Women’s History Month is a time to honor great women in history and in our lives today. WEX’s history as a fleet company started when the company was founded as a family business in 1895. Originally known as A.R. Wright, WEX’s root business was focused on coal and heating oil. Because of this deep, historic connection to the fleet industry, we’ve had the opportunity to see women across the industry take hold as leaders over the years. During Women’s History Month at WEX we celebrate notable female leaders in the fleet industry starting with Vickey Patterson from United Road Services, moving to Sherri Garner Brumbaugh from Garner Trucking, and continuing with today’s story about Susan Kirkpatrick.
Susan is Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of a family-owned business founded in 2000, Buddy Moore Trucking. Her father started his career as a truck driver the year Susan was born. “Trucking clothed, fed, and educated me. It was always a part of our life. So when we started this company in 2000, it was our dad, our mom, and then, I have two brothers, and a sister who work with us as well. So, we're truly a family business.”
How a shy girl can develop into a confident executive
Susan describes a particularly shy childhood. “We grew up in a little community outside of Birmingham called McCalla, and when we grew up out there it was very rural. We lived on one side of our grandparents, while my dad's sister and her family lived on the other side.” Susan grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles, and siblings. “There were eight grandchildren. There were no other neighborhood kids to play with. We were just in our own glory.” Being surrounded by boisterous family Susan often played an observer role and while a participant in all the fun and games, she was on the quieter side. She describes coming into her own when she left McCalla for Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama. “When I went to college and got outside of the comfort of our little group, I think that's when it began.” Today she says she can go to events knowing no one and comfortably establish ties with new people.
Having a mother and grandmother who role-modeled business acumen from behind-the-scenes
Susan describes her mom as being seen in the public eye as strictly an owner at Buddy Moore. “But I will tell you that she was a large part of our daddy’s career success.” Susan’s dad started out as a driver in 1959 and by the time she went to college in the late 70s her dad was president of the company for whom he’d driven. Susan’s mom played a huge role in how he was able to move up the ranks to earn the top seat. “I think I bear a resemblance to her in that you could spend 10 minutes in a room with her and when you walked away you would think she was your best friend. And I think that's one of my gifts when I interact with people.” It was nothing if not sincere, but it was also a special gift. “She was highly organized and kept all the ducks in a row, so that Daddy could do his thing. She was very much a great supporter of his.” The pragmatism and the steely determination that this required are also traits Susan shares.
Susan also attributes her business sense to her grandmother. “It actually goes back to my dad's mom. Our Gramma was a remarkable woman.” Susan’s grandmother grew up on a farm in Northern Alabama and education was key to her. “Our grandfather had an eighth grade education. And she had a four-year college education. She went to what is known as the University of Montevallo. At the time, it was Alabama Teachers College. She graduated in 1923 with one of the first two bachelor degrees ever conferred at the college.” Susan’s grandmother was also a conservationist before it was in vogue. She encouraged the family to be conscientious about their use of natural resources and she cared deeply for the natural world. “She was a woman ahead of her time and as the oldest granddaughter, she and I were extremely close.”
Transitioning jobs from one type of business to another expands knowledge and skill set
Susan earned a BA in international business, with a minor in Spanish. “When I graduated from Auburn in 1981, the economy was horrible.” She took a job out of college running the business office for a car dealership in Birmingham and was taking MBA classes at night. Running the car dealership Susan became acquainted with a lot of the local businesspeople, and as she neared the end of her master’s program she mentioned to a contact at AmSouth Bank that she was interested in coming to work at the bank. She started out in the corporate accounting department managing accounts payable in November of 1985, and she gradually made her way around to many different parts of the bank from M&As to the basic daily functions of how to run a financial institution.
Pursuing the banking job at AmSouth provided a great opportunity for Susan, showing her many different facets of how a bank is run. “I was exposed to the merger and acquisition world, I was included in meetings with fairly high level executives. It was a good opportunity for me to spread my wings.” When she joined Buddy Moore Trucking, Susan had already tackled a variety of operational challenges and could bring a lot of experience and wisdom to her work at her family’s business.
Unique offerings of a family-owned business
During her AmSouth days, Susan was initially only connected to Buddy Moore Trucking as a stockholder. Every weekend her parents would make joking – and at times more serious – attempts to wrangle her to come join them at Buddy Moore. “My dad would say, ‘Don't you want to leave the bank and come work with us?’” After many months of discussion, she agreed to leave AmSouth and join them in September of 2000.
Since that day over 20 years ago, Susan and her siblings have been able to shape Buddy Moore Trucking. “I've taken a lot of pleasure in being part of a family-owned business and providing a good place to work for a lot of people.” Her brother Buck, President and Chief Operating Officer, runs the front side of the house: operations, sales, and safety while Susan runs the backside of the house, as she describes it: Accounting, IT, and HR. “Everything we do, we manage by committee.” This ensures that no decisions are being made in a vacuum. “We're always discussing our operations, and making decisions jointly.”
When the business is family-owned, family shapes the culture
Susan’s work at Buddy Moore encompasses a lot more than running the finances. She has a clear sense of the role she plays in the culture of the business and she knows that Buddy Moore’s drivers are essential to that culture. “I was on the yard earlier looking for a particular driver. I haven't seen him in months. So when I found him I laughed as I hugged him and told him I felt like I needed some time to catch up.” Susan’s relationships with Buddy Moore’s drivers are an important part of her work, and she enjoys the camaraderie she has with them. “I had another driver who I've not seen in months, he came and he sat and visited with me for 30 minutes and we caught up on what was going on with his family and all. He's been with us 19 years.” While the accounting work is critical, Susan feels that the relationships around the office are just as important. “I do a lot of wandering the building talking with employees – especially with drivers – because, as I tell them, what I do is somewhat important, but it all begins and ends with them.”
Part of Susan’s kinship with her drivers stems from the fact that her dad was a truck driver. “When you know what it was like to be gone all week – our mom knew what it was like – you empathize. The hot water heater has burst. So she’s got to figure out how to fix it.” Her father used to talk about how hard a job it was to drive for a living, giving her protective feelings for her drivers. “Daddy always said a driver gets kicked at every turn. You know, he's battling traffic. He's battling delays. So I feel like it's part of my job when they're here to extend that kindness where they know they're part of a family.”
Mentors can come from community work
Susan is chairman of the Alabama Trucking Association Workers Comp Fund after having served as a board member for a number of years. She sits on that board with a local Birmingham truck dealer, Drew Linn. “He's always been my great champion. He is always promoting me and facilitating opportunities for me, and I've always appreciated that.” Buddy Moore buys a number of their trucks from Drew’s business, and he’s been a family friend for many years. Part of the Buddy Moore culture is valuing the relationships they build with their vendors. “We like to do business with people we like. We can choose to do business with anybody we want to and, you know, our vendors are great friends. We're more than just professional associates.”
Obstacles faced by women in the workforce and how to maintain a thick skin
While Susan maintains a positive demeanor, she is not a pollyanna: she sees the obstacles that women face in the workforce. “I don't like to say this but it is still a man's world in a lot of ways.” She sees it in her board work. She serves on the board of a local community bank in Bessemer and is the only woman on the board. She sees it in the trucking industry as well where a lot of times she’s the only woman in the room during management or executive meetings. While she sees and recognizes the obstacles for what they are, she also believes that the best way to overcome them is by being good at what you do and not getting easily discouraged.
Advice for young women entering the workforce today
Along with not giving in easily, Susan counsels young women entering their first jobs today to not be overly sensitive. “I know as a woman when I've been offended.” Susan describes an incident where a driver directed an inappropriate comment at her out in the yard. “I stopped and I pointed at him and I said, ‘Don't you ever do that again.’ And I've never had a problem with him, but I didn't come in here and run and tell Daddy; I handled it.” Susan believes in self-reliance and in showing strength when faced with adversity. “I'm one of eight grandchildren. I was one of two girls in the middle of six boys. I learned a long time ago, you get through life a lot better if you roll with the punches.” This is even more valuable in the trucking business. “Trucking is a hard business and, you know, if you are sensitive about everything, you’re going to have a hard time surviving.”
Susan also counsels young women joining the workforce today to come to the job without expectations of instant gratification. She suggests that success and advancement only come from hard work. Hard work will eventually lead to better, more senior opportunities, she says, and patience is key to earning advancement.
How to balance being a mom and having a career
Susan has a daughter who is now 32 years old and a married commercial real estate attorney in Charlotte. When Susan joined the family business she bargained with her boss (her dad) to be able to work school hours. “I took my daughter to school in the morning and I picked her up from school in the afternoon. I will always appreciate that.” Throughout her time at Buddy Moore Susan worked hard to balance her career and her role in her household. “In all the years, I never missed a field trip.” Susan would be remiss if she didn’t give her husband of 35 years, Max, credit for also supporting her in everything and stepping in to keep the home fires burning especially when she traveled for work.
Susan saw women around her performing the same kind of balancing act including a woman named Gail Stevens. “Gail had two children, and she was fairly high up in the management of the bank where I worked at the time. I came to know her when I started at the bank and I always admired that she could do both and she could do them both well. She could have a responsible job but yet she was a phenomenal mom and wife.” Throughout Susan’s career she’d think back to Gail when Susan would feel unsteady about how well she was managing being a mom, wife, and having a career, and assure herself that she was doing just fine.
Susan also relies on the friendships she’s built over the years to help keep a clear head about what’s important to worry about and what’s not as important. “Having a group of friends, professional women who are also moms and wives, that was a good support group because you have some times when you just feel bad that you can't do it all. It was always important to me to surround myself with women to rely on and we could encourage one another.” She has a group of friends from back in the 80s during her time at AmSouth with whom she still meets for dinner every other month. “As y'all know friendships take work, and I learned that from my mother and from my dad, my dad was very intentional with his friendships.” She remembers every year at Christmastime at the office – her office was next to her father's – hearing him make the rounds. “He would go through his address book and connect with every friend that he had made in his professional career. They would wish each other Merry Christmas and they would chat.” Susan’s own life is enriched by the friendships both inside and outside the office that she’s built and cultivated over the years.
Susan Kirkpatrick of Buddy Moore Trucking is a shining example of grit, compassion, and optimism. She and her siblings run a family-owned business where care for their employees is paramount and good old fashioned hard work can lead anyone to find success.
To learn more about WEX, a dynamic and nimble global organization, please visit our About WEX page.