Legacy of Leadership: Chris Cooper becomes ATA’s first 3rd generation Chairman
BY FORD BOSWELL
There was never any doubt that Chris Cooper would one day lead the Alabama Trucking Association – it was only a question of when not if.
Last summer, the Association experienced history when Cooper became its first third-generation Chairman of the Board during a ceremony on June 14 at ATA’s Headquarters in Montgomery. The 47-year-old businessman follows the footsteps of his mother, Gail, and his late grandfather and Boyd Bros. founder, Dempsey Boyd, both of whom had strong ties to the Association during their long careers in trucking.
A resident of Mountain Brook, Ala., Cooper is CEO of Boyd Companies, the parent company of Boyd Bros. Transportation, Inc., a flatbed truckload carrier operating throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., hauling primarily steel products and building materials.
“I am honored and humbled by this appointment,” Cooper says. “I’m truly blessed for the opportunities I’ve had to serve this great industry and to follow my mother and my grandfather to lead this great organization is very special to me and my family.”
And he’s already hitting the ground running. In only a matter of days after taking the reins of the Association, he assembled a committee for the ATA Golf Classic, led by Ross Neely Systems President Tommy Neely, which grossed $444,000 – the highest amount of any previous Classic.
“Tommy and his committee did a remarkable job to bring together an incredibly successful tournament that will keep our industry moving ahead in Montgomery for years,” he says. “Our efforts this year were critical because most economic experts predict a significant market slowdown is heading our way. We’re still in the midst of robust markets so I believe our Classic came at the right time and our members really dug deep to ensure that ATA can continue to protect and promote what matters most to Alabama truckers.”
Meanwhile, the Association also engaged in the next phase of its successful Careers in High Gear, featuring the Real Faces of Alabama Trucking.
Cooper says his goals for his year as Chairman include bolstering the group’s programs for workforce development and industry promotion, while also increasing member participation in ATA events and programs that seek to improve industry safety and professionalism.
Dempsey Boyd and his brothers Cecil and Hilly started driving trucks in the late 1940s, eventually forming Boyd Bros. Transportation. The company started as a small, regional flatbed-trucking operation with three tractors hauling flatbed, open trailers for customers who needed delivery on time. Freight consisted of steel products and other building materials for various producers across the state.
Cecil and Hilly left the company in the mid-1960s, and Gail after graduating in three years from then Troy State University came on several years later, working in various positions that familiarized her with all phases of the business. She says the cross-training was more about doing what needed to be done to keep the family business going than putting her into a future position to lead the company. She rose to the occasion, however, and would eventually become President and CEO, with her father as chairman of the board. She ran the company until her retirement a few years ago.
“My mom is an amazing businesswoman,” Cooper says. “She’s very fiscally conservative and was the perfect balance to my grandfather, who was known as a bit of a wheeler and dealer.”
Chris says he was the oldest of five grandkids and grew up 200 yards from his grandparents, so he spent a lot of time with his grandfather.
“I remember he was always traveling or on his phone working deals,” he says. “He always had a lot of irons in the fire. Along with running a trucking company, he had a farming and warehouse operation, owned and operated hotels, and bought and sold real estate. In fact, he had a knack for buying property in areas of the country before they’d get hot. Truth is, he made a lot more money in real estate than he ever did in trucking. In a way, trucking was what he did to stay busy.”
Throughout the 1980s, the company added drivers, trucks and regional centers, creating a network that by the 1990s extended its range of operations across the eastern two-thirds of the country. The company established its corporate headquarters and principal service center in Clayton, Ala. where it remains today.
“My first recollection of all this was when I was about 5 years old, and granddad got his first long-nose truck,” he says. “Up till then, we always ran cab overs. I just remember that being a big deal, and looking back, it was probably around the time the company began to grow quickly.”
As the industry changed with deregulation, Boyd Bros. grew to one of the nation’s largest and most influential trucking firms. Its scope and reach grew far beyond Alabama’s borders. And with its merger with Daseke almost a decade ago, the organization now offers terminals serving 49 states, Canada and Mexico.
With his trucking operation’s rapid rise among the leading trucking companies in the state, Dempsey became more involved with ATA out of a need to network. He eventually became one of the ATA’s most influential leaders. He received the Alabama Trucking Association’s H. Chester Webb Award in 1987, an award he considered among his greatest achievements. After his retirement in the early 2000s, he remained loosely involved with the Association as an advisor.
Meanwhile, Gail started her rise to the top of Alabama Trucking. In 2010, she became the first and only woman in the organization’s 84-year history to serve as Chairman of the Board of Directors.
She remained active with the Alabama Trucking Association for many years working to bolster the Association’s stature among the state’s leading highway and driver safety advocates by investing in and assisting with proven initiatives administered by state and federal law enforcement agencies, including Ticketing Aggressive Cars and Trucks (TACT) program; Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s fleet and driver safety monitoring program.
Comprehensive Safety Analysis (CSA) of 2010; and federal and state lawmakers’ efforts to enact across-the-board bans on texting while driving by commercial and non-commercial drivers.
For her own leadership and contributions, ATA during its 2014 Convention honored Gail with a Webb Award. “To be given a Webb Award was extremely humbling,” Gail said. “It was really special. They secretly brought in my family, who were waiting in a nearby room. I was totally shocked.”
SON ALSO RISES
Growing up, Chris worked at the company’s headquarters in Clayton every summer and throughout his college days. Early on, he cleaned trucks and trailers mostly, but over time, he also worked in the office, in the shop, or wherever he could be helpful. He enrolled at Auburn University in 1993 to earn a degree in accounting, but after graduation, and earning a highly coveted internship at Coopers & Lybrand, one of the oldest accounting firms in the U.S., he realized accounting wasn’t for him.
“I thought I wanted to work my way up to being a partner at a big five accounting firm, but after successfully completing my internship and then discussing my plans and goals with my family, I realized that living out of a suitcase and working alone in an office wasn’t how I wanted to spend the next few years of my life,” he says. “I was grateful for the opportunities and things I learned and experienced while studying accounting, but I think at that time in my life I just needed to try something different.”
He was accepted into the MBA program at the University of Alabama focusing on Finance. It was there that things started to come into focus for him. “My graduate studies added to what I learned at Auburn – I’d say the MBA rounded out my training in business,” he says. “And the change in location allowed me to really settle in and focus on the next chapter of my life.”
A prologue to this new chapter began when he met his future wife Mandi, an undergrad studying industrial engineering at UA. “Mandy is awesome,” he says. “She was a Top 100 basketball athlete in high school. She’s so smart and driven. When I met her, she was paying her way through college by working at NASA in Huntsville and was about to take a full-time job there. She really loved working there, and to be honest, she still jokes that she sometimes still has a little heartburn for choosing me over NASA.”
After grad school, the couple married, settled in Vestavia, a suburb of Birmingham, and started a family. The couple has been married for 22 years and has two children, a daughter, Cate, 17, a senior in high school, and a son, Boyd, 14, a freshman.
Meanwhile, Chris’s role at Boyd increased as he took on more responsibility, especially after the company’s merger with Daseke in 2013. Throughout the transition from a private entity to a public one, he says he has relied on the experience and talents of great people to grow and improve the operations. Two top executives in particular played key roles in helping shape the new era of Boyd. They are company president Dwight Bassett and president of WTI Jack Potthoff.
“We have great people here,” he says. “I trust my people to make the right decisions in their fields of expertise, and I kind of fly over the top to keep the train out of the ditch.”
Cooper also touts the company’s drivers as being among the most experienced and professional in the industry. According to him, one in six Boyd drivers has more than 1 million safe miles.
“Our drivers are truly the backbone of our company, and we try very hard to take care of their needs,” he adds. “When I hire someone, I look for someone with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. A lot of times they are former athletes. I like that trait because those people are usually pretty competitive and like to win. To me, hiring great people I can trust to do their jobs is the only way I can have any kind of life outside of work. I am told in some ways I am a lot like my grandfather as a businessman. But I think I am different from him because I always want to be there for my family as much as possible. I can shut it all off when I need to. For me, my mantra is God, family and career.”
He then pauses to smile, and continues, “Well, maybe it’s more like God, family, career, and golf. I jokingly say that because that’s what some people think I do all day, anyways.”
Now finding himself at the helm of ATA, Cooper admits there is a sense of history and tradition with his new appointment. He says he is excited about where this Association is heading since the pandemic, and points to the Association’s strategic plan to raise the trucking industry’s profile in Alabama as a creator of great-paying jobs and as a leader in workplace and highway safety.
“When Mark Colson was hired, I knew he had that spark we needed to navigate a challenging new era for trucking,” Cooper says. “Everything I heard about him has been on the money. Our Association is finding solutions to the industry’s most pressing needs with research and planning with an organized approach. Mark has ATA going in the right direction.”
Cooper adds that an increased financial commitment from the membership has impressed him even more, particularly the ATA Board of Directors.
“In the last 24 months, you have seen a recharging of the Association’s power to lead – and I am talking about leading at the national level,” he says, “We are engaging in strategic ways to address the issues that have plagued us for years. Our partners in other states are taking notice.”
As an example, Cooper cites the industry’s labor shortage. “With sustained funding from the ATA Foundation and its TITANS supporters’ group,” he explains, “Our efforts in workforce development are leading the charge to guide more people interested in working in trucking to training and pathways to land a job with companies like mine. I have a lot of faith in where we are heading. I also became a TITAN because I believe in ATA’s mission and am proud to be a part of its success. We are going to have a very successful year.
This article appears in the 3rd Quarter 2022 issue of Alabama Trucker magazine, the official publication of the Alabama Trucking Association. Read the entire publication HERE.