In 1973, John Sharp was a warehouse supervisor for lawn mower maker Murray Inc., in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., when he got the opportunity to become a piggyback drayman. John took advantage of that opportunity, and since then has turned Sharp Transport Inc. into a successful business.
The company was originally headquartered in Lawrenceburg, but eventually it was moved to Ethridge, Tenn., in 1987. Later, terminals were added in Nashville and Lewisburg, Tenn.
In 1978, Sharp expanded his business by purchasing two semis to haul locally in Lawrenceburg. Two years later, he had five company trucks and five owner-operators who drove long-haul delivering bicycles and lawn mowers.
“The opportunity came up to start the business, and he took the chance,” says Angie Adkins, John’s daughter and office manager at the Ethridge terminal. “With hard work and many long hours, it paid off.”
When the company began, Murray was Sharp’s largest customer. Now, Sharp Transport has several large accounts, and they haul many products including lawn mowers, HVAC units, tires, automotive parts, and school and office supplies.
“As we continue to grow larger, it’s hard to know everyone, but we try to know our drivers by their names instead of their numbers,” says Allie Schwalb, John’s daughter and operations manager of the Nashville terminal.
James Griffith is Sharp’s chief operating officer and has worked for Sharp for 15 years. He oversees the daily operations of the three terminals. Griffith worked for three trucking companies before he came onboard with Sharp and says he’s never known anyone quite like John.
“Mr. Sharp is a good person to work with,” Griffith says. “It’s the attitude and the way employees are treated that make this a good company to work for. It’s a day-to-day operation, and it’s important to get things done, but there is also leeway to do things with your family. It’s an 8-to-5 job, but he doesn’t hound us to death. It makes us want to work for him because he’s so giving. If I’m half the person he is, then I’m in pretty good shape.”
Making profits and driver satisfaction mean the most to John who says his company has grown at a deliberate rate. Instead of being bigger, he chooses to be successful.
“Many companies are large, but it doesn’t mean they’re profitable,” he says. “I don’t know if we would have achieved our success if we tried to grow 20 or 30 percent a year.”
Sharp has Qualcomm satellite systems in its company trucks, and the company tries to keep up with technology. Its trucks have 70-inch condo sleepers for driver comfort.
For 20 years, its trucks were black with the company logo. This year, Sharp purchased 30 new Freightliner Classics in seven colors, which include raspberry, granite and black. “The colors give the drivers individuality,” John says.
Acquiring new customers is important, but these days Sharp Transport can be selective. Sharp concentrates on Chicago, Cleveland, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles. They look for customers in the middle Tennessee area who have business coming back to the area. This allows Sharp to get their drivers back home on a weekly basis.
“We try to get our drivers in and out two or three times a week if we can,” Angie says. “We have families, too, and understand the need to get home. The drivers like that, and we let them take time off for family reasons.”
Like all trucking companies, the Sharps face the challenges of keeping drivers, and rising fuel and insurance costs. Another challenge of Sharp Transport is keeping a balance of trucks in areas where they’re needed.
Although John has been devoted to making his business a success, trucking was not his first love. At age 12, his father died, and he began running the family farm in Ethridge. He’s partially retired from Sharp Transport, but he keeps an office in Ethridge where he is often seen. John is still a farmer at heart, and his crops include wheat, soybeans and corn.
“I’ve never missed a crop,” he says.
The Sharp family
John’s twin daughters work for him. Allie has worked at Sharp for 16 years, and Angie has seven years experience with the company. Another daughter, Ginger Sharp, worked for the company, but she decided to leave for a more corporate atmosphere. John’s wife, Becky, started the business with him and worked in the company as a bookkeeper until six years ago.
John supervises a management team that is comprised of Griffith, Allie, Angie, and Lynn Johnson, Ethridge operation manger; Larry Kirk, shop foreman; Gina Old, accountant; and Wil Hudson, intermodal director. Thinking ahead, John developed the team, hoping it would run the business one day. He thinks that this will help employees understand why it’s important to run the company efficiently.
“If they’re not involved, they don’t understand,” Allie says. “The people on the team see how decisions affect the bottom line. We want them all to feel like part of the family. The family atmosphere is important.”
Some families find it difficult to work together, but the Sharps don’t. Griffith says the daughters are dedicated to the business and make good decisions, and, like their father, they put the employees first.
“I think the way they were brought up makes them easy to work with,” Griffith says. “They’re helpful. They realized they weren’t going to gain respect from what their father has done but from what they do.”
Angie says working with her father has been a rewarding experience because it allows her to spend time with her three sons and have a career. “You can’t have that at all businesses,” she says. “Some women have to let go of some of the responsibilities of motherhood to have a career.”
“It was hard in the beginning because we had to prove to people that we weren’t taking advantage of being the daughter,” Allie says. “It’s rewarding. The future of the company is important, and we want to see it be successful because the family name is attached to it.”
John has enjoyed working with his daughters because there is a “built-in” loyalty that sometimes takes years to achieve with other employees. “At least I know this is true about my daughters, but I don’t know anything about sons,” he laughs. “Being the type person I am, it’s easier to correct my children than other employees. It’s been good working with my family.”
Longevity is evident at Sharp where 25 drivers and 20 nondriving employees have worked more than seven years with the company. Employees like Keith Slater, the Lewisburg terminal manager, strive to do the best they can for a man who leads by example.
Before becoming a dispatcher, Steve Denny spent three years driving long-haul for Sharp Transport. He says it’s a good company to work for because management promotes from within, and the family isn’t afraid to challenge its employees.
“It’s a high-stress job,” he says. “I wanted a challenge, and I got one. There is no easy job in trucking, though. All jobs are equally stressful.”
Perhaps the success of Sharp Transport can be summed up by Paul Thompson, who has driven seven years for Sharp. “This is my home,” he says. “They’re good people to work for, and there is a family atmosphere here. The drivers matter.”