From Top Waffle to Top Rhino
Kevin Nolan fell in love with the excitement of the freight brokerage floor the day he walked into a C.H. Robinson office, as a college senior, to interview for a job. “I loved the energy, the camaraderie among teammates,” he says. Having played lots of team sports, including college football, he felt right at home.
Today, Nolan heads a team of his own—the more than 650 employees who make up Atlanta-based Nolan Transportation Group (NTG). “NTG is all about a community, a family, and a culture,” Nolan says. It’s a high-energy firm driven by big expectations.
Nolan gave us a look into NTG’s history, the challenges and satisfactions that come with his job, and the experiences that have helped to define him as a leader.
IL: When you left C.H. Robinson, you became a store manager for Waffle House, and won the Top Waffle Award. Why did you take that detour from transportation?
I started working on my MBA while still at C.H. Robinson. I wanted to become a brokerage agent or start my own business, but I had a non-compete agreement to sit out. In the meantime, I needed to earn money. I love Waffle House, and they’re headquartered right in Atlanta. So I went into their management program. I learned a tremendous amount there about hiring and cash flow management.
But as a manager, I worked weekends and all holidays. When my servers or cooks didn’t show up, I waited tables and cooked. It was not a difficult decision to get back into brokerage.
IL: How did you start NTG?
When I founded the company in 2005, I operated as an agent for Donnelly National Transportation in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. I was an independent contractor, paying my own rent and bills and getting a good grounding in the business. They knew I planned to go out on my own eventually, which I did in 2007.
Our early days were chaos at its finest. Our small team did everything: stuffed envelopes with checks to carriers, audited bills of lading, made sales, found trucks, forwarded the phones to one another for night dispatching. When customers were slow to pay, we struggled to pay carriers on time.
IL: What kinds of growing pains did you experience?
Capital was the biggest problem. Carriers and factoring companies wouldn’t extend all the credit we needed to handle our growing volume. Sometimes we had to pay them up front before they would pick up a load. I would take out mortgages on my home to meet payroll, and we sometimes had to rely on costly, non-traditional forms of finance.
IL: What’s your leadership style?
I’m an emotional, strong, passionate leader. I also delegate extremely well, giving my other leaders enough room to do things the right way.
IL: How do you spend a typical day on the job?
Most of my conversations are with my top management; I speak with my department heads daily. I travel to our 12 locations regularly and also visit with customers. I put out large fires, and I try to find good leads for my top salespeople. I pay a lot of attention to the industry, following the numbers for the publicly traded companies.
I check out new technologies. I also interact with a lot of the other leaders in the brokerage space. I have many good friends I compete with but am also very collegial with. We try to help each other, sharing information about bad carriers that are trying to scam people or not paying their insurance claims, and we try to get a feel for the marketplace.
IL: What’s the hardest part of your job?
One of the hardest things is managing the stress. I thrive on our good days, but the bad days hit me hard. Also, freight brokerage is not for everyone. It’s an intense job.
IL: How do you keep morale high among your employees?
We encourage in-office and out-of-office activities as well as open communication across all of our 12 offices. We have a lot of sports teams—co-ed softball, basketball, lacrosse. We also have many costume days, including Favorite College Team Day, Halloween, and Tacky Christmas Sweater Day. Our newsletter highlights good news about employees both at work and in their personal lives.
IL: What’s one of the best things to happen for NTG in recent memory?
In September 2016, Ridgemont Private Equity Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina, invested in our business. Having an outside investor of this caliber believe in us helps both validate and justify the solid foundation we have put in place for our business.
IL: Why does NTG’s company logo contain a picture of a rhino?
There are a couple of key reasons we chose the rhino. One, you always have to be on the “horn”—that is, the phone—in the freight brokerage business. Two, you have to have thick skin. This business is 24/7, requiring you to be persistent, resilient, and always ready to act if something doesn’t go as planned. We’ve built teams around this mentality. We hit our goals because we work as a true team.
IL: Looking back on yourself when you graduated from college, if you could give that young person some advice, what would it be?
Manage your time outside of work in a positive way, to stay balanced so you can manage your stressors at work more easily. That might mean learning to play golf earlier, or getting involved sooner in community and volunteer work. Also, you’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to learn from them. Mistakes don’t define you, they make you better.
IL: How do you like to spend time when you’re not at work?
I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife and my three beautiful daughters, who are 16, 11, and eight. My two oldest daughters are involved in equestrian riding. My eight-year-old plays tennis and soccer, and I help coach the soccer team. On vacations with my family, I love to go deep-sea fishing with my girls.
I golf—not well, but I’m getting better. We’re involved in the Cobb County Schools sports program, making donations and helping with fundraisers. I’m also on the board of advisors for Skyland Trail, an organization that provides treatment to adults with mental illness.
Racing to Make A Difference
One of Kevin Nolan’s happiest times at NTG came on Aug. 5, 2017, when the company put on a 5K race to benefit the Skyland Trail mental health treatment organization. The event drew immense support. “There was an ecstatic feeling about doing something that involved people’s families, their dogs, our customers, and our carriers,” he says.
Most people don’t talk about mental illness often, but it affects everyone’s family and friends in some way, Nolan says. The race raised about $10,000 for the treatment facility. “We were making a difference,” he says. “I’ll never forget the feeling I had driving away at the end of the day. It was great.”