Indiana's Entrepreneur of the Year: Wheaton World Wide Moving CEO honored by Ernst & Young.
Wheaton is the eighth-largest van lines company in the country, moving individuals, Corporations and government entities efficiently across the U.S. and around the globe, from Antigua to Zimbabwe. Burns is now eligible for the national Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, to be announced in November.
When he took over as CEO of Wheaton in 1986, his objective was to build on the company's four-decade reputation for customer satisfaction. In addition to continuing the honor of earning the Good Housekeeping Seal for interstate moving every year since 1964, Wheaton earned a spot in the book The Service Edge: 101 Companies That Profit from Customer Care" by Ron Zemke and Dick Schaaf. It's also been the official mover for Steinway & Sons pianos since 1990, and most recently, garnered the top ranking in total customer satisfaction in a nationwide survey of relocated employees.
Bums' selection as CEO didn't come after years of working in the No. 2 spot or because of a fancy business school education. "For 20 years I was a lawyer," he says. "Wheaton Van Lines was a client of my dad's firm." He joined Wheaton's board in 1974 and was its general counsel. He was also Earnest Wheaton's personal attorney. "I set up an elaborate trust to protect his immediate family in 1984 and decide who would run the company," which initially was to be a committee. In subsequent conversations, Burns suggested Wheaton pick a successor, and Wheaton said why not Burns?
"I was concerned whether I had the skill sets," said Bums. "But I was disenchanted with the law and my father had passed away It was a fresh start for me." He knew he would have big shoes to fill, however. Earnest Wheaton became a risk-taking entrepreneur in 1945 when he left Indianapolis-based mover Aero Mayflower to venture out on his own and start Wheaton Van Lines with $2,500.
It took a couple years to feel really comfortable in the new job, Burns says. He visited nearly every independent agent--there were 225 at the time, now there are nearly 300--and rode along in the trucks. He began hiring some of his own people, and decided it was finally time to relinquish the general counsel title he'd held onto.
Burns suggested that Earnest Wheaton consider an ESOP, allowing employees to own part of the company. It would be a good way to retain good employees and give them an incentive to work hard, he stressed, but there were also tax advantages that went along with Wheaton and his family's sale of stock. It was set up in 1987. Now 48 percent of the company is owned by employees, the rest by Burns and other executives. The value of the stock has gone from $407 a share in 1987 to $1,950 today.
The ESOP has helped turnover stay low with the 130 full-time employees who operate from the Indianapolis offices, but driver turnover is also low by industry standards, says Bums, in the 20s rather than the 50 to 60 percent range. "The key to success is recruiting only the best and paying them well." About 700 drivers serve its customers, 150 direct-lease, the rest through agent companies.
Burns has served on the board of his national trade association, the American Moving and Storage Association, for 15 years, the last three on its executive committee. One of its priorities has been to get rid of what he calls "rogue" movers, those that pick up any old day laborer to enter your house and move your precious cargo. Last year, Wheaton implemented a requirement for worker background checks through its agents.
The company's steady growth in the last few years, driven largely by an increase in business the company's getting from the military, is a source of pride for Bums. But he's also keen on discussing what the company's giving--the time, effort and resources of its employees to not-for-profits. The Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Give Kids the World organization are two of the company's favorites. "I'm very proud of our support for various charitable organizations. It has galvanized my people."
"The key to success is recruiting only the best and paying them well," says Stephen Burns. The company's ESOR allowing employees to own 48 percent of the company, has helped the mover retain good people and give them incentive.