People and Culture First, Strategy Second
Some years ago, Dan Curtis took a crash course in logistics operations. It started in 2002, when he joined Greatwide Logistics Services as vice president of finance.
“We were a very acquisitive company,” he explains. “I immediately began working on the mergers and acquisitions transactions we were pursuing.” In the course of those activities, Curtis examined the inner workings of dozens of target companies.
So by 2014, when Curtis assumed the role of chief operating officer at BNSF Logistics, he was thoroughly familiar with the nuts and bolts of transportation and logistics. The new job also expanded his responsibilities to encompass human resources, sales and marketing, information technology, procurement, and every other aspect of the business.
In February 2018, Curtis became president of BNSF Logistics, a subsidiary of Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC. Curtis spoke with us about his leadership strategies and priorities in his new position.
IL: Tell us about an early experience that helped shape you as a leader.
When I joined the accounting firm Ernst & Young after college, the partner who led one of my first audits was an engaging, people-focused leader, much different from the other partners I had encountered. His technical competency was as high as the others’, but he led with a much more caring approach that made the entire audit team feel included and important.
He made a point of talking with each of us individually, asking about our career plans and goals, how Ernst & Young was treating us, and what he could do to help. It was the first of many experiences that shaped my belief that people and culture are more important than strategy.
IL: What projects get most of your attention these days?
We’re investing heavily in technologies we believe will change the way we serve and add value to our customers, as well as greatly improve our operating efficiencies. We’re using internal resources, but also engaging companies and specific data scientists to help us with algorithms and data lakes, incorporating new sources of data into artificial intelligence improvements within our operation.
We’re also implementing new leadership and sales training—a lot of things around the people side of the business, which includes diversity and inclusion programs, and culture and volunteering opportunities.
IL: Among the challenges your company faces today, what’s one of the most interesting?
I’m highly interested in all the new data available in our industry from the ELD (electronic logging device) mandate, and from other sources. It’s a challenge not only to get access to all of this data, and analyze it and make it applicable, but it’s also an interesting integration into the core systems, to see how much better you can get at predicting what’s going to happen. We hope to gain insights, for example, into where carriers will be available at what cost, typical destinations from those origins, and how to marry that information to loads we have.
IL: How would you describe your most important characteristics as a leader?
The two most important to me are vision and decisiveness. I have a new vision for the company, and a crucial part of that is to communicate the how, why, and when so the whole organization understands, and we get there together.
I rolled out that vision in our annual management kickoff meeting, soon after I became president. We recorded my talk and disseminated it to all our employees, and that got a lot of positive feedback. We’re doing more video interaction to get people engaged and give them a better feel, in real time, for what the management team is thinking and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
One element of the new vision is to move much faster than we have previously. That requires decisiveness from me. I love getting all the information quickly and then moving on it to make decisions. For example, early on, I doubled the number of staff in our IT development group because we have so many IT initiatives. We need as many resources as we can get to integrate those new technologies into our systems and make them effective for shippers and carriers.
IL: What qualities do you look for in the people who report to you, and how do you nurture that talent?
I look for people who will further our culture and broaden our diversity of thought, and who have an entrepreneurial spirit. Even at our size, we have the attitude within the company that we can get anything done. I nurture talent by engaging all my people in the strategic initiatives we have going, and giving them the space, staff, funds, and guidance they need to accomplish those initiatives.
IL: How do you stay in touch with customers’ needs and wants?
We’ve been doing an annual survey of our customers for years. It gives us valuable data points that we analyze every year and use to set goals and monitor progress. We also collect answers to open-ended questions, which provide real examples of people in our organization who go above and beyond in their services, or instances when service wasn’t at its best. I also stay close to the inside and outside sales resources that interact daily with customers. And I meet with our larger customers as much as their schedules allow.
IL: Have you had an important mentor or role model?
My predecessor as president, Ray Greer, played that role as I worked for him in different areas for many years. He displayed a calm and consistency that influenced my view of how to respond to the myriad situations you face when you run a business. And he allowed me to develop and prepare for this role by increasing my responsibility in all areas.
IL: What’s one of the strangest assignments ever to come your way?
A few years ago at BNSF Logistics, we were asked to expedite an extremely rare and expensive car from Los Angeles to London for the owner’s use, for one week. It was an odd and costly request. We did it—very carefully.
IL: What makes you happy and excited to come to work?
I’m humbled by, and thankful for, the opportunity to lead our organization. Knowing I can impact the quality of life of a large number of people by creating a fun, safe work environment with plenty of opportunity for personal growth is deeply satisfying.
IL: When you’re not working, what do you like to do?
I love spending time with my family. Our kids are all off to, or graduating from, college now, so that’s going to be a bit of a change. I also enjoy fishing and golf, when time allows.
While making the transition from COO to president, the hardest part of Dan Curtis’s job is finding balance among competing demands on his time—from both inside and outside the company. “It’s a different level of demand,” he says. “Prioritizing my time and how I’m going to meet those demands has been challenging.”
Nearly as hard is the need to implement new initiatives, quickly, on top of existing projects. “There are things I want to add to the business, or to do differently,” Curtis says. “Balancing those with our existing priorities and organizational capabilities—that has been challenging as well.”