Simply the best: Averitt marks 40 years
Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011
Company president Gary Sasser is shown greeting and talking with associates who were hired by the company. Averitt is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
The corporate headquarters of Averitt Express sits between Neal Street and Highway 111 on the city’s east side. There’s also the call center and many other aspects of this worldwide company.
But exactly what does happen inside those walls? Where did it start? How did it get here?
These questions — and hundreds more — are likely asked by unassuming motorists every day of the week when they drive by the sprawling campus.
The answers about Averitt Express are one of the most fascinating tales of corporate success anywhere in the country — and it all began right here in the Upper Cumberland. It’s appropriate that October will mark the 40th anniversary of when the current company was formed.
The roots of the company go back to 1958, said Brad Brown, communications leader at Averitt. Thurman Averitt started the Livingston Merchants Co-op that year. By 1969, he incorporated the small trucking company as Averitt Express.
In 1971, Gary Sasser, age 21 and a dockworker, made Averitt an offer to purchase the company, which consisted of two workers, three tractors and five trailers.
The journey had started.
At the time, Sasser was still living in Nashville and commuting to Livingston on a daily basis. In the next 10 years, the company would grow by leaps and bounds, topping $1 million in annual revenue by 1978. In 1981, Sasser made the decision to move corporate headquarters to Cookeville — a decision that continues to have a great influence on the company and its philosophy.
Today, Averitt Express has 8,000 associates in locations around the world. (That includes nearly 600 in Cookeville.) In 2008, total revenues were $969 million and there were high hopes of topping $1 billion in 2009, but the world economy had other plans. Brown said 2009 was a matter of just hanging on, but revenues have since began to climb once again and the trend is upward, which is a good sign for the business and the economy in general.
The company has also grown to more than 140 facilities, over 3,700 tractors and more than 12,000 trailers. Delivery is their business and it is taken seriously at Averitt.
Deeply rooted principles
But don’t think just because the company has grown tremendously that the atmosphere is different than in those early days. In fact, says Brown, those roots are the heart and soul of the company to this day.
For instance, when Averitt hires a new person, no matter where they will be located, that person has to come to Cookeville for company orientation. At that time, Sasser personally greets and talks with each new associate. Brown says he wants to make sure each new person understands what Averitt is all about and how they will be an integral part of the team, no matter their role.
Tracing that culture is not very difficult. All you have to do is look at the executive team members. Only two of the top 16 executives came on board after 1989. That means experience in the transportation industry is king at Averitt, and it shows.
That experience has translated into a couple of key areas — taking care of customers and taking care of those who work at the company. Those two principles are an integral part of that philosophy which began in a small shop in Livingston four decades ago.
Averitt Express is a southern-based company, however, their impact reaches around the world. Part of that is in the form of the “Reliance Network,” in which they have agreements with the top shipping companies in the country to handle freight. Averitt has made it seamless for people to utilize their services no matter where something needs to be shipped which make the experience for the customer pleasant.
Brown also said that having quality people is key in the success Averitt has had over the years.
“Our most valuable resource,” is how the company phrases the importance of their associates.
They also require the utmost in professionalism, whether you are a customer service representative or an over-the-road driver.
You can see evidence of that passion in the form of Woody Davis, vice-president of customer service.
Davis is in charge of operations at the call center, which is really the heartbeat of the entire company. Davis has been with Averitt for 27 years and his focus today remains as it was years ago — a good experience for the customers.
He said Averitt has developed a “model” for how communications and orders are handled. Even the various associates are grouped into sections which handle different parts of the country. Their schedules are set based on the time zones they serve. Davis said this gives the customer familiarity with representatives at Averitt. He also said it is the only operation of its kind in the industry, where the norm has been to have regional centers. Davis said he “doesn’t know” how companies can continue to operate in that type of environment.
One reason is the speed of business today. They have fine-tuned their telephone service to the point where a customer has to wait just four seconds before being handled by a representative. Other representatives have dual computer screens so they can instantly access order and billing status for customers.
Davis laughed when he said he was “23 years old before I got a telephone. Now I carry a computer around on my belt.”
It’s that kind of technological advances, he said, which has allowed Averitt to grow and continue to keep customers and attract new customers on a regular basis.
Service with a smile
Another crucial aspect of that is providing good service. They stress on-time deliveries that are “on target” and “intact.”
They also offer a wide range of services, from standard “less than a truckload” shipping to full truckloads to offloading international shipments on the West coast. An office in Texas helps company associates deal with customs issues of trucks coming from Mexico. They even have an office in Puerto Rico.
“We are constantly getting better,” said Brown, who stresses the company wants to learn from its mistakes in order to better serve customers.
Brown said they also pride themselves on having the “newest and finest fleet in the industry.”
He smiles when thinking about how the company insists their equipment be cleaned and is always presentable.
“I still don’t think I’ve ever seen a dirty truck,” he said.
They also emphasize environmental responsibility. He said government regulations are viewed as a positive and they strive to go beyond the regulations. When the Environmental Protection Agency came out with new standards a few years ago, Brown said Averitt “already had met or exceeded 95 percent” of those standards.
“We take that very seriously,” he said about environmental responsibility.
They give financial incentives to drivers to save fuel and have given away vehicles as part of a rewards program for conservation.
“We put our money where our mouth is,” said Brown.
The impact of just how successful all of this has been is pretty simple to find, as well. If you take a look at the customer list, the names are very familiar. Walmart, Jack Daniels, DuPont, Nestle, General Motors, RJ Reynolds, Rheem, Saturn, Eastman, Cracker Barrel, Mercedes and GAP are just a few of the customers who continue to utilize the services of Averitt.
Brown said Cracker Barrel officials decided a few years ago they were “good at making biscuits” but “not so good” at shipping. They abandoned their own shipping division and hired Averitt to handle the company’s needs. Averitt, in turn, dedicated trailers to Cracker Barrel with their logo and other information but you will always see one of those red trucks pulling the trailers.
It takes a village
Another crucial part of what Averitt does is community involvement. The company itself is very involved with many groups in the Upper Cumberland, including a deep partnership with Tennessee Tech. They also give to many local charities and do many activities related to community involvement.
In a unique program, the company’s employees have their own charity fund called “Averitt Cares for Kids.”
Brown said this program began in 1986 when a group of associates got together and wanted to give something to Sasser for how well he had treated them over the years. They bought him a new trailer, said Brown.
The next year, they wanted to do something similar, but Sasser, though deeply appreciative of the gesture, suggested they pool their money together and give it to a worthy cause. The result was the program now known as Averitt Cares for Kids. Through the program, Averitt’s associates have given nearly $6 million to various charities since 1987.
In 2010, the group donated $400,000 to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, becoming the largest employee-based donation in the country. At St. Jude there is the Averitt Express Leukemia and Lymphoma Center, a real sense of pride for the company and its associates.
Averitt also takes care of its employees with a fitness center which can be used by the associates and their families. They also have a wellness program which has been very successful and expansion plans are already in the works.
But even with all of that, the roots of the company still remain in the Upper Cumberland, where Brown says Sasser wanted to keep a “small town personality” even though the company is now global. That sense of pride can be seen everyday inside the walls of their offices and out on the road where providing excellent transportation service is the top priority.
Brown may have summed it up best when he talked about company founder Sasser: “He never set out to be the biggest, he just wants us to be the best.”
You can learn a lot more about the company at www.averittexpress.com.