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Sun State President Discusses Career Journey

Rising through the ranks of International Harvester (now Navistar) in the 1980s and 1990s, Oscar Horton faced post-civil rights era prejudices.

Oscar Horton & Dean Moez Limayem

But, by building relationships, learning about diverse aspects of the company, and succeeding at his work, Horton -- who now owns the Sun State International, a transportation solutions company -- overcame the obstacle of those perceptions to rise to vice president of labor relations. When Horton was offered that position, he said he didn't know if the issues he would face in the job were obstacles he could overcome. The company's labor costs were too high -- it needed to bring them down by 40 to 45 percent or face the possibility of bankruptcy.

"I said, 'Let me get this straight,'" Horton said, retelling the story to a group of USF Executive MBA students recently. "It's taken 100 years to mess this up, and you want me to get people to give up $20-25 an hour in the next 18-24 months?'"

According to Horton, his boss replied, "That's why I gave you the job. You grasp complicated things quickly."

Horton succeeded at this seemingly impossible job the same way he had succeeded throughout his career: by listening, and by building relationships with union members across the nation. Speaking to the Executive MBA students as part of the program's Distinguished Speaker Series, Horton encouraged students to focus on developing and learning from their career journeys.

After Horton had risen through the ranks at International Harvester, holding positions in sales, manufacturing, and finance, he decided he wanted a new challenge. So 12 years ago, with the company's blessing, he bought a truck dealership in Tampa. Now, Sun State International is the No. 1 Minority Owned Business in Tampa Bay, according to the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

"You add up all of my time – and I've got more than 40 years – and I walked away from a successful corporate career," he said. "Success is a journey, and it's quite a long journey."

Horton also discussed his company's corporate culture with the graduate business students, saying the culture is based on cornerstones of trust and integrity. Each of his employees gets a coin with the company's integral principles written on it so that they feel they have a stake in the mission/vision.

Understanding how the business is run is another necessary element for people to feel like they have a stake in the company, Horton said. From traveling the country and working with organized labor early in his career, he said he realized that if he ever ran his own business, he would make sure to teach his employees the business side of the business.

He emphasized that in his dealerships, the focus on customer service is job No. 1. Service is the deciding, and sometimes only, factor for many of his customers choosing where to buy their semi-truck or trailer.

"No one is buying one of our trucks to drive it to church and show it off," he said, jokingly. "Everyone who buys one of our trucks is going into business."

But, when excellent service is provided to make the customer successful, price becomes a secondary concern. Horton said his customers don't need his prices to be the cheapest around because they trust his company to deliver on the promise of quality products, fair prices and excellent customer service.

"There is no customer you deal with who is a legitimate customer who expects you not to make money," he said.