ATA’s New Chairman Sherri Garner Brumbaugh: An Inspiring Leader for Women
[Stay on top of transportation news: Get TTNews in your inbox.]
As a youngster, Sherri Garner Brumbaugh loved hanging around her family’s trucking business. She kept tabs on the company’s black trucks, keeping them clean and checking tire pressure. She even mowed the lawn. And she especially looked forward to riding shotgun on Friday night freight deliveries with her dad.
But in adulthood her first love was teaching, a path she followed until family — and the family business — called to her. While she’d had thoughts of someday returning to the classroom once her three sons were grown, or maybe even moving her family away from the small northwest Ohio city of Findlay to “where the action is” in the state capital of Columbus, fate sent her on a detour, one that put her on the road to becoming a successful trucking executive and, now, to the top rung of trucking industry leadership.
On Oct. 28, Garner Brumbaugh, president of Findlay-based truckload carrier Garner Trucking Inc., was installed as the 76th chairman of American Trucking Associations during its 2020 Management Conference & Exhibition, held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She is just the second woman in ATA history to reach the trade organization’s top leadership post; in 2010, Barbara Windsor, president of Hahn Transportation Inc., was named ATA’s first female chairman.
Those who know Garner Brumbaugh said she is a dynamo who brings to ATA not only a breadth of trucking know-how, but also a varied life experience rooted in service to her community, uncompromising integrity, Midwestern grit, passion, a sense of humor and a competitive spirit.
“She’s a closer. She’s dogged,” said ATA President Chris Spear. “Don’t underestimate her.”
Garner Brumbaugh is president of truckload carrier Garner Trucking Inc. of Findlay, Ohio. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Indeed, her natural business acumen has served her well since taking over leadership of the family trucking business in 2008. While she may well have landed in the spot eventually, her move into the post was compelled by tragedy; she took over as president only months after her 69-year-old father, Vernon Garner, died from cancer in 2007.
When her father first fell ill, Garner Brumbaugh and her mother, Regina, ran the company together. But several months in, Regina turned over the business to her daughter. Garner Brumbaugh said her mother was a huge influence on her as a businesswoman, and was a trailblazer as a trucking company owner.
The time after her father’s death was deeply sad and very challenging for Garner Brumbaugh, and also for the company’s employees. But the staff viewed her as a natural fit to take the reins; a member of the family who grew up around the business. She is described as a textbook example of “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” It’s clear that she admired and learned from her father volumes about both trucking, and life, they said.
A portrait of founder Vernon Garner on the wall at Garner Trucking. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Still, it wasn’t easy following in his footsteps; he’d successfully run the truckload carrier for decades, and was ATA chairman in 2002. Plus, she took over in the middle of the Great Recession; the years 2008 and 2009 were a very bad time for trucking, and a difficult time to be thrust into a new leadership role.
“Nobody in trucking was doing well,” said James Husted, Garner’s director of maintenance, a 33-year company veteran. “We were getting beat up every time we turned around.”
At the time, freight was down, rates were falling, diesel prices were high and so was company overhead. Husted said the new boss quickly decided to replace some old trucks, which meant convincing bankers to trust her.
She also had to cut costs at the company, including the difficult decision to lay off staff.
“She agonized over that,” Husted said.
Garner Brumbaugh talks with Tim Chrulski. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Despite facing those challenges, she weathered the storm gracefully, said Garner COO Tim Chrulski, whom Garner Brumbaugh calls her wingman.
“It’s downright impressive,” said Chrulski, who went to work for Garner as a truck driver 22 years ago.
Today Garner Trucking employs 100 drivers and has a fleet of 80 trucks and 360 trailers. It is a regional player, with trucks generally staying within 350 miles of home. The company’s niche in the market is on-time service and being flexible, Garner Brumbaugh said.
As a longtime trucking leader who has for years been involved in ATA issues, she arrives at the chairmanship well-versed on critical industry issues, Spear said. She’ll need little preparation to represent ATA during the congressional hearings, press conferences and nationwide trips to state associations, he said.
Spear noted it will be refreshing to have another woman lead the association. “We spent a lot of time in 2020 talking about diversity, and not just people of color. But let’s talk about gender, about having more women in our workforce.”
Among the issues Garner Brumbaugh said she will pursue include working closely with Truckers Against Trafficking and continuing the industry’s push for legislation that would allow younger drivers — those from 18 to 20 years old — to drive trucks across state lines.
She also wants to be a role model for women and to help increase the number of female truck drivers and executives in the trucking industry.
Garner Brumbaugh is also a passionate driver advocate.
“It took a toilet paper shortage during the pandemic, for goodness’ sake, for the public to realize how important truck drivers are,” she said.
Garner Trucking employs 100 drivers and has a fleet of 80 trucks and 360 trailers. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Her employees said she’s usually the last person to leave the office each day, and then goes on to spend countless hours volunteering her time for community needs.
Over the years, Garner Brumbaugh has been a member of the board of trustees for the University of Findlay, a board chair of the local chamber of commerce, secretary of the local Humane Society, immediate past president of the Boy Scouts of America/Black Swamp Area Council, a committee member for the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk, chair of the Community Foundation, chair of the Hancock Properties Board and a board member of the Truckload Carriers Association and the Ohio Trucking Association.
“I don’t know how she does it all,” said Mackenzie Melton, Garner’s recruiting specialist. “I would have to say, she’s a superwoman.”
Her three sons — Zac, Ben and Jon — would agree, but at the same time admit they don’t really know how she finds the time to run the company, help the community and still spend time with the family.
“Let me tell you, I don’t think anybody knows how she finds the time to do that,” said her son Jon, 21, who is studying aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
Jon said his mother has passed down her community values to all her sons. “We’re proud of her and I know her community is proud of her as well.”
“She’s definitely a real community leader, involved in all sorts of things,” said Zac, 27, an IT consultant who recently moved back home to Findlay from Cincinnati to be closer to family. “She’s always been able to stay connected to home and also run a business. I’m incredibly proud of the way she conducts herself and helps the community. But she’s still my mom.”
Garner Brumbaugh talks with Safety Manager Emma Gelacek at their office in Findlay, Ohio. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Her son Ben, 25, Garner’s shop foreman and parts manager, said he has always been impressed with how his mom managed the company during the recession.
“If you can get through those couple of years, you can get through anything,” he said.
While he said his mother has always been fair with him and his brothers, she was bit of a disciplinarian. “She wasn’t afraid to get the wooden spoon out. That’s for sure,” he joked.
Garner Brumbaugh, 57, works out an hour or two every morning in her home gym before starting her workday. “You’re no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself,” she said.
The new chairman has an extensive background in music — an interest that was evident back in high school, said Donna Walker Ridenour, her friend since the fifth grade.
“In high school she drove around in a multicolored van — red, orange, yellow and green — her version of the Scooby-Doo ‘Mystery Machine,’ ” Walker Ridenour said.
At the time Garner Brumbaugh needed the van to tote her drums to gigs with a local pop band. “Not only does she play the drums, she’s really good at it,” Walker Ridenour said.
After graduating from high school, Garner Brumbaugh left Findlay for Columbus and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in music education from The Ohio State University. While at Ohio State she played drums in the university’s prestigious marching band. She then returned home and did a teaching stint from 1986 to 1991. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in education from Bowling Green State University in 1993.
From 1993 until she took over as president of the company in 2008, Garner Brumbaugh raised her three sons while working in accounting, operations and overseeing Garner’s computer systems, as well as doing special projects for her father.
“I’m an educator by trade, and a trucker by heritage,” she said.
But Garner Brumbaugh said trucking is a challenging industry.
“It changes so fast. The competition is really, really tough, especially in the truckload space,” she said. “The expense for the trucks, the financing part of trucking, the litigation, the regulatory — it’s all tough.”
But she said one of the reasons for her success is that she is “fiercely competitive.”
“I hate to lose,” she said.
She admits to being a Type A personality. “One of my salesmen once told me, ‘Sherri, you’re like a snapping turtle — you snap on and don’t let go,’ ” she said.
But that drive is accompanied by fairness and a soft demeanor.
“You never have to worry about where she stands,” added Husted, the company’s maintenance director. “Right, wrong or indifferent, she’ll always listen to you. She doesn’t come to you and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be, and that’s it.’ ”
“Sherri is extremely passionate at what she does, the business she’s in and the people she works with,” added Thomas Balzer, president of the Ohio Trucking Association. “She is one of those who definitely holds you accountable to what needs to be done. But Sherri is a Type A — with empathy.”
David McCorkle, founder of McCorkle Truck Line in Oklahoma City, was a close friend of Garner Brumbaugh’s father and has known the new chairman since she was a kid.
“She’s a strong leader,” McCorkle said.
Founder Vernon Garner stands with his truck. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
He lauded her for “going through the chairs” on her way to becoming an ATA chairman.
“For her to stick with it and do this says a lot about her dedication and her interest in it,” McCorkle said.
“Sherri is enthusiastic,” added Katherine Fell, president of the University of Findlay. “She does her homework. She works really hard. She’s supportive of our students. I would say she’s an exemplar of being involved, philanthropic and supportive leadership.”
Garner Brumbaugh said men mostly have been respectful toward her and she feels comfortable being a woman in a male-dominated industry.
“But I have always felt I needed to know my stuff, know what I am talking about when I speak,” she said. “I have always felt I needed to be overprepared because you never know if there’s someone in the crowd who’s going to scrutinize you as a woman.”
The new chairman said she loves to travel and is looking forward to visiting truckers across the country.
But the woman who is the new public face of trucking for nearly all of her life has lived on the same 27-acre property just north of Findlay that originally was owned by her parents. About four years ago, she and her husband of 30 years, Jerry Brumbaugh, built a new house on the property. Garner Brumbaugh loves living in Findlay, a small city of about 40,000 residents.
“The corn is about 12 feet tall,” she said, looking out the window of the family’s business headquarters during a recent interview. “The beans are knee-high.”
Garner Brumbaugh (right) with her husband, Jerry, and her mother, Jean Garner, at their home in Findlay, Ohio. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Jerry Brumbaugh, a retired tire company worker, said his wife is a highly motivated woman who gives 100% to everything she does.
“She even gets out in the woods and runs the log splitter, mows, pulls the weeds and takes care of the flowers,” he said.
Garner Brumbaugh recently added a new pursuit to her long list of activities; she recently agreed to go trap shooting with her husband and sons to spend more time with them.
“I gave it a try and now I’m hooked,” she said. “Most girls like diamonds for Christmas, which is lovely. But this Christmas, I told Jerry I want a trap gun.”
Taking on this new hobby brings together the things she said are most important in life — her faith, family and her work.
“I don’t know how you walk through life without your faith, and I want to see my dad again someday,” she said.
Want more news? Listen to today's daily briefing: