Fifty Years of Forum Memories
This April, at the Marriott on Chicago's Magnificent Mile, Atlas® leaders and colleagues celebrate the Forum's 50 years. Instituted for candid discussion between movers and their corporate customers, the Forum soon grew into the signature event of Atlas World Group - and a mainstay for thought leadership in the relocation industry.
Atlas Agent Bob Shetler, Chairman and CEO of Shetler Moving & Storage (1830), holds an impressive distinction. He is the only person in the world who has attended every Atlas Forum — all 50 of them. The Amplifier caught up with Bob by phone a few weeks before the Forum, and he shared his memories — some a little fuzzy, but most as clear as crystal.
“The very first Forum on Moving took place in Evansville, at Shanklin Theater on the campus of the University of Evansville,” says Bob. “Our agency co-hosted the event with Atlas, and the event organizers were my brother, Joe Shetler, Jr., and Jack Thorne, the marketing officer at Atlas.”
Bob says when the reservations came in, only one woman was among them, a traffic manager with Mead Johnson. “We were afraid she might be a little uncomfortable being the only woman, so I invited my sister who worked in our office,” says Bob. “Over the years, attendance has gone from about 99 percent men to about 30 percent men today.”
The first Forum coincided with the dedication of the recently completed Atlas Van Lines headquarters building in Evansville. Forum attendees received a special tour of the new facility. “We transported the attendees from the Executive Inn to Atlas Van Lines for the tour in several of our cars and a couple of the attendees’ cars,” recalls Bob. “My mother had all the attendees over to our house for late night breakfast. One of them, a Standard Oil of Indiana traffic manager from Chicago, helped mother fry several dozen eggs for the group.”
Attendees at the first Atlas Forum tour an Atlas van at the newly contructed Atlas World Group headquarters.
In the early days, Atlas would feature people with big responsibilities in transportation, typically from large well-known firms. “One of our very first speakers was the traffic manager of Brown’s Shoe Company in St. Louis,” says Bob. “They were like the Nike of their day. We also had the president of Marriott corporation, and the list goes on and on. In those days, the speaker would make their remarks, then answer questions from the guests in a moderated discussion. Our moderator was from outside the company. For several years, it was the editor of Transportation Distribution Magazine—I think his last name was Crandell.”
A client of Bob’s, Eleanor Reaber, was a featured guest speaker in the 1970s. “I used to call on Eleanor when she was with a very large paper company in Philidelphia,” says Bob. “She was working out of a four-room house in Danbury, Connecticut. Home Equity recruited Eleanor to start a relocation division for their fast-growing company. We know it today as Cartus Relocation Company.”
“We’ve had so many wonderful speakers over the years, it’s hard to remember them all. I remember Lee Sherman Dreyfus, former governor of Wisconsin and chancellor of the University of Wisconsin. He predicted all kinds of interesting things, like the popularity of imported cars. This was at a time when the U.S. auto industry dominated. He was a super speaker. Quite a visionary.”
“Once a guest goes to the Forum, they don’t want to miss the next one. They say, ‘I hope you keep me on your guest list for next year.’ All of my guests have become good clients ... and very good friends.”
Bob Shetler, Shetler Moving & Storage (1830)
Bob also recalls several figures in public service who have taken the stage: Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State under Nixon and Ford), Elizabeth Dole (U.S. Senator and cabinet member under Reagan and Bush 41), Alexander Haig (Secretary of State under Reagan), Jeane Kirkpatrick (Reagan’s Ambassador to the U.N.), H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr. (Army general who gained fame for his leadership in the Gulf War), Oliver North (USMC Lieutenant Colonel and central figure in the Iran-Contra arms scandal), and Bert Lance.
“Lance was in President Carter’s cabinet, and he was under indictment for financial wrongdoing at the time. (Lance was later cleared of the charges.) Frank Borman was a very interesting speaker—he was an astronaut who went on to become president of Eastern Airlines.”
Years prior to his presidency, Ronald Reagan took the podim at the 8th Atlas Forum.
Notable media figures have also taken the Forum stage, among them Walter Cronkite, Paul Harvey, and Bob Woodward, investigative reporter for the Washington Post who helped break the Watergate story that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
“I got a call one day from Robert R.C. Miller,” says Bob. (Miller joined Atlas in 1971 as Executive Vice President and General Manager, was named President and COO in 1974 and Vice Chairman in 1980.) “He said they were brainstorming on who to get to speak at the Forum, and somebody mentioned Gerald Ford, former president, and he wanted to know if I knew how to get hold of him. I said I know exactly where he is. Some close friends had a condo at Bermuda Dunes Golf Club in California, and I had met President Ford there and knew that’s where he would likely be. Bob Miller called the club and left a message; a few hours later, President Ford called him back, and they set it up. His speech played off his clumsy image, he joked about his golf game, that he couldn’t yell ‘Fore!’ loud enough or soon enough. He was entertaining. It’s very interesting to hear what Presidents have to say, after all, ‘nobody knows what the President knows.’”
Among the sports figures Bob remembers on the Forum’s dais are Joe Theismann (NFL quarterback), Lou Holtz (legendary college football coach, at the time leading the Fighting Irish), Pat Summitt (coach of the Unversity of Tennessee Lady Vols and the NCAA’s winningest basketball coach of all time), and Terry Bradshaw (NFL quarterback). “Pat Summitt was a great speaker,” says Bob. “And Bradshaw was a wild man up there—funny, very entertaining.”
Former Forum entertainers put on a show for attendees.
Not all speakers created fond memories for Bob. One such headliner was Ralph Nader. “It seemed like he attacked industry, particularly the oil and automotive industries,” recalls Bob. “I had guests that year from Conoco and Old Ben Coal Company, which is owned by Standard Oil of Ohio.”
Bob remembers that Mr. Nadar spoke from the podium, but towards the end of his speech, he walked around the room. When he got to the back of the room, he handed the mic to the production folks. Then, standing in front of a set of double doors, he took his bow and the doors opened behind him. He backed out of the room, got into a waiting limousine, and off he went.
“It’s customary for the speaker to take a few questions after they speak, and my guests were primed,” says Bob. “However, they didn’t get the chance. They were livid.”
“Back in the 1980s, the Forum drew 600 to 700 people,” says Bob. “In those days, the heads of the other major van lines were special guests, part of a roundtable on stage that took questions from the audience. These weren’t PR people or sales people—these were the CEOs of Mayflower, North American, Allied, United, and Atlas—all sitting together and answering any question posed. We heard right from the top people making major dicessions for the moving and storage industry.”
“Any time I can get a potential or current client to attend the Forum, I invite them because I know how much they will get out of it,” says Bob. “The reaction is always the same: ‘OMG, does Atlas do a great job! I learned so much to take back to my company.’”
“The Forum is truly a great networking event and educational tool for the moving industry. I always leave thinking, ‘How can Atlas top this one?’ Somehow, they always do.”
Bob Shetler (left) and clients pose with former mayor of New York City and memorable Forum speaker, Rudy Giuliani.