Ethan Slaughter

Interview by
Published on
June 16, 2022

In this episode...

The north star of most truck companies is usually the combination of good pay, home time, and respect. If Christenson Transportation Inc.’s Ethan Slaughter can add something to the mix, he would add culture. Good things can be done by individuals, but great things are done by teams. Ethan makes an appropriate segue into how companies need to make sure their drivers feel that way - as truck driving can be a very lonely job. While most drivers are strong and independent, it would be nice if they know their company has their backs while on the road, that their feedback is received and acted upon, and that there is a genuine connection established between them and the company. Join Life By The Mile’s conversation with Ethan Slaughter about establishing a winning culture in this new episode, delivered by FreightWorks.

Ethan Slaughter

Chief Operating Officer at Christenson Transportation Inc.


you can let the guy that just cut you off a few minutes ago you can let that go you don't have to uh you don't have to stare at the windshield and be upset all day you can you can deal with shippers or receivers or law enforcement or the general public in really positive ways even when you're not getting that respect back welcome to life of the mile delivered by breakworks one of america's fastest growing podcasts actually produced by trucking indicted to tell stories compelling drivers i need to do something bigger like electricity

this is life by the mile delivered by freight works and it's another exciting opportunity to just get a handle on the pulse of what's happening in the trucking and logistics world uh it's a great opportunity today we've got ethan slaughter he's the chief operating officer and controller at christensen and i and you're in the springfield missouri location correct yeah that's correct yep great well let me let me just tell you a little bit about uh christensen and then we're going to jump right in and we're going to focus on an area that the marketplace has tremendous interest in and and you've got some unique things to offer regarding and that's the whole topic of retention so now you can correct me if i'm wrong on any of this in terms of a description it's it's came off some of your content and sometimes the people on the front lines aren't the people that write the content so if there's something that's not right you're going to tell me okay yeah all right so with two locations springfield missouri and lebanon tennessee christensen transportation is a family-owned company it was founded in 1979 as a brokerage firm by gene christensen don christensen is now the president they started the truck line in 95 company runs in all 48 states now they specialize in the hauling of high value high risk and time sensitive freight including tires pet food paper electronics and other general commodities with over 35 years of the trucking industry they've won the truckload carriers association safety award three times and is the recipient of the platinum fleet award for outstanding achievement in highway traffic safety both are due to a commitment they have in working with quality drivers to provide value and safety they're a member of the truckload carriers association and the missouri motor carriers that that pretty well says it all yeah it does um one thing to add we just went through an acquisition we acquired sharp transport out of etheridge tennessee so we've expanded a little bit in the middle tennessee area it's interesting um well let's let's jump into that because one of the things of course with retention is just the whole issue of cultures different cultures and different companies but uh you know i was so interested to learn that in addition to your responsibilities as a chief operating officer which means that a whole lot of stuff comes across your desk for sure you're also the controller but but you're wrapping up your doctoral research tell us what your research is going to focus on so um and i've actually wrapped up my research um yep i'm at indiana wesleyan university which is just north of indianapolis and my research is really focused on synthesizing these desires or dysfunctions that are causing driver turnover you know the big three you hear about are pay home time and respect but those mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people so it was it was taking a deep dive into those three areas for sure um and i found out a lot of interesting things that's that's interesting by the way indiana western's a great school uh i went uh a long time ago maybe before you were born i went to a school called wheaton college out in illinois and uh but indiana wesleyan's got a great reputation congratulations on on the on the work there now let me let me let me ask you this the term chief operating officer means different things in different companies what does it mean for you in terms of responsibilities sure so i share that title with chase adkins he is the chief operating officer and he has a hyphen tennessee by his name so we share that responsibility i i oversee a lot of the back office function so it'd be natural that i would keep that controller title um so i focus on a lot of back office stuff but i also focus on culture culture is a huge one for me and it kind of dovetails nicely with with researching driver retention as well that's good now before we get into some of the technical details here can you tell me how you got into trucking yeah um so at the very beginning of my career i worked in public accounting and after that i had a had a brief stint in municipal government and the partner of the cpa firm that i was working with he texted me out of the blue one day and asked me if i wanted a job and it's it's just about as simple as that i was i was looking to jump into an industry where i could do doctoral research that could actually make some change government doesn't change very fast so that wasn't really a good spot for that so yeah i just jumped on the opportunity so it wasn't the case that you came from a family of trucking and logistics or or the like no zero experience you know what it's the same thing for me i mean i host a trucking and logistics podcast and came into this with no background at all but it's a great opportunity to learn of course through podcasts like this one i'd love for you to start out ethan by giving a general picture kind of a state of the union of retention and what some of the key drivers are for retention in companies give people a tutorial on that well um i guess the first thing i could say is it's a very sophisticated problem you know even boiling it down to pay home time and respect is probably not sufficient enough those are the presenting symptoms if you will you know respect is in my research anyways i've come across really two types of respect there's an interpersonal respect that's um that's earned and owed respect if you will but there's also this intra-personal respect where and that has a lot to do with self-respect self-esteem and and that's a big issue that i've found with truck drivers which is which is pretty interesting

and so so the respect category um can be summarized in that way i mean there's a lot of there's a lot of tentacles on on that respect issue pay that more boils down to there's a lot of financial tension if you will you know it's you know these guys they want to get home

and there's a financial cost to that for them and there's a lot of there's a lot of emotional needs to get home so there's this there's this constant struggle between can i afford to go home you know everybody at home wants to see me so so those so pay and home time are really closely related linked if you will interesting and um yeah go ahead well and so really if you want to start with the umbrella of those three which which is a pretty good that's like i said that's how these symptoms start to present themselves i mean if you ask a driver you know what are your what are the key things that you're hung up on or why would you leave it's going to be those three things for the most part and culture's a big component of that interpersonal respect if you will one of the things ethan we find here at freightworks and of course we're a family-oriented company vast growing in western north carolina with a strong commitment to be promise keepers and truth tellers we find a number of drivers who come to us come with such a low trust quotient that they they want to believe that what they're hearing is true but they're going to kick the tires and wait a while to see because they have all this accumulated baggage of being in worse cases lied to manipulated used treated as a commodity what do you see about that you have any comments about that in particular

yeah um and this is number one that that is a very important interpersonal respect issue right um however it is also an intrapersonal respect issue

you know i ran across an interesting piece of research from the national institute of health that said that truck drivers are are significantly more likely to suffer with depression and anxiety than the general population okay so then then you start researching well how do people that are depressed or anxious deal with disrespect um and there's a there's a significant correlation it was a study done out of john johns hopkins that people who have higher levels of depression they associate respect or disrespect differently they perceive a lack of disrespect different than probably you or i would they they live in a different environment if uh and that environment plays a huge role in that that's that's interesting and so in many respects the next company they go to inherits whatever they're dealing with internally and what whatever they've dealt with externally right

for sure um and you know that showed up in a lot of my research a lot of my own original research that i would ask a driver you know where does this what is this topic of respect where's the genesis of it what's the beginning of it and they say well we hire people with such low self-respect or low self-esteem um okay and then i would get into questioning you know how how have you dealt with self-respect or self-esteem and i'd say well i've had my struggles with it i still struggle with it which is something that i had not come across in any of the any other review of the existing literature so that was a pretty interesting finding and one that's not really talked about that much that's interesting so what are companies doing in a remedial way to address that what are forward-thinking pace setting companies doing to deal with that what are you seeing anything

i'm not and i've i've talked to some industry some industry leaders if you will um and i have probably asked you the same question do you know of anybody that's doing anything about it that's a you know it's a hyper masculine industry probably not as much as it used to be but that um that stigma is difficult to overcome for sure well and you know well and you know i guess what we find our studio here is actually right adjacent to the driver lounge that's on purpose because i want to ask questions i want to listen i want to hear what they have to say and um you know listening may be a strong component in all of this as well i mean people perceiving that they're actually being heard would that be the case yeah um that that was a pretty common uh finding in my research actually the number one finding in my research was drivers they just desire more cooperation from their company

and a lot of that boils down to just being heard and it can be not anything related to the job it's i just need somebody to talk to i'm lonely you know the nature of this job if you if we want to back up and talk about mental health if you look at the the key environmental causes of mental mental health issues you'll have poor sleep cycles poor diet nutrition um isolation is is a big one or strained relationships um you know pretty quickly you start in a lot of cases you start describing the job of a truck driver so it's it's it's pretty obvious when you put it that way

and i don't know that anybody that's really dealing with that in a in a pretty intentional way what's so interesting is i'll sit in the driver's lounge and there will be drivers drivers i've not met before and we'll talk and they'll they'll think because of the way i'm dressed or whatever i'm equipped to fix a problem they'd be talking about a broken truck or whatever but i always make it a point because it's a freight works value we're gonna listen we're gonna want you to be heard and then if we're able to communicate uh solutions across the board it it helps people understand that what about platforms like workhound and others do you find that those are helpful so um i've talked with max a few times right max farrell um nothing bad to say about his tool at all i mean all the data is great right the more data we have the better but you've got to start asking the question are we getting deep enough data to really tie these issues together and get to the roots of the issues so yeah any sort of feedback you can get from a driver is great uh any sort of engagement that you can get with a driver to let them know hey you're not out there by yourself fantastic

but that's a small part of retention um you know i think that we as an industry have tried to treat this issue with uh well we tried to treat it with pay for decades right and that doesn't always seem to pan out or hasn't seemed to pan out and the home time one's easy just send them home right that takes care of home time but from a business perspective that doesn't make sense um you know and all three of these problems are are so tightly wound together um the answer to that question yeah it's valuable but i'm not sure that it gets to the root of the issue it's just one facet of the multi-dimensional issue i guess that you're dealing with sure and it may be a great it may be a great conversation starter um you know if you can follow up with a driver uh and and really start asking those questions so my research used the socratic method which is all the w questions who uh when where or why um and you just keep asking questions until you can get so you can get them to open up and there's a lot of trust building that needs to go on there as well yeah you know uh let me let me ask you this when it comes to mergers uh and acquisitions how do you deal with the matter of cultures uh uh you just had an acquisition that took place uh i've been a part in the past of companies that merged and were acquired and you know some are like germany and some are like france but you've got to bring them all together how do you do that

first thing i think is setting a common foundation that everybody can operate on and that's difficult you know some companies operate by exception all the time everything's an exception or you have companies that the exceptions truly are the exceptions and they operate by the 80 20 rule um so you know that has been that's been a little bit of a of an opportunity for us and sharp and i think we've handled it really well chase the other ceo and i we work very well together but it's hard because and there's also a lot of emotion in that you know especially with with family run companies like ours and theirs everybody's pretty sure that the way they did it was the was the best way to do it and we're probably both wrong the answer is probably somewhere in the middle so sorting out that can be a challenge but you know i've always said if we can just be open and honest with each other um and even if we have an agenda let's put our agenda on the table you know um and i think that we're doing pretty well at that you know it's interesting because in the literature of course one of the issues with mergers and acquisitions particularly with family-owned companies is the issue of nepotism and you always have to kind of deal you know deal with perceptions of what happens or or doesn't happen so it's it's complex now let me let me ask you when it comes to the whole retention issue are is there good data to show the variables predisposing somebody to be a good driver do you think i mean we just had some guests on recently talking about some of the functions of artificial intelligence in the days ahead to try to determine what variables seem to predispose somebody to be a solid safe good driver did your research uncover everything anything there yeah and it's probably a concept that you may have heard of but probably not in relation to driver

driver retention or the appropriateness of a driver and it's it's the the term mindfulness so i interviewed several drivers and i could tell by the end of my interviews i could tell within five minutes or so if a driver was going to report throughout the entire interview if they had issues with this pay home time of respect

and there were it's a it's a minority but that minority that didn't have any issues with pay home time or respect and their job satisfaction was high they would almost define what mindfulness is to you and why they are so successful i know i've heard a lot about grit test people trying to trying to build off of the grip test trying to find drivers that will stick around based off of that i think that that's okay that's that will bring out mentally tough individuals for sure people who can can sustain but i'll tell you that the guys that i ran across that that did define this mindfulness in a lot of different ways they may score very low on the grit test but they are thrilled to death to be a truck driver right that is so interesting and we'll find it informally in uh not formal focus groups but in conversations with people you'll find that they have in some cases a higher tolerance for ambiguity a desire to be thrilled by their surroundings as they drive they haven't lost a sense of adventure they're able to uh be patient in an environment where everything screams not to be and these are more subtle things aren't they um they are but if you if you have any experience with mindfulness it's not a subtle way to live it's a it's a pretty intentional way to live you know to be dedicated to the now to be dedicated to what you're doing now you know you can let the you can let the guy that just cut you off a few minutes ago you can let that go you don't have to uh you don't have to stare at the windshield and be upset all day you can you can deal with shippers or receivers or law enforcement or the general public in really positive ways even when you're not getting that respect back so yeah that's a that's a big one and i don't there's not a good way to quantify it but you can if you sit with people long enough you can tell it's interesting because of course uh we're a diverse company with people of different faiths but the leadership and the ownership and the founding of this company is very much driven by a biblical foundation and so things like forgiving you know respect treating others the way that you want to be treated these are all an outgrowth of internalized values and our hope is of course that the drivers that come here to freight works experience that we actually have had some we're going to do a podcast here in the near term ethan uh along the lines of uh i came i left now i came back because we've got some drivers that you know the grass was greener and and they're realizing that the subtleties of the intangibles of being in an environment where promises are kept and people are respected and your truth is your bond that somehow that's that's not that's a commodity that's worth more than just the money so it's very very interesting yeah talk about that well i was going to say you know this uh this art of mindfulness if you want to call it an art it doesn't go hand in hand with the environment of being a truck driver um you know we talked about this um this loneliness uh poor poor sleep cycles poor diet lack of exercise isolation um those those work counter to mindfulness i mean and mindfulness is a treatment for that so this is another struggle that there that there is um and so it's it's pretty strange to me that the individuals that that did present with this frame of mind who they were because it was across age groups it was across race and ethnicity um it was across experience we had one guy that he's been here for over 20 years that he basically defined this mindfulness

and so you know it's it's pretty interesting to me that the the guys that or guys or ladies that that let the nature of the job really take from them and then there's people that have this this built-in um skill set that they they deal with it well and they love the job if we can bottle that and we can teach it we can we can get somewhere with this you know ethan is so interesting i've got a dear friend in his 80s uh named bud byers he he drove for over 5 million miles for yellow he um had no reportable incidents over that entire time you know drove for 50 years and to this day when i sit and talk to him he talks about the glorious days on the road and talks about what a wonder it was and he'll say to me you know butch us truck drivers we're the last american cowboys and he he has internalized that to the point where at 83 or 84 he doesn't look back and talk about all the shippers that were problems or the receivers or the driver managers he talks about what his vocation enabled him to do with children that have grown up and they're successful and he tells a story i almost had tears that came to my eyes where he said so often i would get a phone call two in the morning because i used to get you know phone call real on the phone landline phone and here's where you're going and he said my children respected what i did and i love the industry it's just it's encouraging to hear that sure and uh and i would assume a guy like that and i might get in trouble for saying this but um guys like that are they're able to set the boundaries that they need you know whenever they needed home time they went and had home time and it was it was a condition of their employment that they knew when to draw that boundary they knew they were very good at sorting out the components of their lives that they needed to to stay healthy and for their family to stay healthy because yeah a big

you know a big contributor to chronic stress is strained relationships um financial stress strained relationships and poor job satisfaction will cause chronic stress which causes poor physical health poor mental health which causes an array of other things that that circle back and and bloom into pay home time and respect desire so yeah you just and i'm glad that you pointed that out because you can see people like that and you just know within a few minutes of talking to them they have something figured out they have it figured out right and uh and and what's helpful is we'll get older drivers here at freight works not always older it could be newer drivers that will coach on resilience i've heard some stories about personal resilience that are incredible where people haven't gotten sucked into the quagmire of reflecting on everything that's going wrong or everything that's bad you know in any immediate situation triggers every undealt with past stress or trauma there are others that just seem to have worked through it and and this term mindfulness mindfulness may be it for others it's personal faith for others it's a solid sense of being anchored in a home or relationships but uh i think you've really hit this on the head so importantly that the terms that all the companies seem to be using to recruit really belie what's behind the curtain it's a whole lot more going on right yeah it's a very it's a very deep complex issue you know here's another great connection you know we wonder what drives pay and whenever i was asking about pay nobody not a single driver that i interviewed said that their absolute pay was unfair so they thought what they were taking home was it's okay um there's two issues with it uh in relative terms uh the more tenured guy he says he needs to be making more than the than the new hire you get that um but the other interesting find was you know if i said well if you think your pay is fair why do you need more pay and they say well every time i get a raise i spend more money so i i wrestled with that one for quite a while and then i looked up spending behavior um and sure enough compulsive spending and depression are are very closely linked psychiatric comorbidities if you will so so i mean if you if you take this back into the context of let's just say somebody's having trouble at home um causes chronic stress causes poor physical health poor mental health that blooms into well how do you deal with this compulsive spending is one way to do it compulsive spending can cause a desire for more pay right so there's there's lots of roots it's a cycle there's lots of roots to to those three commonly supported reported symptoms ethan the mark of a good conversation as it goes quickly and i knew when you shot me a note and said you know what i may only have one thing to talk about that wasn't true it wasn't you were trying not to be truthful you've had rich things to to offer here and it really has been great can you tell us real quickly about uh your company

yeah so we've been um you you gave a pretty good pretty good intro into us and you've covered a lot of it we're a growing company

you know we've got a pretty uh pretty substantial leadership group right now that we've that we've put together and the goal there is growth we've got a good team of executives we're spread out between central tennessee springfield or stratford and st louis we run asset we also run brokerage and we're having a good time doing it work hard have fun it it it's it seems like it and you know what i really appreciate the eclectic knowledge that you have here it says a lot about the position that you're in and uh and you're emerging as obviously a leader in this arena this is ethan slaughter chief operating officer controller christensen in the springfield missouri location this is life of the mile delivered by freight works of course we come to you with a desire that you like share and subscribe to our youtube channel it's how we continue to bring interesting programs like this to you now listen you didn't expect this but we always give a gift to anybody that uh comes on the podcast you know we we started in september last year we've done 65 of these podcasts already and we believe it's one of the fastest growing podcasts that's actually produced by a trucking company with an industry focus not just infomercials to recruit more drivers so it's folks like you that help make it a rich tapestry of offering so we got a gift we'll just get the address from you and let me show you i'll be like qvc here for a minute uh so it's either this hat you know i've learned that the trucking industry is hat oriented it's the freightworks one logo yeah or we've got a genuine yeti mug you know about yetis it's its own wow culture this is the great works one logo the life by the mile logo good for anything hot or cold and and then at mats this year this was a real hit it's it's a life of the mile cap with the leather patch it's got the um red white and blue on the back there that was a big one but you tell us which one and we'll get it in the mail to you tomorrow send me the eddie that's great you know what i'm doing my own informal research this is a real this is a real hit you'll enjoy this great i appreciate it you know uh every time we come on here life by the mile delivered by freight works we have insightful uh provocative and uh interesting guest ethan slaughter chief operating officer controller christensen in their uh springfield missouri location uh it's been great to have you we look forward to the possibility of you if you can maybe sharing this on your social media if it's appropriate and uh we'll follow up with a note on that hope you have a great day this life by the mile delivered by freightworks i'm butch mulver your host i've been here with ethan slaughter and uh we hope you have a great day ethan thanks you too thanks for having me on thanks for watching this episode you know life by the mile delivered by freightworks is one of the newest largest and fastest growing podcasts actually produced by a trucking company now we want you to like and share this episode if you'd like to see more episodes click here and make sure that you subscribe to the channel by clicking here we'll see you there


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