How One Woman Built a $400 Million Trucking Business
How one woman from Detroit built a $400 million business simply by delivering the goods.
When Andra Rush started her trucking company, all she had was a beat-up van, a pair of used pickup trucks, and the naive certainty of a 23-year-old. She figured it would take her about four years to make her fortune. Then she could use her newfound millions to accomplish her true goal: tackling poverty on Native American reservations across North America. “I thought I could retire by the time I was 27,” says Rush, a member of the Mohawk Indian tribe of Ontario, Canada. “At that age, you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Rush is 49 now and still working hard. Her tiny start-up just outside Detroit has grown to a $400 million North American business that employs hundreds of Native Americans, who assemble automobile components like steering columns near their reservations and then truck them to manufacturing plants. Last year, Rush—along with the rest of the auto industry—was almost sidelined by the recession. But things have stabilized, and today Rush is a role model not only for Native Americans but also for women in the male-dominated world of trucking. For years, “people imagined that the business was run by my dad or my boyfriend,” she says. “I had to say, ‘No, the business is me!’?”
Rush was raised 30 miles outside Detroit, not far from her paternal grandparents and their Ontario reservation. When the teenage Rush visited the reservation for the first time, she was struck by the poverty and lack of hope. “I really wanted to make a difference,” she says.
She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1982 and took a nursing job. But she was dismayed by the low pay, and within a year she was pursuing an MBA. That summer, she interned at an airfreight company, where the speed of package pickups and deliveries drove profits. “I thought I could do that better,” Rush says.
She maxed out her credit cards and borrowed $5,000 from her parents to buy a van and two used pickups. She wooed clients, accepted every delivery job that came her way, and worked nursing shifts on weekends.
Within six months, Rush had ten employees, and clients like Ford and GM were paying her to fetch small packages from the airport. Ford was the first to offer her a job trucking parts between its plants and suppliers. Rush hired drivers who lived near the suppliers and “went to church and did Little League with them. So they all helped each other,” she says. “If extra loads or services were needed, we were right there.” Rush also kept a single-minded
focus on meeting deadlines—no matter what. In the wake of 9/11, when increased security stalled traffic for hours on Detroit’s largest bridge, she hired barges to get her trucks across the Detroit River.
By 2001, many of Rush’s 1,000 employees were Native Americans, working alongside people of every background. But she felt she hadn’t done enough. So she joined forces with a Canadian parts maker to design and assemble auto components, such as the dashboard instrument panels that go into Chrysler minivans. She located the plants near reservations, creating opportunities where they were needed most. By 2009, her auto parts business was generating
$370 million in revenue.
She’s come a long way from the inexperienced 23-year-old who thought “the cash would just roll in.” But Rush wouldn’t change a thing: “I love my job,” she says. “I like the fact that you can start to get some momentum and keep challenging yourself—and then suddenly you lift your head and it’s been 25 years.”
Getting Ahead with Andra Rush
Were there any advantages to being a woman in your industry?
Driving the truck is something guys do—it’s rough, but it isn’t something a woman can’t do. But running a trucking company is much more than picking up and delivering; it’s marketing and tracking and organization. Women are wired to multitask.A lot of people in transport have had paper routes. I was the first girl to have one in my neighborhood, so maybe that’s what did it!
How did you balance the business and your three sons?
I would take my kids [Zack, 20, Cheyne, 18, and Chance, 13] to the office with me, but that got a little difficult when they started to crawl. My parents live nearby and so did my grandmother, and they all helped out a lot. As a business owner, you don’t have much time, but you do have a lot of flexibility. So if I’d been traveling, I’d go into the elementary school when I got home and say, “I’m going to read to the first graders.”
How has your heritage influenced your approach to business?
In our culture, when you make a decision, you consider its impact on the next seven generations. That means you take environmental precautions from the outset. Teachings like that help you with your choices.
What is the key to your success?
You have to be service-driven. You think of customers every day, every minute. You think about what would make their lives or their businesses more successful. And you have to be focused on who’s serving them. If we don’t look after our drivers, they won’t look after our customers.