Father, daughter team up to keep car-hauling company prosperous

Michael Riggs is chairman and CEO of Jack Cooper Transport, and his daughter, Sarah Amico, is executive vice chairman of the board and head of mergers and acquisitions for the car-hauling company her dad purchased in 2009.
Michael Riggs is chairman and CEO of Jack Cooper Transport, and his daughter, Sarah Amico, is executive vice chairman of the board and head of mergers and acquisitions for the car-hauling company her dad purchased in 2009.

During her teenage years, Sarah Amico started going to her dad’s board meetings. It was a great education for Amico, who went on to earn an MBA from Harvard, just like her dad, Michael Riggs.

“I’m not sure I appreciated it as much until I got older,” Amico said. “I didn’t know how much you can learn just by being in the room and observing people who have been in the business for decades. How they work. It has certainly come in handy the last five years.”

Today, Amico is executive vice chairman of the board and head of mergers and acquisitions for the car-hauling company her dad purchased in 2009.

“Watching somebody go through the experience and seeing they have more capability than you do, they just don’t have the gray hair and battle scars, is really fun as a dad,” said Riggs, chairman and CEO of Jack Cooper Transport.

Jack Cooper provides a full range of automotive transportation and logistics services to vehicle manufacturers, remarketers, fleets, auctions and dealers throughout North America.

Riggs and Amico detailed their road to owning and running Jack Cooper from a conference room on the 24th floor at 1100 Walnut St., Kansas City. The view of downtown Kansas City from their conference room window is as awe-inspiring as their story of taking over a successful family-owned company that hit hard times and returning it to prosperity.

Riggs took a risk when he acquired Jack Cooper at a time when the auto industry was reeling from an economic downturn that saw some of the strongest auto manufacturers going bankrupt and accepting government bailouts.

In that climate, a car transport company was certainly going to take a hit, too. If people stop buying new cars, there is less need to move cars from a manufacturer to a dealer.

Jack Cooper, which was started in the late 1920s, faced tough times.

“They had fallen to under 1,000 employees and they had previously been near double that,” Riggs said. “It was a lot of responsibility, taking care of 1,000 people. I had tremendous respect for the Coopers in saving the business and the jobs and doing the right thing.

“The third generation was a gentleman named Tim Cooper who called me to say his grandfather’s company was in trouble. He had heard I was a bit of a turnaround manager.”

Riggs was struck by the strong sense of family at Jack Cooper. He believed he could keep that legacy alive. Still it was a gamble. At the time, Riggs owned Active Carhaul, a company based in Joplin that had 100 employees.

Riggs jokes that it was like a minnow swallowing a whale. Riggs recalls discussing this major undertaking with his wife one evening at a restaurant. After dinner, his credit card was rejected.

“To this day, I don’t know why it was rejected,” Riggs said.

His wife paid for the meal. Riggs figured his wife probably was wondering how he was going to spend millions to buy a major company when he couldn’t buy a dinner with his credit card. It wasn’t exactly a confidence-building moment.

“I was going to roll in everything we had, including our business, savings and sign it all away,” Riggs said. “We could be starting over again in our mid 50s. Being the wife she was, she said, ‘You are doing it for the right reason.’ The business had a great reputation for quality. We didn’t have to turnaround their standards. They were the best. It was just a brutal environment.”

Today, the gamble has paid off. Despite a few bumps in the road like the bad weather in 2014, a few railroad issues and a major acquisition, Jack Cooper is going strong.

It is now far from the week in 2009 when the company only had $10,000 in the bank after it cleared payroll.

“That was cutting it a little too tight,” Riggs said. “We never want to go back to those days.”

With headquarters in Kansas City and Atlanta, the company has quadrupled the number of employees from 2009. It has 2,600 operating trucks and an additional 600 that are valued at $300,000 apiece that are parked and ready to go. The company also has a strong relationship with the Teamsters.

Jack Cooper has gone from $250 million in revenue at its peak before 2009 to $750 million in revenue now.

“For us to grow from 1,000 employees to 4,000 during the worst downturn in auto sales since the Great Depression was something we are particularly proud of,” Riggs said. “We have done it and kept it family owned.”

Riggs and Amico have several unique names for different plans and strategies to keep Jack Copper viable for decades to come. But the one that is dearest to their heart is the Zoe strategy.

“Zoe is his oldest grandchild, my niece,” Amico said. “She is 6 years old. When she is 26 and in the work force, we still want to be a family controlled company operating by these values.”

The company values, explained Amico, are integrity, excellence, innovation and imagination, responsibility, and longevity.

“The third value we are particularly proud of is innovation and imagination,” Amico said. “Just because you are in an industrial company doesn’t mean you can’t have very creative ways to solve problems. I think we have done a tremendous job in network planning.”

Indeed. Some of the awards Jack Cooper has garnered in the last five years include the Toyota Presidents Award in 2010, General Motors Supplier of the year Award in 2011 and 2013 and Ford World Excellence Award in 2013.

As nice as those awards are, Riggs and Amico are proud of the way they, the management team and the employees, are putting in the hard work to keep the company strong for the next generation of family members.

And being able to help the company grow as father and daughter only makes their days at Jack Cooper even better. Riggs compliments his daughter the only way a proud father can.

“She has at least 30 IQ points on me,” Riggs said.

Amico quickly chimes in that her dad also received an MBA from Harvard to which he responds:

“I like to say it was easier to get in Harvard during the Stone Age than when she got in.

“Her role as chairman is more than governance and chairing of the board. We have added mergers and acquisitions. She is in charge of all strategic planning.”

Amico beams the same pride as she hears her dad talk about the upward trajectory of Jack Cooper. One simple, but powerful statement from her says it all.

“We have been blessed,” Amico said.