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Werner Enterprises CEO Derek Leathers in an exclusive interview with Transport Topics discussed how the principles established by company founder Clarence L. Werner — who plans to step down as chairman of the board next year — remain the foundation of how the company operates.
“I have talked for years about how we were founded by a driver, we are led by a driver and we try to lead with the driver in mind. That still continues,” Leathers said. “The legacy he’s built is founded on integrity, doing things the right way, putting the customer at the forefront of what we do and always having respect for the role and importance of the professional drivers.”
C.L. Werner founded Werner Enterprises in 1956 with a single truck purchased with proceeds from the sale of a family car. Today, Werner is a global company with 8,000 trucks and nearly 13,000 employees.
C.L. Werner stepped down from his role as executive chairman effective May 31, but will continue as chairman of the board of directors through the end of his current term, which is set to end May 2021. He is expected to be named chairman emeritus once his term is over.
Leathers on May 31 was named a member and vice chairman of the board by the board of directors, and C.L. Werner has recommended that Leathers be named chairman once his term expires, in addition to Leathers’ current company leadership responsibilities.
Despite the company’s growth over the years, C.L. Werner has always remained connected to its roots, Leathers said. “He’s maintained his CDL,” Leathers noted. “He’s continued to drive a truck at points along the way.”
But C.L. Werner has also stayed focused on ensuring the company’s long-term success once he steps down.
“It will be hard for someone who dedicated the entirety of his life to making this company what it is to take a step back,” Leathers said. “It was also very important to him that Werner made that transition while he was still able to help guide that transition.”
Leathers noted that includes structuring the company so that it can thrive not just beyond C.L. Werner’s retirement, but also beyond the tenures of the current management team, himself included.
“Everyone today likes to focus on the highlights of these highly successful people and wants to rewrite history as if it’s an overnight success story,” Leathers said. “C.L. would tell you it took decades to start gaining any real momentum and really start to see growth and a larger footprint.”
Leathers added C.L. Werner was fortunate to have people around him who shared in his vision and remained loyal to the company — including many who spent their careers there.
“I’ve been here 21 years and yet I bring the average tenure of the executive team down,” Leathers said, noting that it is not uncommon for people to remain with the company for 25 years or longer. “We celebrate 40-year anniversaries here on a fairly regular basis,” Leathers said.
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That’s likely attributable to C.L. Werner’s outlook on managing the company, Leathers said.
“He’s a thoughtful leader. He’s always thinking way down the line,” Leathers said. “As a person, when I think of him the word that comes to mind is he’s humble.”
C.L. Werner also has a charitable side. In 2012 he was presented with the Horatio Alger Award, which recognizes business and community service efforts. Leathers noted he has done a lot to give back to the community.
“He’s very philanthropic,” Leathers said. “He’s built schools and churches and made major contributions to medical centers. He has his own foundation that does work around things he has passion for.”
Leathers added, “His legacy, in short, means everything to us. It’s truly the epitome of an American success story.”
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