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The word "I" has no place in John J. Carney's pro-fessional vocabulary.

Instead, the vp-risk management for Vineland, N.J.-based National Freight Industries Inc. stresses the importance of teamwork in turning around the company's safety record and bringing its cost of risk down significantly since he became risk manager six years ago.

Pointing to the logo of National Freight Industries' National Freight trucking unit-a red and blue stylized eagle-Mr. Carney says, "If we want that eagle to soar into the next millennium, we have to put together a team that works together and shares common goals."

"I guess it's easier to sit back and take the credit," he says. "But 'I' is a word that I rarely use. There's no 'I,' 'me,' and 'my'; it's 'we,' 'ours' and 'us. "

Despite his self-effacing philosophy, Mr. Carney is being recognized for his achievements on Business Insurance's Risk Management Honor Roll representing small companies. Among those achievements:

Reducing a National Freight unit's preventable accident frequency to 2.4 per million miles in 1996 from 10.6 per million miles in 1990 through a vigorous driver training and safety program (see story, page 111).

Gaining self-insurance status from the U.S. Department of Transportation, making National Freight one of only 56 companies out of a potential 60,000 to do so (see story, page 113).

Reducing cargo losses through training, loss control and the use of innovative satellite technology (see story, page 112).

Creating a system of written standard operating procedures to minimize the possibility of mishaps.

The 59-year-old Mr. Carney's emphasis on teamwork reflects his previous career in law enforcement. He rose from a uniformed trooper to the third in the chain of command of the New Jersey State Police before joining National Freight Industries as director of security.

"John has saved us a lot of money. He's a good organizer who has instilled a great safety-first" philosophy throughout all of the company's departments, said Bernard Brown, chairman of the 65-year-old family-owned firm.

"He's created a feeling of teamwork among his people and the executives," Mr. Brown added.

"The trucking industry is a tough business. If you can make money in the trucking business, everything else is easy," he said.

"NFI has been a great success story. The family has positioned the company to offer total logistic solutions to the transportation industry, and they have empowered John to be effective in his job," said Thomas Lucci, principal with National Commercial Insurance Services in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. NCIS provides consulting and brokerage services to NFI.

Mr. Carney credits Mr. Brown with having "had the vision and foresight" to create the position of vp-risk management, which gave Mr. Carney a seat in senior management.

Safety, total quality and comprehensive risk management all begin in the boardroom, he said. For National Freight Industries, the current risk management program began when the vp in charge of risk management was given parity with other executives in National Freight.

"I received-and it's the only time you're going to hear 'I'-absolute, unconditional authority to balance the legitimate wants and needs to ensure profitability with the responsibility to protect internal and external customers," said Mr. Carney. "Risk management in this company is just about everything except operations and, to a smaller extent, finance."

Mr. Carney oversees a staff of 55 people. Among the key people involved in risk management and safety are: Frank Ciurlino, director of insurance; Lee Robledo, director of safety; and Tina Ritondaro, human resources manager.

"I'm a problem-solver. That's what I do. That's what I did in my previous job," said Mr. Carney.

"The opening remark usually is, 'We have a problem.' That's how it starts, not how it ends," said Mr. Carney.

"My job is to bring all this talent" in the company and get it focused on how to solve that problem.

"Focus" is a word that often crops up in Mr. Carney's professional vocabulary. In fact, he says "the most difficult part of the job is staying focused every day on a number of requirements."

Looking at such achievements as the improvement in the company's accident record raises the possibility that complacency will set in, he said.

"There's a tendency to sit back and say, 'We're really in good shape here.'*" But he notes that saying such a thing almost guarantees that the frequency and severity of accidents will begin to increase again. "One of the most difficult things deals with staying focused every day."

That focus on improving the factors that increase safety and reduce accidents has to be maintained constantly, he said.

Mr. Carney said that every day, the company has to answer: "Do you hire this guy? What actions should we take with this particular accident? Are we covered properly with the insurance coverages?" These questions and other similar questions must be answered in a way that balances "the legitimate wants and needs of the company in order to be profitable with the responsibility we have to the motoring public and the public in general," he said.

Focus also means "we've been able to institutionalize safety," which Mr. Carney regards as one of his program's greatest achievements. He noted that by keeping track of incidents and knowing which facilities have the best and worst safety records, the company is able to light "a fire under" the manager who comes in last. That manager invariably does better during the next period, because maintaining safety has become a corporate matter of pride, he said.

Mr. Carney also points with pride to the "creation of a memory that heretofore we just wouldn't have" regarding risk management problems and how the company dealt with those issues. The company's "Essentials of Risk Management" documents the steps National Freight took to improve its safety performance.

Mr. Carney said he has been able to use the book when talking with insurers. The volume shows where National Freight was, where it is now and where the company wants to go. He said if National Freight is not certain how to achieve a risk management goal, he will approach the underwriters.

"We believe in partnering," he stressed.

By establishing a process and an organizational memory, Mr. Carney has created a situation where even after he leaves, after the safety director and after the chairman leaves, there is a standard operating procedure detailing how to deal with a given problem.

"It's a process that's going to be improved upon, for certain. Somebody's going to make it better than we did. We've created the foundation for continuous improvement."