A smiling Johnelle Hunt gracefully took the stage Thursday (Sept 29) at the Summit Luncheon held at Cross Church in Rogers to share her insights on business, life and the legacy the billionaire continues to build across Northwest Arkansas.
She is the wife of the late trucking icon J.B. Hunt, and much more. In a question and answer format, Hunt spoke candidly about the love of her life and the legacy she hopes to leave behind.
It’s no secret Johnelle Hunt was an integral part of helping to build the trucking company founded by Johnnie Bryan Hunt in 1961. Hunt said she never intended to go to work because she was content as a homemaker cooking and sewing in the first few years of their marriage.
“As long as Johnnie drove a truck, I didn’t have to work, but when he started his own business, things changed,” Hunt said. “When I say Johnnie, I am referring to the love of my heart, and J.B. Hunt is the trucking company we built.”
But at her husband’s urging, Johnelle went to work part time in the small trucking company that eventually morphed into logistics giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, which now has a market cap of more than $9.1 billion and employs more than 21,000.
“Don’t ever go to work in your husband’s business on a part-time basis. You will end up never leaving,” Hunt said. “Johnnie was the love of my life and he had big dreams for the future. He always looked out the windshield at the next big thing and I was always looking out of the rearview mirror trying to hold everything together.”
Hunt said there was a time early in the company she kept the books and paid the bills, most of the time taking work home and completing it after her children were put to bed. By default, Hunt said she managed collections for the company that sometimes struggled to stay open so she took that job seriously.
“I will say that I am a nice person and love people, but when it comes to collecting on debts, I can be meanest person you’ll meet. I would call the folks who owed us money at 10 at night and as early as 5 a.m. If they would hang up, I’d just call them back. I would say, ‘Pay me and I won’t call you again,’” Hunt said.
Something people don’t know about Hunt is she also took calls from upset drivers and their wives at all hours of the night.
“It was not uncommon for me get a call from a driver who had run into trouble and was about to quit. We published our number for them to call and I was on the other end at home. I have been called every name in the book by upset drivers and their wives because they couldn’t be home for an anniversary or child’s birthday party. I would listen to their concern and then talk them through it. I understood their issues, after all I was married to a truck driver who missed many family events. Johnnie was never home for our wedding anniversary until the 25th year,” she said.
Hunt, who will turn 85 in January, has no plans to retire. In December 2006, she told her lifelong partner Johnnie who lay comatose after a fall on the ice not to worry because she would keep his dreams alive.
“He was in coma for five days and on Wednesday before he passed away on Thursday (Dec. 7, 2006). I went in and had a little talk with him, though he was still in a coma. I thanked him for all the years that I worked at his side because I knew what he wanted to accomplish and he need not worry about it because I can take care of all his projects and keep things going. So when he died, I knew there were so many people depending on those projects for jobs from rock quarries in Northwest Arkansas to projects in Honduras. I jumped in and have stayed there with lots of help from our team,” she said.
Hunt still gives final approval on projects, but her team at Hunt Ventures does the leg work, scouting and day-to-day due-diligence.
“I never really wanted anything to do with the Pinnacle Hills development, that was Johnnie’s dream. I told him you go ahead and invest in that, and I’ll try to save some over here in case that doesn’t work out. After he died, I couldn’t stay in bed and mourn. I promised him that I would keep things going and that’s what I continue to do,” she shared.
Hunt said not everything her husband touched turned to gold, because he was always trying new things. But when something didn’t work out, it was forgotten. He would just let it go and move on. While the Hunts have played a major part in the development of Northwest Arkansas – building and managing over 1 million square foot of Class A office space, 1,000 hotel rooms and the J.Q. Hammons Center and Pinnacle Promenade Mall retail center – perhaps their greatest achievement was working out a deal with Sante Fe Railroad in the early 1990’s to ship freight via intermodal means.
Johnnie Bryan Hunt was recently inducted into the Council of Supply Chain Professionals’ inaugural Supply Chain Hall of Fame for the pioneering work he did marrying trucking and rail together at a time when the two industries were fierce competitors. Hunt recently traveled to Orlando to accept the award. J.B. Hunt was posthumously inducted with Henry Ford and Malcolm McLean, who invented the shipping container.
She remembers the meeting Johnnie had with the president of Santa Fe Railroad in Dallas to discuss how the two industries could work together to move freight more efficiently. Hunt said it was a handshake deal made on a train between two friends who saw the benefits of competitors working together.
“Johnnie stood up and told Mike Haverty, the president of Sante Fe, that they had a deal. Haverty asked, ‘What deal?’ Johnnie said, ‘I don’t know, but we will figure it out.’” she told the crowd. “That was just his way of getting things done, when nobody said it could be done.”
Today intermodal is responsible for roughly 58% of J.B. Hunt Transport’s total revenue. Hunt said every two hours a full trainload of J.B. Hunt intermodal containers either goes into or out of the Port of Los Angeles seven days a week. If you were to put all the J.B. Hunt containers (5,500) end-to-end they would stretch from Dallas to Chicago.
“The little guy who quit school in the 7th grade didn’t do too bad figuring intermodal out before anyone else did. Johnnie was a visionary seeing things as they could be and not settling for how they were,” Hunt said.
Johnelle Hunt was asked how she hoped to be remembered given she’s had a full life of achievements.
“Well, we have been blessed so much and that’s why we give back and continue to invest in this region that is the greatest place in the world to live. But beyond that, I want people to know that I did really care about them,” Hunt said.
Offering some wisdom on what matters in life, Hunt said her family and church are central in her life.
“But, I also tell people that you don’t have to be on top of the world to be happy. We were happy no matter what stage of life we were in,” Hunt said. “Choose to have a good day everyday. That’s what Johnnie did. He was determined to not let anyone build a fence around his dreams.”