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Leadership Views: Ryan Houfek, Direct ChassisLink

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Denver Transportation Institute

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Name: Ryan Houfek
Chief Commercial Officer, DCLI

Transportation is having a moment in the public spotlight right now, mostly due to supply chain constraints. How has DCLI been impacted? What is DCLI been doing to improve the system or rectify issues? 

DCLI, the nation’s largest supplier of chassis that operate in a daily rental pool model, was hit with extremes. In March of 2020, we were trying to find land to store our assets, effectively to mothball a large portion of our fleet, and by August of that same year, were stunned at the surge of volume that happened seemingly overnight. Coupled with labor shortages, our ability to reinstate the fleet was a Herculean task. Since that time, our operating team now has 98% of our fleet operational, an all-time high. We have plenty of chassis to handle the unprecedented demand … except for something we didn’t see coming: the time an international load takes to finish its cycle (on our chassis) doubled, which is no different than taking fully half of our capacity out of circulation. So, as you hear about chassis shortages as one of the causes for the ships stuck at anchor, it’s true; however, there is no system that can absorb such extremes. On one hand, we’re proud of how we adapted but frustrated that supply chain failures continue to worsen, with chassis as a headlining issue. Port authorities, shippers, ocean carriers, and motor carriers must all work together to get cargo out of its vicious cycle, and even the US Government is involved in getting freight moving again. Cycle times must come down if the system is to accommodate this surge in pandemic-related consumer activity, and this will only happen with collaboration to solve very complex, interconnected challenges.

How do you approach leadership? Is there anything specific to the transportation or intermodal industry that impacts how you lead? 

I’ll start by pointing out the biggest mistake I made as I was promoted to higher levels of leadership. I was rewarded for excellence at the lower level (and loved what I did at that level) and, thus, kept doing those things in my new leadership role. Big (but common) mistake! Let your new subordinate do the job, let them even fail, it’s part of their growth. Promote yourself and figure out what is important at your new level. An adjunct to this is to really let your team oversee their domain. Support them, be an adviser, but let them lead and execute. You want to swoop in a cut the big deal? Stop that impulse and let your team do it, and give them feedback on what was done well and what needs improving. Give such feedback all the time, never just once a year in performance reviews. Lastly, as you move up, be a larger part of making your company great. It is likely that it isn’t great, and you can help define greatness, rally your team, and really be a higher-level contributor to this cause. (Read Good to Great for more detail!)

What are the skills and qualities you look for when you hire and promote people?

I’ve made some great hires in my career, and some really bad ones, too, and of course, everything in between. It’s the great ones that truly unlock the potential of my team. It’s cliché, but at my very best thinking and effort, I’m nothing without my team. I know also what it’s like for me and the entire team to have weak links, so this is really a crucial choice a leader makes, to say the least. The answer to this question is nuanced, but I’ll distill it down to the three key attributes I look for:

    1. Work ethic: I’ll promote a hard-working employee over a genius that won’t put in the time any day.
    2. Business acumen:  Some of this is “nature,” some comes from academics, but most comes from experience. Acumen encompasses a wide range of “business smarts,” so think about how you can invest in your strengths and weaknesses to enhance your acumen. Learn from mistakes and successes, and seek the wisdom of others.
    3. Problem solver: Bring your diversity of background and experience to bear and bring solutions to your boss. Bring me a problem, and I’ll decide how to solve it, but I’m happier when I don’t have to!