Word of J.B. Hunt's passing came across the wire several weeks ago. Given his age (79), the news was hardly surprising. But it nonetheless prompted me to pause and reflect. In his lifetime, J.B. Hunt made a mark. As the late Hunter S. Thompson might have said, "He stomped on the terra."
Hunt retired in 1995 from the trucking company that bore his name. But he wasn't idle in the years that followed. He devoted countless hours to promoting business growth and development in the section of northwest Arkansas he called home. Not only did Hunt serve as an ambassador for the region, but he also backed up the talk with cash. Today, his projects dot the Arkansas landscape, testimony to his progressive spirit.
A sharecropper's son, Hunt launched his trucking company in 1969 and then oversaw its deregulation-fueled growth into a billion dollar enterprise. The company went public in 1983. Throughout that ride, its operations remained rooted in his simple, common-sense philosophy of life and business: Work hard, work smart, and win.
As a trucking reporter, I had occasion to meet one on one with Hunt many times over the years. But the memory that came to mind when I heard of his passing was of our first meeting. That meeting occurred, of all places, in an elevator.
It was the early 1990s and I was a trucking "beat" reporter covering the annual meeting of the American Trucking Associations in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Hunt was there to deliver the keynote luncheon address. That day, I had the good fortune to press the right elevator button at the right time. When the doors opened, I saw the big man with the big cowboy hat look up and glance at me. I stepped into the elevator and joined him on the ride up to the lobby. Delighted to have the opportunity to meet a man whose company I had written so much about, I extended my right hand and introduced myself. He shook my hand, smiled briefly, and then went back to doing what we all do in elevators— staring at the closed door.
In a feeble attempt to strike up a conversation, I asked him what he planned to talk about at his luncheon address. His reply was quick, but not quiet. "I'm going to tell them that trucking is a tough business," he boomed. "I'm going to tell them that there is only a small difference between success and failure these days."
"What is that difference?" I asked. "It all comes down to knowing what business to take, and what business to walk away from," he replied.
There it was. The wisdom of J.B. It was as simple as that. But it nonetheless eluded a lot of truckers. The decade and a half following deregulation saw the failure of more than 90 percent of the nation's largest trucking companies. Many of those now-shuttered companies responded to deregulation with all-out price wars. In effect, they drove their operations into the ground with the mantra "Price it below cost and we'll make it up on volume."
Well, Hunt didn't approach things that way, and that may be a large part of why his company flourished under deregulation while others perished.
A reminder to us all, as we reflect on the legacy of Mr. J.B. Hunt: Profound wisdom is often found in a few simple words.