By James Dowd, The Commercial Appeal, February 26, 2012
Mike Bruns started Comtrak in 1983 with one truck. By the time he retired in 2010, he had built a logistics giant with annual gross revenues above $170 million. He will be honored as the 2012 Master Entrepreneur by the Society of Entrepreneurs.
His cornflower blue eyes twinkling as the hint of a mischievous grin inches across his face, Mike Bruns offers an unvarnished answer when asked how he feels at being honored by the Society of Entrepreneurs as its 2012 Master Entrepreneur.
“I’m the luckiest goofball alive. I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” Bruns said, referring to the tributes he has received from family, friends and peers since he was announced as this year’s award recipient. “I don’t think of myself as anything special, but I’m smart enough to have surrounded myself with pretty special people. That’s the secret to success.”
That sense of self-effacing humor, combined with a commitment to treating employees and customers with honesty and respect, served Bruns well as he built a logistics empire in Memphis that eventually stretched across the nation.
“Mike’s qualifications as an entrepreneur are inspiring, from founding a small operation and transforming it into a mammoth logistics firm,” said Dr. Scott Morris, founder of the Church Health Center and the 2011 Master Entrepreneur. “What’s even more impressive about Mike is that way he treats people. He sees value and worth in everyone he meets.”
From a single-truck operation when Bruns started his company in 1983, Comtrak grew to more than 1,500 trucks and annual gross revenues exceeded $170 million by the time he retired in 2010.
In recognition of his business achievements and his steadfast commitment to myriad community and civic organizations, Bruns will receive the highest honor awarded by the Society of Entrepreneurs at the group’s 20th annual black-tie gala celebration on April 14 at the Holiday Inn at the University of Memphis, 3700 Central.
Longtime friend and associate Patrick Lawler praised Bruns for his contributions to the local business community, as well as his devotion to charitable organizations.
“Mike exemplifies compassionate leadership, and he built a career of caring for his employees and for people in his community,” said Lawler, head of Youth Villages. “He’s been chairman of our board and helped us raise more than $100 million, and that’s in addition to everything else he’s done here. He’s always ready to help, and Memphis is truly fortunate to have him here.”
The road to Memphis wasn’t one the Chicago native originally expected to travel, as Bruns early on began to establish his family and career in the Windy City. But an offer in 1980 to transfer to Memphis to manage a terminal for Chicago-based Spector Freight System put a bigger plan in motion.
“It was $40 more a week, the company was going to merge with another operation and I thought I’d be home in three or four years,” Bruns said. “Then, after the merger things started going bad, the company eventually went belly-up and I was out of work and all of a sudden things weren’t looking so rosy.”
And so Bruns got busy.
He landed a job at another logistics company, but when it wanted him to transfer to Cincinnati he decided to strike out on his own. With one truck, one driver and no staff, Bruns founded Comtrak and got to work perfecting his business model.
“Trucking isn’t a hard business to learn, but it’s a lot of hard work and I was determined to learn from the mistakes of companies I’d been in before,” Bruns said. “We were a different kind of company because we didn’t identify as a trucking business, but as a business that specialized in trucking.”
With his top priorities being to take care of customers and employees, Bruns created a corporate culture where no titles were allowed — workers were instead identified with nameplates that listed their years of service to the company — and fun was required.
“People who say you can’t have fun and make money are crazy. We had a blast and we made money doing it,” Bruns said. “I always wanted my people to have a good time at work and not to dread coming in to the office. I treated my employees like family, because that’s who they were to me.”
Bruns made certain that his employees would be taken care of when he sold his company to the Hub Group in 2006. He remained on as president of the Comtrak Logistics division for four years.
“It wasn’t about the cash. I had offers for more money, but I wanted to sell the company to people who I felt would take good care of my workers because they’re my family,” Bruns said. “It was a great run, and I like to think I did right by them.”
For more information on the SOE gala, visit societyofentrepreneurs.com
– James Dowd: (901) 529-2737
Learn more about small businesses and entrepreneurship in Memphis at The CA’s startupmemphis.com.
Occupation: Founder and former president of Comtrak
Company address: Headquarters at 5660 Universal
Phone: (901) 541-8000
Employees: More than 1,800 drivers in 24 facilities in Tennessee and nationwide