W.T. “Toby” Cassels, Sr. founded Southeastern Freight Lines with the philosophy: “If you take care of people, they will take care of your customers, and that will take care of your future.” Toby was a loan officer in the banking business when the Great Depression hit in the 1930s. After losing his job, he worked as a bookkeeper for a very small trucking company. Seeing the potential for growth in trucking, he opened Southeastern Freight Lines at age 50 with 12 worn-out trucks, 20 employees and a $5,000 loan. The focus of this new company was on LTL, or “less than truckload,” shipments. Instead of trucks taking a full shipment of one type of goods to one location, Southeastern’s trucks pick up multiple shipments at multiple sites to deliver to multiple locations.
Toby’s son, Bill, is now chairman of the company, and his grandson, Tobin, is president. “Dad had a tremendous financial mind,” Bill says. This served the company well in that Toby foresaw Atlanta, Ga., as the first major distribution hub in the Southeast and invested in a site there. Growth started slowly, then increased steadily until the trucking industry deregulated in the 1980s, and Southeastern was primed for expansion. Today, the company has locations in 12 states, operates 80 service centers, owns close to 10,000 pieces of equipment and employs 7,000 people.
Southeastern recently welcomed a fourth generation of employees: Katherine Wolfe Wallace, Tobin’s neice, and Rustin Cassels, his daughter. Kathy Wolfe, his sister and Katherine’s mother, worked at the company before she left to raise her family. Several other family members, who are still in college, also have expressed an interest in joining the family business. They won’t just get a job handed to them, though; they each will have to serve in all capacities within the company – just like Tobin and Bill did – in order to understand and be able to identify with all employee roles.
Despite great success during 60-plus years of operation, the company had to navigate through some very tough times during the past few years due to the economy. The company’s success through this recession depended on staying true to Toby’s founding philosophy.
“We had never had a layoff, but here we were in the fourth quarter of 2008 with the banks failing and our business dropping 20 percent overnight,” Tobin says. “We were at a crossroads. When we looked at our leadership philosophy that said we should take care of our people, we didn’t see a footnote that said ‘unless you’re in a Great Recession.’”
So the Cassels set up a “war room” to begin strategizing. They looked at where they were overstaffed. They looked at creative ways employees could maintain regular working hours. Some employees were offered financial incentives to take vacations so hours could be shifted to others. Many drivers were given work in the maintenance shop; others were allowed to drive at G&P Trucking, a sister company. A few employees were offered early retirement. A highly effective plan was developed for each service center. In the end, not one Southeastern employee was laid off. “Every one of our competitors laid people off, and most cut wages, eliminated their 401k matches, or cut other benefits. What we did was stay true to our philosophy, and it united our people,” says Tobin.
Since then, business has begun to increase again. “We weathered the storm, and we’re better off for it,” says Tobin.
Before the economic crisis, Southeastern already had in place a culture of serving one another not only inside the company, but also in communities. Bonding together through the tumultuous recession has strengthened that cause.
Tobin and his senior leadership continue to meet with employees at each facility once a year to glean ideas and to listen to issues. He also teaches a human relations course to all company leaders that outlines about how the company wants its people treated. “These steps show employees how important they are to us … how they’ve made us successful.”
He adds, “Culture is everything. If folks aren’t aligned, believing in what you’re doing, it won’t matter. We want to have a culture of serving each other as much as possible.”
Bill concurs. “The standards and ethics are the same as when my father opened the business. They haven’t been watered down.”
That attitude has filtered into the communities Southeastern serves. For 24 years, employees at Southeastern’s corporate office have been involved in delivering two Meals on Wheels routes each week, as well as other local service projects, such as feeding the homeless. Tobin says, “We’re a service-oriented company. We don’t make anything. We serve. If you don’t have a servant’s heart, there is little chance you will be successful here.”
Southeastern conveys this idea with an initiative called Southeastern Serves. Southeastern has changed its logo to include a heart symbol, and t-shirts with the new logo are worn when employees serve in the community. “The Southeastern Serves initiative was created so that we can put into practice Proverbs 14:31: ‘Whoever is kind to the needy honors God,’” Tobin says. In the main office of its headquarters is a large statue of Jesus washing his disciple Peter’s feet.
“The more people serve one another, the more they get out of it personally,” Tobin observes.
The goal is for all parts of the company to be on the same page regarding the company’s purpose statement, its vision for serving, its culture of belief, alignment and teamwork, and its desire to become better corporate citizens within respective communities. While there is no pressure for employees to become involved in Southeastern Serves, workers are volunteering in their communities in droves. So far this year, 2,400 employees have been involved in more than 100 projects. Recently, a team of 17 employees participated in a Feed the Hunger Pack-a-Thon hosted by First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. Thousands of packs of nutritionally rich foods were assembled to feed needy families throughout the world. Regularly, employees volunteer with Resurrections, a ministry to feed and fellowship with the homeless in Columbia.
“It was a great opportunity to ‘walk the walk’ of one of our core values, the heart of our company, by serving the less fortunate,” says Paul Riddle, a Southeastern employee who participated in the Pack-A-Thon. He also points out how it encouraged a closer bond with fellow employees.
“Projects like this go to the heart of Southeastern’s culture,” says Braxton Vick, another employee and Pack-A-Thon volunteer. “We are all employees of a very special company that serves others, not because we are asked to, but because we want to. Position in the company has nothing to do with it. Everyone stands shoulder to shoulder and works toward a common good.”
The Cassels are finding that not only does each service center look for opportunities to serve in individual communities, but employees also are regularly submitting suggestions. Tobin sees the number of projects jumping from a little more than 100 per year to 500.
“People who have not reached out before realize the joy that can come in serving others,” says Bill. “Then they begin to look for more ways to serve.”
Bill and Tobin believe that Toby, who passed away in 1987, would be honored to know that his service-minded philosophy has positively affected Southeastern Freight Lines inside and outside the company.