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EXECUTIVE CHANGE: Darrel Hopkins, a 30-year employee, is the new president at Prime Inc. after being promoted last month by founder Robert Low.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
EXECUTIVE CHANGE: Darrel Hopkins, a 30-year employee, is the new president at Prime Inc. after being promoted last month by founder Robert Low.

In the Driver’s Seat: Prime Inc. controller ascends to president

Posted online

It’s been a long professional road for Prime Inc.’s Darrel Hopkins, but the veteran executive at the Springfield-based company is driving along some slightly different territory these days.

Hopkins, who was hired 30 years ago as the company’s controller, is now its president after founder Robert Low relinquished the role last month. Low, who founded Prime in 1970 in Urbana, where it remained until 1980 when it moved to its current headquarters in Springfield, maintained his CEO role amid the leadership change.

The promotion wasn’t a total surprise to Hopkins, who in 1997 additionally took on the role of director of the company’s Success Leasing Inc. program, which provides trucks and access to maintenance, fuel purchasing and other services.

“Gradually, I just picked up responsibilities all over the company,” he said. “Over time, Robert started to involve me in more and more things.”

Still, Hopkins said discussions with Low about becoming president were low-key and took place quickly.

“I would say literally about a month before I was promoted, I was talking to Robert,” Hopkins said. “(Robert) goes, ‘Well, you’re the guy.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never heard it from you.’ So even though other people have hinted, I don’t take anything for granted.”

He added, “I do feel like Robert was investing time into me for a number of years, so he truly helped develop me – as did some other folks in the building – to where they felt like it was the right time to make the announcement.”

In an emailed statement to Springfield Business Journal, Low said he plans to remain directly involved in the management of Prime as CEO, adding he was pleased to promote Hopkins.

“I am confident in his leadership and proud of his passion and love for the industry and Prime,” he said. “Darrel has a wealth of experience and knowledge that he has gained throughout his tenure at Prime, successfully leading multiple departments as both controller and director of Success Leasing.”

Low was unavailable to answer questions for this story by press time, according to officials.

Hiring efforts
In his new position, Hopkins helps lead the company, which reached record-high revenue in 2022, exceeding $2.8 billion, up nearly 17% from its $2.4 billion in 2021, according to SBJ list research. The company’s fiscal year runs April-March, so last year’s revenue is yet to be compiled. However, he said revenue will probably finish flat for the year, mostly due to industry headwinds of freight shortage in 2023. Contributing factors to the shortage include supply chain disruptions, capacity constraints and increasing freight rates, according to media reports.

To address the freight shortage, Prime stepped back last year from its normal hiring efforts and intentionally shrank its driver fleet by 300-400 trucks, Hopkins said.

“You’re going to have some natural attrition, and so we just kind of turned off the recruiting side,” he said. “It just was a natural process that guys dropped out of the business, and we just didn’t replace them.”

The company is back in hiring mode for drivers, he said, adding the company employs around 1,700 drivers nationally. According to SBJ list research, Prime’s companywide employee count was 2,178 in May 2023 with 1,456 reported as local workers. Hopkins said Prime currently has 7,400 independent contractor drivers, up around 76% from the total the company reported in 2018, according to past reporting.

“For most of the industry, their challenge is getting drivers, and that is not our challenge,” Hopkins said. “Our company has such a fantastic reputation and such a good program that we’re generally turning away drivers. We can’t take all that want to come and drive here. We get to kind of pick and choose the very best because we just don’t need as many as want to come to work for us. And that’s pretty unusual in trucking.”

Employment of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers is projected to grow 4% from 2022 to 2032, about as fast as the average for all occupations, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. An average of roughly 241,200 openings for truck drivers are projected each year over the decade.

Look to improve
Hopkins said his management style reflects the company motto: “Do your best, do what’s right and treat others the way you want to be treated.”

“That’s kind of how I’ve always operated. I really respect our management team and our associates. We have fantastic people, and we really hold them to fairly high expectations,” he said, noting his co-workers and culture have kept him at Prime for three decades. “I like to lead by example. I get here early, I leave late, and I work extremely hard to try to find ways to improve the company.”

While he declined to share specific goals, Hopkins said his approach is to constantly seek improvement.

“Goals are just that – they’re just a target. Either you hit them, or you don’t,” he said. “In everything we do – I don’t care if you’re the janitor or the in-house counsel or the director of operations, it doesn’t matter – we all need to be looking to improve. How can we do this more efficiently with better service? I’m looking to say, ‘How is each department in our company improving? What are they doing to improve?’”

Becoming president was both a bit overwhelming and humbling, Hopkins said, noting Low’s guidance has been invaluable.

“My first concern is, man, I want to make sure I do everything that keeps it going the same direction,” he said. “I just want to try to do everything I can to keep his vision going.”

Aside from the trucking business, Hopkins is now overseeing some of the company’s ancillary businesses also owned by Low, such as Oasis Hotel & Convention Center and captive insurance company Mayfair Assurance LLC, which handles the occupational accident coverage for Prime’s independent contractors.

“We also have an entity called EcoShred that repurposes used tires into mulch and other products like the material that goes into sports fields and running tracks around football fields, all that kind of stuff,” Hopkins said, noting that company originated a few years ago from an employee in the accounting department.

Coming into view
Describing Prime as a growth company that has typically seen strong annual revenue increases of 10% or more – 2023 notwithstanding – Hopkins said he projects the workforce will grow 5%-10% this year as the freight shortage ends.

“It’s one thing when you’re a $100-million-dollar company to grow 10%. It’s an entirely another thing when you’re $2.5 billion to grow 10%,” he said. “We have been pretty close to that for years. As you get to $3 billion, it gets a little harder to grow 10%.”

The company has expansion plans, both under construction and in the planning phases, he said. Dirt work has commenced for what will be a roughly 200,000-square-foot trailer rebuild shop at the company’s headquarters that will replace an existing one on the campus. Next door will be a 70,000-square-foot Pedigree Truck and Trailer Sales dealership – another larger version from an existing campus structure. He said construction for that facility should start next year, declining to disclose cost estimates for the projects.

Prime officials also are looking at property for an expansion of its Pennsylvania terminal in Pittston, adding the company’s other large terminal, in Salt Lake City, Utah, had renovation work completed around a year ago.

“We’ve got a guy that’s actively searching for a location in Atlanta, Georgia. That’ll be our next big terminal,” he said of plans to purchase property this year. “We’ve been actively searching for a place down there for a year. It’s not easy to find the right spot.”

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