REO Logistics CEO Rebecca Polan: In Line to Succeed
Rebecca Polan was working toward a career in the not-for-profit world when she realized she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. Her father, Lake Polan, the third-generation leader of a family logistics and real estate firm, urged her to work for him for one year. “He said, ‘No harm if you don’t like it, you can always move on,'” Polan recalls. “That was 12 years ago. I’ve been here ever since.”
Polan rose through the ranks at REO Logistics, spending most of her time in Huntington, West Virginia, in the corporate services business, which manages finance, human resources, information technology, and other shared functions for the company’s many subsidiaries. After a while, her father started planning to have her succeed him.
“It was understood that if I wanted to pursue that, I needed to accomplish several things, such as earning my MBA and spending even more time in the operations part of the business,” Polan says. She moved to Virginia in 2006 to get a close-up look at REO’s trucking subsidiary there.
In 2011, Lake Polan named Rebecca Polan president of the corporate services company. In January 2017, she took over as chief executive officer of the entire corporation. Polan talked with IL and explained how she runs the company today.
IL: What crucial experiences shaped you as a leader?
The period when I was making the transition from vice president to president of the corporate services business was key. I’m about to turn 40. It’s sometimes hard to manage people who have 30-plus years more experience than you do. My father was tough on me and held me to high standards, but being the boss’s daughter can be a challenge. I had to learn how to get people on my side and convince them that I could drive us onto a productive path.
During that time, I worked with my dad to implement quarterly strategy meetings, and we formed an executive team across the organization. We started to implement strategy sessions, so we could become more deliberate about the way we were growing. I think that solidified my place as a strong leader. Getting my MBA gave me a lot of new tools to work with. And then, over the past two years, I’ve been able to hire my own executive team. That has made a huge difference.
IL: What’s your leadership style?
I’m extremely collaborative. I avoid micromanaging at all costs, and I encourage our team to work together. You never know where you’re going to get the next great idea. My IT director might be the person who solves a human resources problem, or my warehouse manager might come up with a technology solution for a challenge in the trucking company. We try to hire people with diverse backgrounds, so we can lean on everybody to be a holistic problem solver.
IL: As CEO, how do you spend a typical day on the job?
There is no such thing as a typical workday for me. One day I might be touring warehouses, helping to identify safety issues or ways to improve the flow of traffic. Another day, I might be in a brainstorming session, figuring out the best way to present new ideas to a customer.
I spend a lot of time traveling to conferences, bringing back new ideas. I see culture-building, and bringing the outside in, as one of my main responsibilities. Now that I’ve established my strong executive team, I’m starting to work on improving our middle management systems, identifying the top performers and mentoring them. That’s one of my favorite things to do.
IL: What’s currently at the top of your agenda?
We recently completed our second acquisition. I see that kind of growth as a huge part of our future, for growing geographically and expanding our service offerings. We’re using this acquisition as a practice ground, and so far, so good.
We’re also upgrading almost every technology system in the company. We’ve done our accounting system, and now we’re working on our transportation management software. Next comes a new warehouse management system. Human capital is our most valuable asset, but that human capital needs great technology to function at its highest capacity.
IL: How do you stay in touch with what your customers want and need?
I read voraciously and attend a lot of industry conferences. I also work closely with a consultant who monitors new trends and technologies in our industry. We’re members of the International Warehouse Logistics Association, and I am a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization, which provides a lot of opportunity to understand what technologies are emerging in the supply chain world.
Of course, I try to stay up on world events and invite customers to talk to me about their perspectives and concerns. I rely on my vice presidents and salespeople to talk to customers on a more micro level. At our weekly meetings, we check in about our customers and find out what is worrying them, or I encourage people to find out if our customers are worried about certain proposed laws and regulations. Then we use that information when we develop our strategies.
IL: Tell us about a mistake you’ve made that has taught you a valuable lesson.
Probably the biggest mistake I have made involved keeping someone in the wrong position for too long. I love the people who work for me, so it’s hard when I realize that someone is not in the right spot. I usually try to find them something that’s a better fit, and typically they’re happier in the end, even if they move to a position with less responsibility. This doesn’t get easier, and I don’t want it to.
IL: What’s the hardest part of your job?
It’s balancing the resource needs of all the different companies. Each of them would like to spend the entire annual capital budget on its own needs.
IL: What’s the most fun?
I love getting my main staff together in a room and saying, “This is a problem we have. How can we fix it?” It’s like your favorite college seminar, where everybody is a good listener and willing to be changed by what other people are saying. I have great people who love to problem solve, and then make it happen.
Still in the Saddle
Before trucks took a place at the center of her life, Polan devoted herself to a slower form of transportation. After college, she spent more than four years working on a horse farm. “I was very focused on my riding career,” she says. “I got to travel all over the country, living out every horse lover’s dream—riding for a living and going to horse shows all the time.”
Polan still competes as a rider. “I get up every day at 4:30 or 5 a.m., and ride my horse before work,” she says. “That feeds my competitive spirit and my perfectionist impulses. I let those out a bit at the barn, which buffers my employees from my need for perfection all the time. It keeps me sane and gives me balance.”