Freight Founders, a weekly newsletter exploring one of the industry’s most important founders. This week’s issue: Ted Alling.
We dive into how Ted’s childhood formed who he’d become as an entrepreneur, the founding story of Access America, what happened when he sold his $500 million business, and how he continues to build great organizations today. Enjoy!
Transcription generated by Otter.ai
Adam Vazquez 00:01
Hello and welcome to freight founders. Now listen if you’re a regular Content Is for Closers, listener, this is going to be a little bit different freight founders are a weekly newsletter exploring one of the industry’s most important founders and wanted to share that as an audio art episode as well. So, if you haven’t subscribed and you want to get the newsletter, you can head over to freight founders.com. Otherwise, just kick back and enjoy this episode. Our first freight founder’s episode is about a man named Ted Ali. And I’m very excited to tell you about Ted. Because in some ways I owe my career to Ted when I was a younger, naiver person I cold emailed Ted, this is around middle of 2014 and said the old, you know, can I pick your brain email that most executives would rightly ignore? But Ted did not ignore it. He not only responded to the email, but he also gave me a private tour of the lamppost group offices. He spent over an hour with me and he asked me question after question about my career aspirations and goals. He asked me, just for clarity, I went to go ask him a bunch of questions. He flipped everything around on me and made the whole the whole time that we had together about me his end, he was just his energy was just infectious. He was so kind and so energetic, and I knew he was so successful, but made time for someone like me. And so if you fast forward a couple of years, I had left my job to pursue self employment. I had to I had that job and parts because the connections that Ted had made for me and then left it in large part thanks to the conversation that I had with Ted and many others that followed. And so personal stories aside, though, he’s a prolific builder, who built and sold a $600 million company. He established several venture capital firms. He’s invested in companies like bellhop, and has now started a public charter school in Tennessee, with two locations in Chattanooga and Knoxville. So he was the obvious choice for the first freight founder profile. Let’s dive into what makes Ted So Ted has done a number of public interviews about what his experience was like growing up in Vestavia hills, Alabama. And so instead of rehashing what he shared, I pulled out some key themes from his formative years. First of all, TED talks openly about how lucky he feels to have been born into his family. One in one quote, he said, I really had an all star dad growing up and an incredible mom. And he continued, I realized over the years how much I was born on third base. So while the family seemed comfortable as a result of Dr. and Mrs. Ali’s work as an oral surgeon, and nurse respectively, I don’t think Ted was referring only to whatever financial comfort he grew up with. When he talked about the third base comment, his parents clearly had an enormous impact on how Ted views the world, especially how he views work as an opportunity, and how he sets and pursues big goals along the way. For example, Ted recounts how his father would call patients the night after their surgeries. And if they were nearby, he would physically visit the patient, ensure they were recuperating properly. I don’t, that’s definitely never happened to me. I’ve never even heard of that happening with a doctor or surgeon. But Ted’s father, Mr. Rawling made that happen. And we’ll see later how this idea of doing the unscalable and putting people ahead of profits stuck with Ted. But it wasn’t all just unicorns and rainbows in the falling household. The idea of pursuing excellence was also emphasized at an early age. Ted said, I set goals for myself, and this really started at an early age, my dad every Sunday after church, he’d get out a notepad. And we’d sit down and set up goals for physical, spiritual and school or now I’d have to use business or whatever goals. And so the concepts of prioritizing people plus pursuing excellence are themes we’ll run into again through Ted’s story as we continue to work through it together. He also speaks fondly about his two brothers, Matt and rocky and both siblings seem to have received the benefits of growing up in the only household as well and have built successful careers and their own rights. The brothers root for each other publicly and have support one another in their pursuits. But from the outside, outside, they also seem to push one another. And I can just imagine having siblings who excel in one arena or another can be a positive motivator, because nobody wants to fall behind. Now, this part is total conjecture. But Ted has talked a few times about how he was limited as an athlete in high school and in one interview, he describes a student who was riding the bench at Chattanooga prep the school that Ted and his wife eventually found and how he Ted felt connected to that student through his own experience with athletics. Matt and rocky seem to be athletic individuals who probably did well in sports. Don’t know that. But if you just look at their jaw lines, jaw lines don’t lie. And both of them seem to have athletic bills, shall we say? And so Ted, finding his outlet for creativity and dominance in business, as opposed to sports may have helped fuel his outside success down the road again, I no one has said that. That’s complete conjecture. I’m just reading between the lines Some things that I’ve seen and read, but it’s interesting to dwell on sometimes the bench player becomes the boss. Business is a long term game. And speaking of which, let’s dive into Ted’s actual career. So, for the uninitiated, access America was a full service transportation company founded by Ted and his two college friends Barry large and Alan Davis. They started the company in 2002 and grew its value valuation to over $500 million. So, access eventually merges with coyote logistics and becomes part of the biggest acquisition UPS history for reported $1.8 billion. This is some 1213 years later after they found it. So when we look into how they did it, really the three friends met in college while attending college at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and fraternity brothers the trio spent a ton of time planning activities and essentially building an organization together. Ted recounts times when one of the three would miss or skip class because they were so busy scheming up the next event for their fraternity. And obviously, this experience laid the foundation for what would become a future partnership. But following College, Ted actually took a job just a normal job. And he found it to be less than fulfilling. In one interview he said, I took a job with a large logistics fortune 100 company and it was one of those jobs. Like my first day at work, I was totally pumped up. I graduated on Saturday started work on Monday, and I was just fired up to take on the world walked in the first day and I was like, Whoa, this is terrible. This totally sucks. There was no energy there. My boss was just okay. He wasn’t a very good inspire guy. And so anyway, I kind of grounded out for a couple of years in this company. But Ali would eventually leave after two years to link back up with his college buddy Barry large and Barry’s father had a brick business that had extra space the budding entrepreneurs could use for their new venture. Alan Davis rejoined his college pals and a fledgling access America was born. Now, thanks to prior job experience, Ted and crew knew what they didn’t want to build and in true all inform the founder set too aggressive goals from the outset. Number one, they wanted to make access America which is what they call their company, the best place in America to work. Number two, they wanted to grow the company into a $100 million business. Ted learned from his previous job and new employees would need a reason to come to work past their specific role or responsibility later, Ted would say I think you kind of need to know where you’re headed in life. Because if you’re just showing up every day, and just kind of mechanical and doing your job, you don’t have much purpose. He continued, there’s so many people in corporate America that hate their jobs. They look like zombies walking in the door every day. And we wanted to change that. We wanted to have a place where people felt empowered and energized to take on the day. We wanted to hire people that were pumped up and had a zeal for life. So the founders make it their purpose to let employees bring their whole selves to work at access. And from the outside. The culture looked more akin to something you’d see at a tech company or startup, you had sports teams forming musical artists where hosts hosted and even employees were encouraged to bring their favorite instrument to work to play together at times. So just like his dad before him, Ted found ways to make serving the humans around him his priority. And the people first benefits didn’t just stop with theme days or sports teams though. The founders recognize that employees worked for money and ultimately, and they created ways to make this unique benefit as well. Ted said a major component of what we did was power we paid our employees, we were writing big checks to our employees, which early on was not easy. But we knew is the right thing to do. Though people first profits later, we trust that the profits would come and focus our energy on building a great place for our teams to work for being young founders, Ted Allen and Barry had a uniquely wise and long term view of how they would receive value from the company. In fact, they weren’t even the highest paid employees at access. Ted says Barry Allen and I were never the highest paid employees that access America, it might sound crazy. I’m not sure how many companies in America have sea level employees who aren’t drawing the high salaries, but I’m guessing it’s not many. And rather than taking money for themselves in the short term, they built a foundation that allowed the employees to feel ownership of the workplace. And the results speak for themselves. Because if Ted followed his father and priorities in people, he also followed the example of doing whatever it took doing the unscalable to grow. Here’s one story he says my wife and I used to drive around at truck stops. And I would literally knock on the doors of truck stops and give them my card and be like, Hey, man, when you deliver that load, give me a call. I’m going to find you another load. And so it was a very grassroots just kind of raw in the beginning starting the company. This is consistent every interview I read, Ted is very careful to give ample credit to his co founders for their contributions to access America and rightfully so because the trio had like unique charisma, operational knowledge and financial wizardry to generate interest and to make everything work together. And Ted gives so much credence that he talks a lot about how lucky they were to Be together how much important, the other two were to the success. But it’s hard to imagine the company succeeding in the early days without their gregarious CEO out there spreading the word of access America, he’s literally driving up to just like truck stops, knocking on drivers doors, getting them to drive for access versus for the competition. And just, you know, not many people are willing to do that type of thing. There’s several stories of how Ted led the growth at Access America by example. And so I just pulled a bunch of them. And I’m just going to fly through them real quick. So when it comes to cold calls, he says, I mean, I look back and I would legitimately, I have called customers for seven straight years, every month, or maybe even every week. But for seven years, I would continue to hammer the phones to try to get more customers with mailers, he said, I’ve mailed a shoe to a guy before and I wrote a note, like, Hey, I’ve got one foot in the door, helped me get another foot in the door. Trade shows I’ve done whatever it takes. I mean, we go to trade shows, and people were scared to see us at trade shows because we were like, when we go to trade shows we would have people standing in the middle of the aisle. So you’d have to walk past us. We weren’t hiding behind the aisle, we were the most aggressive people on Earth, we were straight out warriors going out and trying to get the business. And then even with customer service, they’re not necessarily trying to find new business, but taking care of the business they had. He said I had a brutal schedule early on. And it’s not like I have really slowed down that much. But we have we’re constantly whatever a customer needs. We have coined a term. One of the top guys access called it the fast twitch muscle, which is whatever a customer needs, whatever. If you send us a text, you get a text back in like two seconds with your answer. And we’re so much faster than our competition that no matter what we were going to get back to them with an answer even if it was right or not. fast twitch muscle I love this idea so much. How often do you hear founders who obsess over their customer needs like this not about like their product or their scaling or their growth or their revenue or their valuation, but just like how they can find a way to be the fastest and to be the most obsessed with fixing and helping the customer with their problems. Oh, so obviously, he built this goal of, you know, making access America a great place to work or the greatest place in America to work. But the second goal, if you remember, was to become a $100 million business. And I would say this was mission accomplished as well because the company scaled to over $490 million dollars. By 2014. The people first profit later formula had worked and later quickly became now. So by 2014, the founders of access America had removed themselves slightly from the day to day operation of the company and in the play their place they hired a new president named Chad Eichelberger. According to Ted chat and habit and inhibited many of the attributes that made the group special. He does nothing slow. He doesn’t believe in taking long lunches he comes in before 8am And the TED compares him to other CEOs that he says that many CEOs they pass their afternoons on the golf course and spend corporate money and appropriately that’s not how Chad does things. Eichelberger freed the founders up to begin considering what life outside of access America might look like. All three felt passionately about supporting founders and giving back to the community that helped them grow. And the first chance for them to get to do this came in 2010 When Ted Berry and Alan founded a venture incubator called the lamppost group to guide aspiring entrepreneurs with financial investment and business advice. And this was an initial step for Ted, who had further plans to invest in more companies develop new ideas and find ways to give back to the community. Really, he just needed capital to make all of this work. And to her coyote logistics. So Katie Logistics was a Chicago based competitor to access America. And on the surface, the companies were as different as can be, you’re talking like big city in the Midwest versus small town in the south high tech guide, coyote was a high tech brokerage versus like this customer centered relationship built business that access America. But the CEO of coyote, Jeff Silva, was willing to dig past all the obvious differences to discover the overwhelming similarities that the companies shared. He understood the unique culture that Ted and the company had fostered, and saw a unique opportunity to build a behemoth. And so in the March of 2014, Coyote announced the acquisition of access America and the merger would be would form one of the country’s biggest freight and truck management services with sales expected to top $2 billion. The impact of the acquisition was immediately felt throughout the entire industry. That combined entity will become a major player in the freight space. So they do that for a year or two. And then in July of 2015, really just a year and a half after access sold to coyote UPS comes knocking and UPS acquires the new merged coyote access America company for $1.8 billion dollars, which at the time was the largest acquisition in US UPS company history. I couldn’t find if that if that record remains today, but at the time it was the largest that up So which is, you know, one of our largest companies in the country, largest acquisition in their history. And so just like that, the company that three friends had spent 12 years building was sold and with one mission ending, lots of others were beginning and the capital that they needed was, was there that they needed. So following the sale, Ted’s took some time to decompress and reset his goals for the next phase of life post access America, the only family spent a year abroad for a sabbatical of sorts. But even in taking a step back, Alan relied on his habit of setting goals to ensure the time was well spent. He said, I’m about to put Trump try to put stuff down and be like, Okay, this is where I’m going to be. And so I’m actually moving to London, taking a year sabbatical with my family. And I’m just going to sort of be setting London goals for myself. And it’s like people that I want to meet stuff that I want to do daily, just things that I want to happen in the next year. And I know I’m going to track that in my life because I’m putting it down on paper and it’s going to become real. So Ted just isn’t able to be idle for long. The Olin’s returned from a year abroad with a new enthusiasm for building up the city that fostered access. America’s growth was Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the first recipient of Ted’s energy would be that incubator that he and his partners that founded the lamppost groups, and since they had founded it, the group has continued to grow its reputation for startups investing in startups in the southeast. And during the life of the fund lamppost ends up investing in a bunch of really successful companies like the Reliance partners, there’s still a lot of active 6am city still active the house which was acquired supply hog was acquired. Ambition is still active, but most famously, they invest in bellhop, which has become a unicorn in its own right. And so what began as a way to reinvest the community becomes a new passion for Ted and his crew, they really find satisfaction in helping the next generation of entrepreneurs find their footing in the marketplace. And so now the next step would be finding a way to go from just general investing in startups to really using their unique understanding of the freight industry. And so a, a new project began brewing and that came to life in 2016 when. Of. Dynamo Ventures is born. So before this had happened, Ted recruited a young finance executive named Santosh Sankar, to leave his investment career behind and moved to Chattanooga. And Santosh Sankar takes a gamble on the burgeoning startup culture and just dives in. He leaves Wells Fargo, he leaves JPMorgan and he moved to Chattanooga to work with the group there on just kind of like a bunch of projects. Two years after Santa touch moves there, Dynamo is ready to launch and Ted would say Boom baby to this because the pair would partner with Ali’s previous co founders Barbary and Alan to launch the industries. For most Venture Seed Fund, some focused on the supply chain space and this crew offered unique culture and operational insight to the founders building the next wave of tech for the industry. They really leaned into their unique insight as both founders and supply chain experts. So since its founding Dynamo now has made over 65 investments and has deployed two rounds of capital. They’ve seen several exits, including plus one robotics stored Ghatak Siva, and many others and they have even launched now a third VC firm called Brickyard, which is focused on bringing companies that will headquarter in Chattanooga. And so this has become a theme in Ted’s life, he continues to lean into his unique strengths. And combine that with a passion for where his locale in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to make that a special place. But all of this isn’t enough. He’s done all this. He’s done all the he’s launched these companies, he’s sold companies. He’s launched these VC firms, and he realizes he has another passion 10 His wife Kelly, become partners, and what would become their biggest challenge yet. And that is back to school season. Because Kelly Owling had been a part of the Philip philanthropic community in Chattanooga for a long time she was once actually the resource manager for Habitat for Humanity. And so philanthropy kind of becomes this pursuit for the Ali’s following the access America exit. When Ted and Kelly toward the Chattahoochee new girls Leadership Academy, which is an all girls public charter school, they become impressed with this desire to open a sibling organization for boys nothing for boys existed in the area. And so in classic falling fashion the couple sets, you guessed it extremely aggressive goals that once they committed to the concept 10 said you have to set goals so high that other people laugh Kelly and I have always been goal oriented in business and with the school. We know that to be true, just by our studying of his story so far. So the callings leave no stone unturned as they pursue their new vision. Ted and Kelly traveled across the country to visit similar educational concepts and begin building partnerships with business leaders who appointed students then in August of 28. tine their dream becomes a reality as Chattanooga prep welcomes its first students into the hallways. And once again, Ted relies on his entrepreneurial instincts to lead a team in building an overwhelming idea. He said working together, we lean on each other just like a startup. You want co founders have complementary skills. I’m good in certain areas, Kelly is very good and others I’m a good dreamer. She’s great at making things actually happen and executing. So the awnings approach the school just like they would a business venture. They thought specifically about each part of the product and incorporated unique experiences for the students. So Chenega prep students are the prep centers that they’re called have experienced really insane things for their age. They’ve gotten to hear talks and have interactions with business and media, aka icons like Peyton Manning and Gary Vaynerchuk, Jimmy and D Haslem, and a bunch of others. There’s all kinds of clubs, for chess clubs, robotics clubs. There’s obviously all the different types of sports and they do this with the goal to show the students what is possible because the school is an entrepreneurial miracle in so many ways, and just by existing the callings have proven what is possible for the students. Chap prep educates over 300 students and adds an additional grade each year, and is now getting a brother school in Knoxville called Knox prep, which all leads back to demonstrating what’s possible for the kids Ted says we would love by the time our students leave to identify a big problem they want to take on and then go really hard after it. Whatever it is, be happy going after it Don’t settle. But strive for greatness. So to conclude Ted’s desire for his students the exact desire he holds for himself for his family, his companies, for me for you, it’s anyone that he comes in contact with, and that is to maximize our potential from setting goals as a child to taking pride in our cleaning and keep the gas station bathroom where he worked. 10 as a case study of getting the most out of any situation, his public persona seems to match who he is on a daily basis, this kind and energetic leader who quickly turns into a cheerleader for anyone who carries positive energy like he does. And personally, I’m forever grateful for him answering a cold email from a young professional with nothing to offer except a little bit of ambition and a good attitude. But honestly, that’s all he seems to want. Anyway, Boom, baby. Hey, listen, this is totally different. If you enjoyed this, I’d love to hear from you. You can email me at Adam at trust her.com If you think it sucks, I’d love to hear from that as well. But if you don’t think it sucks, then I would actually be better than email me is just sharing it with one person. Otherwise, you can also subscribe to the to the newsletter version at freight founders.com. And if we get we get continue to get some interest. I think we’re going to continue riding this wave and come out with another free founder profile next week. So until then we’ll catch you later. Bye