A legend passes

Johnnie Bryan “J.B.” Hunt, Sr., 79, died yesterday in Springdale, AR, of injuries suffered in a fall at his home last Saturday, according to published reports. He built the company that bears his name – J. B. Hunt Transport Services – from the ground up

Johnnie Bryan “J.B.” Hunt, Sr., 79, died yesterday in Springdale, AR, of injuries suffered in a fall at his home last Saturday, according to published reports. He built the company that bears his name – J. B. Hunt Transport Services – from the ground up, parlaying one truck with himself at the wheel into a $3.1- billion truckload behemoth fielding 11,000 trucks and 47,000 trailers and employing 16,000 persons.

“He was truly a legendary figure,” Satish Jindel, president of Pittsburgh-based SJ Consulting, told FleetOwner. “It says a lot about his tenacity and foresight that he was able to build his company organically, rather than through acquisitions, and put in place a hand-picked management team over two decades that’s still in place today.”

“Mr. Hunt evidenced incredible foresight and vision at the time of deregulation of the trucking industry in the early 1980s,” Steve Russell, chairman & CEO of truckload carrier Celadon Group, told FleetOwner. “He was one of the great visionaries that created what the trucking industry is today. His family, as well as the management and employees of the company, should be proud of the legacy they’ve achieved from Mr. Hunt’s humble first steps."

Donald Broughton, a veteran transportation analyst with St. Louis-based financial services firm A.G. Edwards, described Hunt as “the classic American entrepreneur, someone who has the ability to see opportunities which no one else believes exist,” when he retired for good from his company on Dec. 31. 2004.

“For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he started partnering with railroads to offer intermodal service,” Broughton told FleetOwner. “This was at a point in history when it was taboo for truckers to work with railroads. Today, however, 40% of the company’s revenues and 50% of its profits come from intermodal. That’s leading-edge capitalism at work.”

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee noted in a statement that he’d “been a friend and fan of J.B. and his wife Johnelle for a long time and are deeply grieved by his untimely death. He has been one of the state's most colorful figures, but more importantly he has personally been responsible for creating thousands of good jobs.”

Born in 1927 in Cleburne County, AR, Hunt grew up during the Great Depression, leaving school after the 7th grade at the age of 12 to work in his uncle’s sawmill to the help his family. After a stint in the army, Hunt spent the 1950s as a lumber salesman, auctioneer, and truck driver before starting a rice-hull business with his wife, Johnelle, in 1961 – a move that promptly lost them $19,000.

He started J.B. Hunt Transport in 1969 with just five trucks and seven refrigerated trailers to support the rice-hull operation. By 1983, Hunt’s trucking “sideline” had grown into the 80th largest trucking firm in the U.S. at the time. It earned $63 million in revenue, operated 550 tractors and 1,049 trailers, and employed 1,050. As a result, Hunt sold the rice-hull business to concentrate solely on trucking, taking the company public that year.

Though he stepped down as president in 1982, Hunt remained chairman until 1995. And he was an active one at that, organizing the company’s now-famous venture into intermodal in 1989. He also launched flatbed and specialized trucking service businesses that he later sold off.

“The ideas were solid but the timing just wasn’t right,” observed SJ Consulting’s Jindel of those ventures. “That showed his other strength – knowing when to step back.”

Though known for being gregarious and outspoken, Hunt never sought the media spotlight, building his company quietly along the same lines as fellow Arkansan, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. “He’s kept a very low profile,” said Jindel. “I personally met him a few times and his modesty was surprising. There were no outside displays of wealth with him – you would never have noticed him in a crowd.”

Hunt became senior chairman in 1995 – turning day-to-day and strategic control of the company over to chairman Wayne Garrison, president & CEO Kirk Thompson, and his son, vice chairman Bryan Hunt.

By the time Hunt had fully retired from the company, it was the second-largest truckload carrier in the U.S., with $2.33 billion in revenues and $140 million in earnings, making Hunt’s 20.7% stake in the carrier worth some $741 million.

When he stepped away from trucking at last at the end of 2004, Hunt planned to focus his prodigious energies on his commercial real estate company, The Pinnacle Group.
A company press released characterized him as “a staunch supporter in the development of Northwest Arkansas; an outspoken ambassador for the growth in the region who put his money where his mouth was by engaging in several projects that dot the Northwest Arkansas landscape and stand as a testimony to his progressive spirit.”

His business acumen in picking the right people to run his company also received validation, too, as the company posted $3.1 billion in revenues and $207 million in earnings in 2005. “That highlighted his ability to recognize talent – to pick good managers, mentor them, and create opportunities for them so they would stay and help build his company,” said Jindel.

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