BANGOR, Maine — With its beautiful skies, evergreen tree-dotted landscape and quaint New England downtown, it’s no wonder that folks say this small community is a wonderful place to live.
But is it a good place for a trucking company?
That was a concern that Barry Pottle, the man who on Oct. 30 became the 74th chairman of American Trucking Associations, had on his mind in 2002 after two of his best customers went out of business. For years, the paper mills situated along the banks of the Penobscot River here had provided business lifeblood for truckload carrier Pottle’s Transportation. To make matters worse, another of Pottle’s lucrative customers, Service Merchandise, also closed its doors around this time.
I have seen Barry grow into this role, and he is ready. He is extremely engaged, and we are the beneficiaries of that.
ATA President Chris Spear
The story of how Pottle rescued his longtime family enterprise is a testament to the determination and business acumen of the tall, soft-spoken, thoughtful man with an encyclopedic knowledge of trucking.
“It woke us up from the standpoint that we really needed to get more diversified,” Pottle recalled in a recent interview. “We lost to the tune of $7.5 million in business. We had done so well up to that point. It was a good thing that I was financially stable at the time, or it would have put us under. It took us probably two years to regroup.”
The family (left to right): Stepson Matt England, Clifton Pottle, Barry and daughter Chelsea Pottle. While Barry is away, Chelsea and Matt will be heavily involved in running the company. Chelsea says her father has thoroughly taught his kids the business. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Of course, the tough times didn’t put the company under, and today Pottle’s Transportation remains a vibrant, highly profitable company producing healthy revenues. Pottle bought the company from his father in 1988 and has built it to its current size of more than 180 power units, 560 trailers and three terminals. Pottle also is a partner in a Volvo-Mack truck dealership, a warehouse and several other real estate ventures.
Friends and associates say the timing is right for Barry Pottle to serve as ATA’s front man.
“I have seen Barry grow into this role, and he is ready,” ATA President Chris Spear said. “His passion is not only at a high level but also at a granular level. He is extremely engaged, and we are the beneficiaries of that.”
Barry's wife of 29 years, Suzanne. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Pottle, too, said he’s ready. He’s already been chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association, Maine Motor Transport Association and ATA’s Truck PAC and has accepted community positions ranging from a top official at the local Red Cross to serving on the school committee and planning commission. He grew up, went to school and currently lives in Hermon, a town of about 6,000 just across Bangor’s eastern border. His trucking company and dealership are in Hermon.
Pottle, who has a commercial driver license, said one of his top priorities as chairman will be to work on improving the image of truck drivers. “They don’t get enough respect,” Pottle said. “Many shippers and receivers don’t view the driver as an asset. But today, they’re the shipper’s asset. And we better make sure they understand that.”
Barry is one of those guys where still waters run deep. He’s not going to be the most vocal person at a meeting. But when he speaks up and says something, it’s going to be of consequence.
Brian Parke, Maine Motor Transport Association
Pottle said he also wants to continue working with Congress to push, among other issues, elimination of the California meal-and-rest-break law. His close relationship with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a transportation funding leader, has been a significant asset to the industry.
A former staffer for Collins, Heideh Shahmoradi, said that Pottle was instrumental in helping Collins understand hours-of-service issues and electronic logging devices.
Shahmoradi, now a lobbyist, said Collins “knows him like family.”
Matt England (left) and Barry Pottle in the company's maintenance garage. Barry has built Pottle's into its current size of more than 180 power units, 560 trailers and three terminals. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“He wasn’t afraid of criticism and pushback that we gave him and the political dynamics that we were facing,” she said. “He understands Congress, and he understands the dilemmas.”
Pottle also said ATA needs to refocus its efforts on tort reform. “I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with it,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t really understand tort reform until it affects them.”
Pottle also has concerns with the potential expansion of tolling on interstates and the practice of shippers charging lumper fees.
He wants to take an active role in increasing PAC donations and in attacking overregulation of the trucking industry. Growing ATA’s membership is another priority.
Pottle talks with his employees in the office. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“Trucking has gotten a lot more complicated than it was when I first got into it,” Pottle said. “It’s sad when you run a business that is so heavily regulated that you almost have to have a Philadelphia lawyer working for you because you just can’t keep up with the changes.”
Like so many of the men and women who reach a pinnacle of success in trucking, Pottle got in the business at a young age. But he didn’t sweep floors or work on the docks; he pumped fuel at a local truck stop and first got behind the wheel of a truck during his junior year of high school, driving for his dad after school.
“I always worked in high school,” Pottle said. Indeed, during this time Pottle had to grow up fast; he lived alone in a trailer after his father and mother split up.
“I was a lot more grown up than the typical sophomore,” he said. “Most of my friends were juniors and seniors.”
Walsh, the longtime principal of Hermon High School, has known Pottle for 17 years. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Pottle also was known as a bit of a prankster in high school. His wife of 29 years, Suzanne, dated him briefly back then but moved on because she said he was too wild for her. They went their separate ways, but ended up together later in life. “I waited for her,” Pottle said.
Pottle also showed some craftiness in high school.
“He was having trouble in English class, so he convinced one of his high school English teachers instead of doing all the papers that everybody else did, if he could just do a presentation,” longtime friend and local attorney Curt Kimball said. “Sure enough, he did a presentation. Next thing he knows, Barry is driving his rig into the parking lot. He brings out the English teacher and the class and does a great presentation on how to operate a truck, and because of his people skills, he gets an A.”
Kimball, who today serves as Pottle’s company and personal attorney, said over the years he has seen Pottle, now 58, develop even stronger people and leadership skills.
“He has taken the time to learn how to listen, to put himself in the shoes of people on the other side of the table. Once he implements, he turns the ignition switch so to speak, and he does not know first or second gear. He’s full speed ahead.”
But Kimball noted that Pottle’s work ethic doesn’t prevent him from having fun; every Friday when Pottle is in town, the two get together for a good cigar and splash of whiskey.
Pottle holds a CDL and plans to champion drivers during his ATA chairmanship. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics).
People often describe Pottle as generous, passionate, knowledgeable and a man with a sense of humor.
“Barry is one of those guys where still waters run deep,” said Brian Parke, CEO of Maine Motor Transport Association. “He’s not going to be the most vocal person at a meeting. But when he speaks up and says something, it’s going to be of consequence.”
Parke added that Pottle also is a problem-solver. “He comes at things from a 30,000-foot view,” Parke said.
“He’s an extremely generous man, both personally and professionally,” said Rob Penner, CEO of Bison Transport. “He asks great questions. He’s always willing to share ideas and best practices. Those are extremely admirable qualities considering how competitive this business really is.”
Penner added, “He’ll poke you in the ribs and tell you need to get involved. What lots of people don’t see is that behind the scenes he is well-connected in this industry.”
Pottle already is logging endless miles on the road, speaking to state associations and visiting clients, but will be traveling even more as chairman.
“He can live out of a suitcase better than anybody I know,” said Mark Verrill, a partner in the truck dealership. “But he knows where home is, and he knows what’s at home.”
Barry Pottle with his grandchildren. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
While he’s away, his daughter, Chelsea, and stepson, Matt, will be heavily involved in running the company.
Chelsea, who is vice president, said her father has taught his kids the business from A to Z. “He’s going to be a rock star as chairman,” she said. “He’s such a great leader, and people really want to get on his bandwagon.”
She added, “He comes across as a big, scary man sometimes. But I don’t think people necessarily know how much of a soft guy he really is.”
Why has her dad been so successful in life?
“I think it’s a combination of things,” she said. “But it’s also who he is. He will not fail, and he’ll do everything in his power to be successful for himself, but also for his people.”
A sign welcomes visitors to a trucking company in Bangor with a family atmosphere. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Brian Bouchard, president of tank truck carrier H. O. Bouchard Inc., has known Pottle for 50 years.
“No one puts more energy into the trucking industry that I know of than Barry Pottle,” Bouchard said. “Barry will do anything for a friend or family. Anything.”
Pottle is known by family, employees and city officials as a man who likes to get things done at work and in the community — but quickly.
That includes civic dedication.
Brian Walsh, longtime principal of Hermon High School, has known Pottle for 17 years and said Pottle is always interested in ways to make Bangor and Hermon better places to live. A few years back, Walsh said he went to Pottle for help in improving the school’s football and field hockey fields, and tennis courts.
“We talked with Barry about getting him involved,” Walsh recalled. “That was on a Friday. When I came to work on Monday, there were two bulldozers and a front-end loader, and they had cleared the entire section of land.”
A few days later, Walsh got a visit from city planning officials to talk about permits for the improvements. “Barry just kind of laughed,” Walsh recalled. “He said it was just a town project, and he thought we could get things going. They didn’t think it was so funny.”
“People say I’m impatient sometimes, that I’m always in a hurry,” Pottle said. “But the day only has so many hours in it. So we’ve got to get a lot done today so we can do more tomorrow.”
For more than a decade, Pottle has been an organizer and participant in “Wreaths Across America,” spending weeks on the effort each year.
Last year, truckers delivered 1.2 million wreaths that were laid at 1,500 locations at the graves of military veterans, including Arlington National Cemetery. This year, the goal is to deliver more than 2 million wreaths during the second week of December.
What inspired him to get involved?
“Not serving in the military, it’s really given me a way to give back to our veterans,” Pottle said. “They sacrificed a lot for us, for our freedom.”
Where Pottle does his service is in his company in Bangor and in the community that remains at his core.
“Bangor’s a great place to bring up a family, a great way of life, but to run a business, it’s tough,” Pottle added. “I’ve always said that if you can survive here in Maine, you can survive anywhere. We’re at the end of the world when it comes to trucking.”