Andra Rush Keeps on Truckin’

When Andra Rush launched Rush Trucking Corporation in Detroit in 1984, the budding entrepreneur was more than happy to roll up her sleeves and get some grease on her shirt to keep business pumping. She helped her fledgling team with everything from oil changes to mechanics. On days when the company had more runs than drivers, she’d hop into a truck and make deliveries herself.

One day, her skills were really put to the test. One of her drivers had gone to Hardee’s in the company’s first brand-new vehicle and—forgetting he was in a truck—headed into the drive-through, tearing the truck’s roof right off. “It was peeling like a sardine can, but the repair shop said it would cost $1,800 to fix it,” Rush remembers. “Well, back then, that may as well have been $18,000.

I decided we’d get some aluminum and repair it ourselves. I said to my team, ‘Who’s the lightest and can stand on the hood?’ Well, I looked around, and it was me.” So Rush grabbed a rivet gun and got to work.

Going From Notion to Motion

From its hardscrabble beginnings—with a “fleet” of just two trucks—Rush has grown her company into a multi-million-dollar enterprise, with 920 drivers transporting cargo ranging from auto parts to potato chips throughout the continental United States and Canada, with interlines into Mexico. The company now has 900 tractors and 1,800 trailers. And these days, Rush leaves the bodywork to the experts.

A Native American whose family hails from the Mohawk nation, Rush is a first-generation entrepreneur who credits her father with planting the idea of starting her own business. He told her that to really get ahead in life, you have to work for yourself.

When Rush graduated from the University of Michigan (the first in her family to graduate from college) and began her career as a registered nurse in the mid-1980s, her father’s sage words came rushing back to her. “I enjoyed the relationships I had with my patients and the responsibility of patient care, but I didn’t have much authority,” she says.

“I’ve always wanted to be a benefactor and make a difference in the community, especially having seen some of the poverty on our own reservations and in the First Nations in Canada, as they’re called. I knew that working for someone else wasn’t the easiest path to get there.”

So Rush headed back to school, attending the University of Michigan and the Kellogg School of Business in Chicago, and receiving executive training at Dartmouth College. During the course of her graduate studies, she learned that transportation was being forecast as a booming field and set her sights on the trucking industry. She knew she was choosing an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry, but that was part of the appeal. She wanted to prove she could do it.

In tribute to her heritage, Rush made her company logo a war staff with six colored feathers representing each of the Nations of the Iroquois: Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Seneca. She was thrilled to discover that there were special programs for Native Americans and other people of color who wanted to start their own companies. “I figured I could start my business, and it would be so successful that I’d just be amazed at all the opportunities,” she says with a laugh.

Contrary to Rush’s fantasies, her phone wasn’t ringing off the hook the moment she set up shop. But she was willing to do whatever it took to get there, even if it meant working two full-time jobs. “I would work 12-hour shifts as a nurse on the weekends—Friday, Saturday, Sunday—so I could get paid for 40 hours and keep my full-time benefits,” she says. “Then I would work the trucking business Monday through Friday. If I had a delivery on the weekend, I’d take my break and leave the hospital, or I’d have one of my part-time employees go deliver.”

Rush was nothing if not committed, and her unbridled energy and resourcefulness got her through the tough times. “I didn’t have enough financial backing. I also didn’t have enough equipment, and I didn’t have experience, but I knew I could do it—as well or better than the competition,” she says. “I just needed an opportunity, a crack in the door. So I was just knocking on doors and saying, ‘If you have an emergency shipment, I will get it there fast.’”

Rush admits that for many of her early customers, she wasn’t their first choice—but she was often their last hope. After a business would call the more established freight companies, only to discover that none could meet its delivery deadline, the business would finally dial her number. “I’d get calls at 3 a.m. saying, ‘We need someone to pick up this 100-pound box, and it needs to get there by 6 a.m.,’” she remembers. “I’d say, ‘We’ll be there.’ When you bail someone out of a jam, you get moved to the top of the list. Fortunately, we started to get a reputation. If you had an emergency shipment, Rush was the company to call.”

As a women in the trucking business, and especially being at the company’s helm, Rush raised plenty of eyebrows. “I think curiosity got me a lot of appointments that I might not have gotten otherwise,” she says. “They’d be thinking, ‘Let’s see what this female president of a trucking company is like.’ They wanted to know if I really knew what I was talking about. And they were pleasantly surprised.”

Rush relished the chance to change skeptics’ minds and believes that being a woman pushed her to greater heights. “I grew up playing rough team sports with boys—hardball [baseball] and hockey—so I got used to having to do more than the others because I was different,” she says. She surrounded herself with quality people so that, even when customers’ expectations were already lofty, she could surpass them.

Along the way, she made mistakes that she laughs about now. “A lot of us are first-generation entrepreneurs, so we don’t know all the protocols,” she says. “If your parents or uncles and aunts had a business, you have a little history and you understand these things. You know that you don’t just call the president of a $150 million company and say, ‘I need some business today.’”

Rush also got a crash course in financial management one nerve-racking week when some of her customers stopped paying on their terms. She’d already paid her payables, and she realized her funds were going to be depleted in just five days. “I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “But I called the banks and I called my customers and we got through it. When you launch a new business, a lot of the expenses have to be paid before you get paid. And if there’s a big surge in growth, you can get out of balance in your cash flow. Now I understand that I need lines of credit. You have to have good banking and customer relationships.”

Onward and Upward
As more business started to trickle in, Rush hired anyone she knew who had a pickup truck as a temporary driver. She also got financing to buy more trucks and then hired some independent contractors to drive them.

Meanwhile, she was tapping into resources she’d learned about in graduate school, including the Michigan Minority Business Development Council, as well as minority development programs within the big Detroit automakers, which would become her biggest customers. “They created networking opportunities with high-level executives, so that opened some doors,” she says. “A lot of Fortune 500 companies and other companies have embraced diversity as a business imperative because our nation is browning and we are the customers of the major corporations. And I think people have always had a fascination with Native American culture, our belief system, and our commitment to environmental harmony. So I think that curiosity has been a help to me.”

Rush nabbed a major contract with Ford to transport auto parts in 1989. “When Andra was just getting started in the business, there was this perception that she didn’t really run the company,” says Steve Larson, former manager of supplier diversity at Ford. “How could she? She was female, she was young, and she was attractive. Everyone thought there must be someone else back there running the business, not realizing that Andra is one of the best business people you could find anywhere. In the automotive industry, people in purchasing will tell you it’s all about price, quality, and delivery. But that’s not why the decision is made to bring on a new supplier. It’s almost always because there’s a problem that none of your current suppliers can fix. And that’s how Andra got in. She took very tough routes and she performed. When you can perform, you get more business.”

And that she did. Rush Trucking’s contract with Ford was followed by agreements with General Motors in 1990, Chrysler in 1994, and Toyota in 1996. As the momentum built, opportunities suddenly seemed to be springing up out of the ground. But Rush learned quickly not to rush headlong into deals. “You say ‘yes’ a lot, and you have to say ‘no’ a lot, because something that might look good on paper may not actually be a good fit.” At one point, someone even asked Rush to transport an elephant. She had to politely decline.

As her business got bigger, she continually looked for ways to get better. Rush Trucking was one of the first trucking companies in the region to track freight using satellite technology, for example. The technology tracks the position of each truck and sends real-time location information directly to a computer screen. This allows both the customer and Rush Trucking to see where the freight is anytime, day or night.

“I have great admiration for Andra,” says Carlos Mazzorin, former group vice president for Asia Pacific operations, South American operations, and global purchasing at Ford. “She’s highly dependable, responsive, and dedicated. To be a viable enterprise in today’s competitive environment says a lot about her capabilities as an entrepreneur.”

Creating a positive work culture was also important to Rush. “We want this to be a learning organization,” she says. “Whether someone works here for a month or until they retire, we want them to feel, ‘I’m a better person because of the experiences I had there, and the company now is better because I made a contribution.’”

Rush says the most gratifying part of her career is watching her employees grow, not only in their careers but in their lives outside work. “It’s satisfying to see people arrive needing a job and then go on to create a living,” she says. “Maybe their transportation to work was by bus, and now they’ve bought a new automobile. Or maybe they were renting, and now they’ve bought their own home or they’re thinking of starting their own small business. For me, that’s really rewarding.”

Dedicated to Diversity
As a Native American woman, Rush knows only too well how important it is to break down barriers so people can reach their full potential. Over the course of her own career, she’s seen the landscape change, particularly in her industry.

“When I started out in trucking, I would be the only woman in the meetings, among both the customers’ executives and the supply-based executives,” she says. “Now, there are usually several women in the room. We were just commenting in a couple meetings recently that there were more women than men.”

Rush Trucking is certainly doing its part to boost workplace diversity. The company uses employment agencies that either specialize in diverse candidates or are located in regions of the country that are more diverse.

The company also has a policy, when seeking new suppliers, to include in the bidding process a woman-owned and a minority-owned business whenever possible. When those candidates don’t win the contract, Rush coaches them on steps they can take to compete more effectively in the future. That policy was born out of frustrations she faced when her business was in its infancy. “If I lost a bid, I’d ask why, and they’d say, ‘We can’t share that information,’” she remembers. “I thought, Well, how am I going to get better?”

Rush Trucking received the prestigious Diamond Award from the Michigan Minority Business Development Council for its commitment to conducting business with other diverse companies. In addition, Rush has hired a diversity executive, Jackie Taylor, who was previously program manager of diversity supplier development at Chrysler, to further ramp up the company’s efforts. Plans are in the works, for example, to participate in career days at colleges historically attended by African Americans and Native Americans.

Crucial Cargo
When Rush struck out on her own, she wanted to build a successful business, but she also wanted to find a way to make a difference in people’s lives. Today, that commitment is ingrained in the company culture at Rush Trucking.

In the days following 9/11, her company swung into action, sending out trucks to deliver firemen’s boots, axes, blankets, and water to Ground Zero. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and the Detroit community began organizing relief efforts, Rush Trucking quickly volunteered to ship building supplies and other necessities to the area. And when the bitter cold of winter swept through the Dakotas, the company shipped firewood to Native American homes on various reservations so families could keep warm.

“Ten years ago, these things would have been initiated by me,” Rush says. “Now, they’re initiated by my people. They want to make a difference, and they feel good about it. For me, I think it completes the circle.”

With every new business deal, Rush is expanding customers’ conceptions about what a trucking executive looks like. Some, of course, are not surprised by her success. Rush says one of her proudest moments came after the births of her three sons—who arrived as she was building her business—when she was speaking about her company at an event and was able to thank her family for their years of support. Smiling proudly from the audience was her father, who so many years before had urged her to strike out on her own so she could take the wheel. DW

Kimberly Olson is a Diversity Woman contributing writer. Photography by Dwight Cendrowski.

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