Karen Smerchek voices no surprise at her rising to become owner and president of Veriha Trucking, a firm based in Marinette, WI, with over 250 drivers. But having the confidence to lead a company in what has historically been a male-dominated business took some time.
“I’ve been in the industry for 12 years now, and there are definitely some men who are more welcoming of female opinions than others,” she said. “Attending industry events made me realize that. Over time I’ve learned not to allow one person’s disapproval, whether it was a stray comment or email, to impact my confidence in doing the job and making a difference.
“At one point, I allowed it to impact me. Today, I’m much better at realizing when that happens to just move forward and continue to be successful.”
Smerchek leads a company that grew from a one-man operation, established by her trucker father, John, in 1978, to one that now operates out of four terminal locations and hauls a variety of products in 48 states and parts of Canada.
“My dad started the business, and he was very eager to get his children involved,” explained Smerchek. “He came from a farming life, and that’s what you did on a farm. You go from running it to having your children take it over from you. There were four of us kids and he asked if we had interest in joining the family trucking business. Two of us did. I always knew it was an option.”
Smerchek developed a toughness early in life that would serve her well as she strove to lead Veriha Trucking.
“I also grew up with a farming background,” she said. “You were expected to do the same chores as the boys or men regardless. If it took you twice as long to get it all done, you still had to do it.”
With an opportunity to join her dad’s growing trucking enterprise, Smerchek focused her education on what would help her in that regard.
“In college I wanted to major in something that could impact the business,” she said, and did so, earning an undergraduate business degree from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Leading Veriha Trucking as it exists now while planning for its future keeps Smerchek plenty busy.
“My days are mostly spent talking to employees, understanding what they are working toward, Finding what they achieved since the last time we spoke, asking how they can use my help, and my being nimble to adjust based on department needs, and the strategic needs of the business,” she said.
“Moving up in the organization, I know what can be done. I still do a lot of analysis. That’s my background, my strong suit,” she explained.
Smerchek said there are growth plans for the company, presenting challenges that are both intense and exciting.
“We have goals in place, and we are small enough that we can make quick decisions,” she noted. “We can shift quickly if an opportunity becomes available. It’s a fun industry. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t be doing it. It’s ever-changing and never boring. There are always new hurdles to overcome.”
Smerchek has also made it her goal to attract millennials to the company, including more women. Indeed, Connie Bugni recently became the first female graduate of Veriha Driving Academy. She completed the three-week training course, passed her road skills test, and earned her Class A commercial driver’s license.
Smerchek balances her home life with Veriha duties. She’s married with three children, ages 7, 10 and 12. She’s almost in the same position her father was, with a thriving business and new family members available to take over at some point. But she will not push.
“I’m letting my kids be kids,” she said. “They know their mom owns a trucking company. I want them to be humble in their upbringing. They come to industry events that are welcoming for children.
“Eventually, it will be up to them if they want to join the company. Every parent wants their kids to be successful. But I don’t want to influence them. I want them to follow their dreams, not mine.”