Growing into leadership

Shorty Whittington has been a longtime leader in the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference.

Charles “Shorty” Whittington knows something about working hard and getting a little dirty. As an Indiana farm boy, Whittington was operating farm tractors by the time he was six years old. And even as the family’s business evolved to include selling feed and fertilizer, operating a grain elevator and, ultimately, running a trucking company, he understood that taking on challenges most people would prefer to avoid is a tough but reliable path to success. In many ways, this is also how Whittington, chief executive officer of Grammer Industries, sees his involvement in the American Trucking Associations as he becomes chairman of the organization this month.

Specializing in success
Whittington joined the family business in 1968 after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in agriculture. He quickly learned some of the basics of trucking through the company’s operation of grain trucks.

“When I got into the elevator business, I joined the grain feed associations,” Whittington notes. “As I found out how important truck transportation was, I decided that I could probably make more money in trucking than in the grain elevator business.”

Grammer Industries’ transition into principally a transportation services company took more than a decade. In 1972, Whittington landed a contract hauling mail between Columbus, Ind., and Cincinnati with two trips a day. It wasn’t a big operation, but it was an opportunity to learn transportation, he says.

A few years later, Grammer Industries began leveraging its investment in trucks further by backhauling fertilizer on loads of grain to river barges.

In 1977, 90 percent of Grammer Industries’ business was grain and fertilizer. But Whittington saw an opportunity in specialized transportation and made two key moves: It bought its first trailer for transporting anhydrous ammonia, and it landed its first operating authority.

The key to Whittington’s business model was hauling commodities that didn’t appeal to the average trucking or rail operation for various reasons. “We didn’t want to compete with the Schneiders, the Qualitys and so on,” he says. “We kept our ducks lined up in a specialized field, and that has worked well for us.”

By 1986, Whittington had decided to commit to transportation services as Grammer Industries’ principal business. That was the year the company bought out an anhydrous ammonia fleet, and Whittington followed that with acquisitions in the late 1980s that diversified Grammer Industries by commodity and geography.

Diversification was critical because Grammer Industries no longer could afford to have all its assets tied exclusively to agriculture. At one point, 70 percent of the company’s annual business took place during 70 days in the spring, Whittington says. In recent years, for example, Grammer Industries has been hauling liquefied petroleum gas. Whittington had shunned transporting LP gas in the 1980s as not being specialized enough, but later he found that the LP gas business helped smooth out the company’s spring and summer seasonality.

Today, Grammer Industries’ transportation services include anhydrous ammonia, LP gases, carbon dioxide, nitric acid and bulk liquid corrosive hazardous waste throughout the eastern half of the United States. The company provides other services, including safety and emergency response training, emergency recovery and rail car offloading, consulting and development. Whittington has diversified further through a biofuels business, Integrity BioFuels.

Showing commitment
Whittington didn’t hail from a trucking family, so he found networking and education quite useful. As he moved Grammer Industries into transportation in the late 1970s, he became involved with the Indiana Motor Truck Association. “I tried to listen to what was profitable and where there was a need.”

Whittington’s major involvement with ATA began in 1995 when he was asked to be one of the founding members of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference (AFTC), a group he was to chair for five years. “We were just getting a glimpse of the hours-of-service changes,” Whittington says. The changes being considered would have been a major hardship for agricultural haulers, and Whittington worked to bring the issue to the attention of a broader constituency.

Whittington believed that if AFTC truly became involved, there would be opportunities for agricultural exemptions from the upcoming hours-of-service regulations, just as there were numerous exemptions under the rules in place at that time.

Another big cause was a trailer valve issue that resulted in one of only a handful of successful negotiated rulemakings within the Department of Transportation.

“I paid my own way for three years, coming to Washington two days a week,” Whittington recalls. Like specialized transportation, it was a lot of work, but it was money and time well spent. “In the end, it saved my company about $500,000, and it helped safety.”

Whittington became involved within Indiana as well, helping to win some important tax-related provisions. Each person involved made a noticeable impact on the outcome, he says. “I was amazed at how much one person could bring to the table.”

Tackling big challenges
In some ways, the battles Whittington has helped AFTC and ATA fight over the past 13 years aren’t as challenging as those that the trucking industry now faces: Helping to shape national transportation policy. During Whittington’s tenure, a new Congress is expected to begin work on a reauthorization of highway programs that promises major changes – for good or ill – in how transportation infrastructure is prioritized, built and funded.

“We have to realize how important the impact of the highway bill will be,” Whittington says. “We’ve got an infrastructure and system that lets our economy move at a lightning pace. If we go to choking that down and putting borders in the wrong places – through tolls, privatization and so on – we’re going to get to the point where the general consumer will say that’s enough.”

Indeed, the fight began much earlier than most anticipated, as a sharp decline in automobile driving has starved the Highway Trust Fund and required Congress to pass a short-term fix last month. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has cited the crisis as a reason for reform and for decentralizing highway development through mechanisms like tolls and privatization.

For Whittington, the most important thing is that ATA remain strong and unified on core issues and not distracted by issues particular to its individual constituencies.

“ATA represents the front of the truck – the power, the drive. What’s behind can be a tanker, a truckload trailer, and so on.” But all must work together to keep ATA powerful. “You can take one link out of the chain and it doesn’t function.”

Whittington credits recent ATA chairmen – especially Ray Kuntz, who is ending his extended tenure this month, and Kuntz’s predecessor, Pat Quinn – with promoting strength through unity. “Both Pat and Ray have certainly told the industry that it’s time to put the American Trucking Associations hat on. We can’t survive as independent companies.”

Whittington’s involvement and victories with ATA, AFTC and the Indiana Motor Truck Association have reinforced one of his guiding philosophies: “If you give, you get.”

And for Whittington, it’s that simple. “I guess I got a country boy attitude and country boy vision. It takes a special person to step up. The industry needs to have someone who will just go and do what needs to be done.”