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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Nearly five months after federal officials raided the headquarters of Pilot Flying J, its founder and chairman is speaking out about the events of April 15 and their effect on the company he started 55 years ago.
Jim Haslam was bike riding in Hilton Head, S.C., when his assistant phoned with news of the raid. He called around trying to learn the details, finally reaching his son, current CEO Jimmy Haslam, that evening.
"My thoughts were: What happened, why did it happen and how do we get the company back together? It was the second worst day of my life. When Jimmy, Bill and Ann's mother died, that was obviously the worst day of my life, but this was a very difficult day for me as well," he said in an interview posted on Pilot Flying J's rebate education website, rebateeducation.pilotflyingj.com.
As more details emerged about the allegations of fraud in the Knoxville-based company's fuel rebate program, Jim Haslam wondered if anyone was going to show up for work the next day.
"The proudest I have ever been of Pilot Flying J is how our team members reacted on April 16 and every day thereafter," he said. "It would have been easy for us to put our heads down, but none of us did that. The company is doing better than it's ever done."
Taking his own course of action, the company founder has visited stores and met with team members in the days since the raid. "People were concerned, but the morale was very high and everybody was dedicated to doing his or her job," he noted.
Jim Haslam bought his first gas station for $6,000 in 1958. Since then, the company has continued as a family-owned business amassing a portfolio of more than 650 locations. His son Jimmy has held the reins as CEO since 1995, and his son Bill is the current governor of Tennessee.
"It's obviously been a terrible event for our company and our family. There's no sense in trying to deny it in any way. It's been tough, very tough. It's an elephant that's always in the room. But I think everybody in our family, and certainly Jimmy as the CEO, is dedicated to making this right," said the senior Haslam.
After spending his life building the company with "a pristine reputation," Jim Haslam said he will spend the rest of his life rebuilding that reputation.
"We will continue to do the right thing and treat our customers and team members in the right way. Obviously, this was a case where a few people weren't doing the right thing. I think the steps we have taken are dramatic in making sure we do the right thing," he said. "We are in the process of paying everybody back and putting all contracts in writing. We have strengthened the sales team, and we're going to make certain the Pilot Flying J Value System is practiced throughout the company."
He also said Pilot Flying J will not dodge the fact that there was an issue.
"It's been tough. It's something you really can't believe. You wonder if this is a bad dream. Why is this happening to Pilot Flying J? Why is this happening to Jim Haslam? But it happened. It's a fact. And now, we are all dedicated to rebuilding the reputation of this company. It's a challenge. But our company and our family have never backed down from a challenge, and this is the greatest challenge we have ever faced," he said.
"I'm confident that we will respond to this challenge, and I'm very, very confident that one, two, three, five years from now or 10 years from now, this will be a much better company for having to go through something like this," he continued.
The elder Haslam said the company's troubles will not affect Pilot Flying J's involvement in the community. "We will continue to give our time, talents and resources to this community," he said. "We will continue to sponsor the many events that we have in the past, and we will continue as a company, as individual family members and as the Haslam Family Foundation to respond to the many worthwhile causes in this area."
At the end of the day, Pilot Flying J’s founder looks back upon words from his college football coach.
"At the University of Tennessee, I was fortunate enough to be coached in football by the Hall of Fame football coach Gen. Robert R. Neyland. [He] had seven game maxims, which he put on the blackboard before each game. The third one said, 'If the game or a break goes against you, don't slow down or get rattled…put on more steam.' This is exactly what we should do and what we are doing at Pilot Flying J," he concluded.