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Alumni Profiles

Stephen Russell '60, MBA '61: Opportunity, Experience and Balance


A chance meeting at a toll booth on the Henry Hudson Parkway in 1985 led Stephen Russell to start up a transportation company that is now one of North America's largest trucking carriers, with annual revenue topping $500 million.

At the time, Russell was living in Greenwich, Conn., and commuting to New York City, and didn't have exact change for the 50-cent fee. Russell struck up a conversation at the toll booth with a former business colleague who was also waiting in traffic. "He did logistics for Bekins Moving, concentrating on hauling automobile parts to Mexico, and said he needed a company that could help navigate the process of getting his trailers across the border," Russell recalls.

Russell seized the opportunity, just as he had at other turning points in his career. He put up $30,000 and founded Celadon Group Inc., based in Indianapolis, Ind. He now has some 4,000 employees and oversees a fleet of 3,000 tractors and 9,000 trailers. The customer base includes Fortune 500 shippers such as Wal-Mart, Philip Morris, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, and DuPont.

There have been a few bumps along the road for Russell, but he has been up to the challenges, A Brooklyn native, he had to grow up quickly, dealing with the death of his mother when he was six and with his father's death 15 years later. Still, he completed both his undergraduate degree in mathematics and his MBA at Cornell in five years.

Following posts at Ford Motor Co. and RCA subsidiary Hertz Truck, in the early 1980s Russell had to handle the bankruptcy of Seatrain Lines, a transportation firm where he was president. "Interest rates were soaring, and the company had too much debt," he recalls. "Taken together, those two things were more than we could overcome."

Russell bounced back, taking the lessons he learned and putting them to work at Celadon. "The true test of a business person is not the ability to make an asset into a bigger asset, but turning a liability into an asset," he says. Seeing the opportunities and learning from experience are two secrets of his success. Hard work is also essential, he notes. But balancing work with family responsibilities, and enjoying both — that is critical.

Russell established the Stephen Russell Distinguished Teaching Award, given to a Johnson School faculty member whose teaching continues to influence graduates five years post-graduation. His children are all Cornell alumni: Melissa Russell Rubel '85 (Hotel Administration); Stewart Russell '87 (Arts and Sciences), and Jonathan Russell '93 (Engineering), MBA '94.

- Jay Wrolstad

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