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Episode 18: Six Entrepreneurial Pro Tips with Seretha Willingham, CEO and Founder of SJW Logistics

Brent – 00:00:01:

Welcome to Freight Nation: A Trucking Podcast. Where we explore the fascinating world of trucking and freight management. We dive deep into the freight industry and uncover why the trucking industry is more crucial to our country now than ever before. Stay tuned to uncover the driving forces behind successful trucking businesses and hear from the hardworking truckers and leaders who keep the world moving. Let’s hit the road. All right, Freight Nation, here we are with another episode of Freight Nation: A Trucking Podcast of truckstop.com. Hey, thanks a lot for joining us today. We know you have a lot of places you can put your time and effort and energy and interest. And we’re just thankful that you listened to Freight Nation because we always want to bring you really unique stories that can motivate you and give you some information and maybe even some tips on how to create your own business or enhance the one that you have. And so Freight Nation has been a lot of fun doing this so far. We’ve done several more than 20 episodes so far. So we’re excited for our next one. We got a super, really great one for you. And joining me today is the founder and CEO of SJW Logistics and Trucking, Ms. Seretha Willingham. She’s joining us today. Seretha, thank you so much for joining us on Freight Nation.

Seretha – 00:01:18:

Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here and discuss the freight industry with you all.

Brent – 00:01:23:

Well, we’re so excited to have you on. One of the great things about Freight Nation, Seretha, is that we want to motivate those in the marketplace to start their own business or to enhance the business that they have. And you’re such a great story behind that because you have a great history, which we’ll talk about working for the leaders in the marketplace and then starting your own business in 2017 and starting a logistics arm in 2020 or right in the beginning of the pandemic. And so it sounds like to me, you’ve always been a real innovative person and entrepreneur. Is that fair?

Seretha – 00:01:53:

Yes. More so I tell people I’m a go-getter. I’m aggressive and an addict.

Brent – 00:01:57:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:01:58:

I like to try the impossible to see if I can do it. If I can put my mind to it, I can do it.

Brent – 00:02:02:

Yeah, man. Persistence pays off no matter what. Calvin Coolidge, one of our most famous presidents, persistence is the difference in success and failure in most everything that we do. So I’m glad I definitely know you’re an example of that. First off, where did you grow up? Because I hear a similar sort of accent in your voice to mine being from Alabama. So where did you grow up? And tell me a little bit about your growing up as a young adult.

Seretha – 00:02:27:

I am a homegrown Georgia peach. I grew up in South Georgia in this town called Lewisville, Georgia.

Brent – 00:02:34:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:02:35:

45 miles south of Augusta, Georgia, where the famous Masters is played.

Brent – 00:02:38:

Yeah. So super cool. I love that. Hey, homegrown Georgia peach. Well, I lived in Atlanta, Georgia as a little boy, kindergarten through third grade, and learned to play baseball in Georgia. Met Hank Aaron. The first major league baseball player I ever met was Henry Aaron in Chief Noc-A-Homa. So I’m a big Braves fan. Always have been. But I have a lot of my family history in the state of Georgia and certainly in Atlanta. In reading your bio, you’re unbelievably educated, unbelievably talented, and you’re in trucking. So that’s a great mix when it comes to things. And so how old were you when you got into the beginning of your career inside transportation? It was with Coca-Cola, correct? Yeah. So tell me a little bit. How did you get from wherever you were to Coca-Cola, which kind of started you along this pathway into freight transportation?

Seretha – 00:03:28:

So I’ll tell you a funny story. I was in the military.

Brent – 00:03:31:

Oh, no way. What part?

Seretha – 00:03:32:

I was in the Army Reserve, and then I transitioned into the Air Force Reserve.

Brent – 00:03:38:

Get out.

Seretha – 00:03:39:

Of course, reserved. I was in a medical unit.

Brent – 00:03:41:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:03:42:

I always ended up helping the procurement team and logistics team, but I had no clue what that was because I joined the military when I was 16.

Brent – 00:03:49:

Right. 16?

Seretha – 00:03:50:

Yeah, I did the split-op program in high school where you can go to basic one year and you’re schooling the next year when you graduate high school.

Brent – 00:03:58:

Wow.

Seretha – 00:03:59:

I had no clue what procurement and logistics was, but I always said. I was going to work for Coca-Cola.

Brent – 00:04:06:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:04:07:

So funny, when I graduated college, the first job offer came.

Brent – 00:04:11:

You’re kidding me. My favorite drink of all time is Coca-Cola. I’ll tell you what, my favorite one. By the way, thank you for your service to our country and thank you for protecting my freedom.

Seretha – 00:04:22:

Thank you. So I didn’t know I was in logistics and procurement when I was 17, 18, 19 years old.

Brent – 00:04:29:

I love it.

Seretha – 00:04:30:

When I got my first job at Coke, I was 23 years old. And I started in collections, but I was. In the data analysis field as well, because Coke has a lot of dual roles.

Brent – 00:04:40:

Oh, yeah.

Seretha – 00:04:41:

And to learn how to do this, I had to learn logistics. That’s when I learned about Cisco and how they deliver and McDonald’s and Walmart, you know, the logistics and transportation to actually do my job. And so I eventually got a promotion into Coke’s supply chain department where I was. Project manager, and I had to coordinate a lot of logistics and transportation and installations and different things like that.

Brent – 00:05:06:

Right.

Seretha – 00:05:07:

So that’s what piqued my interest. Oh, everything is transported. They have this division. They have that division. So while there, I decided to look for other opportunities outside of Coca-Cola. And that’s when I found XPO. And really, they were 3PD Last Mile that had been bought out by XPO. And we had just got an Amazon contract. So that was when Amazon was like really booming.

Brent – 00:05:30:

And what year was this when you joined XPO?

Seretha – 00:05:33:

2015.

Brent – 00:05:34:

2015. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I got into logistics in 2013. Yeah. Okay.

Seretha – 00:05:39:

And so they got this M3PD Last Mile. They had a lot of things going for them. They had been bought out by XPO. They got an Amazon contract and they were very bad at coordinating and being organized. So they hired me. Very bad. Lead project manager to combine all the systems that have been acquired. So in learning all these systems, I had to learn in a modal, drayage, Last Mile, brokerage, and all from an IT perspective, warehousing. I had to learn it all to know that it was impossible that I would never combine all those systems. That was the lesson I learned. But I stayed with them for five years. But in learning all of this. That’s what piqued my interest into how did 3PB become XPO to become Last Mile? You know, what happened? How did they do this?

Brent – 00:06:25:

Right.

Seretha – 00:06:25:

And I was like, Oh, they’re a middleman. That’s what, you know, everything started coming together. Third party logistics company. Then I said, oh, well, if they can do this, I probably could do this too.

Brent – 00:06:36:

Yeah, man. Sure.

Seretha – 00:06:37:

So, it was one of those things. I went home. I talked to my husband. He was like, yeah, I think you could do it. I think you could do it. And so I had an uncle driving truck. He was my mentor.

Brent – 00:06:48:

Oh, you did? You had an uncle driving trucks. How cool. Yeah.

Seretha – 00:06:50:

And he was my mentor. He got me started with investing.

Brent – 00:06:53:

What’s his name? What’s his uncle’s name?

Seretha – 00:06:55:

His name is Mickey Thomas.

Brent – 00:06:57:

Mickey Thomas. Hi. Way to go, Mickey.

Seretha – 00:07:00:

He was telling me about different things. And then I have a best friend that drove trucks. And he told me about when he had his own company and having an authority. I did a lot of research and then I said, let me try this. And I did it with the trucking myth. Buy one truck, put a driver in and you make a lot of money. And that’s not true. So when I started out. That. But then I had a business plan. You know, I wanted… I didn’t want to just have one truck or three trucks or whatever. And so then my husband started to encourage me, like, you know, you could do this full time. Like, you’re really good at this. You could really do this full time. And so. You know, when 2020 came, pandemic hit, and I already had my feet wet. So we went out there full blown and said, let’s just make it a full service 3PL. And that’s how we went from. Five trucks. 12 trucks in 2020, and we expanded in. 2021 into warehousing and then in 2020.

Brent – 00:07:55:

Wow. We’re healthy as well. You’re almost a 4PO. Yeah.

Seretha – 00:07:59:

Yes. And then in 2023, we opened a freight brokerage and started with that because we said we wanted to be able to offer a holistic approach for our customers.

Brent – 00:08:11:

Wow. So you’ve just continued to grow and grow as you’ve seen opportunity and gotten encouragement from those that you need encouragement from. And I love that. I love that where you said, well, hey, if they did it, I can do it. One of the greatest quotes, Seretha, that I ever saw and it really motivated and has inspired me tremendously was from Steve Jobs. And the guy that, you know. Created Apple, and he said, as soon as you realize that everything that has been created in this world was created by somebody no different than you, then you can do it too. But you have to make that connection that, look, we’ve all got intelligence. We’ve all got capacity to do things. Just go start it. Go take the risk and go do it. So, yeah, what an encouragement you are.

Seretha – 00:08:57:

Thank you.

Brent – 00:08:58:

You’re welcome. All right. So you got SJW Logistics. By the way, I got to ask you, because I’m going to guess the S stands for Seretha and the W stands for Willingham. What does the J stand for?

Seretha – 00:09:11:

That is so funny. So a lot of people think it’s my middle name. So when I get correspondences, they’ll be like. This is Seretha J. Willingham, and I’m like, that is not my middle name. So I was looking at different company names because I wanted something universal. And I feel like a lot of people start names as initials. And I was like, I don’t want my full initials in a business. So my daughter happened to be passing by me at the moment. And I said, oh, I’ll just put the J in the middle. Her name starts with a J.

Brent – 00:09:37:

Oh, it does. Okay. So it’s your daughter. Okay. Well, that’s fantastic. So let me ask you, how did your experience with Coca-Cola and what you did with XPO? So obviously you got your feet wet with analytics, with project management. You talked about collections. In your military, you were dealing with procurement. And then with XPO, you were dealing with all the different sort of ins and outs of them growing their business on the LTL. So how did that give you sort of the confidence to start SJW?

Seretha – 00:10:12:

I think it gave me the confidence because, like I said, I was doing a lot of research. I mean, I didn’t just research the companies I was working for. I started researching J.B. Hunt, Schneider, TQLs, you know. The brokerages, different things like that. And then, you know, all of them had similar stories to how they got started.

Brent – 00:10:30:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:10:30:

Aha. And I said, okay, well, it starts small and then it grows. Everything, you know, it starts small and grows. And so… I said, okay, this is what I’ll do. I’ll start small. Do my learnings there, and then I’ll grow. And that was the way of taking the first step. Because, you know, sometimes when you’re researching things and you’re trying to get started, You get overwhelmed because there’s so much to it. So I took myself and I did a project plan. I did what I knew best.

Brent – 00:10:56:

You planned your work. I love it.

Seretha – 00:10:59:

You planned it, yes.

Brent – 00:11:00:

You planned your work, and then you worked your plan. Is that right?

Seretha – 00:11:03:

Exactly.

Brent – 00:11:04:

Well, that’s funny. You bring up these really big players in the market like J.B. Hunt and Snyder and how you kind of follow their model. If you take it all the way back to Johnnie Bryan Hunt and Don Schneider starting their businesses, they all started out small. They all started out with just an idea to solve a problem for one customer. And now there are these foundational staple names in our industry. And there’s many, many, many others. And they just went, you know what? I think I can solve that problem.

Seretha – 00:11:36:

Yes.

Brent – 00:11:36:

So that’s super exciting. I love it. And so Freight Nation, so one of the big tip. All right. So pro tip right here. Seretha just said it. Make a plan. All right. Make a plan. No matter what. Look, there’s always opportunity. And everybody, we all, I know most people start businesses are entrepreneurs. I have a lot of confidence in themselves. They’ll take the risk. But make a plan. So super important in making a plan because you can’t adjust a plan that doesn’t exist. All right. All right. So I’m sure that day one, as soon as you had your plan out there, you started working your plan. It was so easy and everything worked out right. All right. Right?

Seretha – 00:12:13:

Yeah. I wish it was like that, but you know what? I think that’s what has kept us because, you know, a lot of companies haven’t made it through this downturn in the industry.

Brent – 00:12:23:

Right.

Seretha – 00:12:24:

But with my plan there, I went through some things. I used this guy that told me when buying my first truck what to look for. Well, I learned when you asked. Some drivers for experience, you know, what’s the best truck to buy? They know what they’re driving.

Brent – 00:12:40:

Right.

Seretha – 00:12:40:

All right. It’s a good truck. Well, I learned, no, that’s not necessarily.

Brent – 00:12:45:

Not always. Yeah.

Seretha – 00:12:45:

My first truck burned down within the first year of having it. You know, and then I was pregnant. I went six months without even having a truck. Under my authority.

Brent – 00:12:58:

Oh, wow.

Seretha – 00:12:59:

And I just don’t own an operator. So, there were several things to stay afloat within my first year that has kept me through this. And You know, we went through the ups and downs of rates and all that good stuff. I will say it’s easier when you’re smaller, but as you grow, things become harder. But I was up for the challenge. Definitely. It was not easy. And my daddy always say anything worth having, you got to work for it. So I am definitely putting in the work.

Brent – 00:13:30:

Are you close to your dad? Yeah. I love it. Well, I have four daughters and I’m close to all of them as well. I have twin sons as well. But something special about daughters, man, there always will be. I know that he’s very proud of you. So what were some of the major challenges? Okay, so number one, you had a truck that burned up. Number two, you got some of your drivers, you’re giving you bad advice about trucks. And look, it’s pretty natural in business. Sometimes we trust the wrong people. You know, so what were some of the challenges with just the structure and getting the business running? That was a challenge.

Seretha – 00:14:04:

You know, I don’t have a CDL. So people would tell me, you need to learn to get your CDL. I’m like, well, all these people I research, they don’t have CDLs either. So, you know, I don’t have to have a CDL to run the trucking company. But I’m glad I stuck with that because I didn’t get involved in the day to day tactical operation. I was able to see things on a different level. And then, you know, I think it would have been more challenging had I not had the corporate America experience that I have. Well, because, one thing about corporate America, they will pivot from a plan. They will embrace change, right? If it doesn’t work, they drop it. So I was able to look at some things that were challenging. In the beginning, you know, drivers, I’m a passionate person. I try to give people several chances. I was raised to talk to people and try to understand where things are coming from. But in business, you can’t do that if it doesn’t work. You got to let it go. So, you know, those are definitely driver challenges, retaining drivers, getting good equipment, learning maintenance. Those expenses with that. Being, you know, misled by mechanics and having to pay for the same thing two or three times, you know, different things like that has definitely, it has definitely helped me on this journey with learning that so early on in the beginning.

Brent – 00:15:18:

Well, I get that. It’s always a challenge. So when you found your business and founded it, when you brought it to life here. So you said that you pulled from your experience in corporate America and pivoting off of a bad idea quickly is one of the keys to continuing to sustain your business. Right. Tell me why you know that to be true.

Seretha – 00:15:40:

A lot of times when we’re small business owners. We get so caught up in the accomplishment and we’re very passionate about our business. Very passionate. And we’ll try to hold on to everything because. As a small business owner, when we can’t do something or… You know, something fails, we feel like a failure. So in corporate America, I was able to learn that, you know, you don’t waste money on things for long. So if it doesn’t work. You move on because there are so many opportunities out there. You just got to keep trying things until you find something that works. And then you expand on it. You grow on it. And use that to invest in something else. You know, just keep investing. Keep growing. That really helps.

Brent – 00:16:22:

Yeah, well, that, Freight Nation, that’s pro tip number two. Seretha’s bringing it. She’s bringing it heavy. Pro tip number two is pivot quickly off a bad idea. Don’t chase bad ideas with good money. Or don’t chase a bad customer with good money. Pivot off a bad idea very quickly. This is so true. Seretha, thank you for bringing that out. So true. If you look in the investment community, sort of the people that have money that want to invest in a company to get money back, that’s the first thing they tell the operators or the founders of a business is pivot off of bad ideas quickly because they waste more than money. They waste your time. And you don’t get time back. You can get money back. You can’t get time back. So that’s pro tip number two. Pivot off a bad idea. Make a plan, number one, from Seretha. SJW, not her middle name. J is not her middle name. And make a plan. Number two, pivot off a bad idea. Man, you’re bringing it. I hope, Freight Nation, that you’re writing these down. So this is super important. So our industry, I want to make sure I’m getting the elephant out of the room, Seretha. All right, you ready for a very important question? All right. There’s not a whole lot of your gender in our industry. And there’s not a whole lot of women of your color in our industry. How have you found that to be a challenge? And how have you used that to your advantage? How have you leveraged that in a way in which it was a benefit for you? I think this is an important question to ask.

Seretha – 00:17:49:

You know, the trend over the last couple of years have been putting women in larger roles. And so I have been lucky and blessed to be a woman in this industry because I have been really well accepted. I’ve been helped by vendors, you know. They are males, majority of males, they’re salespeople that are running these companies. But when they sit down and they talk to me, they see my plan. They helped me. I’ve had a lot of grace on things that people probably normally wouldn’t get. And we’re a partnership. And I tell people about being a partner. I want to be your partner. I want you to help SJW grow. Because when we get to where our goal is, I want to be able to say these are the people that helped me. And it didn’t matter that I wasn’t. It didn’t matter what I looked like or who I was. We all had the same goal in mind. If we help that shit grow, we grow too. So. It’s been actually a great ride being a female in a male-dominated industry, to be honest with you. And I’ve met. So many great people that have helped me along the way.

Brent – 00:18:55:

Yeah. Well, it is good. I’ll tell you, that’s one of the things that Truckstop really involved in a lot of different things inside the industry to create the quality of opportunity for anybody that wants it. We’re all for that. So it’s just super important that when people see opportunity, they get the opportunity to go take it. And then look, it doesn’t matter who you are. You got to put the effort in and create the success. It doesn’t matter where you started and what your background is and how those things happen. Freight doesn’t care. It just doesn’t. It cares about your performance and how you’re going to get things taken care of. So you found this opportunity to be one that was actually a really good journey, you know, and one that didn’t seem sort of maybe weighted against you or anything like that. You felt like that there was good out. So that’s an encouragement to anybody who wants to start in this industry. Some of the absolute top leaders in all of freight transportation are females as well. And so that just makes our industry more resilient. Honestly, it makes that much more resilient. So that’s super exciting to hear. As I said, I got four daughters, right? And I want them to have every opportunity they can. All right. So as an entrepreneur, somebody who’s, you know, if you don’t get it done, it doesn’t happen. Right. So what would be sort of so getting in logistics? What’s a couple of other than work your plan and have a plan, those sort of things that you talked about? What are some of the nuances that you go? Okay, well, I wish I would have done this better. And I wish I would have done more of this.

Seretha – 00:20:12:

I think that, you know, right now, that’s a great question because we’re learning some things. Right. So what we know in looking at our year in review from 2023, what we know we do really well is trucking. What we now know that we don’t do really, really well is warehousing and sales. Yes. So really, we make that decision to say, hey, you know, maybe we need to downsize and let that go and just focus on what we do best, which is trust. And growing that side or regrowing that side. So those are some things that, you know, we sit down, we do business reviews just like any other. We look at what we did really, really well and what we did really, really bad. And so we talk about those things. So that’s the only way we’re going to continue to grow. Right. So if we don’t look at things like that, you know, we’ll keep trying to figure out, well, why is this not working? Why is that not working? No, we know it’s not working. So we just got to make a decision.

Brent – 00:21:09:

So intellectual honesty is really important in being honest with yourself. In other words, saying, okay. That’s not going as well as it needs to. If we took that resource or those resources and put them over here, maybe we get a better return on it. Yeah. Okay. Pro tip number three. Use your intellectual resources. So yeah, no doubt. All right. So fantastic. All right. So I read in a little bit in reading up about you, I read that just recently you guys had an issue with some double brokering. In the marketplace. So, you know, it has been on the rise ever since the marketplace started adjusting back down to normal. And a lot of times it’s just because people aren’t paying attention. Something that looks good is actually really not good and yet they’re not paying attention to it. And so it can come back to bite them pretty hard. Tell us a little bit about your double brokering story and then what you did about it and what some advice would be to others about it.

Seretha – 00:22:05:

Both ends of double brokering. We had someone double broker one of our loads through our brokerage. And then we also had someone using our MC. And book and load. With our trucking company and we were getting the payment. What happened, how we found out that someone had double brokered our load, we had got a load from our customer. And, you know, they did the tracking. They set everything up. We knew something was odd with it. They were checking all the boxes, like the insurance checkout. We wouldn’t get the insurance from them. We called the insurance company. So we were doing our due diligence in setting that carrier up. Book that load with them. Then we made sure that the macro point was working and everything, we could see them. But how that worked, we didn’t know. That actual company was a scam. The scamming company, they… Had told the carrier they were going to pay them $3,200 for the load when the load only paid $1,800. And that was market. Right. So, the carrier was doing everything we were asking them to do. And they delivered the load. Like I said, we had everything. Nothing went wrong except for it was like, well, we the dispatcher don’t call the driver. You got to call us type thing. And so the driver delivered. We went head on, you know, invoice and the customer, the broker. Or not Burka, the carrier wanted quick pay. They said that we were new at that time. So they said our brokers did not get approved by their fact of the matter. So they wanted to, they quit paying. And my accounting team had actually set the payment up and it was due to issue the next day. And the trucking company that actually did the work said that their factoring company declined them to factor that load for $3,000 because our customer was on the name of the brokerage. On the BOL and the name of the brokerage did not match the name that they submitted. So their factoring company caught it. And they contacted us immediately and we were able to stop that payment and pay that carrier. We were like, well, we can’t. Our customer didn’t even pay us. $3,000 for the low, so we definitely can’t pay you that, but we can pay you what we agreed to, so you get something out of it. You know. So that was. How we first learned, we were like, you know what, we’re going to be cautious of these people that want quick pay and different things like that. But how we learned someone was using our trucking side was we got some payments. And we were like, we didn’t do these loads. Who did this? Wasn’t in this area on this day.

Brent – 00:24:38:

Oh, wow.

Seretha – 00:24:39:

Unless we were confused because You know, we do use the factoring company on our trucking side. And they started receiving an influx of payments. That we didn’t factor. And we were like, we didn’t do these loads. And that’s when we found out. There’s someone out there using our MC number to bookload. And We don’t know if they ever got paid, but some companies. Paid us instead of them because they used our MC number.

Brent – 00:25:06:

Wow. So it sounds like they tried to game the system, but forgot to do it the right way. And you end up getting paid.

Seretha – 00:25:13:

The money we had.

Brent – 00:25:14:

Wow. Well, that’s amazing. You’ve been hit on both sides. So what’s the advice to the logistics companies out there and the carrier companies out there? What’s your advice to them about going through this process and how could you avert it?

Seretha – 00:25:27:

It’s very hard now because they’re really smart. Like I said, they make sure everything’s checked out. Even if you try to say, well, I don’t want the insurance COI coming from you, I want it coming directly from. You know, the insurance company. We try to get more established carriers. You know, I don’t think you can do enough due diligence and checking people, because of how easy it is to you know, get frauded out here these days. But I would say just, if it doesn’t feel right, probably don’t do it.

Brent – 00:25:56:

What if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck? It’s probably a duck. So, you know, yeah, we’ve been doing this Fraud Prevention Friday thing. You know, we deal with a tremendous amount of carriers that has. You know, hundreds, a couple hundred thousand trucks. And so we’ve been doing this thing since the beginning of all this fraud coming up called Fraud Prevention Friday, and just trying to help educate small carriers who don’t have a lot of the resources that others do about what to look for. You know, and a lot of times it’s just common sense. Don’t get in a hurry for one thing. That’s probably the biggest thing is just don’t get in a hurry. If you see a $2,000 load for $4,000 bucks. You know, yeah, to quote a very old outer space show that used to be on, you know, Danger, Will Robinson, Danger, you know, yes, that’s Danger. You got to be careful of that. So have you had any other challenges with double brokering or fraud after those couple? Not that I want you to have it. Really?

Seretha – 00:26:48:

We have it because like I said, we were being really cautious before that. We did. A couple of years ago, we felt like one time a shipper was in on helping this customer. There, we were able to catch that in the ad and make sure we got paid for that. I can say, you know, in the seven years that the trucking company has been in business. We’ve only experienced it once on that side. And then.

Brent – 00:27:10:

Well, then that’s low. Yeah, that’s really low. And we’ll just keep saying our prayers that doesn’t happen anymore so you know like i said most of it is and like you just said it’s most of it’s just due diligence just do your homework all right hang on i think we got pro tip four yes all right do your homework Kind of what your mama always told you. Did you do your homework? So I wish I would have taken that advice when I was in college. I probably would have performed a lot better. So you got to show up to class and do your homework. You know, there you go. All right. So you’re an entrepreneur. You built the business. What are some ways in which you built your business? What were some of the strategies you employed in going after shipper customers after, you know, going out there and securing freight for your business? What are some of the tactics? Because every business is unique, right? What were some of the strategies and tactics that you had in your plan?

Seretha – 00:28:03:

We knew being small, our budget was tight, so we couldn’t hire a sales team. So we did the commission-based thing with that. But the biggest thing was we used our trucking side to, you know, talk to smaller customers. We told our drivers, when you go, the shippers be nice to them. Just pass out business cards. Let them know, hey, we’re available because you never know. Some customers just want to use brokers only, and some will use asset-based to spend, depending on how small they are. So those were some of the strategies we used early on going after customers. Then, of course, when COVID happened, you couldn’t physically talk to people. So we had to be a little more creative with emails and phone calls. Then there was so many because rates had went up so high during COVID with a lot of things for shippers.

Brent – 00:28:50:

Right.

Seretha – 00:28:51:

And customers. So what we did, we say, you know what, we’re going to take on the stance that we’re not going to price gouge. We’re going to try to get our customers.

Brent – 00:28:59:

Wow.

Seretha – 00:29:00:

Which word? We said, hey, what were you paying before COVID? We had to consider that, you know, fuel is high and this is going on. So we still had to raise our rate. But we were not like a lot of carriers and nothing against them. You know, people did what they could get away with, of course. But we were like, we are looking for long-term relationships because we still want to work with you when this is over. So having the knowledge and, you know, the business acumen to say, we know that this thing we’re going through won’t last forever. But will our customers be there through that? And will they want to work with us once all things start to calm down? You know, and that was one strategy that has really helped us. Because we were able to maintain all of our customers that we picked up during COVID because we did not price gouge. Of course, since then, they’ve asked us to come down on our prices. But. We still have our customers.

Brent – 00:29:58:

Right. So you really focus on the long-term relationship. You focus on being open and honest with your customers. And what’s funny, Seretha, is I’ve gotten to talk to lots of brokerage companies and carrier companies in the marketplace, and it’s a recurring theme. They priced fairly during the pandemic, but they didn’t try to price gouge, and they still maintain those customers today. So that’s probably pro tip number five, which is long-term relationships and being open and honest about what your pricing needs are with your shipper customers. So super important because what’s the old saying? You don’t have to win every battle, just win the war. So just make sure you win the war of continuing to have profitable business because getting that great rate a few times may lose the customer down the road, no doubt. So I love this question. What is your proudest moment so far as a business?

Seretha – 00:30:56:

I think my proudest moment was… When I actually… People’s education never stops, right? So I was invited to be in the Georgia Small Business Administration Emerging Leader Program back in 2021. And I came up with every excuse why I just didn’t have time for this and didn’t have time for that. And someone said, you need to take that. Course because it is a really good course on a state level for small business owners and you’ll really benefit from that course. And I was like, I’m going to class. I’m not going to say anything. I’m just going to be there. I got to show up. You know, it’s going to take my time. I have this going on. You can’t only miss but two classes and they kick you out. So it’s really strict. And It was so funny because I went through the course, I did my homework, I did everything I was supposed to do because I do believe in following processes and the rules. So I did everything. And then it was so funny. I thought I was the most quietest person in the class. And they told me. That I was elected as the class leader in grad… Yeah, I was the class speaker. Oh, no way. How did that happen? But the network that I became a part of, the people that I met. And the things that happened for my business. Being in that course in 2021 was really a game changer for us. And I was really proud of myself for taking that class.

Brent – 00:32:23:

Yeah. So when you said you had decided to go to the class and not say anything, I’m going, hmm, I’m not sure that happened.

Seretha – 00:32:30:

I obviously thought more than I realized that talk.

Brent – 00:32:35:

Oh, my gosh. Well, that’s super great. Congratulations on being elected as your class leader and the speaker for that. I’m not surprised. You know, does it really want leadership tend to gravitate easily towards it really easily? I think I liked what you said, too, as you said, you followed the process. Yeah. What’s the benefit behind following the process?

Seretha – 00:32:54:

What I saw in others, too, as small business owners, entrepreneurs, you have to do it all, right? You don’t get to be on vacation. You don’t get to do this. If somebody’s out, you have to do everything. So-

Brent – 00:33:05:

We’re out of time.

Seretha – 00:33:07:

And it’s easy to make an excuse. When? There’s homework or you have to do this class, you have to do this present. And I said, well, if I’m going to be here. I am going to give my all, do what they say, meet this. And to this day, from the beginning of the class, you work on a business plan, a three to five year business plan. And I still use that to this day.

Brent – 00:33:32:

Right.

Seretha – 00:33:32:

And I just go in and modify. And people were like, do you have an executive summary? Sure. Let me just update these dates. Do you have a business plan? Sure. Let me just update a few things. And that has. One of the greatest benefits of being an intern.

Brent – 00:33:45:

Right. One of the things that I learned a long time ago is that you don’t have a personnel decision, a process that you’re finished with improving. You know, so the idea of constant improvement. What does constant improvement look like to you in SJW?

Seretha – 00:33:59:

It’s like I just said earlier where. We have to evaluate where we are, where we want to go, if we’re on track, off track. And then make changes to get there. Don’t be afraid to pivot. You know. That is constant improvement for us. Being able to continue to grow. In a down freight market, you know, in a down transportation industry. You know, we know what it’s going to take for us to survive this and to continue to grow in this. That there alone, just being able to stick with the plan, make sure the team is aligned with the vision and the plan and they understand, hey, there’s some things we’re going through now that we won’t be going through. We remember what it was like when it was good. Remember what it was like when it was great? Now we know what it’s like when it’s bad, but we know that it won’t be this way always. So we just have to take the steps and put in the work to get there.

Brent – 00:34:52:

Yeah, where there’s uncertainty, there’s opportunity no matter what. And I think that makes a difference for people that make it through any season. The ones that can really take advantage of uncertainty. Got a few minutes left here. So let’s talk down the road a little bit. All right, so SJW has been moving along. You’re continuing to do well. You’re continuing to pivot. Okay, so we’ll do a quick review on our pro tips. In your work, you got to pivot off a bad idea. You got to use your market intelligence by leveraging data. You got to do your homework. You got to always have long-term relationships. You got to follow the process. Man, you should just write a book on this. Think of yourself. We know I get to coach a lot of young adults, which is a lot of fun. So what I always try to do is get them to think like a generation past where they are. I always go, okay, where do you see yourself in 10 years? You know, so I ask you the same question. 10 years from today, when you’re 30 years old. So 10 years from today, where do you sort of aspirationally see SJW Logistics? What do you want it to land?

Seretha – 00:36:00:

We’re bigger than that small company, but we’re smaller than that medium sized company. We’re still controllable, you know.

Brent – 00:36:07:

Yeah.

Seretha – 00:36:08:

We’re still. Be able to know our drivers by name. But we want to grow and be stable and be a reputable brand in the market. You know, where people can count on SJW.

Brent – 00:36:19:

Right.

Seretha – 00:36:19:

So 10 years from now. I want to be known as, hey, that’s SJW and that company. You know, you’ll know who we are when you hear our name.

Brent – 00:36:27:

Right. Yeah. So just kind of continuing to improve and build on that. Yeah, absolutely. All right. So I want to ask, here’s a curveball question. Okay. So you said you were close to your dad. And you had an uncle that helped you understand things. Did they have a nickname for you?

Seretha – 00:36:44:

I do have a nickname.

Brent – 00:36:46:

Are you willing to share it?

Seretha – 00:36:47:

They call me Mika. Mika. When my team, even my son, he doesn’t know my nickname. My daughter does, but my son doesn’t. Because I’ve worked so hard to have people call me by my legal government name.

Brent – 00:37:01:

Grow your government name. I love it. How did you get to Mika? I’m going to get into your middle name eventually. I get it. Wow. What a bunch of great advice for anyone looking to create success with their logistics company. The industry is so proud of you. We’re thankful for you as being a customer of Truckstop. We’re thankful that you came on the Freight Nation podcast today. I know the Freight Nation watchers and listeners will grow in their business acumen and grow in their success just by understanding and hearing your story. And it’s been such a joy just having you on today. I really appreciate you joining us.

Seretha – 00:37:33:

Thank you for having me on Freight Nation. I’m really excited when I got the email and I appreciate your patience for waiting on me to get away. And I look forward to coming back as a guest again.

Brent – 00:37:43:

Well, it was worth the wait. Hey, Freight Nation, Seretha Willingham, because she got a little sick and we had to reschedule it. But, man, nothing was going to keep me from having Seretha on the schedule because I knew her story needed to be told so you could benefit from it. So, Freight Nation, thank you so much for joining us today. And don’t forget about those six things to plan your work, to pivot off a bad idea, to follow that, get your market intelligence and be able to leverage data. Do your homework. Make sure you always, always invest in long-term relationships because that will sustain you and follow the process. And that’s right there from signed Seretha Willingham right there. No problem. So, thank you again, Seretha, so much. And, Freight Nation, don’t forget, as we always like to say at Freight Nation, work hard, be kind, and stay humble. On behalf of the Truckstop team, thanks for listening to this episode of Freight Nation. To find out more about the show, head to truckstop.com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, make sure you hit subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. Until then, keep on trucking and exploring the open roads with Freight Nation: A Trucking Podcast.

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