IN JUNE, STEPHEN BURNS, chairman and CEO of Wheaton World Wide Moving, received the 2006 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Best of Indiana category within the newly reorganized Lake Michigan Area program, including companies from Illinois, Indiana, western Michigan and Wisconsin.
Wheaton is the eighth-largest van lines company in the country, moving individuals, Corporations and government entities efficiently across the U.S. and around the globe, from Antigua to Zimbabwe. Burns is now eligible for the national Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, to be announced in November.
When he took over as CEO of Wheaton in 1986, his objective was to build on the company’s four-decade reputation for customer satisfaction. In addition to continuing the honor of earning the Good Housekeeping Seal for interstate moving every year since 1964, Wheaton earned a spot in the book The Service Edge: 101 Companies That Profit from Customer Care” by Ron Zemke and Dick Schaaf. It’s also been the official mover for Steinway & Sons pianos since 1990, and most recently, garnered the top ranking in total customer satisfaction in a nationwide survey of relocated employees.
Bums’ selection as CEO didn’t come after years of working in the No. 2 spot or because of a fancy business school education. “For 20 years I was a lawyer,” he says. “Wheaton Van Lines was a client of my dad’s firm.” He joined Wheaton’s board in 1974 and was its general counsel. He was also Earnest Wheaton’s personal attorney. “I set up an elaborate trust to protect his immediate family in 1984 and decide who would run the company,” which initially was to be a committee. In subsequent conversations, Burns suggested Wheaton pick a successor, and Wheaton said why not Burns?
“I was concerned whether I had the skill sets,” said Bums. “But I was disenchanted with the law and my father had passed away It was a fresh start for me.” He knew he would have big shoes to fill, however. Earnest Wheaton became a risk-taking entrepreneur in 1945 when he left Indianapolis-based mover Aero Mayflower to venture out on his own and start Wheaton Van Lines with $2,500.
It took a couple years to feel really comfortable in the new job, Burns says. He visited nearly every independent agent–there were 225 at the time, now there are nearly 300–and rode along in the trucks. He began hiring some of his own people, and decided it was finally time to relinquish the general counsel title he’d held onto.