Bobby Harris talks about dealing with COVID-19 and diversity in his company (EVENT PHOTOS)
Bobby Harris established BlueGrace Logistics, a third-party logistics company, in 2009. The company had revenue of $385 million in 2019 and anticipates breaking the $500 million mark this year.
By 2023, Harris wants BlueGrace to be a multibillion-a-year company, with more than 3,000 employees.
Harris comes from a philanthropic family, in addition to finding himself with a philanthropic team at BlueGrace. The company is involved in 20 to 30 different causes in any given year, including Moffitt Cancer Center and Metropolitan Ministries.
A primary passion for Bobby is working with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay. In addition, he serves on the Humane Society of Tampa Bay’s advisory council.
Bridgette Bello, CEO and publisher of TBBW, interviewed Harris in front of a live audience at Zydeco Brew Works in Ybor City. The transcript was edited for brevity and clarity. (Photos below)
I think we did your interview in February before [COVID-19] hit. Tell us what the most interesting thing that has happened as a result of being the cover story in April?
Well, that was an interesting month that you gave me. I appreciate that. Nothing like a pandemic going on and there’s a magazine story talking about how great things are. [Laughs.]
No, it was an interesting spot and during a dark time. My mother appreciates it very much.
So you had a big announcement today that you keep trying to say, “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.” But it’s newsworthy. Can you talk about that?
Going into COVID was very interesting for us because we expected a massive downturn. My financial partner happens to be a very large, world-class, private equity firm. One of the largest in the nation, or maybe in the world. They have 47 companies in China. We saw this big wave coming and we expected a dark year in supply, distribution and manufacturing technology. But it hasn’t turned out that way for a lot of us, and we’ve been very fortunate. And so we’re expanding where we had some contraction, earlier in the year. We’ve now announced that we’re going to open up new offices in Phoenix, Arizona, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and put some more people in more awesome jobs, more places around the country.
You had to lay off some people and you did have some side effects from COVID. I’m thrilled to hear that you’ve rebounded nicely. I’m hearing that from a lot of people, by the way, which is so refreshing. I don’t want to minimize what you went through, but talk about how you came through it and how you’re growing and opening new offices?
We support a lot of industries. We help any business ship to other businesses. And what was very interesting for us is, early on, a lot of factories shut down. And, again, we help everybody with the service. We don’t own trucks but we have the technology and the intellect to help them move their goods.
What we saw was a massive amount of small companies get affected and the larger companies did very well, companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, those were a lot of our customers that were relying on us to move goods. They needed us more than ever because there was a lot of disruption in their supply chains. And that’s what we fixed for them.
We were expecting, say, a 40 percent downturn. On my team that was constructing the model, I probably had six Harvard MBAs working on models. The president of my partner’s [firm] is Tim Geithner, he was the former secretary of the treasury and head of the Federal Reserve. And so we had a lot of confidence that we knew that we’re going to lose 40 percent of our business, but we didn’t. And we’re already pacing well over half a billion for this year.
But dealing with the staff and in dark times, and people that are in a really bad spot [is challenging.] We had one serious layoff, and it’s the first time we’ve done that in our history. It is hard [especially] when you’re a culture driven company. We’ve got a lot of those people back to work and have hired many more beyond that now.
Did the experience vary? You have a lot of offices around the country. Did it vary based on the market or region?
It’s really interesting how this COVID pandemic is looked at through a political lens in many senses. We have a big office in Los Angeles and a really big office in Chicago. And then we’ve got an office in Birmingham, and we’re going to put one in Chattanooga. So you get them all on one Zoom call, and there’s a difference of opinion on how this all should be taken. You’ve got to navigate it.
If you read the story, we allude to a celebrity that he was on a clandestine mission with that he was shipping things for, so I’m going to ask you live, in front of everyone, will you tell us who it was?
We were doing a project for Ivy Park, which was Beyonce’s company. It was her friends that were interesting and where we were delivering to. So we’re trying to figure out, where do you take Oprah’s stuff to? It was a very interesting list of probably 80 celebrities, of about 60 that you know, and the nuances of dealing with them. Every once in awhile, you get a fun project like that.
So you have Oprah’s address and cell phone number now?
He won’t answer me. [Laughter.] So one of the things you mentioned when we were talking through how you’ve dealt with the pandemic, is an initiative that you’re starting that’s in response to the racial tensions in our country. You have started a diversity and inclusion council, with your staff. Can you talk about that?
We have a very diverse workgroup across the United States. We just had to look internally and be honest with ourselves and ask, “What could we have done better?” And one thing we didn’t have was representation. So we’ve done a lot of surveying and a lot of studying. We brought in outside consultants to help us put the right format in place and then created a diversity inclusion council to which we’re doing the elections now.
You have to be nominated. We want it to be of the people for the people. So you can’t just go in and make one decision. They want to be included. And they want that inclusion to include their peers. And so you have to get them involved in the process.
You have a very hands-on workforce, and since most of us have had to learn how to manage a remote workforce, which is not a college class or anything that they taught us how to do anywhere, right? Tell us about your experience with that.
It’s been challenging because you have some people that are amazingly efficient at home and some that aren’t. You have some that want to come to the office when you don’t have the office open. You have some people that don’t want to come to the office, you know, because they have a hangover and everything in between.
The reality is you have to have optionality right now, because you don’t know what everybody’s going through. One thing that we’ve noticed is that this is much harder on people than meets the eye. Psychologically, a lot of people have been traumatized by this. Their spouse may be out of work, they might be going through hell. Life’s hard enough for many people, and you don’t know it. So how do you be supportive of it, and at the same time, run a hypergrowth business?
It’s a lot of constant communication. A lot of interaction one on one and then it’s data, it’s measuring their activity as best you can, being transparent with them and finding the best way to support them.
It’s a lot to navigate, it takes your leadership to help you get there. We prefer having people in the office, at least some of the time, depending on who they are and how safe it is.
You just said something about making sure they’re being productive. How do you do that?
We’re a data-driven company. We have a ton of people on analytics and engineering.
So you know if I’m on my computer working or if I’m watching a movie?
Specifically you, yes. [Laughter.]
It’s a timely question. But yes, we know, because we know what your results are. But we also know when you’re logged in. A lot of that stems from the beginning of cybersecurity.
During this time of work from home, one of the biggest problems a lot of us have is cybersecurity. There are a lot of breaches, so you have to protect your hardware and you do have to have some reasonable expectation to justify people’s time they feel comfortable with as long as you’re transparent. How far do you go is the question, but we’re not too invasive. ♦
-Photos by Ryan Gautier
ABOUT CEO CONNECT
TBBW’s CEO Connect series is an exclusive, invitation-only, monthly event that brings together the Tampa Bay area’s top business leaders to meet and mingle. Presenting sponsors for this event included Warren Averett and CenterState Bank. Zydeco Brew Works was hospitality sponsor and DCE was our production partner.
Typically, the evening begins with a cocktail reception for about 100 guests, followed by an interview of that month’s cover CEO, providing insight into their lives, careers and views on issues affecting the business community. The interview is conducted by Bridgette Bello, TBBW’s CEO and publisher.
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