Trucks at Work

Talking with Marvin

Got a chance to sit down with W. Marvin Rush this week, the founder and chairman of Rush Enterprises, a $2.4 billion mammoth collection of commercial truck and equipment sales and service centers spread throughout the U.S. The occasion was his company‘s second annual technician skills rodeo, being held at the Nashville, TN, Rush Truck Center location, where 60 technicians from across Rush‘s network vied for nearly $100,000 worth of prize money (among other goodies).

While we talked about a very wide range of things - the outlook for heavy and medium-duty trucks sales, the nationwide shortage of technicians, deer and quail hunting, etc. - probably the most interesting part of my visit was watching Marvin interact with his employees. A business professor once told me the fastest way to find out what a person is really like is to take them out to dinner in a public restaurant and see how they interact with the wait staff and other patrons. So watching Marvin talk to everyday truck technicians proved enlightening.

For starters, he‘s “Marvin” to everyone - technicians, salesmen, secretaries, the works - and doesn‘t stand on a lot of ceremony. Walks around, shakes hands, chats about work, family life, even shares his insight on the trucking industry when his technicians ask. Everyone knows he‘s fabulously wealthy - a few techs asked how his private plane was holding up and he laughed that it was in the shop - but that‘s not a barrier to him, nor to his people.

“My daddy gave me two pieces of advice when I started this business in 1965,” Marvin told me. “First, surround yourself with smart people - the kind of people who really know their stuff. And second, most importantly, if you end up making money, make damn sure all of your people do well, too.”

For example, he noted that his company spends about $1.5 million a year on company picnics for all his locations - which includes amusement park passes for all his employees (some 2,800) and their families. Even when the heavy truck market soured this year, he made sure that money wasn‘t touched. “A couple of folks said we should not hold them to save money,” Marvin told me. “I said go find savings elsewhere; you‘re not touching the picnics.”

That philosophy applied to the technician‘s rodeo as well. Out of the 60 techs competing in four divisions, 11 made it into the final round - unofficially termed “the money round.” Third place finishers won $3,000 and a dollar per-hour bonus, second place garnered $4,000 and $1.25 an hour bonus, with first place netting $5,000 and $1.50 per hour added to their paycheck. Once tech split the first place prize in two divisions and went on to win in the “all-around” category - bagging $14,500 and a $3 per hour raise in pay. Expensive perhaps to some, but more than worth it in Marvin‘s eyes.

“Listen, as I tell everyone, this company is nothing without our people - they do all the work,” he told me. “In my view, we in corporate serve them. We‘re here to help them do their jobs better, so we can all then serve the customer better.”

This isn‘t a lot of “rah-rah” stuff either, because the company is banking on its employees‘ loyalty and creativity to make Rush Enterprises a $5 billion company by 2011. An ambitious goal, to be sure, but not out of the realm of possibility once you meet the Rush folks in charge of doing it.

“They don‘t turn down any proposal from us that makes sense,” Mike O‘Brien, general manager of the Rush Truck Center in Nashville, explained to me. “We have a lot of freedom to spend the money is we can show a good reason for it.”

For example, O‘Brien spent a lot of time, effort, and money to design and build the shelving system in his facility‘s parts storage center - with an inventory worth $3.5 million. “There‘s value in parts being organized, especially in terms of efficiency. For example, when we recently checked our inventory, it took only a weekend to do and we were only 1% to 2% off. It‘s just good business to be organized that way.”

Yet there‘s also the character and culture that pervades the Rush‘s empire - very down-to-earth, hard-working, yet outsized at the same time, a mirror reflection of its founder. But while ten-gallon hats and leather cowboy boots are the order of the day, Marvin - like his company - doesn‘t shy away from the nitty-gritty that needs to be done.

For instance, he spent years developing a big ranch two hours south of his San Anton, TX, headquarters - a place where he could take his family and his customers hunting. He also took pains to not only teach the finer points of marksmanship to those guests who‘d never held a rifle in their hands, he also did all the skinning and dressing of the meat for them - arduous work that took hours to perform. He doesn‘t do that anymore, of course - he‘s got a full staff on the ranch now - but he set the example for what had to be done.

“Look, the trucking industry is still a relationship business - it‘s about getting to know people so you can trust each other when you do business together,” Marvin explained to me. “That‘s why we still invite our customers and out suppliers down to the ranch every year, why myself and Rusty [his son and the company‘s president and CEO] try to personally meet everyone in our company. It‘s all about the people. That‘s what it will always be about.”