2012 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"Be honest, work hard, and treat people right."
The third of seven children, Clarence L. Werner (nicknamed C.L.) was born on a farm in 1937 in Petersburg, Nebraska. C.L.’s family suffered through the challenging times of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years. Their home had no insulation, hot running water, or electricity. Their only heat came from a potbellied stove and their only light came from kerosene lamps. In the winter, the cracks around the windows allowed snow to blow in and settle on top of the quilts on the beds. But the Werner children took these circumstances in stride. “If there was snow on top of the covers in the morning, we just shook it off,” says C.L. “We were a happy family. We thought we had it better than the kids in the city. We had the wide outdoors and rolling hills. After a new snow, we took out toboggans and played until the sun went down, and then we would go in and do our homework by the light of the kerosene lamps. But we worked most days. I learned to drive a tractor at the age of seven and was driving pick-up trucks by the time I was 10. It was a good life.”
C.L. enjoyed his family, but everyone worked hard to make a go of their farm. “Most of our income came from sale of milk, cream, eggs, and livestock. We would get up at five, do a few chores, and then we would harness our horse to the buggy and go to school. When we returned home, there were more chores awaiting us.”
C.L.’s mother was a Catholic, as were most families in the area, and the Werner children attended a Catholic school. C.L. was a good student, but education was not a priority in his family. It was thought in those days that education was more for those raised in the cities. “I grew up on a farm and had all intentions of being a farmer,” he says. “I left school in the ninth grade to work on the farm full time. But by the time I was 18, there was a bad drought and the farm couldn’t support all of us so I went to Omaha to find work.”
C.L. got a job breaking out castings from hot moldings in a steel foundry. He was used to hard work and long hours on the farm, so his eight-hour shift in the foundry made him feel he should have a second job. But times were tough economically and he couldn’t find anything. By then, he was 19 and married. A year later, he had his first son. He decided he would make more money if he went into business for himself. He knew how to drive trucks so he sold his car and bought a 1956 Ford and built his own trailer for hauling. “My grandfather had a little welding shop on his farm,” says C.L. “When I was little I was the only grandchild out of 36 who was interested in learning how to weld. My grandfather helped me build the trailer for my truck.”
One year after starting his business, C.L. bought a diesel truck, and then a second one in 1959. He began to grow his trucking business slowly and steadily. By 1965, he had 15 trucks. C.L. moved his company out of his 900-square-foot home into a small shop in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The fleet expanded to 10 Freightliners in 1971. Eventually, he had 100 trucks on the road and gross sales exceeding $6 million.
Werner Enterprises built its new headquarters in Omaha in 1977. The company went public on the NASDAQ in 1986, with a fleet of 630 trucks. By the mid-1990s, the fleet had grown to 4,000. In 1999, Werner Enterprises tapped into international markets in Mexico and Canada. In 2006, as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, it had become a global transportation and logistics provider. Mr. Werner stepped down from his role as chairman in 2011, and now serves as chairman emeritus and is a member of the board.
Today, Werner Enterprises is a $2 billion company with a fleet of 7,300 tractors, 23,000 trailers, and more than 12,000 associates and independent contractors. Werner Enterprises and Werner Global Logistics provide services to nearly 120 countries worldwide, with offices in the United States, Mexico, Canada, China, and Australia.
When asked about his phenomenal success, C.L. points out, “I could only drive one truck, so it took a lot of people to build this company to what it is today. I learned from my peers. I watched successful people in the business and tried not to make the mistakes some of them made. I surrounded myself with good people. I watched out for opportunities and tried to take advantage of them. I didn’t set out to be a $2 billion carrier. I was successful with 50 trucks and I could’ve just left it at that, but then I saw some opportunities and it all just seemed to happen. I didn’t set out to be successful, but I sure didn’t want to fail. I think that’s what drove me.”
Aside from business, C.L. is proud of his family. He has four children and he says, “Success for me is having raised four children who know how to work. Two of my oldest sons actually run the company and are taking it to the next level. They are taking advantage of new technologies and I’m proud of what they have accomplished.”
Today, unencumbered by the day-to-day operations of his business, C.L. spends a great deal of time on his cattle ranches. In the 1960s, he began buying land—farms and ranches—mostly in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Colorado, and Hawaii. He now owns thousands of acres and, as a licensed pilot, enjoys flying over his cattle operations. “It’s my hobby now,” he says. “I drive trucks and haul cattle. I just love land. Paper money doesn’t excite me. But this life would never have happened if I’d stayed on my family farm, which I still own today. I had to go out in the world to make my way, and then I came back to the land.”
In fact, following one’s passions is Mr. Werner’s advice to young people. “Find what you like to do and then work hard at it,” he says. “There is no set pattern for success. You don’t have to copy others and try to make yourself do something you don’t like. It takes a lot of people to make this world go around.”
Clarence Werner’s Activities and Honors
In 2010, the C.L. Werner family received the “Centennial Citizen of the Year” award from the Boy Scouts of America, Mid-American Council, to honor them for their core values and volunteerism. Also in 2010, Mr. Werner was presented the University Nebraska Medical Center Chancellor’s Distinguished Service Award for outstanding support.
The Werner Institute for Negotiation and Dispute Resolution was established at Creighton University in 2005 to serve as a leader in advancing the field of conflict resolution. In 2011, U.S. News and World Report ranked the Werner Institute in its top 20 Dispute and Resolution schools, tied with Stanford.
Mr. Werner received the “Help Is Hope” award from the Autism Action Partnership for his extraordinary support in the fight against autism. The Werner family gave $5 million to establish the C.L.Werner Family Neurodevelopment Disorders Research Laboratories at the Durham Research Center II.
In addition, between his personal gifts and private foundation grants, millions of dollars have been given to a variety of non-profits that support women, children, and the abused/neglected. C.L. Werner especially tries to help those who suffer from adversity and who have a desire to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.