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Chance trucking career in top gear

Newton at helm of haulers group

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 2:31 a.m.

Arkansas Trucking Association President Shannon Newton is candid about her entry into the trucking industry.

It was not, at least initially, part of a career plan. Newton, who earned degrees in accounting and computer information systems, had her sights set on becoming a chief financial officer, and shortly before graduation met with a recruiter for a trucking company.

Getting into the industry was, for lack of a better term, "an accident," she said.

"A recruiter was on campus. She liked me. I liked her," Newton said. "That's the story."

Newton's story, like her interest in and appreciation for the trucking industry, has grown substantially since that chance meeting on the University of Central Arkansas campus in 2002. Newton, now 35, is in her second month as the head of an association whose nearly 300 member companies employ more than 100,000 and are responsible for billions of dollars in freight moved across the country.

While working at Maverick Transportation, a privately held company and one of the country's Top 100 largest trucking companies, Newton's appreciation for the industry developed. A site visit by employees of the Arkansas Trucking Association during her first month on the job piqued her interest in the organization she now runs.

Before being named president, Newton wore a variety of hats within the organization, serving the previous six years as vice president. She initially signed on 11 years ago as director of corporate services and has handled everything from editing the association's monthly magazine to securing corporate sponsorships and overseeing the association's self-insurers trust fund. This year the fund paid out $1 million to 46 companies.

With Newton's promotion from interim chief to full-time president, Arkansas joins Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, West Virginia and Wyoming as state organizations with female leaders. Even before she assumed her current role, John Lynch, vice president of federation relations at the American Trucking Associations, had a familiarity with Newton and her work.

"I can't think of anybody more qualified to take over the association," Lynch said. "She understands the policy issues. She understands the Arkansas Legislature and the dynamics there. She knows the culture, history and finances. It's rare to have somebody come in and assume the position knowing all that in advance."

Search committee members assigned the task of picking the next Arkansas Trucking Association president said they agreed that the first phase of their search would begin in-house. Next, they would shift their focus to outside candidates. The group, which included representatives from P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc., FedEx Freight, Stallion Transportation, C.C. Jones Trucking, Distribution Solutions Inc. and J.B. Hunt never made it to the second phase of the search.

After a more than two-hour interview with Newton in Harrison, those in attendance saw no need to look elsewhere.

"After we saw the presentation, we didn't see the need to go any further," said Vicki Jones Stephens, CEO of C.C. Jones Trucking and chairman of the search committee. "When she left the room there was a motion made, a second and a unanimous vote on taking a recommendation to the whole board."

Newton outlined her legislative priorities, including renewing funding for restarting the state's truck driver training program, for the board.

Committee members were impressed with Newton's vision. They also appreciated her candor in admitting that even though she's been a registered lobbyist since 2009, that task was handled almost entirely by former association chief Lane Kidd. Newton figures there will be somewhat of a learning curve there, but credits Kidd for helping her develop a skill set beyond handling money-related matters. Kidd now works in Washington, D.C., as head of the Trucking Alliance and his own investment and public relations company.

"I've been at the Capitol. I've been in the meetings. I've been in the negotiations, but it hasn't been my call," Newton said. "I have a lot of knowledge, but it ultimately hasn't been my job to close the deal. So that's different."

Committee members don't see the political aspects of the job as being too much of a challenge. All were struck by Newton's ability to build and navigate relationships.

What most resonated with the committee, though, was Newton's promise of connecting with carriers of all sizes in the state. Heavyweights like J.B. Hunt, Wal-Mart Stores, Tyson Foods, ArcBest and FedEx Freight all operate out of Arkansas, but the majority of the state's trucking companies are small businesses and in many cases are family owned.

Newton has made a priority of maintaining relationships with all the members of the association. She said she will resume the practice of making visits to member companies.

"There's a feeling that for the last number of years we have, as an association, lost touch with our home base, and Shannon will bring the focus back toward Arkansas," said Butch Rice, president and CEO of Stallion Transportation. "Shannon's the type of person that can relate to everybody. She relates to the larger carriers. She'll also relate to the small carriers. That was a huge plus for Shannon."

SundayMonday Business on 08/03/2014

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