A Driving Force

Michael Gerdin of Heartland Express discusses taking after his father, starting at the bottom, and customer loyalty 101

Mike Gerdin started working at Heartland, his father’s trucking company, when he was six. Today, as Heartland hauls for some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies, Gerdin relies on the values his father instilled.

Mike Gerdin is okay with sweeping floors. In fact, he had a lot of practice at it growing up. As a young boy, he worked at his dad’s trucking company, Heartland Express, doing everything from cleaning the shop to changing oil to washing trucks. There was never any doubt in Gerdin’s mind that he would one day follow in his dad’s footsteps, perhaps leading the team at Heartland, one of the nation’s most prominent transportation-logistics companies. It turned out just as he hoped, for today Gerdin is Heartland’s president and CEO. Profile caught up with Gerdin to learn how his versatile experience has helped drive the family business forward.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Well, fortunately, there isn’t a typical day. I may be involved in pricing matters, customer visits, driver appreciation, or analyst conferences [necessary for a public company]. I might have meetings with suppliers, such as those for trucks and trailers; spend time working with accounting; perhaps evaluating individual employee performances. I might be traveling. Last week, Navistar brought us to a truck show for their grand opening. I wear a lot of different hats, and no day is the same. It’s a nice variety that I love.

What got you involved in the trucking industry?

I grew up in the field. At about the age of six, I started out washing trucks, changing oil, sweeping the floors. As I got older, I worked in the shop after school until graduation from high school. Coming home summers from college, I’d work part-time. I loved the truck line growing up. My dad did such a great job making it successful. I always knew that I would start out at Heartland. Eventually, I came on board full time in operations, working in customer-service management, fleet supervision, sales, driver recruitment, and safety management. I never got special treatment from my dad.

Who are your clients? 

We haul for Fortune 500 companies like Sears, Kellogg’s, FedEx, Home Depot, Walmart, and Lowe’s, to name a few. We fill thousands of lanes of traffic daily.

Tell me about the family ties involved at Heartland.

My grandfather was a trucker and he and my father worked together for many years. My dad started this company in 1978 with 16 trucks. We went public in 1986. Our family still owns a large share of the stock (48 percent). I have two
sisters, both of whom have worked part-time with us.

Forbes magazine ranked Heartland Express one of America’s Best 200 Small Companies. What do you think is the key to your success?

I think the bottom line is, quite simply, delivering freight on time. My dad was a great role model. He used to say: “We’re not the smallest, we’re not the largest, but we strive to be the best.” I believe that is true, and it’s definitely a guiding principle I follow. Being debt free and striving to maintain that status has also helped tremendously.

How have you remained competitive? Did the economic downturn affect your business? 

Our business is predicated on consumer demand. As the recession tightened belts, our loads shrunk. Yet, no matter what the economy is doing, we have always continued to provide good service. We take care of our customers, and they take care of us. It’s a good partnership. The key is on-time, accident-free, reliable service.

What about your children? Do they like the family business? How are their floor-sweeping skills?

I have three young boys. The oldest one is 11. He is already sweeping and airing tires. I’m betting they will end up loving trucking as much as I do. They all enjoy coming to the office with me and doing whatever jobs they can.