Full Transcript – Female Leadership and Family Business with Julie Thomas
Natasha Cary: Welcome to Over the Threshold Podcast, produced by Certification of Delivery Excellence, also known as CODE. I’m your host, Natasha Cary, owner and president of CODE, where we offer online education for last mile delivery personnel. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website: codetrained.com.
The purpose of this podcast is to deliver the journey of individuals in the Final Mile/Last Mile white glove industry. As CODE is an educational company, we hope through these stories you can learn something new. Maybe we teach you something about an individual you know, or we introduce you to someone you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Above all, we hope we can leave you inspired. Let’s get started.
Thank you for joining us on the CODE Podcast today. On our episode today, we’re going to spend some time with Julie Thomas, president of Priority Logistics Group. Julie holds positions on many boards and has earned numerous business awards and certifications including the Women Business Enterprise certification for Priority Logistics Group back in 2015. Welcome, Julie. Thank you for being here!
Julie Thomas: Good to be here!
Natasha: Yes, it’s exciting!
Natasha: We met at the CLDA conference back in Miami in February, not too long ago.
Julie: Not too long ago.
Natasha: Things were a little bit different then. Where, you know, today is a new normal for all of us with the COVID-19 happening, so this is going to be a historic interview no matter what. [laughter]
Julie: No matter what, yes. [laughter]
Natasha: So tell me a little bit about Priority Logistics Group. You’ve been there for over 30 years and have been holding the CEO/President position for about 6 years, is that correct?
Julie: Right. We have two companies, actually: Priority Dispatch and then Priority Logistics Group and we’re a third-generation company. We’ve been- actually, this month it’ll be 47 years in business. And my dad started the company back when FedEx wasn’t even around.
Julie: It was a brand-new idea, and I think 13 years ago, my brother and I brought the business from him, and my nephew has now been here for a year. So it’s been quite an interesting ride for the last three generations, really. We started Priority Logistics Group because our customers were asking for minority spend. And that company is very different than our other company Priority Dispatch. We have 1,200 drivers out on the road and operate in about eight states every day. And Priority Logistics Group is a 3PL, so there’s four people. Only four people! But we do work all over the country, so.
Natasha: Fantastic. So how is the family dynamic, being that you grew up in a family business, and it still continues to be a family business. I’m sure, I mean, even in regular business there’s pros and cons, and what are your thoughts on having and running a family business?
Julie: Oh, I could talk on that a week, probably! So my background before I came to Priority to work, I was a marriage and family counsellor. And my work, I worked in-patient at a psych unit for kids and did counselling. And was always broke; you don’t make much money being a social worker, and the company was getting big enough that it needed a Human Resources department. So I switched over from social work and came to the company and learned how to. We had hired an HR person, but the company was maybe…gosh, we’ve grown so much. It wasn’t even — at all as big as it is today. So I did all that for about 12 years, HR, which I absolutely loved.
Natasha: And you have your brother, right?
Natasha: Your brother is very involved as well and so being — this industry is very male dominated — tell me about the choice of you having an executive role and not your brother.
Julie: Well, when I first came to the company, which I worked before Priority Dispatch, there weren’t any women at all. And through the years, with some of my influence I hope, we pretty much balanced it out in the corporate section where it’s half men and half women. But that was pretty interesting, kind of going through that challenge. So I’ve worked around men my whole life. Our COO, he’s male. But our Chief Financial Officer, Beth, has been here for 27 years, I think. So we’ve had quite a long run with the differences of men and women both working and managing the Priority Dispatch side of things. But being a woman-owned business on the other side of things, it’s different and it’s challenging. And just being around this business for most of my life I’ve only known two, other back in the day, business owners that were female and they were amazing humans.
But there’s not a bunch.
Natasha: Why do you think that is? Is it that logistics is not something that women look to pursue, or is it that the industry needs to provide more opportunities? Or think of woman more.
Julie: That’s a really good question, because the women that I know that are in the business are because their families have been in the business and they have opportunities. I’ve had tremendous opportunities working here to grow our company to the size that it is that you might not have had in other places. But you’re always, pretty much always the minority in the room.
Julie: Yeah. So I don’t know, it was nine years ago when I ran for the board for the Customized Logistics and Delivery Association; there hadn’t been a woman on the board I think, for maybe eight of nine years. So a lot of things that I have done, I’ve usually the only female. Maybe there’s another one? So you’ve got to be brave.
Natasha: [laughter] You’ve got to have a little thick skin, yeah?
Julie: You have to have thick skin, and you can’t take it personally, and that’s one of the benefits or blessings from this. You learn a lot of skills because of that. Because you can’t take things personally and you can’t get offended. And several years ago I was in Canada in a pub with a friend, and there was a big poster on the wall with these dogs playing poker, and on the bottom of the poster it says: ”If you can’t bark with the big dogs, get off the porch.”
Julie: And I never forgot that. And I thought, “Well, you’ve just got to learn to bark.”
Julie: That’s it. There’s nothing wrong with that. And if you can’t, then…
Natasha: And sometimes it’s just bark; they’re not going to bite.
Julie: Oh, that’s right. It’s just they play differently.
Julie: They play very differently.
Natasha: And I’m sure with your HR/social worker background you probably pull a lot of experiences from that that helps you.
Julie: Right. And it’s good to, you know, just to balance everything out and to bring that perspective to the table. You bring a lot of things that the organization desperately needs.
Julie: So learning to communicate and learning to understand differences, to respect each other. It’s been quite an interesting experience. But because of that, I think our culture has grown, and it’s actually one of our best assets, is the culture that we work in.
Natasha: So once you got the certification, the Women Business Owner, where you’re women-owned, I’ve heard that could be an arduous or is an arduous process. What was, from a business strategy standpoint, what made you want to pursue that, number one. Number two, have you noticed any advantages or has anything changed or shifted since you acquired that certification?
Julie: Well, we acquired it for two reasons. One: our customers were asking for minority spend.
And two, we used it as a strategic model to grow outside of our footprint. So if a customer was doing work in Michigan and Indiana and Ohio, and they had something in Texas or they had something in Florida, they wanted us to do that. But it was too difficult, and that was just not part of our strategy to grow. So our strategy was to develop the 3PL and we could still you know, kind of have our footprint all over the country. So it was kind of kill two birds with one stone. So it’s been a lot of these. When I got our certification, I started going to some of these events. And there’s two major events in the country through WeBank a year and maybe…gosh, at one of the events there’s probably 4,000 in attendance or more. And maybe there would be two or three logistics owners.
So in the country, there’s not very many. There is more now. I mean, it’s something that’s, you know-
Julie: growing. But I think at our last convention we actually sat at the table at dinner with the women owners, and we filled a table for the first time in 35 years.
Natasha: That’s awesome.
Natasha: So the women are getting a bigger presence, it’s just it’s going to take a minute to get it where it needs to be.
Natasha: Create that balance, so to speak. Yeah. So you also have started Priority Consulting Group. Now tell me a little bit more about what community and what purpose of the consulting group and what problem you saw that inspired you to fill that need.
Julie: Priority Consulting Group is…I do a lot of non-profit work, I have. But being in a family business for all these years and being around family business owners, seeing some of the issues that they have, when I put my little therapist hat on [laughter] it’s just something that I absolutely love. I think having a healthy family business is in some way quite an oxymoron. There’s not very many of them. And it’s very difficult. And I absolutely love seeing when a business is healthy relationally as well as financially. And so the consulting that I like to do is with family businesses. And whether it’s strategic planning or just working out some relationship issues, it’s very common that, well, people aren’t trained on what to do and how to do, and you learn what you learn from growing up in your family. And usually it’s not that healthy.
Natasha: Well, then I would imagine a lot of these businesses are, you know, not set up structurally as a corporation and therefore in a corporate environment, you’ve got HR that’s putting together lots of trainings on conflict management and those kinds of things. And so when it’s a family-run business, you’re kind of doing it the same way over and over, and not having those structures in place. So I would imagine that’s very valuable. But I would also imagine that not a lot of people might believe in that? So how do you…I think it’s fantastic what you’re doing. How do you get people to realize that yes, I do need help. Because it’s also that therapist mentality. Sometimes people feel that ‘I don’t need therapy’ or there’s a stigma around it which, as we know, mental health is important in order to succeed in anything and everything. So how do you convince them that your services are needed and probably required?
Julie: I think I would answer that two ways. One: Pain is a great motivator and people usually don’t get help until they are in a lot of pain. And when your family can’t function at Thanksgiving or whatever because your relationships are so bad at work, it affects the entire, you know, system.
In-laws, out-laws, you know. Kids, whatever. So there’s a lot of really good practices to put in place in order to make sure that what happens Monday through Friday doesn’t ruin Saturday and Sunday, you know?
Julie: And also, I think the willingness of my dad. When he was here and me bugging him, we had lots of sessions with our family. We had my mom and my dad and my brother and myself and a good friend who was a psychologist. And he would come and sit at the table and meet with us and talk about how we communicate better. We would individually go and see him, and then I would always continually bring in: here’s an article, here’s how we do this. So they’ve had their own personal, whether they like it or not, therapist at work also. And we went through a second-gen family transition; which only three out of ten survive that transition. It’s more treacherous than a start-up, and I read a lot about it. And just kind of made a decision: I’m going to make sure that we do this successfully. And I always say that when you do that, it’s kind of like you need to have in place the stool with three legs: to have a good lawyer, and a good accountant but you often have to have a good relationship person that helps you negotiate. Because everything changes when you transition to the next generation. So we’ve learned a ton by doing all of this ourselves. Therefore I have a plethora of information and experience that I like to use now in doing consulting, going originally back to your Priority Consulting Group. Because I’ve been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. So…
Julie: But I love it. I absolutely love it. Because I think it’s, you know, I think it’s They always say the very first family business was Cain and Able and that didn’t turn out very well. [laughter] Because one murdered the other. So! You know, it can go bad. And when it’s bad, it’s real bad.
Natasha: [laughter] Yeah.
Julie: I had a consulting meeting with a company a month ago. There’s 11 family members in the organization.
Julie: And they’ve brought in consultants to do strategy and do their values and do all this stuff. But one of the things they never did was learn how to forgive each other.
Julie: It can get so messy when you have that many people, and people get offended. So that’s just one of the pieces of the pie. Besides doing strategy work or conflict work is what do you do when you hurt each other? You know, how do you get past that?
Julie: So it’s fun to do. It’s treacherous working in a family business, because it can, you know, you can step on a landmine real easily and everything can blow up. But still. It’s an adventure.
Natasha: [laughter] Well, lots of families are getting to spend lots of time together nowadays
Natasha: Whether you’re in business together or not. And it’s interesting because I bet a lot of people are getting to learn a lot about each other. So tell me about, as a business leader, what has been the most challenging? Whether it’s, you know, an experience or multiple experiences. What’s your challenge that you’ve faced on a consistent basis?
Julie: Number one challenge I would say that’s so important is our culture. As we grow, it’s so important. Who we are and how we do business and what our values are. When you grow an organization, and you’re stretched out on different states, and we have all these people that aren’t in the building all the time. I think one of the biggest challenges is how you reproduce that? How do you reproduce that culture? When people come to work, they know why they’re here and how they’re going to be treated. And how do you multiply respect in that kind of way? Because those things are so important. So that’s a challenge. So part of that is hiring the right people, and hiring the right leaders. Training the right people. Because at some point, you know, we can’t do that. It’s other people that have to be doing that for you. So it’s a challenge, but it’s also kind of an exciting one. We just had a 3-hour Zoom meeting this morning with the executive leadership team, and that was really the whole conversation. With the coronavirus, how do we demonstrate care? How do we demonstrate respect? How do we take care of these people that are out on the road every day?
You know, delivering to all these hospitals and nursing homes. And it takes more work. It is a challenge. It’s a big challenge. But it’s one I’m proud of. How we’ve chosen to operate, which is probably a differentiator in our industry. But I’d say that’s number one. And number two, I would say being in a family business.
Julie: is making sure that there’s communication and now that we’re third gen, that’s also rare.
So putting the processes in place to make sure that everybody’s successful, the organization is successful, and we all are, also.
Natasha: What advice would you give people that are coming, that are new into the industry or wanting to get into the industry, men or women. And it might be different advice for men than women, but what would you tell them in order to succeed?
Julie: Well, I spent nine years on the board of our association. And one of the things that I And I’ve been around it. My dad’s one of the founders of the association, so I’ve been around it my whole life.
Natasha: This is for the CLDA?
Julie: CLDA. And so one of the things I would tell somebody is to get involved in the association because everybody, pretty much everybody started from nothing. And I’ve never been around a group of people that respected each other so much. People are very different; from all walks of life in the country. But everybody has that respect because they’ve kind of been there, done that. And they are so willing to share information. They’re so willing to say: “Hey, I’ve done this” or “Do this differently” or “Here’s my policies and procedure manual” or “Don’t do this” or “Do this”. So that’s the thing I would do is to seek out those folks in our industry and use them as a mentor. Or get several of them.
Natasha: Yeah. I’ve experienced a couple of events with CLDA, and I would say that being in other industries and what have you, I’ve found that they’re very open. Speaking of culture, the culture that CLDA…
Julie: Oh, yeah.
Natasha: …has created. As I was meeting people in Miami, everybody’s open and asking ‘how can I help you?’ And you know, it just means a lot when you’re meeting new people, and there’s not that intimidation or you know, people who’ve known each other for a long time. I felt very comfortable and very connected with people that I’d just met. So I think the culture there is key.
Julie: Yeah. That would be my number one thing. I’d say as kind of a female, or if you’re younger, one of the things I would say is don’t be afraid to use your voice. Don’t be afraid of your intuition. And then don’t be afraid to lead out with that because you’re in a minority, it’s very easy to dismiss yourself. And so, I would say do not do that.
Julie: And to have confidence in what you’re thinking, what you’re seeing and what you’re believing, and to act on that. Stand strong and wait.
They’ll eventually come around.
Natasha: So one of my questions was what advice would you tell your younger self? So that sounds like some good advice there. But based on what you’ve learned, what your experiences have been, is there anything that you would say to your younger self?
Julie: I think that would be it: don’t be afraid to use your voice and stand up and have as much confidence as you possibly can in that. And learn. That’s another thing. There’s a lot of things that you bring to the table that other people don’t. And to be the best version of yourself. Did you ever take the StrengthsFinders?
Natasha: I love the StrengthsFinder.
Julie: Yeah. So, you know, figure out who you are and be the best version. What is that quote from Abraham Lincoln? Whatever you are, be the best.
Julie: Like that. So absolutely. Cause I think mostly for young women especially, it’s a confidence game.
Natasha: Especially being in a very male-dominated world. It’s hard enough to have confidence sometimes for anybody, not just for women. But to be in the minority, it can easily feel like you’re going to get swallowed up and not be thought of.
Julie: I’ve read just by observing – I’d be in meetings all day when I was younger, and I would observe how the men talked to each other. And then I read a couple of books on the difference in how men and women actually speak. And women ask a lot of questions, they raise their eyebrows, they’ll finish the sentence with it going up. And in a male’s world, all that they disrespect. So it’s kind of, I always say that if you’re German and if you work in a Japanese company, you’ve got to learn some Japanese. But you don’t become one.
Julie: You know? So it’s learning how to keep who you are but be able to communicate to the people you’re around so they can understand and make some changes if necessary.
Natasha: Now, who would you say your mentor would be? Or it could be multiple people, so maybe it’s not one person. What have mentors provided you? What is something that you saw in mentors or what they gave you that you found to have helped you the most, or maybe it’s one individual that you could think of.
Julie: You know, not to be corny, but my dad probably would be my number one mentor. He is an incredible person and an entrepreneur. And he was able to do, kind of use both sides of his brains, I would say. He was very relational, and he could also execute and start a business. But he was always so encouraging. He had this saying, he had several different things, but he set the standard in a way that nobody did. But he did it relationally, not out of being a tyrant. I think his quote was: “A measure of a man is who you are when no-one’s looking”.
Julie: And so he was an honest person. When he said it’s real easy to be dishonest when you own your own company; you can do all kinds of things—and just being a person of integrity. He had a lot of integrity, and he had a lot of guts. He started a lot of things. And he was very giving. When you come to work with a family member, especially with a dad…I mean, I remember thinking: “I know who he is at home. I don’t know who he’s going to be at work, and am I going to find out things I don’t want to know?”
I found out a lot of really wonderful things. He’s been a great person to emulate, and now he’s in assisted living, and I’m his main caretaker, so it’s nice for me to be able to give back to him.
Natasha: That’s awesome.
Julie: There’s one woman in our industry, Phyllis Applebaum. I don’t know if you know her, ever heard of Phyllis?
Julie: She ran a company in Chicago, and she was the most interesting person. And I just remember visiting her even when I was young. She had a flat in Chicago at the top of this skyscraper that looked out over Lake Michigan. And she was just a character. She could cuss like a sailor, and you just didn’t mess with Phyllis! But she was a mentor in a way that I saw as a female; she had a lot of help in her life. She had somebody come -she wasn’t married – she had somebody come to her apartment every day from 07:30 to 11:30 that cooked and made her bed and did the grocery shopping. And I was just…wow. So she knew how to take of herself and run a business and ask for help. So that was a great mentor for me because I do ask for a lot of help. And it’s interesting with females today, that’s one of the things that I try to help them say. Maybe if you own a business, get somebody to clean your house.
Julie: Like, what? [laughter] You know.
Natasha: Well, it’s not even just that. It’s the outsourcing mentality, right? I’ve worked with people. I had a business owner one time, she was changing the toner in the printer herself, and you know, it was a pride. It was ‘Well I’m not too good enough to do this myself or what I would ask of somebody.’ My point to her was that it doesn’t mean that. In a pinch, if you need to, absolutely, but that should not be your job. That you just drop what you’re doing. You’re the president of the company. That should not be the thing that you do. Outsourcing and delegating is something that’s so hard for business owners because ‘Nobody’s going to do it the way I’m going to do it’. And that’s okay, right? The letting go of that is so important because then you can move your business forward.
Julie: That’s a great answer to the question ‘What would you tell your younger self or other younger women getting into the business?’ You don’t have to do it all.
Julie: And a lot of times you do have to do things, you know? You have to take out the trash…
Natasha: Sure, sure.
Julie: …you do whatever you have to do. But you get overtired, and we don’t take care of ourselves because we still do way too much.
Natasha: Absolutely. Now something else. When I was reading your bio that I thought was interesting that I learned, fun fact for me, that you’re an ordained chaplain!
Julie: Yeah, I am!
Natasha: You’re like a renaissance woman, Julie!
Natasha: Not only are you an ordained chaplain, but you’re the founder of the Cinci Chaplains.
Julie: Yes, ma’am.
Natasha: What is this about? Tell me more.
Julie: I could marry Barry, that’s what they say.
Well, interestingly, my faith is a big part of my life. And actually, my mom passed away from cancer in…it’s been 14 years ago…
Natasha: I’m so sorry.
Julie: …and after that I thought I don’t know if I want to keep…you know, it was just overwhelming. If I wanted to keep doing what I’m doing here, blah, blah, blah. So I thought, I’m going to really just go ahead and do consulting full-time. And I just was looking around for different things, and I found an organization that trained you. Because I was already a marriage and family therapist, I just thought it was an easy thing to do. But I just – part of it is, I’ve been doing that all my life. As a chaplain, say I would say, the definition for me for that is just to come alongside people in their time of need and just listen, and I’m like, “Well heck. I’ve been doing that my whole life!” So I’ll just get a badge now. I can wear the badge! And I have a little sticker on the back of my car, so when I get pulled over for speeding, I’m like, maybe this will help me get out of a ticket…
Natasha: Has it worked?
Julie: No, not yet.
Natasha: Well, hopefully you don’t have to use it. And if you do, it’ll be interesting to see.
Julie: Yeah. So I haven’t done, you know, much with it except it helps explain a little bit of maybe who I am, in the whole picture. Because I do a lot of listening and caring, so to speak, you know?
Natasha: I love it.
Julie: I’ve done that here at our organization and at other organizations, and it’s just part of what I do.
Natasha: That’s awesome.
Julie: So yeah. [laughter]
Natasha: Well, I have one final question, and I’ve really enjoyed our time together and thank you again for being a guest. My final question is what’s next? You’ve been in the industry for a very long time. Your business has been in the industry, your father and everybody. So what’s next? Whether it’s for PGL or for the industry itself, what do you think is coming on the horizon?
Julie: What’s coming in on the horizon is I’d like to be spending most of my day with Priority Consulting Group. I’m just getting ready to get into a season of really giving back. The business is very healthy, we’ve got incredible leaders in place, so it’s transitioning to more of a board role. More of just an owner role and having the opportunity to do consulting and helping other businesses. So I’ve got, I don’t know, six or seven companies that I’m doing stuff with already. And I absolutely love that because it does really fell like a give-back. There’s a great book called Half Time, and it’s like, you know, not right now with being sequestered all day, but what do you want to do with the second half of your life? So that’s what I’m going to do. And maybe I’ll write a book on how to survive family business and thrive, or at least, make it through without too much damage.
Julie: You know, I’ve learned a lot. A whole lot. It’s been an incredible opportunity for sure. And if you can even say as a female in a male-oriented business, it’s been quite an experience.
Natasha: Oh, I bet.
Natasha: Well, it sounds like you’re kind of going back to your roots, right? Like the social work of the logistics industry, so to speak. Yeah. I love it. I did actually have another question which was one of the things, especially right now, is how to stay sane and focused, right? And who knows, the strategies now might be different. But some people meditate, some people drink wine, some people exercise. What do you do that helps you stay balanced and focused?
Julie: Those are my three favorites!
Natasha: I’m drinking lots of wine right now with my kids being at home.
Julie: Wine is a wonderful thing. Meditation. You know, one of the things now with YouTube, there’s so many…If you want to listen to a sermon or a podcast or even music is important, I think. There’s so much awesome teaching that’s available today. So I try to listen to one or two things a day and then just getting outside. I have two dogs, and walking them every day, clearing your head. But I think you have to make a real intentional choice to try to stay at peace. I call it being a person of peace because I think wherever you go, you take that with you. And people kind of take a drink of that in some kind of way. But starting your day off with something like that, music or reading or listening to something, and making that choice. For 25 years, I’ve been teaching a class on renewing the mind. And I’ve travelled all over the world with Youth With A Mission and teaching people how to think correctly, because when your thinking is good, your feelings and behaviors line up with that. And it’s amazing when you have truth, that’s what I call it, and you’re not anxious, and you’re not all twirled up inside. So just being intentional about managing that. Now I say the only person who can manage what lives between your two ears is you.
Natasha: That’s some good advice, though.
Julie: And a leader, it’s really, really, really important that we intentionally do that. Because it affects everybody else around us.
Natasha: Right. Travels from the top down.
Natasha: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. This has been awesome. I’ve loved our time together, and I’ve loved getting to know you more. Can’t wait to be able to actually see each other in person again soon, once we’ve flattened the curve and hopefully all goes well. Well, thank you so much for being a guest on the podcast and awesome.
Julie: Save it.
Natasha: Thank you.
Julie: All right. See you.
Natasha: Thank you so much for listening to the Over the Threshold Podcast. If you liked what you heard on this episode, I’d love it if you’d subscribe, leave a review or share with a friend you know who would like to hear it, too. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website codetrained.com