Positive role models stepped forward to help Mike Jeffress at crucial times in his life. That’s why he’s compelled to play the same role today.
If there’s one thing Mike Jeffress understands today, it is the importance of the role that a mentor plays in a young person’s life. Jeffress was lucky: He was surrounded by strong adult role models during his formative years. And he listened to the advice they gave him.
With such support, Jeffress started down a path that led him to leadership roles at a relatively young age – vice president of maintenance for Maverick Transportation, chairman of the Technology & Maintenance Council, and recipient of the Silver Spark Plug, TMC’s highest honor. And he now can add Commercial Carrier Journal’s Career Leadership Award. With decades of mentorship and experience, Jeffress’ career is a testament to the notion that you never can be too young to be an industry leader.
Mechanic by blood
Jeffress was born in September 1965 and raised in Fayette, Mo., and he enjoyed a typical all-American Midwestern upbringing. His father, Willard “Buck” Jeffress, owned a family farm and H&J Automotive Repair Shop in Fayette.
“Dad was kind of always an old junk collector,” Jeffress recalls. “We had all kinds of old cars throughout the years, and never really did restore any of them. But we would go out and find them in the fields, and he’d pick them up, bring them home, then turn around and sell them.”
Buck and his wife, Marilyn, knew the importance of family and raised a tight-knit brood: Jeffress had an older brother and younger sister, and the family always was doing things together. “We were always going camping, fishing, taking trips and things like that,” Jeffress remembers. “And every Sunday we went and visited my grandparents for big fried chicken dinners and spent time together with them.”
With a father in the business, it was natural that Jeffress would ease into maintenance. By the time he was 11, he was spending afternoons and Saturdays at his father’s shop acting as a gofer: fetching and cleaning parts, tidying up the shop, washing cars and generally doing whatever he was told to do.
Jeffress had a natural aptitude for engines, and it wasn’t long before he was moving on to much larger tasks. Buck’s partner, Franklin “Fuzzy” Hilderbrand, subtly began to mentor the young boy. “Fuzzy would pull a job in the shop – let’s say a transmission – and he would bet me a 25-cent soda that I could not have the transmission out of the truck and in the transmission rebuild room in 30 minutes,” Jeffress says. “I usually had it done in 20 minutes and was enjoying a Mountain Dew on him – and I could usually get him to bet me once or twice a week.”
Jeffress later understood the method behind Fuzzy’s wagers. “About a month or so before I left for college, Fuzzy explained that he was quite happy to give those 25-cent sodas to me. They made him more money in the long run, because the quicker I got jobs done, the more jobs I completed in a week, thus the more revenue the shop made. Those lessons I learned at H&J Auto assisted me later on in life when I was given the opportunity to manage others.”
Jeffress was growing into the maintenance field, but by high school he still had not found a clear career path. By the time he was a senior, he had met the “love of his life” – Lynn Banning. They spent every free moment together – a fact not lost on Lynn’s parents, Ray and Iva.
Ray Banning was a successful down-to-earth Missouri hog farmer. And from time to time, he would pull Jeffress aside and casually ask him a few questions about his future plans and what he was going to do with his life. “He wasn’t confrontational about it,” Jeffress says. “But he was definitely getting me thinking about the future.”
The year after high school was a rough one for the Jeffress family: They lost Mike’s older brother and grandfather tragically at the same time. But the family – and Mike and Lynn – pulled even closer together in the face of that tragedy. And Jeffress, thinking toward the future, settled on Nashville Auto-Diesel College in Tennessee.
Jeffress excelled at the school and even posted perfect attendance. Upon graduation, he earned the school’s highest academic honor, the Craftsman Award. Years later, he would be elected to the school’s Hall of Fame as its youngest inductee.
Hands-on job interview
Jeffress left Nashville Auto-Diesel College with a clear plan. “I was going to come back home and change the way Dad and Fuzzy were doing business,” Jeffress recalls. “I had all kinds of big ideas.”
But to his shock, Buck and Fuzzy weren’t all that interested. “They both sat me down and went through the books with me,” Jeffress says. “And they took a logical approach of explaining it to me, showing me the dollar investments, their current income and how long it would take to pay for the things I wanted to do.” At the end of the discussion, Jeffress understood: It was time for him to set out on his own.
By his own admission, Jeffress had been bitten by the “diesel bug.” But getting someone to hire a kid fresh out of school as a diesel technician proved challenging. After casting about for awhile, Jeffress finally landed a technician job at the Chrysler dealership in Moberly, Mo., which doubled as an International Harvester dealership.
Jeffress primarily worked on Southwestern Bell service trucks and vehicles. “When I would get done in the evenings with those particular vehicles, they had a list of jobs up on the board that needed to be done, and I always picked the truck jobs, trying to slide over into the truck shop to get experience to go in the direction that I wanted,” Jeffress recalls.
With a father in the business, it was natural that Mike Jeffress would ease into maintenance.
Not long afterward, one of Jeffress’ high school buddies mentioned that his brother was with a small truck fleet in Arkansas that was about to open its own shop to maintain the trucks. So on a Saturday in August 1986, Jeffress showed up at the little shop in Little Rock to put in his application and talk to the shop manager. The fleet had just 12 trucks, and four of them were in the shop that morning. The shop manager was out working on a breakdown, so Jeffress’ buddy suggested he help out with the other trucks waiting for maintenance work.
When the company’s foreman, Donnie Emerson, finished working the service call, he realized that Jeffress had helped fix the trucks. Emerson – a journeyman mechanic – looked the trucks over, scanned the paperwork and turned, asking, “When can you start?”
The real education begins
The little fleet was Maverick Transportation, which was founded in Texarkana, Texas, by Steve Williams and Larry Leahy with one truck in 1980. Its newest employee, Mike Jeffress, held the official job title of tire/wash boy. Today, Maverick is a significantly larger operation, with more than 1,200 tractors offering flatbed logistics solutions to all 48 states. And the tire/wash boy has grown right along with the company.
Initially, Jeffress spent many days shadowing Emerson around the shop and soaking up as much knowledge as he could. So when Emerson decided to leave Maverick in 1987, Jeffress – ready to “rock ’n’ roll,” as he puts it – took his job running the fleet’s maintenance facility. But after some time, Jeffress’ bosses decided they needed someone with a bit more trucking industry experience in that position. Providing more time for mentoring and seasoning would be beneficial to Jeffress in the long run, they explained.
Maverick was up to 40 company trucks and used about 70 independent contractors – a substantial growth spurt in a short period of time. “I didn’t know how to manage a budget, control acquisition costs or anything like that. It was definitely more than I could handle.”
At the time, however, Jeffress didn’t see it that way. Outraged over his demotion, he called his father and ranted about the injustice. He was certain his father would sympathize and agree, but he was shocked to hear him say, “Son, I think they’re right. You need to give it six months and see how it goes.”
Today, Jeffress says his demotion was the best thing that ever happened to him because it introduced yet another important mentor into his life. John Blackstone joined Maverick in 1988 to run the maintenance department and almost immediately took the hard-charging young technician under his wing.
“He taught me how to really run a maintenance program,” Jeffress says. “I learned about managing a budget, controlling costs, interacting with upper management and – most importantly – how to never miss an opportunity to shut up and listen.”
Blackstone retired in 1996, but Jeffress still calls him several times a month for advice. The challenges Jeffress faces today are some he barely could envision as a young technician. He spends most of his time analyzing Maverick’s equipment and maintenance spending – and working with suppliers to contain that spending.
That’s not exactly how Jeffress initially saw his job when he landed his current position about a decade ago. He now reported to John Culp, Maverick’s chief financial officer and executive vice president. “John and I had a pretty rocky start,” Jeffress says. “He was out to perform maintenance at a lower rate per mile, and I was out to maintain our reputation in the industry for well-maintained equipment that paid premium in the used market.” But the two developed a great relationship and have learned from each other.
“Mike brings more to Maverick than just his knowledge of maintenance and equipment,” Culp says. “He understands our business and the cost drivers that are necessary for us to be successful. His innovative focus, analytical abilities and use of technology, both onboard and off, complement his leadership style, which has made our maintenance program what it is today.”
As Culp suggests, Jeffress understands that much of his job involves looking toward and adjusting to the future. “I have to think about where Maverick is going and how that compares with the things we’re doing today,” Jeffress says. That means staying on top of the latest regulations and emerging technologies.
Still, Jeffress gets out on the shop floor and talks to his technicians as often as he can. “They know what’s going on, and you can learn a lot from talking with them,” he says. “But you have to rein them in a little bit as well. We need to send out warrantable repairs and keep our guys focused on how quickly we can get the truck in the shop and back on the road generating revenue.”
Today, Mike Jeffress says his demotion at Maverick was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Jeffress refers to his executive management team at Maverick as dynamic. “They’re forward-thinking and always trying to figure out where things are and what’s coming next. They want to be an integral part of developing the future, not just waiting on it to happen – and that’s exactly where I want to be, too.”
Contributing to the industry
The same year Blackstone retired, Jeffress joined TMC, and the organization has been an important part of Jeffress’ career ever since. “I consider TMC my career college, and I certainly feel I’ve taken a lot more out of TMC than I’ve contributed,” he says.
That’s highly debatable. In 2003, Jeffress received TMC’s highest honor, the Silver Spark Plug, for his involvement and contributions, which included serving as chairman of study groups and chairman of meetings. As TMC chairman in 2004, Jeffress made technician development a major theme of his tenure and was a strong proponent of TMC’s new Professional Technician Development Committee. Among the initiatives was creating a special TMC membership category for technicians. And Jeffress also was a driving force behind TMC’s popular national technician skills competition, known as TMCSuperTech, held each year in conjunction with the TMC fall meeting.
Working closely with TMC members Carl Tapp, Lee Long and Jim Robertson, Jeffress lobbied TMC leaders to fund and establish the national competition, working to line up sponsors, establish prizes and encourage fleets to participate. In 2005, the competition came to life when 74 technicians showed up in Valley Forge, Pa., to compete.
“We are so proud of what the technician competition has become,” Jeffress says. “We’ve seen it grow and evolve to the point where it is the centerpoint of TMC’s fall meeting. And it’s just so great we’ve developed a national stage to recognize the incredible job these skilled technicians do every day in our industry.”
Another TMC achievement during Jeffress’ tenure as chairman was the introduction in 2004 of the TMCFleetPortal, an information exchange tool that provides one-stop access to all of a fleet’s parts- and maintenance-related information, leveraging TMC’s Vehicle Maintenance Reporting Standard (VMRS). He also cites the development of a recommended practice on towing.
Industry colleagues heap great praise on what Jeffress has accomplished in a relatively short period.
“I do not believe the Professional Technician Development Committee and the national technician competition that TMC now hosts every year would have been as successful as it is without Mike’s vision and leadership,” notes David Foster, vice president of maintenance for Southeastern Freight Lines and 2004 Career Leadership Award recipient. “He was very passionate about making this program work at TMC, and I do not believe it would have happened without Mike’s guidance.”
Carl Kirk, vice president of maintenance, information technology and logistics for the American Trucking Associations, agrees that Jeffress “was definitely the driving force” behind TMCSuperTech. “Technology is changing at an unprecedented pace, which is placing increased demands on today’s technicians,” Kirk says. “The Europeans have long recognized heavy-truck technicians as professionals. The U.S. is not quite there yet. Mike’s efforts in helping to launch the SuperTech initiative is a major step in bestowing the recognition upon today’s technicians that they truly deserve. He has also given unselfishly of his time and talents in numerous TMC task forces that have helped move this great industry forward.”
Oren Summer, president and chief executive officer of FleetNet America and the 2005 Career Leadership Award recipient, says Jeffress conducts himself in a consistently professional manner. “He has the ability to get things done by the tone of voice and the magnitude of his desire and commitment. A true gentlemen, husband and father, Mike Jeffress is truly deserving of the CCJ Career Leadership Award, and there is no doubt that he will wear this badge proudly as a fraternity member of an elite group.”
Today, when he’s not busy helping Maverick or TMC expand, Jeffress usually can be found with Lynn and their three children, Nikki, Stephanie and Dustin. Jeffress knows he’s been blessed in his life with mentors stepping forward at crucial times, and he tries to give back to the community today by taking an active role in coaching youth sports teams and working hard to give his children the same type of close-knit family upbringing he enjoyed.
Jeffress’ ultimate boss at Maverick Transportation sums up his career well. “Mike has achieved success with pure unbridled determination built on a foundation of common sense,” says Steve Williams, president and CEO. “He has the compassion to share and teach others around him on his journey, which defines him as a leader.”
From student to teacher
“I cannot recall how many Career Leadership Award banquets I have attended, but I can tell you each year I have sat in that audience and thought, ‘What would I say if I were the chosen one?’,” began Mike Jeffress in accepting the 2010 CCJ Career Leadership Award. “You know, I should have written some of those thoughts down. That would have made this so much easier.”
Jeffress, vice president of maintenance for Little Rock, Ark.-based Maverick Transportation, accepted the award Feb. 8 at a dinner held in his honor in conjunction with the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual meeting in Tampa, Fla. About 170 TMC members attended the 2010 Career Leadership Award dinner, which was sponsored by Bridgestone Bandag Tire Solutions, Citgo Lubricants, Cummins and Roadranger.
Jeffress credited his numerous mentors, including previous Career Leadership Award recipients, of whom 11 were in attendance. He noted that the award signifies a change in his career from one of student to one of teacher and mentor.
“I have been blessed to have been surrounded by countless positive role models – individuals who provided me with a toolbox overflowing with knowledge, wisdom and passion. All I had to do was reach out, take those tools and put them to use…. I am now providing that same toolbox to the younger generation.”
Jeffress recognized two specific individuals – Brent Hilton, who has worked with Jeffress for 22 of his 23 years at Maverick, and Jeffress’ wife Lynn, whom he called “my most cherished mentor of all.”
From duck blinds to Olympic gold?
Mike Jeffress loves to duck hunt. It’s a way of life in Arkansas. And it was only natural that he would take his son, Dustin, to the ponds once the boy was old enough. It was a great way to bond and spend time with his son.
When Dustin was in the 8th grade, he brought home a pamphlet from school for the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program (AYSSP) sponsored by the Arkansas Game and Fish Department. It wasn’t long before Dustin was enrolled and his dad was volunteering as an assistant coach. That year, their team finished 8th in the state, and Jeffress caught the bug and became a full-fledged shooting coach.
Two years ago, Jeffress became a certified Level 1 Olympic Shooting Coach and helped mentor and lead 75 student-athletes as they competed in several different tournaments throughout Arkansas. Six of those student-athletes eventually qualified for Arkansas’ first Junior Olympics shooting meet – with one them finishing 40th out of 275 participants.
Of those 275 kids that participated in the Junior Olympics event, the top 24 in the state went to Colorado to the Olympics Training Center and spent a week with U.S. Olympic coaching squads and the resident athletes. “We are extremely excited about this program and proud of the student-athletes who are competing in it,” Jeffress says. “Our goal in the state is to try to develop at least one Olympic medalist from the State of Arkansas, and I firmly believe that it’s going to happen before too much longer.”
About the Career Leadership Award
Mike Jeffress is the 34th person to receive Commercial Carrier Journal’s top honor for lifetime achievement in fleet maintenance. Safeway Stores’ E. Clair Hill was the first to be so honored in 1977. CCJ’s Technology and Maintenance Career Leadership Award honors a career of dedication to professionalism and excellence in fleet maintenance. Industry involvement, recognitions and awards and reputation among peers figure into the selection. Individuals who made significant contributions to the industry while directly engaged in truck fleet management are eligible even if they no longer work for a fleet operation. CCJ welcomes nominations for the 2011 Career Leadership Award. Contact Avery Vise at firstname.lastname@example.org.