When the Haslam College of Business’ Supply Chain Management Scholars of Distinction visited the headquarters of Pilot Flying J in Knoxville in February, they got a firsthand impression of how the company operates on a day-to-day basis and how alumni have flourished in that environment. The 19 University of Tennessee, Knoxville, students also had a chance to speak with James A. Haslam II, founder of Pilot Flying J and namesake of the college.
Victoria Clements, a junior supply chain management major, took the opportunity to ask Haslam about advice she could give high school students in her volunteer role as one of the college’s business ambassadors.
“It would be great to have a quote from you to pass on to them,” Clements said.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Haslam answered without hesitation, leaning back in his conference room chair as he chatted with the students. “When I first started this business, my friends asked if I was sure about taking the risk. You will make some mistakes; go ahead and make them. Don’t get rattled and upset because of a bad day or bad times. Instead, put on more steam.”
In addition to meeting Haslam, the students spoke with project managers and executives about factors that have made Pilot Flying J competitive including how the company’s business model allows it to stay nimble, how the company recruits and retains talent, and the vision, mission and values that have sustained the company through the years.
Meghann Erhart, vice president of supply chain strategy and strategic sales for Pilot Flying J, told students that she looks for “grit and mental toughness” when making hiring decisions.
“Push past the wall and challenge yourself every day to learn,” said Erhart (’13, EMBA-GSC). “When I went back to school, with my family and my job, it was hard. I didn’t get more than five hours of sleep a night for 11 months, but it was worth it. That degree means something. My undergraduate engineering program taught me how to problem solve, but the Haslam EMBA for Global Supply Chain taught me how to be a leader.”
Erhart also counselled the students to look beyond job titles in their job search, as well as in any leadership roles they eventually take.
“I started here as a project manager for IT, and now I’m in sales and strategy, so I make zero sense on paper for my job although I’m effective at it,” Erhart said. Pointing to her co-workers in the room, she added, “These people around me I’d put on any team in any position, even if they don’t make sense on paper. Good teams don’t have to make sense on paper.”
Daniel Bresson, a senior supply chain management major with an entrepreneurship collateral, said meeting Erhart was validating because he recognizes in himself the entrepreneurial bent that led Erhart to success.
“She told us she once even started a restaurant with her husband,” Bresson said. “Her drive, her vision of success and the way in which she is both constantly learning and impacting those around her really impressed me.”
Bresson, who maintains a full course load and works his way through college by supervising a gas station in Hendersonville, Tennessee, has worked at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, as well as in a chocolate shop his family operated in Winter Garden, Florida.
“Those experiences taught me how to sell, make chocolate and work to put food on the table,” Bresson said. “Having those diverse experiences and that wealth of experience to draw upon ultimately makes you a better leader and more impactful. That’s the takeaway I got from speaking with Meghann.”
Erhart said she looks for people with a willingness to learn, humbleness and hungriness when staffing her team at Pilot Flying J. “They need a high work drive,” Erhart said, “but they also need to work smart.”