Wabash President and Chief Executive Officer Brent Yeagy says his four years in the military helped mold him into the leader of the multi-billion-dollar trailer and truck body manufacturer that he is today. Yeagy served in the U.S. Navy from 1991 to 1995 where he specialized in nuclear power. His path to military service was prompted by the first Gulf War, when Yeagy was an undergraduate at Purdue University.
“I just sat there and said, ‘I feel a need to join.’ When that second semester of my sophomore year was over, I literally went in at the first of June…and I enlisted. And then the journey started,” reflected Yeagy during an interview with Inside INdiana Business.
LISTEN: Yeagy explained his military path to Inside INdiana Business reporter Wes Mills and how lessons learned 30 years ago are part of his business DNA.
Yeagy joined the Navy’s nuclear power program. Upon competition, he was ready to serve as a mechanical operator of a nuclear reactor on a submarine. He got selected for the Navy’s Officer Candidate Program that targeted future naval officers for nuclear-powered ships and subs.
“I was specifically stationed in an R&D center. I worked on putting new equipment on the submarines and then testing the reactors, reactor components, and auxiliary mechanical equipment,” said Yeagy.
Yeagy says working in that high-pressure field required a high attention to detail, a skill that he still relies on today.
“I think it was a result of an understanding that not only attention to detail, but process adherence, creates resiliency,” said Yeagy, adding a lesson his leaders drilled into him was that during times of conflict or high stress, to rely on your training.
“You rely on your process orientation, to take you through that fog, and you don’t wing it. There’s a way that you handle every situation. And you got to do the pre-work to be prepared for when ambiguity strikes.”
Serving as CEO of the 6,000-person, Lafayette-based global company since 2018, Yeagy says there has been no shortage of ambiguity and stress over the past three years as the company dealt with implications of the global pandemic, the supply chain challenge, and other economic stresses.
“A CEO’s job is helping navigate a company through uncertainty. Nothing more. This pandemic that we went through over the last couple of years was a test case for how do you lead an organization through high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity, trying to keep them resilient, under significant amounts of change? Well, the military prepares leaders for that,” said Yeagy.
Yeagy says he finds himself looking back at books from 25 years ago that are loaded with information and lessons that are still relevant today.
Beyond the practical skills the Navy instilled, Yeagy says his military service gave him a sense of purpose. He says it also provided a greater understanding of what it means to put your mission ahead of yourself to achieve a collective goal.
Yeagy says those are common attributes among many military veterans, and that is something human resource departments should recognize as they consider hiring a person who has served in the armed forces.
“They’ve understood what it means to work to a mission, to an outcome. They have resiliency that has been tested, under fire, under conflict,” Yeagy said.
But he says it is critical for hiring managers to assess the unique skill set to ensure it’s a good fit for the employer and the worker.
“You got to know what type of role needs that intangible skill set to bring in. You put that that skill set in the wrong role, you have a mismatch.”
Yeagy says the country currently has the largest group of military members who have seen conflict since WWII. He says that means there is a large number of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other mental or physical issues, that society in general may not recognize.
He thinks it is important for service personnel transitioning out of service to be transparent with would-be employers, “so that mutually both the military member and the company can be successful. And that can only happen through transparency and trust.”
Inside INdiana Business reporter Wes Mills continues his conversation with Yeagy in the afternoon edition of the INside Edge to discuss the company’s recent robust earnings reports.