Nowadays, Don Daseke is CEO of Daseke Inc., a $1.2-billion, Dallas-based leader in the open-bed trucking industry that owns and operates 16 firms across the country. He’s made it the largest player in the industry in just nine years of building it.
However, Daseke wasn’t always on top. In fact, he started about as low on the economic totem pole as possible. For pulling himself up by the bootstraps and achieving the American economic dream to the great benefit of others as well as himself, Daseke recently was named one of just 12 recipients of the 2018 Horatio Alger Award by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.
A handful of precepts have been important to his success, and one of them is persistence, he told Chief Executive.
“That’s been the key to my success,” Daseke (pronounced DASS-key) said. “We buy companies that aren’t for sale. We’ve had analysts ask the CEO of one of the companies we acquired why they became part of Daseke when they obviously already were a successful company. He said, ‘Don is persistent.’”
“Businesses too often look for shortcuts; sometimes there aren’t any. You have to hang in there and take the long-term view of opportunity and be persistent and pursuing,” he says.
Other CEOs who were 2018 recipients of the Alger awards include Ronald Bergeron Sr., founder and CEO of Bergeron Land Development Inc; Alphonso Jackson, CEO of A.R. Jackson Advisors LLC; Larry Lawson, founder and CEO of HeartcoR [cq] Solutions LLC; James Liautaud, owner, founder and chairman of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches; James Pugh Jr., CEO, chairman and owner of Epoch Residential; and Ernest Rady, CEO of American Assets Trust.
Recipients also included Berkshire Hathaway executive Gregory Abel, former Walmart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr., and entertainers Rob Lowe and Reba McEntire.
The stated purpose of the awards by the Alexandria, Va.-based non-profit is to “induct as lifetime members … contemporary role models whose experiences exemplify that opportunities for a successful life are available to all individuals who are dedicated to the principles of integrity, hard work, perseverance and compassion for others.”
The association provides scholarship assistance to “deserving young people who have demonstrated integrity, determination in overcoming adversity, academic potential and the personal aspiration to make a unique contribution to society.”
Daseke said that Alger scholarship recipients have average family incomes of just $15,000 a year and that 20 percent have been homeless; many have been abused.
He can relate to economic hardships. Growing up in Crawfordsville, Ind., Daseke had a great relationship with his father, who was a real estate agent and business owner but struggled. By age nine, Daseke was delivering papers and pedaling an ice-cream wagon.
“I got a lot of exercise,” he recalled. “And I just hoped to make people happy with what I had in the cooler. Success was a question of inventory, of having enough dry ice, and of having good enough muscle control in your legs that you could pedal it all around town without losing control.”
Fortunately, Daseke earned a scholarship to DePauw University in nearby Greencastle, Ind., and got a degree in economics, then an MBA in accounting. He joined a CPA firm but wanted something more challenging. Daseke applied to IBM to sell computers but they didn’t like the idea of hiring an accountant for that. He persevered; got the job; and, within three years, Daseke was IBM’s leading national new-business computer salesperson.
After IBM, he left to start a real-estate investment firm, building it to 50,000 apartment units across the South. The S&L crisis in the 1980s made his business insolvent but Daseke “worked through our problems” and took the company public in 1994. Walden Residential Properties sold in 2000 for $1.7 billion.
What to do next? A friend clued in Daseke to a Seattle-based trucking company that was looking for a buyer, and Daseke bought it. In 2009, the company that would become Daseke Inc. had just $30 million in revenues.
Besides the value of persistence, Daseke offered four more pointers for the kind of bootstrapping success that enabled him to build two $1-billion-plus enterprises:
Invest in people: Daseke knew nothing about trucking but bought the predecessor of Daseke Inc. mainly because “I really liked the management team.”
Be flexible: There’s “more than one way to achieve success,” he advised. “There’s a view on Wall Street that if you buy a company, the way to be successful is to consolidate everything and eliminate people. Our view is that there’s more than one way. If you already have a successful company, you’re already very efficient. You don’t need to eliminate people.”
Always be learning: It’s an important part of a people-first philosophy for both employees and leaders, he said.
Always keep your word: “My dad always said, ‘Your word is your bond.’ Do what you say you’re going to do, always.”