Navigating an Industry at the Crossroads
In an industry currently challenged by port congestion and equipment shortages, Mike Wilson focuses Consolidated Chassis Management on technology and innovation, and leads with empathy and an open mind.
When Mike Wilson joined Consolidated Chassis Management (CCM) as its CEO in 2019, the chassis provision industry was in the midst of profound change.
The Ocean Carrier Equipment Management Association had formed CCM in 2005 to operate a chassis pool, using equipment owned by the shipping lines. But in recent years, the lines have been selling off their equipment to third parties. By the time Wilson took the helm, CCM was competing against several other companies that own chassis fleets and operate pools. Currently, CCM manages about 100,000 of the 550,000 marine chassis in the United States.
To stay competitive, CCM has been reshaping its management structure and developing new markets for its services. Here's how Wilson is leading CCM through this evolution.
IL: What brought you to a career in ocean and intermodal transportation?
While pursuing my graduate degree in social work, I was working at a Division for Youth Service facility, and after a year I realized this career was not for me. My father, who had some experience in shipping, suggested that there were good opportunities in international shipping.
Soon, I was accepted to a training program at United States Lines. During my first day at the Howland Hook Marine Terminal in Staten Island, I stood looking up at a ship and a huge crane, with trucks and workers all around. For a young guy, all that action and big machinery seemed very inviting. I was hooked immediately.
IL: What's one experience that shaped you as a leader?
In 1983, U.S. Lines built the first Econship, the largest vessel ever to call the United States at that time. I was assigned to set up the operation in the Port of Savannah, which was going to be the first U.S. port of call. Working with the team to set up the yard cranes and tractors was a challenge, but it was a great chance to see what I could really do.
IL: When you were appointed CEO of CCM, what were your main goals for the company?
Because of the way the industry was changing, I wanted to assess the company's core strengths and determine the key elements we could use going into the market. Our organization was obviously designed to manage chassis, and our two core pillars were our people and our technology.
So first, I wanted to make sure we were performing to the best of our ability, with our people properly focused on those ideas and new service opportunities. We changed the reporting structure to make the business more decentralized and reorganized our technology approach to insource key aspects while maintaining our primary vendor relationships.
IL: Once you'd attended to those basics, what came next?
We started to identify opportunities to market our technology to other entities that could benefit from it. As a result, we created a new division, Consolidated Intermodal Technologies (CIT), and engaged with several customers.
Companies that can take advantage of our technology include other leasing companies that track and maintain their equipment and bill their customers. Railroads that run their own chassis fleets are interested in our technology, as are some trucking companies with small to mid-sized fleets that are looking for ways to manage their chassis effectively while improving the enterprise overall.
IL: What's it like managing a chassis fleet in an era of acute port congestion and equipment shortages?
With a 20% surge in container volume, no asset base—whether chassis or trucks or warehouses—can handle the need. The fixed asset base of our North American supply chain has been overwhelmed, strictly due to the influx of cargo. In times of stress, you have to find ways to do things better.
That's where innovation comes in. We're using our interoperable model—where you can put any chassis under any box for any line or motor carrier at any facility in the network—to enhance fluidity and velocity. The faster you go, the more capacity you have. Our interoperable model has driven greater efficiency and it's built on collaboration.
IL: What qualities make you an effective CEO?
I'm generally open-minded, and I believe that I should never engage unless I am truly informed. To lead, you need to create an environment where people have confidence in what you're saying.
I also think it's important to have empathy for others. Every job has dignity, and everyone has something to offer. We need to make opportunities for people to work, and to contribute to the success of the overall enterprise.
IL: Who is a business leader you find particularly inspiring?
While I was vice president of logistics and operations at shipping line Hambug Süd, I was lucky to work for Dr. Heino Schmidt. He had the perfect blend of personality, empathy, and skill. He was deeply intelligent, with a PhD in economics. But he was a down-to-earth guy. He showed me how to be an executive leader, and he gave me a lot of opportunity. He is now CFO of the Oetker Group.
IL: How do you like to spend time outside of work?
I love to be around my family, including my children and grandchildren. In April, my wife and I were lucky enough to spend four days with our son and two grandchildren at Disney World. My wife and I also have a little boat on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, where we enjoy the sun and do a little fishing.
I'm on several ministries at my church, and I'm on the board of Samaritan Inn, an organization in Sussex County, New Jersey, that has had great success helping homeless families.
As a younger professional, when Mike Wilson needed to get a job done, he would create rigid job descriptions for the people who would do the work. But experience has taught him to rethink that strategy. "Tight structure squashes creativity and individuals' ability to be their best," he says.
Today, Wilson prefers to find out what employees are good at and let them contribute accordingly. "If we look for ways to identify people's true skill sets, see how those skills fit into the outcomes of the enterprise, and let people grow, that creates a broader and deeper success experience," he says.
It can also lead to some fortuitous surprises. Say, for example, an employee who works in equipment control expresses a desire to try marketing. Wilson probably wouldn't have opened that door in the past, but he has seen that sort of gamble pay off extremely well. "You give somebody a shot at working in marketing, and all of a sudden that's one of the best marketing people you've ever seen," he says.