks are taken care of. I'm actually taking my entire management team as we speak, and enrolling them in some personality survey type experiences where we can learn how to better work with each other, along with coaching skills on how to better react and talk to each other. 

And culture starts in this chair, and then it goes down a level and then down a level right until it gets to every single person in this company. My role is to make that happen. And I'm working very hard to see that it does in the way that I want it so I think having the right culture is a real key part of this.

Number two is succession planning so that if something would happen to me or one of the directors that this company keeps moving forward, and without hesitation. That needs to be a seamless transition so that our people are taken care of because I had the unfortunate situation of selling my business to a company that I don't think did the right things with that, they're no longer here. That’s the reason I came back - I actually had to look in the mirror every morning and see my bank account had some money in it while our people that helped me be successful, didn't. 

And I honestly couldn't live with that. 

So that's why I came back under the name Summitt Trucking.

So the morals, ethics and culture fit into one bucket and the succession plan fits in another bucket. With the way the world is moving, we have to be continually updating our processes, procedures, looking at the technology and making changes where needed so we can stay ahead of the curve. Once you get behind that curve it;s very hard to get in front of that again. I've been there, it takes a lot of work and diligence and just kind of putting it on the line without fear. 

That all brings me to the last question. You’ve mentioned rebranding the company and putting your name on it. What did it mean to put your name on the company and make it clear that you were in charge of it again?

I'm actually a low key guy and I've really liked flying below the radar.

Our company was named BestWay Trucking and my dad named it that way in 1982 because all the shipping documents that came out said “Ship the BestWay.”

You have no idea how many phone calls we got from people based on that name, so it was a very successful way of doing business.

When we closed our business and sold it to another party, my wife and I were at home when it went out of business. I looked at her and I said, “You know, I’m struggling. I’m having a hard time knowing that  all these people that helped us be successful are hurt, and we need to go try to help somehow.: And she looks at me and she says, “I know you're gonna do it. And I've been thinking about it.”

She mentioned that the BestWay logo had a diamond, with a truck within the diamond and “BestWay” below it. So she suggested that I put some mountains on there to represent a summit, with “Summitt” below the Diamond since it’s got the same number of letters. That way when anyone sees the  Diamond they’ll see my name.

And we went from zero to 125 trucks in twelve months thanks to her thought right there.

That's amazing. 

Well, that's how it happened. 

There's days I'm really proud to have my name on that side of that truck. 

And there's days where I wish it said something other than my name. [laughs]

Well, I think that sense of accountability you have is part of what makes the company so successful. Thanks so much for the time, David.