Johnelle Hunt tells life story to trucking executives, ATA members

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 964 views 

J.B. Hunt Transport co-founder Johnelle Hunt spoke Thursday (May 4) to trucking executives and members of the Arkansas Trucking Association at the organization’s annual business conference at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers.

Johnelle Hunt told the story of her life with her late husband Johnnie Bryan Hunt, who together established a trucking company more than 55 years ago.

On Thursday (May 4), she spoke to trucking executives and members of the Arkansas Trucking Association at the organization’s annual business conference at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers. Like Hunt, who celebrated her 85th birthday in January, the trucking association is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year.

Hunt was 16 and Johnnie was 21 when they met in Heber Springs. She recalled him driving a red Ford truck with his name on the side of it, and she and her friend wanting to ride in the truck with him. She remembers they talked about who would sit next to him, and “once I got in beside him, I never left,” she said. “We dated for four years.”

He worked as a truck driver, but he also established other businesses, including selling cement, rock and lawn sod. The lawn sod was “our extra money,” she said. While he often spent a lot of time away from home as a truck driver, she understood he was doing so to provide for the family.

“I love truck drivers,” she said. “I know the life of a truck driver.”

She explained how truck drivers “suffer so much because they are away from home.” Her husband might not have made it home for anniversaries or birthdays, but “we lived well and had nice places to live in.”

After moving to Little Rock from Texarkana, the couple purchased their first home. It was 836 square feet.

“It was a mansion to us.”

He later started a rice hull business after seeing someone burning rice hulls along a route he drove. He sold stock in the company to potential customers, including poultry companies.

“He was a salesman, and he was a good salesman,” Hunt said. “It didn’t come easy.”

About that time, he had a serious crash on a run between Hoxie and Jonesboro and was trapped in the truck.

“Everything was in flames,” she said. But he kept kicking on the door and was able to get out. “He heard God say walk away from this. That was a tragic thing for us to go through.” But he knew he would be driving again along that same road.

“I think trucking was always so good to us,” Hunt said.

In 1969, Red Hudson, founder of Hudson Foods, suggested Johnnie should buy a refrigerated trucking company, with its five tractors and seven trailers. They did, and it was the start the trucking company J.B. Hunt Transport Services. The trucking company switched to dry-van trailers, not long afterward. In the first year of operation, she said the company lost $19,000, and accountants were telling them to shut down.

“We just kept working,” she said, and it never lost money again.

In 1971, she said the rice hull company burned.

She recalled taking orders on the floor of a mobile home while living in Stuttgart.

“Wherever I’m at, I’m happy where I am,” she said. “I was not for moving to Northwest Arkansas.”

Her husband told her that if they moved she would never have to work again. She had learned the rice hull business, and she was about to learn the trucking business.

“One thing I did was start collecting the money,” she said. “We were losing so much money. It was so hard to make money before deregulation.” But she didn’t care what it took to collect. “I’d call at 10 o’clock at night.”

When Johnnie looked to take the company public, they first needed to sell the rice hull company. They sold it to Eli Lilly. She remembers going to get the check and not even looking at it, just putting it in her purse. But as soon as she returned, they said, “‘let’s see the check.’”

They didn’t want to go public, she said. They didn’t want to share that with anyone. But the company did in 1983. They had always run the company as if it were a public company. It originally had 44 shareholders before going public. And when it went public, it didn’t change the way the business was run. One difference was they could see the price of the stock.

In 1989, on a handshake deal, the company entered the intermodal business.

“It was one of the biggest things that came along for us,” she said. (J.B. Hunt’s intermodal business accounted for 64% of its operating income and 57% of its revenue in the first quarter of 2017.) She doesn’t think the general public has any idea what intermodal has done for the country, pointing to the existing trucks on Interstate 49.

“We will need our truckers,” she said. “We always will.”

Something she had always talked about was retiring, but Johnnie never did.

“He was the first to retire,” she said.

Afterward, he started several development projects, establishing rock quarries in Northwest Arkansas and Honduras and operating drilling rigs. In December 2006, when he fell, he lived another five days before he died.

“I knew what my job was going to be,” she said, adding that he had 500 families depending on him.

She said when she goes home at night she speaks to him for encouragement, and she hears him laugh and knows that she can do it.

“I get up and still go to work,” she said. “I’m just still carrying out his dream.”

Since 2002, Hunt Ventures has built more than 1 million square feet of retail and commercial space in the Pinnacle Hills area of Rogers, including the 10-story Hunt Tower.

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