MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — Some cajoling before a let’s-make-a-deal barbecue dinner in Fort Smith, Arkansas, persuaded James Reed to take his technical credentials — unparalleled among trucking company chief executives — back to Silicon Valley.

Reed led a turnaround as CEO of USA Truck for six years before its sale to German logistics giant D.B. Schenker in September. He is trucking’s first C-suite executive to take a leading role at an autonomous trucking startup, joining Kodiak Robotics as chief operating officer.

“Think about our other trucking company leaders,” Reed told FreightWaves recently at his new employer. “I don’t know anybody that spent half their career in tech and half their career in trucking. So, in some ways I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be.”

Before USA Truck, Reed was CFO for Interstate Distributor Co., later acquired by Heartland Express. Earlier, he held senior finance positions for tech companies. Those included Intel, EMC and T-Mobile. He also served as division CFO for JPMorgan Chase’s wamu.com business.  

First of a kind

Other autonomous startups have hired policy and safety expertise — including two former acting administrators of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Several mobility startups boast high-profile board members. But Reed is the first CEO to take a leadership role at what may become a significant part of over-the-road trucking.

For Kodiak Robotics, it is a hiring coup that lends additional credibility to its march toward commercialization of driverless long-haul trucking, which it targets for 2025.

“Leaders with James’ background don’t find themselves on the market very often,” Kodiak co-founder and CEO Don Burnette said.

At 47, Reed is a decade older than Burnette. But he indicated satisfaction with the COO role after initial doubt about robot-driven trucks. A visit to the Paccar Innovation Center in nearby Sunnyvale changed that.

“I went from very skeptical about autonomy to ‘oh my gosh, it’s already here.’ It’s not just a science experiment,” he said. “It’s our intent to build a business that stands the test of time and can be executed upon.”  

Recruiting a COO for Kodiak Robotics

Reed had lots of options after his exit from USA Truck. Early chats with Michael Wiesinger, Kodiak’s vice president of commercialization, and a mutual connection with Soona Lee Bernstein, who helms Kodiak’s Partnership Development Program, laid the groundwork for Burnette to pitch to Reed and his wife over barbecue.

“Building up a world-class experienced leadership team is a key step along the journey for a company like Kodiak,” Burnette told FreightWaves. “I want the world to understand that we are not just a small, immature, fledgling startup anymore. We are at the forefront of this industry.”

Reed’s specific duties are still being worked out. He mentioned the planned opening later this year in Atlanta of an autonomous trucking hub in co-development with Pilot Co. as a project of special interest.

“We’re going to have the first functioning truck port in the AV space,” Reed said. “That’s huge.”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.

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