Pilot Flying J founder Jim Haslam: Raid was 'second worst day of my life'

The founder of embattled truck-stop chain Pilot Flying J has given his first detailed remarks about the events surrounding a government raid of the Knoxville-based company.

In a Q-and-A released by Pilot, James A. Haslam II -- the founder of Pilot and father of current CEO Jimmy Haslam -- said he learned of the April 15 raid while on a bike ride in Hilton Head, S.C. Haslam said he was unable to reach his son, and then called CFO Mitch Steenrod, who was in Washington, D.C.

Haslam said his first thought was "what happened, why did it happen and how do we get the company back together?"

"It was the second worst day of my life," he said. "When Jimmy, Bill and Ann’s mother died that was obviously the worst day of my life, but this was a very difficult day for me as well."

Cynthia Haslam died in 1974. The couple had three children -- Jimmy Haslam, Ann Haslam Bailey and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam.

Jim Haslam founded the company in 1958 and saw it grow rapidly. Under Jimmy Haslam's leadership, Pilot has become one of the country's largest privately held firms, with more than 600 retail locations.

For decades the Haslam family has wielded enormous influence in Knoxville's business, political and philanthropic circles, but Jim Haslam acknowledged the toll taken by the government investigation into allegations of fuel rebate fraud at Pilot.

Seven employees have pleaded guilty and the company is defending itself against multiple civil lawsuits.

"It’s obviously been a terrible event for our company and our family," Jim Haslam said. "There’s no sense in trying to deny it in any way. It’s been tough, very tough. It’s an elephant that’s always in the room. But I think everybody in our family, and certainly Jimmy as the CEO, is dedicated to making this right."

He added that "I’ve spent my life building this company with a pristine reputation of people doing the right thing, supporting our community, being a good corporate citizen, taking care of our customers and our team members, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life rebuilding that reputation."

The founder indicated that the crisis has boosted his activity on behalf of Pilot, saying that in the wake of the raid he visited 50 stores in 10 states, and will make more visits in the fall.

As for the fraudulent activities, Haslam said that "Obviously this was a case where a few people weren’t doing the right thing. ... Some of our team members did not perform in the manner in which we have expected them to perform. We are putting processes and procedures in place to help prevent this from happening again."

He also acknowledged concerns within the Knoxville community that the situation will impact the family's contributions to various causes, but said there is no reason for such concerns.

"We will be more active rather than less active in the community as a company, as individuals. We will encourage all Pilot Flying J team members to be more active in the community. We will continue to give our time, talents and resources to this community."

The Haslam family is the majority owner of the NFL's Cleveland Browns, and have long been known as avid sports fans. Jim Haslam closed the interview by referring to the football maxims touted by Robert Neyland, the coach during his years playing football at the University of Tennessee.

"General Neyland had seven game maxims, which he put on the blackboard before each game," Haslam recalled. "The third one said, 'If the game or a break goes against you, don’t slow down or get rattled…put on more steam.' This is exactly what we should do and what we are doing at Pilot Flying J."

 

 
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