I'm the author of five books, a contributing writer for Cincinnati Magazine, and an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist who retired in 2018 from teaching journalism at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I'm the former Project Editor of Ohio Civics Essential, a monthly series of stories aimed at educating voters in civics knowledge and encouraging civic engagement. As part of my commitment to social justice, I co-founded a news website devoted to workplace fairness and equal opportunity, "Cincinnatians for the American Dream." I live in Cincinnati's historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, where I volunteer as a tutor at Rothenberg Academy.
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Photo courtesy of Steve Bennish
Ken Oaks and friends have built TQL into a multibillion-dollar company, but thousands of ex-employees are suing the company for their fair share of the success.
By Jim DeBrosse
Like other young people fresh out of college in the Cincinnati area, Michelle Yenser was looking for a job that would help pay off her burdensome student loan debt. It was 2009, and she’d just graduated from Miami University’s business school.
Sales work immediately came to mind because, she remembers thinking, The harder you work, the more money you make. With help from Miami’s recruitment office, she found Total Quality Logistics, a freight brokerage firm whose ads promised “endless opportunities for those who are self-motivated and dedicated to success.”
Headquartered in Clermont County’s Union Township, TQL is now the largest privately owned company in Greater Cincinnati. How? “It’s plain and simple—we work harder than anyone else in the business,” its website says. TQL’s founder and CEO, Anderson Township native Ken Oaks, is a near-billionaire and the wealthiest person in Cincinnati. TQL has consistently been named one of the best places to work in the region and in the country by dozens of business publications, including Forbes and Fortune magazines.
But it didn’t work out that way for Yenser and thousands of other former TQL employees. She lasted longer than most TQL recruits: a year and half, first as a sales trainee at $33,000 per year and then as a junior account executive/broker who was paid a salary plus commission. The salary, however, has to be covered by the sales revenue a broker brings into the company. Many former TQL employees say that’s difficult, if not impossible, for all but a tiny percentage of new recruits, no matter how many hours they work.
Some 4,500 former employees are now part of a class action suit against TQL in what local attorneys say could be the largest wage settlement case in Cincinnati history, claiming the group was collectively cheated out of tens of millions of dollars of overtime pay while struggling to make it under the company’s boiler room conditions. After 10 years of filings and motions on both sides, the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in July.
“If you want to make it there, you have to work really, really hard,” says Yenser, 32, who now sells for a pharmaceutical company. She isn’t part of the class action suit against TQL. “I was going in at 7 [a.m.] and leaving at 7 [p.m.],” she recalls, as well as taking phone calls from customers any hour of the day or night, including weekends and holidays. “I would get calls on Christmas Day or New Year’s Day. Say a refrigerated truck with a load of chicken breaks down, and it’s a holiday and you’re with your family. You still have to fix it. You’re glued to your phone—it could take minutes or it could be hours.”
On top of managing freight shipments, brokers at TQL typically make 75 to 100 sales calls a day trying to drum up new customers, many of them first-time “cold calls” to shipping agents who hear daily from other brokers, including other brokers within TQL, Yenser says. “If you’re trying to make the most money, you’re going to go for the biggest companies, and everybody tries to get the same big customers. The people who make it have to be kind of cutthroat and kind of lucky.” For Yenser, the luck ran out when her biggest customer canceled the account over an incident she prefers not to discuss publicly.
Fueled by hard work and what critics call unrealistic sales pressures, TQL has had a remarkable run since Oaks launched it in 1997. And then came COVID-19, working from home, and a new economic model. Analysts say it’s still too early to predict the pandemic’s full impact on the logistics industry, but it’s certain that a slowdown in the trucking industry that began in 2018 will continue. “Given the largely uncharted waters we are in, it is likely to be a slow, drawn-out process in order to return to ‘normal,’ or even a semblance of that,” Jeff Berman, group news editor of Supply Chain Management Review magazine, wrote in a March column.
Transportation logistics is one of the fastest growing U.S. industries, quadrupling in revenues from $57 billion in 2000 to more than $213.5 billion in 2018, the latest figures available from Armstrong & Associates, a market research and consulting firm. The modern transportation logistics industry was launched in the 1980s with the deregulation of the trucking industry, then exploded in the 1990s and onward with the growth of the internet, GPS tracking, and mobile technologies transforming every other part of our lives.
Total Quality Logistics, the largest privately owned company in Cincinnati, is doubling its headquarters footprint in Union Township.
By Jim DeBrosse
The last thing Tim Walker and his then–12-year-old daughter Carolyn expected that evening when they began rolling their trash bins into the driveway of their Bethel home was to become overnight internet sensations. But it all happened in a flash—more precisely, a series of 13 bright red-and-orange flashes filling a broad swath of the southwest sky on Sunday, January 12.
The event was captured on less than 20 seconds of video by the family’s garage door security cam and promptly posted by Walker to Facebook. Within a few weeks, his post of the still-unexplained light show had been viewed nearly 70,000 times by users as far away as China and garnered 139 comments and 256 shares. It also drew an offer from licensing company Viral Hog to represent Walker in sharing the video with other media outlets.
“It’s kind of crazy how big it’s gotten,” says the 45-year-old Bethel native, who’s an IT consultant and teacher. In addition to local TV coverage, the story was picked up by the Drudge Report and newspapers in Lexington, Kentucky; Charlotte, North Carolina; the United Kingdom; and Germany—not to mention dozens of websites devoted to UFOs and other mysterious sightings. And it all happened to someone who says he normally “just posts funny dog and funny cat pictures because my daughter loves them” and gets about one or two Facebook notifications a day.
For several days after posting the video, Walker says, “Every five minutes somebody shared it or commented on it.” Carolyn, of course, became an instant mini-celebrity at Bethel-Tate Middle School for her local TV interviews. Her seventh-grade STEM teacher showed the video for class discussion. Their conclusion? “They just say it’s aliens now,” Carolyn says.