The Son Also Rises
Chuck Wall never pressured his son Ryan to enter the family business, FHI (Freight Handlers, Inc.). But in 1998, as the young man’s college graduation drew near, he asked his father for advice about the future. Chuck Wall painted a tempting picture: “If you apply yourself, within a year or two you could be a manager at FHI,” the father told his son.
Ryan decided to seize the opportunity. And he applied himself so well that, in 2014, he became FHI’s chief executive officer.
Based in Fuquay-Varina, North Carolina, FHI offers distribution, logistics, and retail services. Its flagship business is providing labor services for supermarket chains at their distribution centers (DCs). Ryan Wall explained to Inbound Logistics how he grew into his leadership role and discussed where he plans to take the company next.
IL: Tell us about your start at FHI and how you worked your way up the ladder.
My first title was management trainee, and I was fortunate to have one of the most extensive management training outlines I’ve ever seen. It was a two-year process, incorporating considerable time in nearly every job in the company at the time. I started by unloading inbound freight for customers, going to different DCs to handle all kinds of product—dry groceries, freezer products, produce, meat, and dairy. I was a young surfer with a business degree, and there I was in a freezer unloading a Conagra load, thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Next I became a dock lead, supervising those unloading teams. I did data entry in the corporate office. I briefly operated a switcher tractor, pulling trailers to dock doors. That lasted only one afternoon, because I almost caused some serious product damage! After many years and several other experiences, I moved into leadership development, which to me was the greatest job ever. But ultimately I became president and chief operating officer, and then CEO.
IL: Was there one experience that helped to shape you as a leader?
In 2008, while I was head of leadership development, I went to Atlanta to hear a talk by Bill Taylor, founding editor of Fast Company magazine. He spoke about how companies in the future will have to differentiate themselves and bring more value based on their culture and the way they care for their people.
As our company grew, it was starting to drift a bit from its original culture. I remember thinking, “I wish we had someone who could help my dad get the company back to its original place.” And then I felt something in my heart, almost an audible voice. It said, “If you want this to happen, you need to step up and do something yourself.”
That weekend, I told my dad, “I have to talk to you about something I said I’d never want, and that’s your job.”
IL: When you became CEO in 2014, what items were at the top of your agenda?
First, to closely manage the onboarding of our new COO, whom I had recruited from the outside. Second, update our branding, formally define and communicate our brand DNA, and develop a formal marketing strategy. Third, create a business development structure to increase our influence in the marketplace. Fourth, I wanted to play a more active role in our business development, serving as a brand evangelist. Finally, I wanted to define the best approach for creating and documenting our vision for the future.
IL: What are your primary goals for the company today?
We want to build upon and sustain our positive levels of satisfied associates. Today, our associate satisfaction rate is in the high 70s to 80s, but we continue to try to push the needle. We also want to diversify our revenue by offering more services in the verticals we currently serve, and looking at new verticals that could be a good fit for our business model. For instance, we’re now providing wall-to-wall services for a plumbing distributor in Tennessee.
We’ve also started a relationship with a company called ScanTech Sciences, which has developed a technology to increase food safety and extend the shelf life of produce by more than two weeks. Its first facility is going live in Texas in the first quarter of 2018, and we’ll be the primary labor provider in that building.
IL: What are your most important characteristics as a leader?
I’m an influencer, an encourager, someone with strong character, and a visionary. I can get very passionate, to the good and sometimes to the negative. I’d also say I’m principled, based on the way I was brought up, the people I learned from, and my wiring.
IL: What leaders inspire you most?
First, Jesus, for his example of how he served others with strength, courage, and kindness. I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve read about Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks. His passion to create memorable experiences and build community through business is inspiring. I’m also inspired by Tony Hsieh, founder and CEO of Zappos, for his emphasis on culture and creating WOW service, and for the story of what it took for Zappos to make it. Finally, there’s John Maxwell, the leadership author. John is close to me and my wife. It would take a long time to put into words his influence on my business and my family.
IL: How do you cultivate leaders at FHI?
Most of our leadership development time and dollars go into training programs, both required and voluntary, for the leaders and managers who work most closely with our associates and customers. We create a lot of programs in house, and then we incorporate materials from John Maxwell and other great authors. On the soft skills side of things, we put a big emphasis on helping people develop character. We also offer many online training tools that people can use on their own initiative.
IL: What’s the most fun aspect of your job?
Serving alongside the wonderful people on our team. Also, having the opportunity to learn all that I do from our customers.
IL: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
My happy place is standing in a mountain stream, with my wife and two kids nearby, casting a fly rod and not caring if I catch anything. I enjoy date nights with my wife; we’ve been married for more than 10 years, and people who see us out think we’re on our first date. I also love sitting around a fire pit with lifelong friends, having great conversations.
Right Makes Might
Visit the FHI website and one of the first things you see is the tag line, “Hard work. Done right.” That’s more than just a slogan, according to Ryan Wall. “It’s the DNA of our brand,” he says. “We want the tough jobs that companies have a hard time getting people to do.”
The “done right” part doesn’t mean the company claims a history of 100-percent perfection, Wall cautions. Everyone blunders now and then. That’s a given, and it’s where you get the chance to impress your customers.
“Your reputation for doing things right has more stickiness when it’s based on how you handle yourself when something goes wrong,” Wall says. “It comes down to the humility and the grace with which we respond when we make mistakes.”