At the height of the financial crisis, Caitlin Welby was figuring out a long-term way to live in her car with her dog. Today, the a 32-year-old art school graduate, former yoga instructor, and vision coach with fading ombre hair is the president and CEO of a $100 million trucking company with more than half a century of history.
“It’s strange, and it’s surreal,” she says.
Welby is far from the youngest CEO in history, of course, and if she worked in tech, she’d be in veritable career middle age (Mark Zuckerberg is two years her junior). Her company, RFX Global, is only in the low to mid range of trucking companies (America’s No. 1 trucking company, UPS, has annual revenue well in excess of $24 billion). Still, Welby’s path to the C-suite–which involves hardship, hitchhiking, and rejecting her family’s legacy before ultimately embracing it–reveals what can happen when you never say no.
RFX (which stands for Refrigerated Food Express) was founded in 1952 by Welby’s grandfather, Thomas E. Welby, Sr. and run by her grandmother and her father in succession. Growing up, she had no desire to follow in their footsteps.
“I was a young punk rock artist,” Welby said. “I was a bratty, self-righteous teenager. I remember at 13 years old being like, ‘I’m not contributing to that industry, gas is starting wars, blah blah.’ I was so against car culture that I didn’t get my license until I was 28.”
She’d often refuse to visit her father at work on principle: trucking was a dirty business that was killing the planet, and she wanted nothing to do with it.
Welby’s entire life, her father, Tom Welby, Jr., had been in charge of the family business. Around the time she graduated high school, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. “He told us that the doctor said one year. We found that paperwork from the doctor that said six months,” Welby said. “He actually only had three, by the time they were really serious about the diagnosis.”
He died on Christmas day in 2000.
Welby spent her twenties unmoored and drifting. In and out of art schools in Europe and America, she traveled the globe, often hitchhiking. Like many upper-middle-class hippies slowly growing up, she eventually found herself teaching yoga, settling into some kind of stationary life. At the same time, she tentatively began taking part in board meetings of the family business, at the time led by CEO Jim Morse. He, in turn, began trying to lure her back to the company in a more permanent capacity.
“A few times, Jim was like, ‘You know, Caitlin, you’re asking really great questions. Any time you want to come in, let us know,’” remembers Welby. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah yeah. Let me go to India.’ So I did that for a few months and traveled and taught, did more leadership training, more this, more that. And then there’d be another board meeting, and Jim would say, ‘Man! You really nailed those questions. If you ever want to come back in . . .’”
Welby was intrigued, but kept her distance. “I didn’t realize it, but I was saying no and saying yes at the same time,” she tells me. “I had really zero intention of becoming CEO or president. I was like, ‘We can call me the Vision Anthropologist, or the Vision Something-or-other.’ That’s where I thought that was going.”
Eventually, it dawned on her that instead of refusing to work in trucking because it didn’t align with her values, she could be the one to make the company into somewhere she could be proud to work.
“It was a simple moment of me growing up. Being like, oh, this is a part of me that I’ve been denying. Because of attachment to counterculture, to a bohemian lifestyle, to being the other, to saying no to what I don’t want instead of saying yes to what I do believe in,” she remembers. “Be the leader you want to be, instead of critiquing someone else.”
Welby has big ideas about what that means. “I’m committed to farm-to-table, but the ‘to’ is the gray area, for everybody,” she says.“All consumers and producers, we’re getting really good at what the farm is, know thy farmer and all that. And we’re really clear about the ethics of the retailer–what are Whole Foods’ practices? Who runs the grocery store? But the ‘to’ is widely ignored, and for good reason: it’s a fucking mess.”
So what does she have in mind to fix the mess?
“I have a serious, serious focus on real food, clean water, and fresh air for all Americans,” she says. “And I’m starting with America.”
Welby is trying to change one of the world’s dirtier industries. According to a 2011 report by the EPA, trucks make up about 22% of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, in America (transportation itself makes up 27% of total emissions), a trend has been going up for the past 20 years. Welby doesn’t have the answers here yet–and to be fair, she was only installed as CEO in late January–but she’s determined to find them.
RFX certainly isn’t the only trucking company thinking about sustainability, though the industry is still in its early stages of grappling with climate change, and sees different companies at vastly different levels of readiness. UPS, for example, has an extensive sustainability plan. Their efforts include so-called “intermodal shifting,” or transferring shipments to the least carbon-intensive shipping method whenever possible, responsible fuel sourcing, and running 3,142 vehicles, or 3% of its fleet, on alternative energy (including natural gas, hybrid electric, and ethanol). It’s seems to be working: the report states that the company’s carbon emissions fell by 1.5% from 2012 to 2013 even as its package delivery volume increased by 3.9%.
Other companies are not as advanced. YRC Worldwide, the country’s No. 5 trucking company with $4.8 billion in 2013 revenue, has a sustainability plan that doubles as a money-saving plan, centered on reducing fuel usage and office recycling. J.B. Hunt, No. 3 in trucking with $6.1 billion annual revenue in 2014, features a sustainability plan on its website, though it is limited to outlining how it will meet California’s tough emissions standards when operating in California.
For her part, Welby declines to provide any specifics of her plans. Given her inexperience and relative newness to her job, it seems reasonable to assume that she hasn’t worked them out yet (or is at least still negotiating them with her board). So it may be a while before you see group yoga sessions fighting for space with the diesel pump at truck stops.
“She’ll be the first to admit that she’s got a lot to learn,” says Jim Morse, the man Welby replaced as CEO. “But the foundation’s there. She shows good instincts, and is a great leader.”
Morse speaks highly of Welby’s intelligence and potential. Still, he didn’t have any hesitations about stepping down?
“Well, I’m 65, and as much as I love the company and the people, I didn’t want to be working 60 hours a week at 70 years old,” he says, laughing. “But I knew it was a family company. I knew I was a temporary CEO. Caitlin’s father would be proud of her.”
The truth is, Welby has a lot on her plate–even before she gets to saving the planet. She is a woman in an overwhelmingly male and macho business. She is young and inexperienced. She peppers her conversation with new-agey turns of phrase left over from her days as a vision coach. At one point, Welby describes the trucking industry as, “convoluted and overcomplicated.” She says, “Nature doesn’t work like that. It’s the appropriate amount of energy in the right direction that makes things efficient.”
As it turns out, however, the truckers Welby works with, aren’t that different from her, after all. “Truckers tell me, ‘I’m sick of being sick. I started juicing four years ago. I run every morning now.’”
Welby, in turn, doesn’t have that hard of a time reconciling her former life as an artist and punk with her current one helming a large firm while fighting to reform an industry that is one of the planet’s biggest sources of pollution. “Me doing what I believe is punk rock, it is living the art,” she says.“How we do what we do matters. Audaciously living into my own values is punk rock, and it is a political act in and of itself.”