The road to technological innovation is often full of unexpected bumps and turns, but there was never a question how David Congdon would handle the ride when he got behind the wheel of family-run Old Dominion Freight Lines as its new CEO on January 1, 2008. He had been preparing for it most of his life.
From the start, Congdon benefited from having the company's history and guiding principles hard-wired into his DNA. (The Thomasville, N.C.-based company was founded by his grandfather in 1934 and operated in succession by his grandmother and then his father before him.) But he also developed deep insider knowledge about Old Dominion and the trucking business through a variety of critical roles over the course of three decades, starting in 1978 when he joined the company--and took a seat on its board--and on through being named its president and COO in 1997.
Upon becoming president and COO, Congdon challenged his management team to lay the groundwork for strategies that would guide what they envisioned the publicly traded company becoming in 10 years. And all that advance planning came in handy when he finally succeeded his father as CEO in 2008.
Unfortunately for Congdon, the timing of his ascendance coincided with the country's worst economic decline since the Great Depression. The market for less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping, historically Old Dominion's primary business, had been slipping for years, and with capacity now outpacing demand, the increasingly negative impact of the recession put even more pressure on an ultracompetitive pricing environment.
"The pricing environment was, and is, the most challenging that we've ever seen in our history," he recalls, and thanks to overall tonnage declines from Q4 of 2008 through Q3 of 2009, Old Dominion's revenue decreased 22.3 percent for the first nine months of 2009. But Congdon is determined to continue to resist the pressure to compete on price, instead reinforcing his company's longstanding credo to never knowingly or willingly lower prices to win new business. "Our saving grace has always been our service levels," he says, noting that Old Dominion sees opportunities in the pricing environment instead of concessions on the road ahead. "It refocused our efforts on improving efficiency," he says, explaining the catalyst that raised Old Dominion's on-time service and cargo claim records to all-time highs, bringing Congdon's long-held strategic vision to fruition.