New ATA Chairman Dan Van Alstine: ‘Create a Vision, Empower the People’
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DES MOINES, Iowa — Can a leader working in a high-pressure job as an executive for a billion-dollar trucking and logistics company be a nice guy — even humble — despite his incredible success?
The employees who work with Dan Van Alstine, president and chief operating officer of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, think so.
Van Alstine, confirmed as the 78th chairman of American Trucking Associations on Oct. 25, is widely known at his company as a “servant leader” who puts a focus on the professional and personal well-being of his employees.
New ATA Leadership
►Dan Van Alstine, president and COO of Ruan Transportation Management Systems, Des Moines, Iowa, chairman
►Andrew Boyle, co-president of Boyle Transportation, Billerica, Mass., first vice chairman
►Darren Hawkins, CEO of YRC Worldwide Inc., Overland Park, Kansas, second vice chairman
►Dennis Dellinger, president and CEO of Cargo Transporters, Hickory, North Carolina, vice chairman
►Wes Davis, CFO of Big M Transportation, Blue Mountain, Mississippi, vice chairman
►John M. Smith, chairman of CRST International Holdings LLC, secretary
►John A. Smith, president and CEO of FedEx Ground, treasurer
“Dan very much wants to serve his team,” said Chris Fish, Ruan’s senior vice president of dedicated contract transportation. “He wants to be an advocate for his team and is a staunch defender of his team. But to know Dan is to know he’s having fun himself.”
“I’ve known Dan for 20-plus years, even prior to his arrival at Ruan,” said Chad Willis, chief transformation officer at Ruan. “I consider him a great friend and a fantastic colleague. He’s invested in me both personally and professionally.” Willis calls Van Alstine “an inclusive leader. He values different perspectives. He challenges.”
Ron Hanson, the company’s chief administrative officer, recalls taking a 45-minute walk with Van Alstine along a network of skywalks that line downtown Des Moines during Dan’s interview process. “It was very easy to connect with him,” Hanson said. “And he’s still that guy that I took a walk with. We talk about big issues — serious things. But we always find ways to have fun. Dan has a great sense of humor.”
“Many companies that focus only on the bottom line ultimately don’t have a sustainable model,” Van Alstine said. “What I believe is you help create a vision , empower the people, and focus on their well-being, hold them accountable, and the outcome is called the bottom line.”
Van Alstine is the new American Trucking Associations chairman. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
Over the past four decades, Van Alstine has risen from night shift duty with Schneider National to taking over as president of Ruan in 2014. Along the way, he logged executive stints with a number of trucking companies.
Now, as the incoming ATA chairman, Van Alstine said he plans to focus on issues important to ATA while also taking time to tell Ruan’s story to truckers across the nation; it’s a unique tale of putting people first, while respecting the values and traditions of the third-generation family enterprise that was founded in 1932 by John Ruan.
Van Alstine said his platform at ATA will be “to be loud and consistent about the virtues and the opportunities of this industry. I owe it to ATA, and I owe it to its members. I lead with my heart and will continue to do that.”
“Dan is inspiring,” said ATA President Chris Spear, who has worked with Van Alstine for some time. “He listens, asks questions and takes action. He creates momentum by challenging people to give their very best. It’s why Dan makes a difference and ATA is most fortunate to have him as our chairman.”
Since taking over his role at Ruan, Van Alstine has overseen significant growth of the company’s integrated supply chain solutions offerings, including dedicated contract transportation, managed transportation, value-added warehousing, and brokerage support services. Ruan, which ranks No. 38 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America, has more than 5,600 employees, 300 operations across the nation, 4,000 power units and 10,000 trailers. Van Alstine said the company’s revenue has now reached roughly $1.5 billion.
A few years ago, Ruan won a highly competitive contract to be the exclusive carrier to deliver spirits to almost 2,000 distribution points across Iowa. Ruan won the contract after beating out nearly 80 bidders, said Stephen Larson, administrator of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division. Not only did Ruan score well on the bid, but the company received high marks in the agency’s background checks for its integrity, customer service and reliability, Larson said.
Van Alstine (center) talks to employees at the Ankeny Terminal in Des Moines. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“Trucking is an industry that will create opportunity,” Van Alstine said. “It’s hard work. But it has many, many rewards.”
“Dan’s very thoughtful, and he’s strategic,” said longtime friend and former co-worker, Paul Herzog, chief financial officer for Dubuque, Iowa-based Hirschbach Inc. “He definitely will bring that to ATA. He has a genuine interest in leaving things better after he’s touched something.”
Herzog added, “You couldn’t find a better human being. This guy would rip the shirt off his back and hand it to you if you needed it.”
Herzog had such respect for Van Alstine that he told his wife, “If anything happens to me, that’s the guy you go to for help.”
“Too often you see industry leaders let the emotion of a moment get to them,” said Bob Elkins, senior vice president of industry vertical operations for Ruan. “Dan is never like that. No matter how hot the firefight might be, he is level, and he is calm. And he has that effect on others as they’re working through whatever.
“If he were to leave an organization and go somewhere else, customers and leaders would follow him no matter where he goes. He’s just that engaging.”
Hugh Ekberg, CEO of Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based CRST Transportation, said that while he himself had run large manufacturing companies before coming to CRST in 2016, he had no experience in trucking. He and Van Alstine hit if off quickly after first meeting at a trucking show in Germany, Ekberg said.
”He became for me a go-to resource as I continued to learn the industry,” Ekberg said. “He made himself available. He was very sincere about reaching out. I took full advantage of his years of experience in the industry.
“I’m so appreciative that, even as a competitor — CRST and Ruan are clearly competitors in the same state — Dan has been able to put that to the side as I’ve come to him and ask for his thoughts and ideas. He never has any trouble sharing his perspectives.”
Eckberg calls Van Alstine “a man of human connections.”
“He is a very sentimental guy. He comes across as the constant joker — he uses humor to rib people, that I know, and does it quite well. But as much as he tries to hide it through his humor, he is truly a person who cares about people.”
Van Alstine talks to a Ruan driver at the Iowa Alcohol Beverage Division that is serviced by the company. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
While studying at St. Norbert College, a top-ranked Catholic liberal arts college in northeast Wisconsin, Van Alstine, and friend Phil Dougherty, started a college radio station. He also sang in a group called the Swinging Knights. In 1981, he finished his Bachelor of Arts in communications, hoping to land a big public relations job.
“Long story short, in my head I expected to be in Chicago at a glassed office with an assistant asking me if I needed coffee or a donut,” Van Alstine recalled. “The truth is, I would have been in some basement with no windows, writing copy, and getting somebody else’s coffee.”
One place he didn’t see himself landing was in trucking.
“Frankly, to be 100% honest, I was like any other car driver. I saw trucks as an annoyance on the highways,” he said.
While chasing the dream of becoming a big-time PR agent, Van Alstine had a chance meeting at a banquet with the late Don Schneider, then the CEO of truckload carrier Schneider National. After that meeting, he dismissed the idea of pursuing an opportunity with Schneider.
But later, he reconsidered.
“Through divine intervention, or the wisdom of my father, I did pursue the job with Schneider,” Van Alstine said. He took a job as an extended coverage operations manager with Schneider, working a 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift.
“I reflect back on that time now, and I learned so very much. It was during that early part of my career where trucking got into my blood. The level of satisfaction and joy that comes from solving a problem, helping someone work through an issue is incredibly rewarding,” Van Alstine said. “But I don’t think that at that point I recognized the holistic impact our industry has on society.”
He does now.
While at Schneider, he saw different sides of trucking as he ascended the corporate ladder. “We dealt with customers, drivers, authorities,” Van Alstine said. “We dealt with all sorts of issues. At that time, you didn’t go online and solve a problem, you had to deal with someone face-to-face or on the telephone.”
He has found in Ruan a great fit, in a culture he finds fulfilling.
“We’ve created an environment where we have leadership that recognizes the importance, the criticality, of having really good people in roles they are well suited for, offer the care and feeding that they need, provide the support, and the confidence that someone’s got their back,” he said. “From that some powerful stuff can happen.”
“I want folks to take some risks. I want them to be thoughtful and calculating, and I want to make sure they get input from a number of sources.”
For him, even a chance encounter can provide an opportunity for that input, “You don’t want to get on the elevator with me, because I’m going to ask, ‘Did you make a difference today?’ ” he jokes. “They almost always say yes. Then I’ll respond, I need evidence! It’s a terrific chance for affirmation for a team member.”
“He wants everybody who’s working for him to continue to grow,” said Lance Cheney, vice president of Midwest operations for Ruan. “Not only as a professional in the industry, but also as an individual. He genuinely cares what’s going on in your life, and what’s going on with your family. It’s more than just a business relationship.”
“Dan is aligned with Ruan’s guiding principles, which is people first,” said Ruan CEO Ben McLean. “He is an incredible people-first leader. He’s not a yeller, but we have high expectations for each other.”
“I don’t think I’m a Type A personality,” Van Alstine said, but acknowledged his days can be long as his calendar is always full. He sometimes doesn’t make it home until evening but stressed that he’s grateful for the support of his wife, Chris, as he balances his work and home life.
McLean says Van Alstine is a "people-first leader." (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“She grew up with it. This is a team sport,” Van Alstine said. “When we talk about team sport, it’s the family — the spouse and the now-grown kids. What I love doing most is being with our family.”
Brenda Neville, president of the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said that Van Alstine as the state association’s chairman has skillfully led the group through the pandemic and created its lawsuit abuse legislative language during the past two years.
“He was a uniter, even during the uncertain times of the pandemic,” Neville said. “He said that he just wanted to get to know the association’s members, and meet their needs. He’s a great guy, a natural leader.”
To unwind, Van Alstine enjoys biking and playing pickleball, and during football season watching his beloved Green Bay Packers. On football Sundays he and Chris are either watching on television or in-person at the team’s storied Lambeau Field, despite the seven-hour drive to the stadium.
The love for the Packers is a longtime family tradition; Van Alstine’s father was a referee at Packer practices for about 30 years, and Chris’ grandfather played for the Packers in the 20’s and 30’s.
Van Alstine enjoys most spending time with his family and is widely known as a family man — as witnessed by the many family photos in his office. At home, he rises early to get ready for the new day’s challenges, Chris said.
“He’s an avid reader,” she said. “He wakes up in the morning and he will read three newspapers before he’s out of bed. He loves to read, and he really loves to learn, and grow, and is always expanding himself.”
Van Alstine also has a keen interest in wine — “not necessarily because of drinking it, but because of the historical understanding of the stories behind various vineyards and wineries,” he said. “I’m really fascinated by that. I hope to pursue becoming a sommelier.” A sommelier is a wine steward, a trained and knowledgeable professional, who must take courses and pass several levels of exams, ultimately being formally accredited by the Court of Master Sommeliers.
What the public should experience, Chris stressed, is Van Alstine’s singing voice, something he carried forward from that college singing group.
Chris mentions some of Van Alstine's hobbies and interests. (John Sommers II for Transport Topics)
“He has a beautiful singing voice,” she said. “Ask him to sing ‘Danny Boy.’ ”
In fact, she added to the lore that trucking wasn’t his intended landing spot. “When he was in college he was either going to be a football player or singer,” she said. “When he was in college to earn some extra money he did TV commercials. He did voice overs on the radio. He’s quite talented.”
The talent he now must bring to the table is advancing ATA’s mission before lawmakers and other stakeholders. Van Alstine stresses that he’s met with plenty of politicians over his years in the industry, and understands what it takes to succeed in those negotiations. “The reality is this is how business happens,” he said. “This is how government happens. You can sit on the sidelines and you can complain and criticize, but you’re not going to get anything done. That’s the way the game is played. And I think ATA has done a phenomenal job. They’re playing the game, and playing it well. For our agenda to get advanced, we’re all going to have to play that game.”
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