Keith Barnes, 58 years old, is a husband, a father, a grandfather, and president and co-owner of Barnes Transportation Services, Inc. He’s also the incoming Chairman of the North Carolina Trucking Association. When asked if running a company is more like being a parent, or a grandparent, he initially says father, but after pondering it for a moment he adds, “It’s also like being a brother. I’d probably say it’s more like being a brother than being a father.”
That’s understandable considering the history of Barnes Transportation. Back in 1939, three brothers with three used tractors founded Barnes Truck Line. The company motto, “A load on our truck is a load off your mind,” was born during that time. Henry, Keith’s grandfather, along with Eddie and Roy Barnes grew the company for over three decades before selling it to Old Dominion Freight Lines. Henry’s son, Louis ran Barnes Truck Line during and after the merger, then started his own company. Also during that time, Louis had three sons: Keith, the oldest, followed by Scott, and Patrick.
Keith says he and his brothers were born and raised to be in the trucking business, including going to what he jokingly calls “the church of trucking.” As boys, Keith and his brothers would sometimes stop by the truck yard on cold Sunday mornings. Dressed in church clothes, they would hop from truck to truck spraying cans of ether to start cold engines. A job well-done often earned them doughnuts, but the fun had before church sometimes resulted in a tongue-lashing from their mom after church when the boys’ clothes were covered in dirt and grease.
Keith’s dad says, back in those days, adding to his fleet was a treat for the three brothers. “When I was buying new trucks, I always carried one home and left it at my house for about two days and they slept in it for about two days. They thought that was the greatest thing in the world,” says Louis.
According to Keith, those early experiences helped their father let each of the brothers find their expertise in the industry. Patrick, the youngest, was always more mechanically inclined. Scott, the middle brother, helped out with dispatch, sales, and operations.
“Dad kind of led us in different directions,” Keith says. But, he points out, they all started at the bottom of the company and worked their way up. Keith mowed lawns and collected trash before stints with the mechanics in the shop and in dispatch, neither of which ended up being his calling in the industry.
Keith is a storyteller with an easy humor that he’s willing to point at himself. His stories about his younger days working in his dad’s company include one about his short time in maintenance.
“My dad put me in the shop. He said, ‘Just do whatever this mechanic here tells you to do.’ I said, ‘Yessir. I’ll do whatever.’”
“So this guy’s on a creeper that’s underneath the truck,” Keith says. “All I see is a hand is come out pointing. He says, ‘Give me a Phillips screwdriver. And I see his hand is pointing toward a toolbox and another guy standing over there by the toolbox. So I walk over there to [the guy] and say, ‘Hey Phillip, he wants to use your screwdriver.’ That’s how naïve I was.”
After his experience in the shop, Keith spent enough time in the dispatch office to know that wouldn’t be his area of expertise either. He tells the story of picking up the phone one day and hearing a man with a strange accent talking about Bethlehem. At that time, he and his brothers had never been out of North Carolina, and the only Bethlehem he knew of was from stories told in church. “I’m like, this is a prank call,” Keith says. “Why is this guy talking about something overseas? We don’t go overseas, so I hung up the phone.”
When his dad asked who’d called and Keith told him about hanging up on a guy claiming to be from Bethlehem, he learned for the first time that Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania was one of the company’s biggest customers.
Fortunately, Patrick, Keith’s youngest brother was mechanically inclined, and Scott found his niche in dispatch and operations. Scott says his older brother was a natural fit for management. “Even when we were kids, he led us. He’s just a good person.”
Keith went to college, becoming the first person from his family to graduate from college, then he went into various managerial positions, learning how to hire, and occasionally fire people. He became safety director for a while and experienced a little bit of everything, except driving, choosing not to get a CDL. “I knew if I got it, I was going to end up being gone a lot more than I wanted to,” Keith says. His home and family in Wilson, North Carolina are important to him. And, he adds, even though he never drove, he did his share of traveling in the passenger seat and unloading trailers.
Starting Something New
In 1991, once again three Barnes brothers with three trucks decided to start their own business. Patrick, Scott, and Keith co-own Barnes Transportation Services, Inc. Their father Louis still works there, has a vote in the decisions, and offers guidance to his sons. In keeping with the way they were raised, each brother has a clear and distinct role in the company. Keith says if someone starts talking to him about engines, he steers them towards Patrick. Sales and operations questions and decisions go to Scott, and Keith handles the financial and banking aspects. The shared ownership works well, according to Keith who says sibling rivalry isn’t a concern. “I think we fought so much when we were growing up, we grew out of it.”
Since starting in 1991, together they’ve taken three trucks and turned it into a fleet with over 250 tractors and 750 trailers. Keith is proud of a less than 20% turnover among his drivers. According to research from the American Trucking Research Institute’s (ATRI) 2019 report “Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry,” driver retention has remained one of the leading concerns for fleets, despite improvements since 2018.
While Keith says he’s not sure about the recipe for the “secret sauce” that keeps people at Barnes Transportation, listening to him and his brother and father, it’s clear three of the ingredients are flexibility, a focus on getting along with one another, and an open door policy.
Before even meeting potential employers, one of the first things a driver will see about a company is its website. Echoes of Louis Barnes’ approach to raising his sons to find their niche in trucking can be found in the company’s description of itself.
“Not one person is alike and that is why we have tried to diversify and give you as many options to provide for yourself, family and your careers. This also gives you flexibility if you would like to one day try flatbed, van, dump truck, drayage or heavy haul. We have equipment and freight for whatever career path you choose. If you decide to change paths while at Barnes, we have many others we can put you in instead of saying to you ‘We can’t help you here.’”
If that first impression attracts a prospective driver and they apply, Keith says the company does the typical background checks and looks for any history of problems. He also looks for less obvious things, not easily found in the answers on an application or on a driving record.
“People have to know how to talk to people and get along,” Keith says. “In interviews and things like that when we talk with potential people, a lot of time you can tell when somebody’s able to get along with others. That’s one thing we look for.
Trust is important in a family and in a family business like Barnes Transportation. Research backs this up. On the topic of driver retention, the ATRI report says, “Beyond driver pay, recent research from Stay Metrics has identified other retention mechanisms including improving trust between drivers and carriers and scheduling more home time.”
In addition to focusing on hiring people who work and play well with others, the website, Scott, and Keith, all emphasize the company’s open-door policy as a way to foster trust. “I tell everybody when they come to work for us, everybody,” Keith emphasizes. “In orientation I go in and meet every employee, every driver that we have, and I say, ‘Look, when you’ve got 300 people working together, you’re going to have personality conflicts.’” Employees at every level are encouraged to speak up when inevitable issues arise, so problems can be solved before they get out of control.
He may be too humble to admit it, but Keith’s leadership style is likely another factor in what keeps drivers at Barnes Transportation. It’s obvious he likes to tell stories and make others laugh, but when it comes to leadership, his father describes him as “level-headed,” and “easy to get along with.”
His brother Scott uses the words “quiet,” and “compassionate,” as he talks about the tough times his brother has helped him through personally, as well as how he’s dealt with some drivers. Scott shares the story of the night they got unfortunate news from the highway patrol that one of their drivers had died of a heart attack. Keith didn’t let the patrolmen contact the family of the deceased driver.
“[Keith] came over and picked me up,” Scott says, “and it was a couple hours drive away, but we knocked on the door, told them and sat with them all night.”
Adapting to a Changing Industry
He’s never lived more than an hour from his hometown of Wilson, N.C. He started dating the woman (Susan) who would eventually become his wife when he was in the 8th grade. They’ve been married 33 years. You might think someone who values that sort of stability would be resistant to change, but Keith Barnes seems to roll with whatever comes his way.
He lists electronic logs as one of the most notable changes to trucking in his lifetime. When the new technology was introduced, he admits to being worried about the number of drivers Barnes Transportation would lose by requiring the new tracking equipment. Initially there was resistance, of course, and a handful of drivers moved on, but now he says they’d lose more drivers by taking it away than they did when mandating it. Drivers no longer have to spend their time doing the math of trips. And, he says, it has leveled the playing field because those drivers and companies who don’t cheat on their logs are no longer at a disadvantage to those who do. More recently, Barnes has added both forward-facing, and inward-facing cameras to protect their drivers and their loads. Communicating the reasons and benefits with drivers has helped the company overcome the turbulence anytime a new feature is introduced.
Keith credits his son Paxton and the NCTA with helping him navigate the rapid advancements of trucking technology and the constantly evolving needs of the industry. Like drivers being asked to adjust to regulations or safety features, Keith was at first reluctant to participate in the NCTA, often sending his safety director to the meetings instead of going himself.
It wasn’t long after attending a meeting that he learned the value of talking with his peers and colleagues. “You’ve been in it so long that you think you know everything and then you start talking to other people, networking. And you find out you don’t know as much as you think you do,” Keith says. “I never turn down any advice. I listen. I’ve learned a lot from going to these meetings.”
Keith says he’s also learned a lot from his son Paxton. Like his father, Paxton was introduced at the bottom rung of the company ladder. He’s now a director of business development.
After being told that Paxton wanted to work at Barnes Transportation after college, Keith says with characteristic humor, “I preferred that he work with somebody else, so somebody else could yell at him a while,” but then he says more seriously, “I’ve got to give credit to my son, coming in with a fresh set of eyes and getting us to do some things differently.”
From the perspective of Barnes Transportation, the long-haul aspect of trucking had been on a steady decline, so the company opted to diversify into shorter routes and expand into new areas. With the exception of a brokerage division added in 1996, the company had focused more on growing the size of the fleet and increasing the types of loads they could handle. A new strategy has been adopted over the past few years.
Recently, flatbeds were added to the fleet, and a heavy haul and specialized division was created, which includes drayage services and a fleet of 15 dump trucks.
“The only thing we don’t deliver are babies,” Keith says, even though both of his children have spent time in the industry. His daughter Kenan worked for the Raleigh Transit Authority and in the NCTA office, but now is focused on getting her MBA at NC State University.
There’s a new problem to solve every day in trucking, Keith says, even when the world isn’t in the middle of pandemic. He has plenty to look forward to though. With one grandson already, and one more on the way in November, it seems likely that Barnes Transportation Services will someday be home to five generations of truckers.
By David Monteith, Contributing Writer