Tuesday afternoon Pilot Flying J CEO Jimmy Haslam met and greeted truckers filling up at the Travel Center on Lovell Road as part of National Driver Appreciation Week. Haslam also took a moment to speak to reporters about the ongoing federal investigation into rebate fraud at the fuel company.
It has been more than five months since the FBI raided Pilot headquarters to investigate an alleged scheme that ripped off trucking companies on fuel rebates. Since the raid on April 15, seven Pilot employees have pleaded guilty in federal court to fraud-related crimes.
"Clearly some people who worked for Pilot Flying J, I should say apparently made bad decisions and I think I made it very clear we're going to deal with that. Clearly we have to deal with the government investigation, we are dealing with it, and continue dealing with it going forward," said Haslam. "We have more than 25,000 people working for this company and the vast majority of them do the right thing everyday taking care of customers."
This is the first time Haslam has made any public comments about the investigation since he addressed a trucking industry conference in Indianapolis in May. Much like the Indianapolis speech and three press conferences held immediately after the FBI raid, Haslam kept the focus on customers and hammered away at forward-focused message.
"We're talking to drivers and thanking them for the great job they do for our country and how much they mean to Pilot Flying J," said Haslam. "We're most appreciative for the confidence trucking companies and drivers have shown in us. We'll obviously continue to work hard to earn their trust moving forward."
Public relations expert and Inside Tennessee panelist Mike Cohen says Haslam's focus on the future is an effective way of maintaining client relationships during a crisis.
"What happened in the past, you can't do anything about that. So you deal with this moment going forward. We're going to make it right. It is a critical and necessary message," said Cohen. "When someone says you have done something wrong, you have to say we are going to make anything wrong right."
Prior to Tuesday's comments, Haslam had addressed the public about the fraud investigation on four different occasions. 10News went through the complete recordings and counted 21 times that Haslam specifically used the word "right" in the context of "making things right," "doing the right thing," and attempting to "right any wrongs."
"Repetition is the way when you learn when you're young. Repetition is a way to deliver and convince people of a message," said Cohen. "Jimmy Haslam knows how to speak to people. His brother is the Governor of Tennessee. The Haslam family knows how to deliver a message."
The ongoing efforts to bolster customer relationships now extend to Haslam and Pilot repeatedly expressing appreciation for customers via billboards, decals on the sides of fuel trucks, and personal face-to-face greetings.
"Everybody that works in management in Pilot Flying J will be out in the stores," said Haslam. "In the next few days we'll be in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and all over the country."
As for the everyday customer at the pump and in the stores, Haslam said everything is right back to business as usual.
"At first there was a lot of hullabaloo about it [the investigation]," said Haslam. "But really it has all calmed down. We've opened a lot of stores over the summer and over the last few weeks and I always go to store openings. ... It [the investigation] is never brought up. I never hear anything about it in the stores at all the last several months."