Publisher’s note: This Chester County Leadership profile was first published July 1, 2015.
In 1924, when Alexander Duie Pyle and his wife Mary Ellen launched a trucking business in Coatesville, their first customer was Lukens Steel, the town’s steel mill. Mary Ellen dispatched drivers and kept the books at the couple’s dining room table while Duie drove and maintained the company’s growing fleet of trucks.
Ninety-one years later, A. Duie Pyle, Duie and Mary Ellen’s fledgling trucking firm, is still family owned and controlled and still counts Lukens (now ArcelorMittal) as a customer. But instead of a few family members doing many jobs, the company the couple founded counts 2,500 employees, a fleet of 2,000 trailers, eight warehouses, thousands of shipments daily and over $300 million in business every year.
VISTA Today asked Peter Latta, Duie and Mary Ellen’s grandson and A. Duie Pyle’s current Chairman & CEO, about growing up in West Chester, leaving home to get an Accounting then a Law degree and his decision to return home to help his father and brothers run his grandparent’s trucking company.
VISTA Today: Where did you grow up Pete?
Pete Latta: I grew up in our family home on Virginia Avenue in the Borough of West Chester. Our family home was a special place. Both my parents lived in the house until they passed; my father in 1995, my mother in 2011.
VT: What memories do you have of growing up in West Chester in the 1960’s?
PL: West Chester was a different place back then. Chester County was a lot more rural with a lot of open farm land. I remember West Chester’s downtown being very vibrant when I was a kid. The five and dime store was the Woolworth Store at the corner of Gay and High Streets where the Iron Hill Brew Pub is now. You could buy toys, gold fish and get something to eat at Woolworth’s little lunch counter.
The downtown district had all the retail that supported a community like West Chester back then including department stores like Mostellers, Folkes Pharmacy, Snyder’s News Stand and Briggs Sporting Goods.
I went to the Biddle Street Elementary School, which is now the Washington Street Apartments. Our house on Virginia Avenue was just a couple of blocks from the school and at noon we would walk home to eat lunch.
As I got into high school, the malls came in, and downtown West Chester became pretty challenged. Now we have a lot of restaurants and specialty shops. West Chester is still a very nice town but in a different way than it was when I was a kid.
VT: Did you have a job when you were growing up?
PL: When I was 12 or 13 years old I started caddying at the West Chester Golf Club a block or two from my house. Caddying was a real education. You learn quickly to speak when spoken to and to keep your ears open. I learned an awful lot doing just that.
I also worked at A. Duie Pyle during the summer. At the time, there were only 50 or so people working at the company so working there was a great learning experience. My brothers and I all started the same way; working in the maintenance shop, cleaning up and generally doing what we were told. Eventually, we moved up to working in the warehouse and on the loading dock at night before learning to drive. I drove trucks during the summers in college.
VT: What lesson did you take from those early jobs, Pete?
PL: From caddying, I learned there were different people all with different sets of personalities. I was just a kid, and some of the people I caddied for wouldn’t give me the time of day. But one gentleman, Judge Tom Pitt was different. Judge Pitt was gracious and a gentleman to everybody. He called caddies by their first name and treated us with the same level of respect he gave his golfing buddies. No matter how insignificant the person was, me being a lowly caddy, he was respectful and gracious. From his example, I learned to treat everyone, even a young caddy, with respect.
VT: What did you do after high school?
PL: My parents were advocates of education and when I graduated from Henderson High School in 1975, I enrolled at the University of Delaware where I played football and majored in Accounting. I looked at Villanova and Penn but choose Delaware because of their football program.
VT: Delaware had a good football program at the time. Did you play all four years?
PL: My Senior year in high school I played quarterback for Henderson. Delaware’s freshman football program restricted my playing time to just the Freshman team. I started as a defensive back on the Freshman team and had a decent Freshman season. In the spring game of my Sophomore year, my father, who was always a perceptive person, noticed my heart wasn’t in it and said as much to me. He was right, and I quit football after that spring.
VT: That was a big decision for you.
PL: Yes it was. But when I think back on my life to this point and the impact my parents and coaches had on the person I would become, I’m grateful for the experience. Work hard, be humble, think about others first were lessons my parents and coaches in high school and college instilled in me. I’ve never forgotten that.
VT: What did you do when you graduated from Delaware?
PL: After I graduated in 1979, I took and passed all four parts of the CPA exam in one sitting. I always joked I passed because they got my answer sheet mixed up with someone else’s!
I went to work for Asher & Asher, a CPA firm in Philadelphia. About that time my dad encouraged me to go back to school for either a law or engineering degree. I knew in 7th grade when they started using letters of the alphabet instead of numbers in equations, that mathematics wasn’t for me. Engineering was out! So after a year at Asher & Asher, I enrolled at Dickenson School of Law in Carlisle near Harrisburg and began work on a law degree.
During law school, I worked for a CPA firm in Carlisle, which allowed me to get the experience I needed for my CPA certification. One summer I worked for Judge Gawthrop in West Chester. He was a flamboyant guy, but I really enjoyed working for him.
When I graduated from law school and passed the bar in 1983, I went to work for McNees Wallace & Nurick, a 70 person law firm in Harrisburg, doing corporate tax and labor law work.
I knew I wanted to get back in our family’s trucking business. In 1985, when my dad started to experience some health difficulties, I decided it was time to join my two brothers already working at A. Duie Pyle on a full-time basis.
VT: That decision to join your brothers was a good for you and the company. How has the business changed over the 30 years?
PL: A lot has changed, but much has stayed the same. At the end of the day, the trucking business is a people business. Some outside our business think the trucking business is about trucks, technology and buildings. Those things are all important tools to be sure. Ultimately, however, it’s the users of the tools that create the service and decide how good or not good the service is going to be.
VT: As you look into the future Pete, what challenges do you see for the A. Duie Pyle?
PL: The greatest challenge we face as a company is the risk of becoming complacent. We have to be vigilant about risks and dangers that are always present. I don’t want our people ever to be satisfied with our success and stop working to get better.
Our market vision is to have the best people using the best processes and technology to safely deliver the best service in the market at the lowest engineered cost. That doesn’t mean we will have the lowest price. Rather our goal is to produce the best service at the lowest cost of creating this standout service.
We realize our vision is a moving target and that others are chasing the same target. Our focus is on continually improving our processes, workflow, and technology while developing our people to handle more and more complex, challenging situations.
VT: What is the best piece of advice you ever received, Pete?
PL: That would have to be a good piece of advice Jim Macaleer who founded Shared Medical Systems (now Cerner) gave me. I asked him what advice he would have for a young guy like me just starting out in business. He told me two things. First, he said, don’t ever go public because you end up living quarter to quarter instead of making the right long-term decisions.
The second thing he told me was to trust my gut. If its about a person or a situation, he reflected, he said he had waited too long to act, that had he gone with his gut instinct instead of waiting until he had all the facts, he would have made the correct decision much earlier.