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One of the most successful entrepreneurs in Arkansas history, Johnnie Bryan “J. B.” Hunt rose from humble beginnings to found one of America’s largest trucking firms, J. B. Hunt Transport Services. Today, his company is one of the largest employers in the state, with nearly 15,000 employees and a fleet of 9,688 trucks. The firm is consistently listed among Forbes magazine’s largest corporations.
The son of sharecroppers, J. B. Hunt was born on February 28, 1927, in rural Cleburne County. He left school after the seventh grade to work at his uncle’s sawmill and eventually found other work picking cotton and selling lumber.
In 1952, he married Johnelle DeBusk, and the couple went on to have two children. A year after their marriage, Hunt began driving a commercial truck for Superior Forwarding Company of Little Rock (Pulaski County). In the early 1960s, Hunt began producing poultry litter and selling it to the many poultry companies in Arkansas. He set up such a company in Stuttgart (Arkansas County) in 1961 but lost over $20,000 the first year. Eventually, the company turned around, and Hunt was shipping poultry throughout the nation. In 1969, Hunt established a trucking company—with five trucks and seven trailers in the beginning—as a sideline business to his poultry feed company. A decade later, J. B. Hunt Transport Services was shipping goods across the country, and Hunt’s trucking firm eventually became the largest publicly held trucking company in America.
The 1980 deregulation of the trucking industry, which Hunt had foreseen, played a major role in his company’s development during the 1980s. His cost-cutting efforts increased profits dramatically and soon became an industry-wide standard. For one, Hunt bought his own trucks instead of leasing them from owner-operators as other firms often preferred. Perhaps most importantly, Hunt set a trend of keeping driver pay as low as possible. This in turn actually benefited some drivers, because by keeping labor costs low, Hunt could offer his drivers more freight to carry than competitors could. Hunt also secured a lucrative contract to haul merchandise for Wal-Mart, which became Hunt’s largest customer.
By the 1990s, Hunt presided over a company that was earning over $1 billion annually and was employing thousands of people. The company also spread to Mexico and formed a lucrative partnership with the Santa Fe Railroad—a move that shocked industry insiders but proved to be a winning strategy. Today, J. B. Hunt Transport Services is headquartered in Lowell (Benton County), where Hunt made his home after stepping down as senior chairman in 2004. After retiring from the day-to-day operation of his trucking firm, Hunt spent the remainder of his life engaged in investment, philanthropic activities, and real estate development—particularly in Rogers (Benton County). He was one of northwest Arkansas’s most active promoters of business development in the area.
Hunt died on December 7, 2006, several days after he slipped on ice and fell, hitting his head. His widow, Johnelle, and his son Bryan continue as directors of the firm. An important innovator in the trucking industry, Hunt left behind a legacy as one of the most creative minds in the business. When asked by a reporter to divulge the secret of his success, he famously replied, “I just haul the freight and the money rolls in.”
For additional information:“J. B. Hunt, 79; Truck Driver Built Transportation Empire.” Washington Post, December 9, 2006, p. B07. Online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/08/AR2006120801566.html (accessed August 8, 2016).
Patton, Oliver B. “J. B. Hunt.” Heavy Duty Trucking: The Business Magazine of Trucking, January 2005, pp. 96–99.
Schwartz, Marvin. J. B. Hunt: The Long Haul to Success. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
Brent E. RiffelUniversity of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 8/8/2016
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