In December of 2008, when I learned that my family business, Flying J, was going to enter bankruptcy I was shocked. We had been on an amazing path of growth for the past five years and there had been no real warning signs.
An army of attorneys and consultants advised us to bring a restructuring executive to lead the company. My gut instinct was that we needed a family member calling the shots if we wanted to pay creditors back. I consulted with my husband, family, and employees and we decided that I would become CEO. I had four kids at home age 8-13. I had not been working full-time for eight years and suddenly I was the leader of a very large company.
My two goals were to pay everyone back completely and to keep as many jobs for our employees as I could. With these two goals in mind, I began looking for the right path. One day, I met Jimmy Haslam, the CEO of Pilot, our toughest competitor. From my first meeting, I could tell Jimmy was an amazing leader. We decided to merge our companies. The decision was difficult because it meant we would no longer be the operator of the Flying J retail plazas. But in the end, the merger became the cornerstone of our restructure plan, and we paid our creditors 100 percent with minimal job loss. We now have ownership in Pilot Flying J and have kept several of our other businesses intact and headquartered in Utah with a solid future ahead.
I asked my daughters what leadership meant to them. I agreed completely when they said a leader believes in themselves and is brave. My father founded Flying J, and as the leader of the company he trusted his employees and gave them authority to be leaders themselves. He was an amazing listener and mentor to many. He died tragically in a plane crash several years ago and in my position as CEO of FJ Management, formerly Flying J, there are very few days that go by that someone doesn’t remark to me about what a great leader my father was as he built Flying J. My mother Teddy Lou Chamberlain was a leader too. She became involved with the diet business and quickly became one of the largest franchisees in that company. She is confident, smart, and very approachable. She always inspires me by her example that you can do anything you set your mind to do.
My vision of leadership is having the confidence to rise to the occasion. Whether it is as a part of a school club committee, a sports team, or a large company, a leader will usually rise to that position because they see a need and are willing to take the responsibility to make an impact. A leader knows how to build a strong team, listen to their team, and takes responsibility for decisions. My biggest heartache about the merger of our company was that 200 long-term corporate employees lost their jobs. As a leader you do not always have as many options as you would like to satisfy every situation, but in order to make progress sometimes you have to make the best choice you can and move forward.