Gene Voiland joined Saltchuk’s Board of Directors in 2011 and was an integral voice in creating the company’s culture and commitment to safety.
During Gene Voiland’s decade-long tenure on Saltchuk’s Board of Directors, the company’s revenue nearly doubled. Assets grew by a staggering 77 percent, and more than 1,000 employees joined the ranks. And while Voiland is the first to say his contribution to Saltchuk’s growth and overall culture of safety and transparency was modest, company executives credit his push for continuous improvement as a catalyst for the successful, sustainable growth Saltchuk has experienced since 2011 when he joined the Board.
“To look back and see how the company has grown and matured is pretty amazing,” said Voiland, who transitioned off the Board earlier this year. “Saltchuk has successfully evolved from a company led and driven by its founders to a second-generation, large enterprise while still retaining its core values. That’s hard to do.”
‘I learned to be very pragmatic’
Voiland was born in Seattle, the eldest of 12 children – six boys and six girls. His family moved to Richland, Washington, and he described his childhood as “typical, but also very different.” He stayed busy with school and sports, but he had a unique set of responsibilities as the eldest sibling.
“I always had to set a good example,” he said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it fostered a lot of leadership and management skills. I learned to be very pragmatic. I started mowing and edging lawns when I was 10 or 11. My first job where I got paid by a company was as a salesman for JC Penny. All in all, I learned a lot, earned spending money, and most of all learned what I didn’t want to do for a living.”
Voiland dreamed of becoming a baseball player, but his talent didn’t match his drive. When he was a senior of high school, headed to Washington State University, his father asked what he wanted to major in.
“I didn’t know,” he laughed. “I was good in math and science. So I told him that maybe I’d be a chemist like he was. He said, ‘If you’re going to go to all that trouble, be a chemical engineer.’ So I became one.”
‘I learned the business from extremely talented and selfless people’
Post-graduation, Voiland was fortunate enough to get a job for the “old Shell Oil Company.”
“I learned the business from extremely talented and selfless people who were mostly World War II veterans. They were like father figures to me.”
Voiland’s most challenging job was leading the newly formed division that began drilling wells in the Gulf of Mexico, where water depths exceeded 3,000 feet.
“The technology was amazing and exceedingly complex,” he said. “I didn’t sleep well for two years.”
He became General Manager of Engineering and then Corporate Planning in a career that spanned some 30 years.
“Later in my tenure with Shell, I had an idea to form a spinoff company of Shell’s California Exploration and Production Assets,” he explained. “After four or five years of arguing the case, they let me. I ended up being the Founding CEO of Aera Energy LLC, where I stayed for a little more than 10 years. We built a world-class organization.”
Armed with his conviction that a person should only be CEO of a company for 10 years, Voiland retired from Aera. Looking around for his next opportunity, he and a friend saw the need for a community bank in Bakersfield, California. So they formed one.
“Valley Republic Bank is now more than 11 years old and has $1.3 billion in assets and good earnings,” said Voiland, who acts as the bank’s Chairman. “The best part of all of these businesses I’ve been a part of is the people I’ve worked with.”
‘Employees have to see it in action and believe’
Voiland said it was Bob Felton, a business acquaintance and fellow WSU graduate who was at the time a member of Saltchuk’s Board, who recommended him for an open seat at the table.
“I looked up the company and watched Mike Garvey talk about what the company was about, its values, and his vision,” he said. “I was intrigued. I was invited for an interview with Mark (Tabbutt) and Tim (Engle) and had a chance to talk with the Board members, and I guess I passed. My first impression and what I still hold is that the Senior Management ‘walks the talk.’ It’s a ‘people-centric’ business.”
Among Voiland’s first objectives was helping to solidify a corporate culture.
“Employees must understand what the company stands for,” he said. “Each person has their own set of values and culture. If the company’s values and employees’ values don’t align, it won’t work long-term. Management and the Board must live and model them. Employees have to see it in action and believe.”
Voiland said that all organizations are about people. And he made it his business to see as many of Saltchuk’s people as possible, racking up more travel miles than any other Board member as he sought to understand the company’s far-flung operating subsidiaries better.
“Until you actually see a person in their job setting, observe that they do, meet the people they work with, and see how they all interact, you don’t know them or their business. Visiting the various entities made me a better Board member.”
‘People don’t wake up and go to work trying to have an accident’
Next up for Voiland was a focus on safety.
“Some of the worst experiences of my life were having to tell a loved one that their relative had been killed or severely injured on the job,” he said. “I vowed to do everything I could to prevent having to do it ever again.”
According to Voiland, safety requires the same kind of thinking necessary to do any job well.
“If people act unsafely, they’re either not thinking, or they don’t know they’re acting unsafely. Creating a culture that prevents accidents is critical both for safety and business excellence. If the culture is one that does not seek to understand why something happened and simply punishes, you’ll never get the needed understanding to solve the root cause of the issue. One has to create a culture of trust to get people to speak out. In all my management jobs, I have tried to drive out the ‘fear’ in the organization to understand why people do things. They don’t wake up and go to work trying to have an accident.”
Looking to the future after a decade with Saltchuk, Voiland said he believes technology changes will soon drive all business.
“Artificial Intelligence, process changes – it will all come at us at seeming warp speed,” he said. “I believe that in general, it will be a more difficult environment with way more external entities affecting Saltchuk.”
‘I think I’m smarter and more mellow as a result of my experiences’
When asked if he would change anything about his past, Voiland’s answer was unique.
“We are all the product of all the good and bad events of our lives,” he said. “The worst thing that could ever have happened to me would be to have my parents die before I was raised or have a child die. Everything else, I could probably survive. Since neither of these things happened to me, I wouldn’t change anything. I learned as much from my failures as I did from my successes. I have a great wife and good children who accept me for who I am. I believe I have accomplished a lot – more to do – and I’m happy, so that’s enough.”
In addition to his position as Chairman of the Board of Valley Republic Bank, he’s involved in a number of nonprofit and consulting efforts in Bakersfield, where he lives.
“I’ve been on the Board of Pyles Boys Camp for about 30 years,” he said. “This group intervenes in the lives of boys who show leadership potential but could need a nudge toward making good choices.”
He likes to read and stay up on current events. He likes to golf, garden, and collect vintage things – “much to my wife’s annoyance,” he laughed. “I’m a bit of a packrat. I’m going to keep doing the things I like, though, including a bit more golf and travel.”
Voiland and his wife, Linda, are also “major supporters” of WSU. Voiland serves on the Foundation Board of Directors and the Investment Committee. WSU named the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture after him, and the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering & Bioengineering is also named for the couple.
“Obviously, I am very honored to have achieved this recognition,” he said.
As far as what he’s proud of, he said while he’d like to be more “genteel,” that wouldn’t be him.
“I’m a very driven, somewhat impatient person by nature and upbringing,” he said. “As I look back, I haven’t changed at the core, but I think I’m smarter and more mellow as a result of my experiences.”