Logistics in action with truck taking trailer on to its next destination

EKA Insights Interview: Frank Adelman

JJ Singh

Life rarely works out the way you expect.

Some people try to fight that change, but then there’s the truly successful ones who learn to ride the wave of unpredictability.

The latter describes Frank Adelman, Chairman of Transflo, who has been in the transportation logistics industry for over thirty years and has seen the industry change at a seemingly unimaginable rate.

Picture provided courtesy of Frank Adelman

Today the EKA Insights Interview series continues with special guest Frank Adelman,  who recently spoke to us about his perspective on the evolution of the trucking logistics business. The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

EKA: Well, Frank, let's start at the beginning. I’ve been in my industry for just over 20 years and that feels like a lot. But you’ve been in yours for 30 and that is uncommon in today’s industry-hopping environment. How did you get started in transportation logistics? And what kept you there?

Frank Adelman: Great question. I always tell people, once you get in transportations logistics you can rarely get out. I’m living proof of that.

I graduated from University of Tennessee and went to work at a sizable bank here in Nashville called First American Bank. And I got a call from a friend of mine who was working at Comdata, who had a new kind of thing called a debit card. You have to understand that this was in the really early 80s before any of us were using ATM cards. 

But I didn’t go to college to become a sales guy, y’know? I’m above that, right? Then he told me what his commission check was for the month and I said “okay, who do I talk to?” [laughs]

That led me into a really nice kind of opportunity, not just there with Comdata but also in the transportation supply chain that’s such a huge, complex ecosystem. I looked at the industry as an opportunity to really make a difference, which is what we all want when we’re young and starting out and  was blessed enough to accomplish that. 

So, I got into this in the early 80s and I haven’t looked back.

The industry has changed so much in that time - you’re talking about the advent of debit cards and now you’re working with some cutting edge technology. As I researched your career more, I think one constant theme of your career is adaptability. With that in mind, what do you think has been the biggest change to deal with in the transportation logistics industry over time?

I think, first of all, that our society is pretty adaptable. If you look at us over the last 20 years, now we’re connected to any and everything we want to today and that wasn’t the case back when I started my career.

Transportation is an industry that thrives on and has a huge appetite for efficiency. It’s because of that they’re not necessarily in the high tech software world and instead you have to grind to keep your head above water. Trying to do it all more efficiently has led to some really interesting technologies - some of them are real good, some of them aren’t earth-shattering but they do the job.

And I think the biggest mistake that a lot of technology companies make in this marketplace is not realizing that the best technology doesn’t necessarily win. If you start from a truck driver and work your way back up to the company - your freight broker, your factory companies or financial institution - it’s really where the rubber meets the road. If it doesn’t work there and it isn’t easy for those driver employees to adapt, then you’re gonna have limited success.

So, you really start at the basic level and work from there because this is an industry that’s certainly embraced technology, but it’s been a survival move to ensure they’re not losing out and are able to stay out in front.

Now, at the risk of making you feel a bit older, I remember being a child when fuel cards were becoming popular and it seemed like such a huge paradigm shift. What do you think has allowed you to be so ahead of the curve with technology in your career? I’m sure part of your answer is the people you’ve worked with, but is there anything else?

I wouldn’t ever claim that I’m smarter than anyone else - certainly there’s a lot of people in the marketplace and I think it really does come back to talking and understanding your customers. What are their problems? Where are their solutions? What are the pain points? Who is addressing those things best? And can those issues be addressed in a way that a larger share of the market adapts and embraces them?

Knowing that you’re focused on the driver experience and efficiencies for them, what do you think is the next big tech opportunity for the transportation logistics industry?

We’re really at an inflection point today because companies are getting really good at capturing data and it’s data that I would refer to as “Intelligent Automation.” That’s where there are those decision support tools, grabbing lots of data and making those “make or break” decisions. I think we’re just at the front end of machine learning.

And, in fact, at Transflo we spend a lot of resources there today because we process over one hundred billion worth of freight bills through our platform. That means we are at one of those kinds of obvious places where we ask what we can do to use that data to help our customers more so that they’re not working from a notepad anymore. Even if they’re working from a computer they don’t necessarily have that inherent decision-making process that will drive them to the next level. So, I really think that this kind of Intelligent Automation with deep, deep machine learning is really going to thrust a lot of activity into the forefront in the very near future.

Earlier you mentioned the desire to help others and that’s something that’s been on all our minds during the pandemic. With all the changes in the world, how have you adopted your management style to meet the challenges of today?

It’s a good question given the last few years in the remote workforce. That’s been a bit of a struggle for an oldtimer like me but I’ve always felt like my management style has been about embracing an individual on a personal level as opposed to treating people like they’re just here to do a job every day. The caring and nurturing of your workforce is what lets them look at you like a partner and not as a Boss. They have to respect you and trust you, so I think there’s a lot you have to do as a manager to get there.

Over the years, I think that the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to equally manage the peaks and valleys because your employees follow you.

And they’re looking at the bad situations - how do you react? It can be a serious situation but you don’t need to panic.

I think when you’re younger you do try to be a bit of a hardass and then you learn how to treat people as individuals so they respond the best.

I would just caution those remote workers  that, for the only who’re aggressive, is that to make a name for themselves, then they’ve got to figure out a way to be top of mind for executives as someone who has more to offer outside of their daily routine and one Zoom call per week. 

It’s difficult, but let’s face it - the biggest and best companies are struggling with the question of how do we bring employees back? How do we nurture them? How do we make sure they’re adapting to our culture? I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that and I think we’re all learning to move forward in this new world.

As someone who’s 40, I’m not quite young and not quite old, but I’ve really learned to enjoy remote work. But I’ve noticed there’s a set of muscles that don’t get developed, which is especially evident when I work with people who are terrified by phone calls. Do you find that there are similar skill sets getting lost or deprioritized in this new world?

I think a lot of it depends on the job, right? For a new employee coming into the work environment where they’re learning from peers on how to respond to different situations, it’s easier to stick your head around the cubicle to ask a question as opposed to trying to schedule another call with someone.

I will say, this is all a bit crazy for me, but when someone calls me to do a conference call without video I look at them like they’re ancient. We don’t do that! [laughs] And that shift has happened in such a short time. I think we’re going to wake up in another two or three years and discover a lot of new pluses and minuses about remote work. 

On a related note, I think there’s a greater amount of uncertainty and anxiety we’ve seen compressed into the last few years. If you have people coming to you because they’re overwhelmed by change, what advice do you have for them?

I’d say, you know, that I don’t know more than anyone else - I deal with those same kinds of issues. 

The fact of the matter is, a lot of us allow our lives to get more complicated than they need to be and, I hate to say this because I know I’ll sound like my father, turn the dang TV off. So much of the content has no goal beyond throwing negative stuff at you.

Go back to the basics and the fundamentals - those things don’t fail. 

And don’t sweat the stuff that doesn’t matter.

I know there’s a lot of people that drive hard and it’s great they do, but don’t let the stuff that doesn’t matter interfere with the things that do. Sometimes we just outthink ourselves.

If you stuff back to those fundamentals and those basics, I think that in business we can embrace those and be successful without having to invent something new. Look, it’s tough because we are getting hit with a lot of new stuff. The answer is all about showing empathy for people and recognizing they’re more than a seat in a job.

It’s your organization and it’s them as human beings that you care about, but that has to be genuine because they’ll figure out if you’re not. If they’re gonna lay it on the line for you then give them the nurturing they need and maybe kick them in the rear end when they need it.

Absolutely. Thanks again for joining us.

You’re welcome.

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