Vernon Garner might not have been the most charismatic figure in trucking. He wasn’t an industry icon or the hero of tall tales and legends about the good ol’ days. But Garner, who died March 20 just short of his 70th birthday after a battle with cancer, was a quiet leader – a model for executives who want a better business, a better industry, a better community and a more fulfilling life.
Nearly 50 years ago, Vern and his new wife, Jean, scraped together $625 to buy their first truck to haul fertilizer, and in 1960 they launched a for-hire company, Garner Trucking. The Garners built the business gradually; it was 12 years before the company was large enough for Vern to come off the road full time. Today, Garner Trucking – part of Findlay, Ohio-based Garner Transportation Group – operates about 90 trucks.
The business of trucking was a passion for Vern. He tracked tire costs closely. In purchasing trucks, he weighed operating costs against residual value. He once walked away from a potentially large account because the roll-up trailer doors the shipper required would have sacrificed too much pallet capacity. Vern wasn’t always right, but his business decisions were informed and thoughtful.
Vern served the trucking industry admirably. He was involved with the Ohio Trucking Association for many years, serving as chairman in 2000. In 1995, he endured the stress of facing both a congressional subcommittee and ABC reporter Sam Donaldson in order to highlight the folly of some environmental regulations and how they were enforced. Vern never seemed entirely comfortable with public speaking. But his tenure as chairman of the American Trucking Associations in 2002 and 2003 – a period that saw some major changes in trucking, including the issuance of new hours-of-service regulations – required him to deliver numerous speeches, which he did with sincerity and straightforwardness.
Vern took his ATA duties seriously. When an ATA-related function conflicted with the 2002 Ohio State-Michigan game, he didn’t complain – though he and Jean did sneak away and catch the exciting conclusion to a crucial victory in their beloved Buckeyes’ march to the national championship.
Ohio State football was just one of many activities that Vern enjoyed as he achieved a healthy balance between work and life. He cherished his family – Jean, daughters Stephanie, Sherri and Shellene and five grandchildren. Vern wasn’t a golfer; he was a vehicle guy – RVs and Harley-Davidsons, in particular. He truly enjoyed biking, right down to the leathers. With his bandana and biker clothes, Vern looked a bit like Willie Nelson with short hair.
Vern also found time to give to his community. He was a trustee of the University of Findlay for many years. He also was involved locally in the Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary International and other organizations. One activity that was especially close to Vern’s heart was serving on the board of the local Humane Society chapter. Vern was a true dog lover, and frequently cared for neglected and abused animals. A hound or retriever might seem to fit Vern best, but a bichon frise – one of Jean’s favorite breeds – could just as easily steal his heart.
Vern once was asked whether he could make it in trucking if he were starting over in today’s regulatory and competitive climate. He had no doubts.
“I still have Jean. I still have the same Lord. And I still have the same passion.”
That was Vern Garner.