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Trucking for four generations

Kenneth Johnson has spent his life surrounded by the smell of diesel fuel and the sound of tractor trailer engines revving to life. He would not have it any other way.

As CEO of Leonard’s Express Inc., Johnson is the fourth generation of family members who have either founded or sat at the helm of a trucking company. Evidence of his family’s long history in the industry hangs on the wall of his office: A decades-old, black-and-white photograph of his great-grandfather posing by his delivery vehicles.

The family businesses have weathered their share of storms through the years but always have come out on top. Last year Leonard’s Express posted revenues of nearly $200 million. The truckload carrier employs roughly 500 people at 20 locations nationwide, including 140 at its Farmington, Ontario County, headquarters.

The company’s success results from several factors, perhaps most importantly a culture of honesty and integrity that is deeply ingrained in Johnson family members—a dozen of whom work at the company—and its longtime employees.

“Dad had a unique way of doing business that I don’t think any of us could duplicate. I think we all have certain skill sets that we acquired from him but none of us have them all,” Johnson, 52, says. “One of them that I don’t think any of us have is that instinct to walk around the right corner at the right time. He just had a knack for that.”

Johnson’s mother, who has retired along with her husband, was the moral compass of the family businesses, he says.

“She always says there’s no sense in doing something if you can’t do it right. She really built that level of integrity in us,” Johnson says. “One of the reasons we get along so well is because it was very important to her that, yes, there were debates and things we were not going to agree on, but it’s how we treat each other during the process that’s important. So that at the end of the day we still like each other.”

Trucking roots
The family’s roots in trucking began in the early 1900s when Johnson’s great-grandfather founded F.D. Langdon Inc., a small trucking company based in Lyndonville and later moved to Medina, both in Orleans County. The company’s original delivery vehicles were horse-drawn wagons. Johnson’s grandparents were running the company when it was sold in 1968.

In 1972, Johnson’s father, Kent, and his mother, Patricia, continued the family tradition and founded K.J. Transportation Inc., a successful truckload carrier originally based in Henrietta. The company eventually moved to Farmington, and the Johnsons ran K.J. Transportation until 1998, when they sold the business to Transit Group Inc., an Atlanta-based holding company.

At the time of the acquisition, K.J.’s fleet consisted of 300 trucks, 900 trailers and 160 owner-operators, or independent contractors. In 1999 Transit Group bought Priority Transportation Inc. K.J. was renamed and became part of that group, continuing to operate from its original Farmington facility.

In 2001, the Johnson family found itself kicking around the idea of starting a new company. The new company would be situated near their former company, and the Johnson family did not want the company name to be confused with K.J. or Priority Transportation. The name Leonard’s Express is a tribute to a former partner’s father.

Priority Transportation closed in 2008 when the assets of Transit Group were liquidated, and Leonard’s Express capitalized on some of its business.

“At the time they were still leasing this building, and we were in the building next door,” Johnson recalls. “It was a few rough months for some people because we had to decide how we wanted to approach it, but in the end, it worked out very well.”

Johnson has been in the family business since childhood, he says.

“I started working for my dad when K.J. was up at the old truck stop on Jefferson Road (in Henrietta),” he recalls. “I started working in the shop just doing beginner cleanup and scraping grease off the floor. (It taught me) that there is no job, regardless of my position in the company, that I’m above. We all roll up our sleeves and pitch in and do what’s necessary to get the job done.”

Johnson took the reins at Leonard’s Express from his father about five years ago, he says. His two brothers work for the company, as does his brother-in-law. His sister recently retired. Johnson’s parents continue to play a role in the family business. His father serves as chairman and his mother is vice chairman.

Leonard’s Express offers transportation services such as truckload shipping and brokering, as well as maintenance services. The company’s brokerage division connects shippers with carriers in trucking routes Leonard’s Express prefers not to run or if demand is high.

“We’re a pretty good size, but if we get spread too thin then it’s not productive,” Johnson explains. “Plus the brokerage allows us, as long as the customer is comfortable with us brokering it, to add capacity when there’s an increase in demand.”

The transportation industry is a vital and central part of the economy, Johnson says.

“Trucking in general is such an integrated part of the economy,” he explains. “Whether the economy is good or the economy is bad, people still have to eat. And they still need clothes on their backs and roofs over their heads. Maybe sometimes they’re buying Chevys instead of Cadillacs, but they still need the basics. The trucks bring them.”

Leonard’s Express operates roughly 330 trucks, including 50 owner-operators. In addition to its 140 staffers in Farmington, the location has 80 or more drivers controlled from the office but living elsewhere.

One challenge both the company and the industry face is a lack of drivers. It is not the sexiest industry, and attracting new talent takes some effort.

“Recruiting and retaining drivers is very difficult. It’s a challenging job, and the culture of being on the road is not that appealing to folks that much anymore,” says Todd Smith, vice president of sales. “What we have to do is create an environment that’s attractive for drivers to come work for us and stay working for us.”

The key to that is not just paying them well but treating them well, Smith says.

“If you can generate a solid quality of life for a truck driver, make sure they’re seeing their family as frequently as they want to see them, I think those are important things to making sure that they feel they’re part of something good and part of a team,” Smith says.

Family atmosphere
Maintaining the culture the Johnson family has worked hard to instill can be a challenge, particularly when the company is growing. In 2013 Leonard’s Express acquired Diamond State Warehousing and Distribution in New Castle, Del., and last year the company bought some assets of West Coast Distribution, a North Carolina-based refrigerated transportation company.

“Probably the biggest challenge that we talk about within the organization is as we’ve grown and we’ve brought new companies into the mix, maintaining that family value that’s so important to us,” Johnson says. “We don’t want to lose sight of that.”

Training is an integral part of working at Leonard’s Express. Several years ago, when the Johnson family was discussing succession planning, they worked with James Kestenbaum, a corporate psychologist and founder of the Solutions Group, to help with the process.

Kestenbaum has been working with employees through leadership training the last two years.

“As we were growing, it was getting more difficult for myself and my family members to be involved with every decision in every location every day,” Johnson recalls. “We really wanted to strengthen our bench, so to speak. We said we’d like to find ways to bring our people together on a tighter basis from a cultural perspective, but also develop leadership skills.”

Kestenbaum says employees are engaged and enjoying the leadership training.

“A family member is in each of the meetings. That’s not for oversight; that’s to create more accessibility to them,” Kestenbaum says. “And they talk about their own trials and tribulations. It kind of levels the playing field in a very nice way.”

He describes Johnson’s leadership style as inclusive and participatory. Johnson also is accessible and easy to talk with.

“He’s a very good listener,” Kestenbaum adds. “He’s had decades of experience in trucking and was taught by his father, who was very successful. The family treats the workforce well.”

Johnson’s management style is situational, Smith adds.

“Ken is the type of manager where he gives you the latitude needed to make decisions, and I feel he’s got that type of confidence in not only myself but with other managers in the company to say, you’re in your position for a reason—go ahead and make those decisions,” Smith says.

Johnson said when running a family business, and working with as many family members as he does, being collaborative is important to its success. Occasionally they butt heads, he acknowledges.

“We speak our piece and at the end of the conversation we make a decision, and we walk out and we can still go to mom’s for dinner on Sunday,” he says with a smile.

Johnson says the best part of his job is the people.

“I love dealing with people and interacting with people, whether it’s a customer, employee or driver,” he says. “I also have a real passion for the industry, and I’m fortunate that the way our business is structured it allows me a lot of time to advocate for the industry, both in Albany and in Washington.”

Johnson served as chairman of the Trucking Association of New York from 2010 to 2012, and through the organization became involved in government affairs, says Kendra Hems, the organization’s president.

Hems has worked with the family through the organization since 1999, and she describes Johnson as dedicated and loyal to the industry.

“He’s very committed to doing right by the industry, so his engagement in government affairs helps with keeping abreast of what’s going on, making sure that we’re working toward issues or items that would help the industry and improve the business climate for them in New York,” Hems says.

Leonard’s Express is successful because its philosophy is based on family values, Hems says.

“The other thing I noticed in working with Ken and Kent over the years is they are very progressive,” she notes. “So they’re always looking at the new technologies, how they can continue to improve the company, both from a safety perspective and an environmental perspective.

“They’re forward thinking, and from my experience they care about their employees and try to do what they can to give them a good job or career,” she says.

Leonard’s Express for some time has used electronic logs for its drivers rather than the traditional books drivers filled out to keep track of their hours on and off the road. Electronic logs auto-matically log when the truck is moving, taking the guesswork out of on-duty and off-duty hours and eliminating any fudging of the hours.

Electronic logs will not be a mandate from the government until 2017, but embracing the technology and improved safety measures early has put Leonard’s Express ahead of the curve and helps the company differentiate itself from competitors.

Ultimately, though, culture and the human touch are what set the company apart.

“There’s a lot of technology creeping into it and there’s a lot of technology already here,” Johnson says. “But there’s still a human interaction, and we’ve worked very hard on our culture.”

Johnson says one thing he has learned in his decades in the trucking industry is that nothing in life that is worth having is easy.

“You have to work for it,” he says.

At home
Johnson was born outside New York City, but early on his parents moved the family to the Canandaigua area. Johnson’s wife of 20 years, Connie, also works for Leonard’s Express. They met when he was visiting K.J. Transportation’s Florida facility and dated for some time before he convinced her to move north.

“One July when it was super hot in Florida and it was nice up here I convinced her it was a good idea to move to New York,” he says with a laugh. “She doesn’t talk to me from January through March.”

Johnson has a 28-year-old son, Patrick, and a 26-year-old daughter, Catherine, who also work in the family business.

Johnson recalls his childhood fondly, in particular vacations to Disney World, his mother’s favorite destination. In recent years, Disney vacations have been replaced with other outdoor activities. Johnson has finished five Iron Man contests.

In 2006 Johnson weighed close to 300 pounds, he recalls.

“I just decided I wasn’t happy, so I lost the weight on Nutri System,” he says. “Part of it was they wanted you to exercise every day, so I started running.”

When he began to have some Achilles tendon issues he took up bicycling. Then some friends at a 5K race suggested he add swimming to his repertoire and begin participating in triathlons.

“As I started watching the Iron Man races online I found it very inspiring, and next thing I know I’d signed up for Lake Placid in 2008,” he says. “It’s kind of a balancing act because Iron Man takes a lot of time. Anyone who wants to do it can do it; it’s a matter of putting the time into it.”

Johnson’s love of triathlons is understandable. They are exciting, like his work.

“It’s never the same,” Johnson says of his days at Leonard’s Express. “Every day is a new adventure.”

Kenneth Johnson
Title: CEO, Leonard’s Express Inc.
Age: 52
Family: Wife, Connie; son, Patrick, 28; daughter, Catherine, 26
Home: Canandaigua, Ontario County
Interests: Participating in triathlons, representing the transportation industry in government affairs
Quote: “Trucking in general is such an integrated part of the economy. Whether the economy is good or the economy is bad, people still have to eat. And they still need clothes on their backs and roofs over their heads. Maybe sometimes they’re buying Chevys instead of Cadillacs, but they still need the basics. The trucks bring them.”

11/11/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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