William T. Cassels, Jr. | Legacy of Leadership Profile

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William T. Cassels, Jr.  (Born May 22, 1929)

As chairman and chief executive officer of Southeastern Freight Lines, Bill Cassels guides the fortunes of one of South Carolina's largest privately held companies and one of the nation's most successful trucking companies. And everything good that has come Southeastern's way has been made possible by its employees, or "associates," he insists.

When his father, W. T. Cassels, founded the company in 1950, his employee relations philosophy was well ahead of the times: "If you take care of your people, they will take care of the customer, and that will take care of the future." For 50 years, the company has lived by that philosophy.
 
And, as Bill Cassels said in an interview, "We've never gotten away from that premise, and our associates know that everyone here cares deeply about them and their families, far beyond the norm in business today." Employee turnover is minimal and for half a century, even during economic downturns, the company has never had a layoff. 

Compensation and benefits for Southeastern associates are among the best in the industry, but their loyalty is based on two other factors, empowerment—or a voice in running the business—and consistent, predictable leadership—the kind of leadership provided by Bill Cassels.
 
Perhaps Paul Taylor, Southeastern's longtime president, captures Cassels best: "The most important thing about Bill Cassels is not what he does, it's who he is. I am convinced that our doing comes from our being. Bill Cassels is not about self-confidence. He's about something far more important—spiritual confidence."

William Tobin Cassels, Jr., was born May 22, 1929, in Columbia, the only child of William T. and Rosalie V. Outlaw Cassels. He attended the public schools of Columbia and graduated from Columbia High School in 1947.
 
He received a degree in economics from Davidson College in the spring of 1951 and, as a member of the ROTC, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and called to active duty. On August 11, 1951, he married Katherine Charlotte Rustin, the daughter of Wallace D. and Katherine C. Rustin of Columbia, and they spent their honeymoon in Fort Benning, Ga., where Cassels was stationed at the time.

Bill and Charlotte had been childhood sweethearts. They met while they were attending a summer Bible school class his mother was teaching at Rosehill Presbyterian Church. He was 12 and she was 11. "I picked him out then," she recalls. "He was so cute!" Their friendship lasted through high school and college, even though he was attending Davidson College in North Carolina and she was a student at Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia.
 
They became the parents of two children, Katherine Cassels Wolfe and W. T. "Tobin" Cassels III, Southeastern's vice chairman. Bill Cassels is a patriot. Once in the Army, he was determined to perform his military service in Korea, even turning down a plush assignment on a peaceful island in northern Japan in favor of the front lines. He was in combat for eight months, was awarded the Bronze Star, and was discharged in 1953.

Once again a civilian, he returned to Columbia and joined his father at Southeastern Freight Lines as vice president and treasurer—but not in the front office. "We didn't have a front office," he recalled in an interview. "I loaded trucks, picked up freight, drove the roads, and was the company's only salesman."

His father, a banker until the Depression forced him to seek a different career path, founded Southeastern Freight Lines with $5,000 in borrowed working capital, 11 tractors and trailers, three pickup trucks, and 20 employees. But his real assets were much greater, according to his son. "He brought to the company a particularly high level of integrity and ethics that were built on his Christian faith, and based on these, the company was started with a solid foundation."

In 1975, Bill Cassels, Jr., became president and chief executive officer of Southeastern Freight Lines, while his father continued as chairman. With, the death of his father in 1989, Cassels became Southeastern Freight Lines chairman.
 
Today, Southeastern Freight Lines operates in nine southeastern and southwestern states and serves Puerto Rico through the port of Jacksonville. Together with carefully selected marketing partners, the company's reach extends to more than 50,000 cities in the United States and Canada.

From its modest beginning in 1950, Southeastern Freight now employs more than 5,200 associates; operates over 7,000 tractors, trucks, and trailers; and picks up more than 20,000 shipments a day in the Southeast, Southwest, and Puerto Rico. Revenue for 1999 was more than $425 million.

From the beginning, Southeastern Freight Lines has been one of the trucking industry's pioneers. First, there was W. T. Cassels' employee relations premise. Soon after the company was founded, he abandoned the traditional truckload concept in favor of the less-than-truckload business, a first for the region and one of the first in the country to make that move. Southeastern continues today as a less-than-truckload, or LTL, operation.

Concerned with the fierce competition among regional LTL carriers, Southeastern's leadership sought a way to distinguish itself from the others, arrest soaring costs, and improve responsiveness to customer needs. So it was logical to join in the quality movement, which was gaining adherents in the early 1980s, mainly in the manufacturing sector.

Essential to a successful quality process are employee empowerment and dedication to the process by leadership. Southeastern had a head start there. But when Southeastern began its quality process in 1985, most written material embraced manufacturing. Little was available for service companies. So Southeastern had to develop its own manuals.

The entire quality initiative was a major undertaking requiring an adjustment of mindset and the help of customers already active in the quality movement. Among them were Milliken & Company and Roger Milliken.

In 1991, Southeastern Freight Lines entered the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award competition and was one of only five service companies in the country to receive a site visit. Since then, Southeastern Freight has received more than 200 quality awards from customers and associations.

Cassels is a former chairman of the American Trucking Association (ATA), the ATA Foundation, and is past president and chairman of the South Carolina Trucking Association. He presently serves on the boards of the American Trucking Association and the Georgia Motor Trucking Association.
 
Probably the most memorable experience in his trucking career was the year spent as chairman of the American Trucking Association, a position that required that the incumbent's wife be available to travel with him. And travel Bill and Charlotte Cassels did! With both Katherine and Tobin in college, they felt comfortable in accepting the challenge and visited nearly every state and traveled throughout the world on behalf of the American trucking industry. In fact, they were away from home more than 280 days during a term that began in 1977 and ended in 1978.

Responding to the eventuality of industry deregulation, Cassels began to diversify. In 1984, Southeastern established Direct Express Courier Services, which provides overnight express transportation of time-sensitive material, and is based in Charlotte. In 1986, Southeastern purchased G&P Trucking Company of Greenwood, a truckload carrier specializing in just-in-time inventory and one-day and next-day service.
 
Another venture was Tidewater Golf Club and Plantation in North Myrtle Beach. The golf course has been ranked among the top public courses in the country every year since it opened in 1990. Tidewater Plantation is a 500-acre upscale residential development featuring waterfront homes, patio homes, villas, and a new 18,000-square-foot clubhouse.

Cassels is a former board member of South Carolina National Bank and later Wachovia, the Seibels Bruce Group, Inc., and SCANA Corporation. He is also chairman of the board of the YMCA Foundation and a former trustee of Presbyterian College and the South Carolina Foundation of Independent Colleges.
 
In 1963, he was named the Greater Columbia Junior Chamber of Commerce's Young Man of the Year. He was selected Philanthropist of the Year in 1998 by the Central Carolina Chapter of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives, and in 1999, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce named him its Business Leader of the Year.
Cassels has long been a flying enthusiast, and the mandate for Southeastern Freight's leadership to work as closely as possible with its associates, no matter how far-flung, dictated early that air travel was necessary. Cassels learned to fly in 1955, and the company bought its first plane in 1960. Cassels was the pilot. He soon qualified for a commercial license, but as the company grew and demands for air travel increased, he hired a full-time pilot.
 
While Cassels presently confines his sports activity mainly to tennis, there were years when he was involved in scuba diving and riding trail bikes with Tobin, and flying gliders, or sail planes, which he insists are safe and "the ultimate in flying." He has always enjoyed boating, and he and Charlotte spend as much time as they can aboard their yacht, which they keep at Hilton Head Island.

Bill and Charlotte Cassels are active members of Eastminster Presbyterian Church, where he taught Sunday school for 20 years and where she continues to teach. They are both ordained elders in the Presbyterian church. They are the grandparents of five.
Cassels was inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 2000.
 

© 1999 South Carolina Business Hall of Fame