This story appears in the Oct. 10 print edition of Transport Topics.
DAYTON, Ohio — For the past six months, a digital counter rested conspicuously on Kevin Burch’s desk, ticking off the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the president of truckload carrier Jet Express Inc. would officially take over as chairman of American Trucking Associations.
Like a kid waiting on the curb for an ice cream truck, Burch has had a long-burning desire to assume the role that would dub him the unofficial face of trucking and give him a bigger podium to make a difference.
That finally happened last week at ATA’s Management Conference & Exhibition in Las Vegas.
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“I’m looking forward to telling the motoring public and government officials what we do and why we do what we do,” Burch said. “It’s the year that I want to tell people the trucking story so they get all the facts. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of doing that.”
Although after 44 years in the industry, he’s reached another career milestone: Burch was already one of trucking’s top dogs. For more than three years, the 62-year-old co- chairman and founder of the Trucking Moves America Forward image campaign has been crisscrossing America like Johnny Appleseed, educating Americans about how trucks affect their everyday lives.
Although he’ll be busy supporting ATA’s regulatory agenda over the next year, Burch said improving the image of trucking will be his top priority. “If you don’t know anything about trucking, it’s natural to see a truck as a big thing on the road that’s in the way,” Burch said.
His company, based in Dayton, Ohio, primarily hauls parts for the automotive industry. The carrier’s fleet includes 90 company drivers, 220 owner-operators and 600 trailers.
Mike Card, a past ATA chairman and president of Combined Transport in Medford, Oregon, said he’s been impressed the way Burch “moved the ball” with the Trucking Moves America Forward program.
“There were people who said an image campaign for the trucking industry just wouldn’t get off the ground,” Card said. “Kevin overcame the naysayers. He traveled the country to many meetings and truck shows, sometimes on his own dime, to push the campaign and almost single-handedly got it going.”
If anyone has a shot at changing attitudes about trucks, Burch is that man, according to his fellow employees and executives.
“Kevin symbolizes everything good there is about this industry,” said Keith Tuttle, president of Motor Carrier Service Inc. in Ohio and a former Truckload Carriers Association chairman. “He’s the right guy to lead ATA right now.”
“Kevin is just one of the nicest people you’d ever meet,” said Jim Subler, president of Classic Carriers in Versailles, Ohio. “He’s a kind, caring person, and he is so passionate about this industry. He’s very good at working with all sides, which is what we need right now. With the whole political landscape and the way people have no trust for anybody, he’s a guy who can build some bridges.”
Longtime friend Ray Haight, a London, Ontario-based industry consultant, said Burch also is very modest.
“He’ll spread the credit around,” Haight said. “He’ll try not to take it himself. He’s even bashful about talking about any of his accomplishments.”
Tommy Hodges, chairman of Titan Transfer, a truckload carrier based in Shelbyville, Tennessee, called Burch a “peacemaker” and “a leader of men.”
“He is one of those guys that we describe as being all in,” Hodges said. “No matter what task he undertakes, he gives everything that he’s got to it, and always succeeds.”
Hodges agrees with Burch that truckers don’t seem to “blow their own horn,” whether it’s in the executive suite or the cab of the truck.
“Consequently, we have over the years been suffering in silence,” Hodges said. “We just go about doing our jobs, and whatever they throw at us we just consider it the next pothole in the road and we just keep on trucking to get to our destination.”
Haight said Burch has an easygoing personality. “I’ve never seen him lose his temper,” he added.
“I am looking forward to Kevin becoming our ATA chairman. His zest for life and trucking is remarkable,” said Chris Spear, ATA’s new president. “He is someone over the last few years that I have counted on for advice and will continue to do so. His desire to improve the image of our industry is astounding, and we are lucky to have him tell our story.”
Burch displayed his easygoing, straight- forward style during his first-ever official appearance before a congressional committee at a FAST Act impact roundtable Sept. 22.
Speaking on behalf of his company and ATA, Burch told members of a House transportation subcommittee that the five-year highway bill’s dedicated funding for highway freight projects was an important victory for ATA and the trucking industry. He also addressed several ATA priorities, including the hours-of-service restart, the driver shortage and truck parking — concerns that were shared and echoed by fellow industry participants and members of the subcommittee.
Still, several challenges await Burch in his new post, not least of which will be assisting Spear as he guides ATA. There also will be lingering trucking-related issues to tend to, such as moving the industry from paper logbooks to electronic logging devices; eliminating the federal HOS restart provision and California meal and rest break regulation; attacking the driver shortage and flaws in the federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability safety rating program; and continuing the full-court press for hair drug testing.
“We’re the most overregulated deregulated industry,” Burch said. “Sure we need some regulation, but does everything need to be regulated? We’re 40% safer than we were 10 years ago. Is that a story that’s getting out there?”
Burch added, “A lot of my colleagues just will not talk about the industry. I don’t want to say they’re selfish, but this industry has been good to a lot of companies and owners of companies. But we fail to tell our story for whatever reason.”
Like many other trucking executives, Burch pretty much grew up in the trucking industry.
When he was 7, he spent many of his weekends helping out his dad, then a district manager for Blue Arrow Trucking. By the time Burch was about 10, he was taking inventory and filling the terminal’s candy machines.
When he was in the eighth grade, Burch sold candy to his fellow junior high students during three separate lunch hours.
“It worked out so well that I hired two kids to help me,” he said. It lasted about three months until the principal found out and wanted to reap the profits for the school, Burch said.
“I learned cash flow, inventory and hiring,” he said.
Burch lived in Swartz Creek, Michigan, a small suburb of Flint, until he was 17. He worked for his dad a few years as a third-shift dispatcher and, from 1975 to 1987, he was a regional manager for Blue Arrow in Detroit. He moved to Jet Express in 1988, where he has remained ever since.
Burch also was chairman of the Truckload Carriers Association from 2009 to 2010. Last year, he led a local coalition that opposed a statewide ballot initiative in Ohio that would have legalized the limited sale and use of marijuana. The initiative failed with 64% of the voters casting their ballots against the measure.
“After that, people called me the ‘weed man,’ ” Burch joked.
A few years ago he took a six-week course to obtain a commercial driver license. He said he wanted to better understand his company’s drivers by experiencing what they go through.
But he flunked his first driving test when he mashed the gears and took his hands off the wheel 16 times to point out to the tester his amazement that the corn was growing so high.
He later retook the test and passed.
Burch is well-liked by his employees, who say he’s a kind man who has an open-door policy.
“He’s a very good negotiator,” said Caryn Kawsky, Jet Express’ executive assistant. “He makes people feel very comfortable. He goes above and beyond to help employees, especially drivers.”
But she said he can’t seem to sit still. “He’s always up, walking around doing this, doing that.”
Kawsky said she’s amazed at his ability to defuse angry drivers.
“We’ve had drivers come in here that were just hotter than high about whatever the issue is,” Kawsky said. “By the time they leave here, they’re shaking hands and everything’s cool.”
Archie Crawford, Jet Express’ director of operations, calls Burch a “delegator with his fingers on the pulse.”
Crawford agrees that Burch treats his employees well, but sometimes thinks he’s too nice.
“I know three positions in this company that we don’t need,” Crawford said. “We could put an automated dispatch system in our dispatch office, and I could eliminate two of the girls that work for me and two or three dispatchers and it would pay for itself in probably two or three years.”
Crawford added, “But he’s not doing that. He’s got loyalty to the people, just like they have loyalty to him.”
“Kevin has a huge heart and his passion about the trucking industry is simply contagious,” said Elisabeth Barna, ATA’s chief operating officer. “The fact that he wears his ‘I Heart Trucks’ button every day certainly shows the pride he feels about our industry. He has the ability to make everyone he talks to feel special and in turn inspires them to be the best they can be.”
Despite the mostly good times, Burch has faced serious personal and business setbacks. He came back from a massive heart attack in 2013, and before that, in 2009, worked through what could have been a fatal blow to the company after General Motors, Jet Express’ biggest customer, closed an assembly plant in a suburb of Dayton. Last year, Burch mourned the loss of one of his two sisters due to cancer, and to make matters worse her husband was killed in a bicycle accident six months later.
It was during an ATA executive meeting in Palm Desert, California, when Burch thought he was having a bad case of indigestion. Hours later, he found out that he was having a heart attack.
“Two surgeons told me that I only had a 20% chance of making it, and they asked if my next of kin was nearby,” Burch recalled.
He survived a surgery, and a few weeks later he was back at work, taking life a little easier and watching his diet but still putting in long hours at the office and on the road.
He’s convinced that a prayer session at his bedside led by Philip Byrd Sr., president of Bulldog Hiway Express, had something to do with his recovery.
Although he’s not a regular churchgoer, Burch, a Catholic, said he is a believer and that he reads the Daily Word for inspiration each day before he starts work.
Burch’s employees give their boss credit for literally saving the company and their jobs when dark clouds hovered over the business after the local GM plant with more than 4,000 employees was closed in December 2008. Burch moved the dedicated lanes from a mainly north-south direction to an east-west direction, said Don Pyles, Jet Express’ maintenance director.
At the time of the closure, Jet Express was moving 100 loads a day to and from the nearby plant, Burch said.
“I thought we were out of business, because that was our whole business,” Pyles said. “But he got on the phone with his contacts and single-handedly saved all our jobs.”
Burch admits those were scary times, but said that nonetheless the “dedicated, closed-loop, round trip, just-in-time carrier” adopted a new business model.
Today the carrier’s owner-operators, who make up about 70% of the company’s drivers, travel lanes to 16 locations — typically the farthest a 600-mile trip to Kansas City, Kansas.
Jet Express transports parts such as fenders, quarter panels and hoods, as well as transmissions and engines, to assembly plants on a precise schedule set by GM. “We’re their rolling inventory,” Burch said.
While Burch looks forward to spending the next year telling trucking’s story to the public, he remains concerned about the industry’s persistent driver shortage.
“We have too many people leaving the industry, and we don’t have a bullpen,” he said. “People don’t wake up to say ‘I want to be a professional truck driver.’ So Americans are going to have to find a way to get that word out. And they’re going to have to learn that we share the road with them.”