Two of the most significant moments in Mike Coakley’s career stem from his father.
Coakley, a Brookfield native, graduated in 1980 from Winona State University in Minnesota. That was two years after his father, Charles, had started CH Coakley, a Milwaukee company that provides trucking, warehousing, commercial moving and various other services.
Coakley said his father’s message for him when he graduated was clear.
“Dad said, ‘Mike, this certificate says you’re a smart guy. You’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You may as well make them on someone else’s payroll,’” Coakley said. “And out the door I went for 10 years.”
Coakley moved to Chicago, where he landed a job at the Canadian Pacific Railway and was put in charge of intermodal and international sales. He also spent time at NLS, a Japanese steamship line, and the Soo Line, where he was director of intermodal.
His role at the Soo involved getting U.S. mail out of southeast Wisconsin and into Chicago for rail furtherance, Coakley said. To ensure the mail could be taken where it needed to go, he and his father started a trucking division within Coakley.
Coakley was doing that work while still in Chicago. But, in 1991, his father got sick and asked him to come home.
That was the second big moment in Coakley’s career. He was single, living in Chicago, traveling the world and had a big expense account. Still, he said, there was never any question about what he should do.
“It just seemed like God had a plan,” Coakley said.
His father died later that same year. Coakley said he has no regrets about moving to Chicago or moving back to the family business. But, he said, he wishes he had more time to work with his father.
“I never truly got an opportunity,” he said, “to work with my dad hand-in-glove, day to day.”
When he rejoined the company, Coakley took over its trucking division while also finding time to help out with other parts of the business. In doing so, he was continuing a family tradition stretching back to 1888, when the Coakleys started Orange Lightning Express. That company later became Coakley Brothers, which led to his father starting CH Coakley 40 years ago.
Coakley eventually bought out his brother and sister and became the full owner of the company. At the helm, he has made it a point to follow his father’s guiding business principles: hire the right people, diversify your service offerings and expand your real-estate portfolio.
His work has paid off. The expansion of the company’s real-estate and commercial-moving divisions eventually led C.H. Coakley to take up quarters in the old Gimbels-Schuster’s building in Milwaukee.
In the early 1990s, the company had about $2.5 million worth of sales. Now the figure is above $15 million, Coakley said.
His father, he said, would approve.
“I wish he were here,” Coakley said. “I have no doubt that he’s looking down and pleased with the direction of the company.”
The Daily Reporter: What surprises you most about your job?
Coakley: That my father’s business philosophy from 1978 still holds true: Hire the right people. Real Estate. Diversify. We cannot just be a moving company. You have to expand and grow with technology and outperform your competition.
TDR: Which living person do you most admire?
Coakley: Dan Gable, retired wrestling coach from Iowa. He’s the most successful wrestling coach of all time – his commitment to excellence and ability of training to win.
TDR: What other job(s) did you consider trying?
Coakley: I knew that I was destined to work for the family business, but while working in Chicago for Canadian Pacific Railroad and the Soo Line Railroad, I really garnered an appreciation for the railroad industry and could have seen myself growing in that trade. The training and experience were invaluable.
TDR: What is your greatest fear?
Coakley: Failure. It’s my chief motivator, and I can’t think of any business owner who doesn’t have a sense of fear, both of loss and of not succeeding.
TDR: What is your greatest extravagance?
Coakley: My children. Making sure they have enough to make them happy but not enough to make assumptions about life.
TDR: What would you never wear?
Coakley: A kilt.
TDR: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Coakley: I’d like to be able to answer questions about myself better.
TDR: What would your colleagues be surprised to find out about you?
Coakley: That I don’t like to answer questions about myself.