The death of former Yellow Freight chairman George E. Powell Jr., 80, on Wednesday marked the passage of another legend in the trucking industry. Powell is credited with taking a small, bankrupt regional freight hauler and turning it into one of the largest LTL carriers in the U.S.
The company, known today as YRC Worldwide Inc., traces its roots to 1924, when A.J. Harrell founded the Yellow Cab and Transit Co. in Oklahoma City, primarily as a bus and taxi company serving central Oklahoma. The company added intrastate shipping to its services in 1926 and shortened its name to Yellow Transit Co. In 1944, Harrell sold the shipping operations to a New York-based investment group that then changed its name to Yellow Transit Freight Lines Inc.
Powell came on the scene in 1952 when he, his father, George E. Powell, Sr., and Roy Freuhauf, owner of the Freuhauf Trailer Co., acquired the bankrupt carrier. Powell Sr. had been vice-chairman of Riss & Company, a leading Midwest trucking company, where Powell Jr. also worked, Together they put their experience to good use: in five months, they reorganized Yellow into a more efficient company, returning it to profitability.
With headquarters moved to Kansas City, the Powells began focusing on long-haul routes, dropping short-haul businesses, and started buying up trucking companies whose routes would allow it to expand into the north and east.
The company changed its name to Yellow Freight System in 1968. Powell Jr. took over as chairman after his father retired in 1973 – a position he held until 1996. Powell Jr.’s son, George Powell III, joined Yellow’s ranks in the early 1980s, eventually becoming president & CEO.
However, the final chapters of Powell Jr.’s career with Yellow did not shine as brightly as those at the beginning.
By the 1990s, the company’s growth stalled. It then nose-dived following a 24-day Teamster strike in 1994 that resulted in more than $25 million in losses. A brutal winter combined with a 5% wage increase that resulted from the strike resulted in $30 million in losses by the end of 1995.
By 1996, when Powell Jr. retired as chairman, Yellow found itself in dire financial straights. George Powell III, resigned from his post as president & CEO to make way for turnaround specialist A. Maurice Myers, previously the president & COO of America West Airlines. Myers restored the company’s fortunes by 1997 with $52.4 million in profits
Still, without Powell Jr.’s hand on the company’s tiller for over 40 years, Yellow Freight-- which became YRC Worldwide in 2004 after acquiring longtime LTL rival Roadway—would never have become what it is today, according to William Zollars, YRC’s chairman, president & CEO.
“It’s fair to say YRC Worldwide would not exist if it hadn’t been for Mr. Powell,” told The Kansas City Star. “It was under his leadership that the company took off and began to expand.”