Why Pilot Flying J's CEO is doubling down on new digital initiatives

  • As more states reopen parts of their local economies, business leaders are faced with the difficult task of plotting how to begin to return employees to the office. 
  • At Pilot Flying J, CEO Jimmy Haslam has an ambitious plan to return the bulk of workers by late June. 
  • Haslam, who will have to consider workers in hundreds of travel centers and the truck drivers that visit them, is expecting deeper investments in tech that promotes contactless transactions, among others. 
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Sign up here to receive updates on all things Innovation Inc. Executives are quickly putting together strategies to return employees to the office, as Georgia, Tennessee, and a handful of other states begin to allow some businesses to reopen to the public.  But a return to standard operating procedure presents a much harder challenge for some.

And some aspects of work from before the coronavirus outbreak may be eliminated entirely.  At Pilot Flying J, CEO Jimmy Haslam not only has to worry about the health of corporate employees, but also workers in hundreds of travel centers across the US, as well as the truckers that visit them.  He has an ambitious plan to begin returning some employees to the physical headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee, and other offices on May 4 -- mostly senior leadership to start. 

The following week, that group would widen by as many as 200 people. Under the current strategy, the vast majority of individuals would return to the office by mid-to-late June.  "We'll actually have registered nurses in our facilities ... that will train all of us when we come back" on social distancing guidelines and other new protocols, Haslam told Business Insider.  

One resource Haslam has turned to during the pandemic is Berkshire Hathaway. The Warren Buffett-owned investment firm took a large stake in Pilot Flying J in 2017 -- one that will give Buffett majority control by 2023. 

Prepping for the U-shaped recovery 

Among the other considerations for Haslam is how many customers to initially allow in restaurants -- like the 90 Wendy's locations that Pilot Flying J operates -- and the future of offerings like self-service food, one that the company is considering axing entirely as a safety precaution.  Haslam is also planning to double down on digital and accelerating investments that, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, may have been on a longer rollout timeline.

Those include a switch to automated checkouts and an application that lets truck drivers complete the bulk of their usual in-person interactions online.   Complicating efforts, however, is an uncertain economic landscape -- one that Haslam and top executives are still trying to figure out.  "All of us are going to have to be much more efficient in terms of how we allocate capital and how we allocate people," he said. "Technology, which is playing an increasingly large role in all our businesses, must help us become more efficient."

Haslam is anticipating a so-called "U-shaped" recovery, a model that predicts a much-slower economic rebound than, for example, a "V-shaped" recovery. While his goal is to avoid layoffs, that is contingent on how far revenues ultimately decline.   Sales are "certainly not in freefall like they were for three or four weeks.

So we'll have to see where our sales bottom out and how quickly they come back before we make any of those types of decisions," said Haslam. 

Accelerating the push to the digital world 

A key part of the recovery strategy for Pilot Flying J is a deeper investment in new technology.  "The more transactions that can be touchless ... I think the better off everybody's going to feel going forward in this new world," said Haslam.

The company, he added, "probably had too many projects going on, some of which were consequential." "We need to move faster and we need to spend time on fewer, bigger projects," he said.  Among the major investments moving forward is the acceleration of new, automated checkouts.

The offering is currently being tested in roughly 15 locations, but it will "ramp up dramatically" in the coming months, said Haslam.  Pilot Flying J will also continue to invest in its application, which currently has several hundred thousand users, the majority of which are truck drivers.  "That enables them to reserve a shower, to order a meal when they pull into the property [and] do everything necessary to purchase fuel without having to get out of their truck," Haslam said. 

One technology that Haslam isn't predicting to pose any immediate threat is automated driving. 

While companies like Tesla are investing in software to support semi-trucks that don't require a human behind the wheel, he says it's unlikely the timeline for that switch speeds up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"From a technology standpoint, we'll be there sooner rather than later," said Haslam. "But I don't see trucks going down the highway without a person in them any time soon." 

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