During Women’s History Month at WEX we celebrate notable female leaders in the fleet industry starting with a story about Vickey Patterson from United Road Services and continuing with last week's story about Susan Kirkpatrick from Buddy Moore Trucking. Our third and final installment brings us to Northwest Ohio and Garner Trucking, a 63-year old business.
Sherri Garner Brumbaugh, President/CEO and Owner of Garner Transportation Group, was trained as an educator and spent five years in a public school, teaching and serving as band director, before joining the family trucking business. “I grew up in the business – summers mowing the grass, cleaning trucks, washing trucks as a high school kid – so I was always around the business. And of course, when you grow up in the business, it's part of dinner conversations and breakfast conversations and holidays. And it's ingrained in you, it's part of you.” When she returned to Garner, Sherri quickly found she enjoyed working with her dad, and being in familiar surroundings with trucks and truck drivers, working with the kind of people she grew up with.
When she joined the business, Sherri started in the accounting department before moving to operations, and then marketing, and then sales, and then to overseeing Garner's IT department. She hadn’t really considered a leadership position for herself because in her mind that was her dad’s place in the business. “It wasn't a natural progression to leadership for me, because my dad was going to work forever. Unfortunately, he got ill. That wasn't his plan or our plan.” After her father’s death in 2007, Sherri and her mom knew how important it was to keep the business running. “A lot of people depend on Garner, not just the employees, but their families.” Sherri knew she needed to be strong and take over where her dad had left off - her mom was at an age where she didn’t have the energy to come into the office every day. “So I rose to leadership and have led the company ever since.” Sherri’s mom named her president of Garner in the fall of 2008. “She said, ‘You got this.’ She was my biggest cheerleader and advocate.” In 2012 Sherri transitioned to owner of the company and Garner became a women-owned business.
The economics of running a trucking company
When Sherri took over Garner in 2008, the US was at the onset of a recession and in 2009 she had the unhappy task of having to lay off employees. She has seen many more ups and downs since then. “Trucking is so aligned with the economy. Take COVID, for example. From the dark days of not knowing how this was going to affect us to the pandemic bringing us some of the strongest years – financially and economically –that we've had as a company really up to now.” Garner, like most of the trucking industry, experienced supply chain issues which spanned port back-ups as well as an inability to acquire operational supplies to keep their vehicles appropriately outfitted. Sherri’s proud of what they were able to overcome and how they managed to get through the pandemic in one piece: “We didn't lose one customer during COVID.”
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As Sherri was making her way through all the different departments within Garner, she was gathering information, skills, and expertise to allow her to eventually run the company. “It's having the knowledge of each of those integral parts of the business independently, and then how they all work together that positions a person to be able to lead.” She drives the business with data, paying attention to KPIs, and benchmarking. She attributes Garner’s survival to that approach. “What I want is to make money on every load. We run on our trucks, and that’s not a bad thing. We need to know that we’re profitable.” All that said, Sherri believes that the true reason for Garner’s success is her father’s legacy and the culture of a family-owned business. “We're still a company where everybody knows each other's names at Garner, and that's what we’re about.”
Running a business unafraid to turn to others for guidance
Sherri has received great advice from peers, and learned through observing the examples of other business leaders over the years and third-party advisors along the way. She has not been afraid to bring in consultants to look at Garner’s systems and ensure they are reporting what they need to be reporting. She has a great support network she can rely on for tips and tricks when she is looking for a different approach. “Networking with my associations - ATA, TCA OTA or Ohio Trucking. Networking with peers, discovering what they're measuring. Participating as a board member for our local nonprofits. Listening to other business owners and looking at their balance sheets and profit and loss reports and bringing what I learn back to Garner.” These have all been ways Sherri has been open to learning from business leaders she’s come to know through her many affiliations and the networking she’s done over the years.
Giving back to her community provides further networks and outlets
Sherri serves on several boards including on the local University of Findlay board of trustees, and on the College of Business Advisory Board. She is an adjunct professor at the College of Business, teaching supply chain and management controls to undergraduate students. She also volunteers at Findlay’s Open Arms Domestic Violence organization and for Truckers Against Trafficking. Her father, husband, and three sons were all Boy Scouts and Sherri is still involved with her local Boy Scouts organization as a public co-chair. Sherri finds these activities fulfilling.
Overcoming obstacles for women with advocacy, grit, and tenacity
Sherri has often found herself the only woman in the room, or one of a few, and has made it a point to bring other women along. “I used to walk into an executive committee meeting where there were 50 Executive Board members and two of us were women in the industry. So I've tried to make an impact on that and bring some more of my female peers to the table.”
One of the ways she’s felt on unequal footing with her male counterparts in the trucking industry has been through others’ expectations of her. “As a female in the trucking industry, I felt that I had to be better prepared than the men in the room. I've had to know my stuff going into a meeting – where it may be a particular industry issue or topic, or a situation where I needed to lead a discussion. I always thought that I needed to be overly prepared – I didn't want to get asked questions I was not able to answer.” There was a less stringent expectation of the men in the room where women might be more intently scrutinized. These days, Sherri knows her worth and that she has a seat at the table for good reason.
Female leaders in trucking who are inspiring to young women coming up in the field today
For Sherri, coming up in a trucking family, she has spent a lifetime watching women in the field. In the industry, Lana Batts has been a particular source of inspiration for her. Lana was the president of Truckloads of Carriers Association (TCA) for many years. “As a young woman coming up in my early 30s and 40s, Lana Batts was leading TCA. She was leading this association of primarily men – really her whole board – they were all men.” Sherri remembers seeing Lana speak and finding her to be articulate and knowledgeable. “I could tell she knew her stuff when she spoke. And I, well, I wanted to model myself after her.”
Another inspiration for Sherri has been Ellen Voie, the founder of Women in Trucking. “She has grown this very small organization to this very impactful, large entity – I think there are over 2000 members now.” Sherri admires Ellen for her passion and the opportunities she has provided for women, both truck drivers and professional women in the industry.
The person Sherri admires most of all the women who’ve inspired her over the course of her career is her mom. “My mom was a businesswoman when there wasn't yet a title for businesswoman. She worked, alongside my dad. She was his equal, really, but she allowed him to be the the face of Garner Trucking. All the while she was raising children too and she balanced it all somehow.” Sherri describes her mom running a household with three young daughters. The Garner business line would ring into their home while her mom was packing lunches, doing laundry, getting kids off to school, and she would answer every inquiry that came through the line without getting ruffled. “And then, by the afternoon and evening, that kitchen table became the dinner table. And then the dinner table would become her sewing table.” Sherri’s mom had an ability to manage and thrive in all of her jobs, particularly that most difficult job of ferreting daughters through what could sometimes be trying school-age years.
Sherri remembers one story in particular that for her best illustrated how capable her mom was at knowing just the right thing to say to a young, impressionable girl. After school one day in seventh grade, Sherri remembers standing at the kitchen sink peeling potatoes with her mom in preparation for their dinner. All the kids had chores and hers that day was helping her mom peel the potatoes. Sherri told her mom that her class had nominated her and two other kids in her class for student council. Only two of the tree were actually voted in, and Sherri was one of the two. Being on student council was a big deal because student government was combined for junior high and high school, so Sherri would be among the older kids. “Knowing that this meant she was going to have to drive me to and from school if I was going to stay late or arrive early for student council meetings, I was aware that this would be a huge burden for her.” Sherri’s parents relied on the bus to bring their daughters to and from school every day since they were both working hard to run a household and their own business. “There was no hesitation. She said ‘Sherri, I think you'd be good at that.’ And that's all it took, and here I am today. So, the power of parents and the power of mothers is a remarkable thing.”
Advice for young women joining the workforce today
Sherri’s advice to young women entering the workforce today is to continually educate yourself, and stay in your lane. “Know what you know, and develop that and be good at that.” She goes on to say that in the trucking industry there are so many areas in which to focus, whether it's HR or accounting, or marketing, safety or operations, wherever your focus, you get better at your craft by educating yourself.
Sherri also recommends aligning yourself with people that can help you advance in your particular area of passion. “Don't be afraid to raise your hand and volunteer your ideas and take on the challenge of being a leader.” She wants to impress upon young women that they don’t need to fear being perceived as the “teacher’s pet.” “Think about yourself and advancing yourself. At the end of the day you have to take care of yourself and your family. So don't apologize for any advancements that you might make for the hard work that you've accomplished." Sherri’s last piece of advice to young women entering the workforce today is to keep a clear space for your personal life as well as the professional sphere. “Find balance in your life. Covet your work but always be mindful of your health too. I waited too long to worry about my health, I didn't have time, you know, and I wish I would have carved out time in there because I was working all the time. I like to say work to live, don't live to work.” Sherri suggests focusing on work while at work and then enjoying the people in your life and your interests outside of work.
Finding balance also means loving the work you do. “You spend a lot of time at your work, you spend a lot of time working to advance yourself and educating yourself and honing your passion and your work. If you don't love your work, you should find something you love and it won't necessarily be work.” After 33 years at Garner, Sherri knows there’s a reason she stuck around – she’s grateful to have had such a great life experience working for her family and then taking the helm and running Garner herself.
The fleet world is fortunate to have Sherri Garner Brumbaugh as an executive in the field. She brings common sense business practices along with a family-owned business ethic that makes Garner one of the best places to work in the industry. Her dad would be proud to see what she’s done for Garner.