In Memoriam - Ed Kuhn, TA President and CEO, 1992-2005; Chairman, 2005-2007
Edwin (Ed) P. Kuhn’s 25 years of experience and excellence in leadership while at Sohio and BP made him a natural to take TA to the next level. TA was set up as a separate company within Sohio and then BP. Ed had been on the retail side of the business and then in 1992 accepted the offer of running the truck service side of TA. At the time, the company was called Truckstops of America. His tenure with TA ran for 15 years, until 2007, and he oversaw many developments, including the name change to TravelCenters of America in 1997. The new name reflected the evolution from truckstops to travel centers for professional truck drivers as well as business and pleasure motorists.
In 1993, The Clipper Group, a private equity investment group that owned the Unocal Corporation’s national auto and truck stop chain in Nashville, together with TA senior management, purchased Truckstops of America from BP. They set up corporate offices in Westlake (Cleveland), Ohio, and began to build the business.
Ed’s philosophy was that if you were working hard running a business, you should be an investor in that business. He said, “There were seven of us at TA who made financial investments in the company. We were on the telephone in my office, in the old BP building in downtown Cleveland, and we were doing transfer policies. We were figuring out how we all wanted to do it and we got it done.”
When Ed started running Truckstops of America (later, TravelCenters of America) in March 1992, his objective was to get to know his people, listen to what they had to say, and let them do their jobs. “Getting the right people in the right spots always takes some time and effort. I made sure I surrounded myself with smart people, and we visited the sites because it was important for people to know the management team. And we wanted to make sure we had general managers at every site who could run the business. It was about getting everybody on the same track.
“I could tell if the general manager was a good general manager or not, based on the team members’ facial expressions. Culture is what it is all about.” Ed was a leader who believed in having fun while working hard. It was an example he set. He says, “The more positive you can get people thinking about their job, the harder they work. They see you working hard and they're going to work hard.” Team members were motivated, and the earnings before interest, taxes, and depreciation (EBITDA) increased from about $20 million to $26 million in that first year.
There were 38 sites and Ed knew there were opportunities to grow the business, especially with incentive programs. For example, he initiated a co-marketing program with Burns Bros. Travel Stops. If a driver went to Burns Bros. or TA, they could be part of a frequent user program, for gallons of fuel and other purchases.
In 1997, TA acquired National Auto/Truckstops, increasing the number of sites to 136, and the new name, TravelCenters of America, (TA) was branded. With the later addition of 17 Burns Bros. Travel Stops, TA earned a presence in the Northwest U.S. By 2000, TA had more than 160 locations. In 2004, TA purchased the Rip Griffin Truck Services chain of 11 travel centers. This growth was accompanied by a commitment to make sites even more attractive.
Ed said, “Our long-term goal was to create facilities with the wow factor that were four-wheeler friendly as well as 18-wheeler friendly. There were a lot more four-wheelers on the roads than truck drivers and attracting them became the mission. We made many improvements: physical, cosmetic, those types of things.”
TA designed bathrooms to be comparable to the Ritz Carlton. There were marble counters, and the bathrooms were spotless. Travelers appreciated clean, pleasing bathrooms and were more inclined to see what else the travel center had to offer.
The Denver East site, which was a new build, became an example of TA’s sleek travel centers of the future. It was recognizable as a TA site while it conveyed the promise of cleanliness and more modern amenities. It was at that time that the TA logo changed from a shield with the letters “T” and “A” to the iconic look that is still used today. Interestingly, market research showed that travelers associated the shield logo with law enforcement. The new logo was interpreted as a much more inviting symbol.
Ed had another way to be inviting – adding nationally recognizable quick service restaurant (QSR) brands to TA sites. Some of the first ones were Burger King, Popeyes Chicken & Biscuit, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Today, about 20 QSR national brands attract travelers to TAs across the country.
Progress was swift and in 2007, when Hospitality Properties Trust (HPT), the real estate investment trust, completed the acquisition of TA there were 17 TA owners, and shares began trading on the American Stock Exchange on February 1. About six years earlier, in addition to president and CEO, Ed had become chairman of TA. In 2005, when Ed transitioned as president and CEO to chairman, Timothy (Tim) Doane became president and CEO. In 2007, when Ed retired, Tim became chairman.
Ed said, “We had some fun, and I’m still in touch with many of the people. When they have a life event, I’ll call and catch up. I’m enjoying retirement, but there’s nothing like the workplace interaction and just trying to make people smile.”
Ed Kuhn's obituary can be found HERE.