Gerdin discusses business lessons, insights

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY -It takes will, not brains, to be successful in business.

In a rare public appearance, Heartland Express founder and CEO Russ Gerdin shared his insights on running a prosperous company.

He spoke to an audience of hundreds April 21 at the Sheraton Iowa City Hotel, as part of MidWestOne Bank’s lecture series, in partnership with the University of Iowa’s entrepreneurial center.

“I’m not as smart as nearly any one in here, but I’ll out work any one of you and that’s the difference,” he said. “It’s not how smart you are, it’s how much will you have.”

Heartland Express knows about success. During its first year of business, the trucking company had $1.9 million in sales when it was headquartered in a small building in Swisher in 1978. That increased to $600 million at its 26-acre headquarters in North Liberty in 2009.

One of the keys to the company’s success is a lack of debt. Mr. Gerdin told the standing-room-only audience about his father, who took out loan after loan to buy new trucks for the family business. That experience helped Mr. Gerdin decide at a young age to never take out a loan or be in debt.

“Every time he got a dollar, he went to the bank to borrow a dollar to buy another truck to replace another truck he had borrowed for that was already broken down,” he said. “He worked seven days a week, absolutely a great man and he enjoyed making the bank rich, and I thought, ‘This doesn’t work.’ So I made up my mind that day that I was not going to borrow money.”

Through numerous anecdotes, Mr. Gerdin told the story of his career and how he got started in the trucking business. He described how, after college, he spent four months in Minneapolis not working and getting into trouble. His father took notice and asked for help driving a truck cross-country. On the trip back, they met a man who owned a trucking company for sale in Nebraska.

The father and son team bought the business, making it one of the first acquisitions of the company that would one day become Heartland Express.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt and still don’t, that I’m an entrepreneur, not even close. I think I’m a truck driver,” Mr. Gerdin said. “It’s all about service in whatever industry you’re in. And everybody has knowledge, not everybody’s willing to work.”

As an entrepreneur, it’s important to surround oneself with quality people, he said. The employees at Heartland Express, some of which have worked for the company for 30 years, are what make the business run smoothly, he said.

“I found the right people with the right attitude; that made me an entrepreneur,” Mr. Gerdin said. “You don’t have to prove your spot in life the first year, but you better start building your spot in life by your attitude. There isn’t a CEO that can’t tell a difference in attitude. Your attitude is the key to moving on in your life.”

At the same time, a company leader needs to be present and stay on top of what’s happening in the business.

“I firmly believe you don’t pass work down until you can’t do any more work yourself,” he said.

He advised the audience to be patient when seeking success.

“You don’t have to be in a rush,” Mr. Gerdin said. “The obstacles you face will keep coming and the opportunities will keep coming.”

Although Heartland Express took a major hit when the economy tanked during the past two years, Mr. Gerdin said the industry is starting to rebound. The business has the lowest operating ratio, 15.7 percent, of any trucking company in the nation, he said.

“It’s turning around now,” he said. “We’re behind the 8-ball right now.”

In coming years, the company will focus on expanding throughout the West Coast, he said. Heartland Express has been named one of America’s 200 Best Small Companies by Forbes magazine eight years in a row.