Johnnie Bryan Hunt Sr., a former truck driver who founded one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, died Thursday, the company announced. He was 79.
Hunt had been in critical condition at a hospital in Springdale, Ark., after hitting his head on ice in a fall Saturday.
Hunt began J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. in 1969 with five tractors and seven trailers.
By 2004, when Hunt stepped down as the company’s senior chairman, the company was a billion-dollar business with more than 16,000 employees and about 11,000 trucks.
Hunt grew the business by courting Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owner Sam Walton, who eventually became Hunt’s largest customer. All of Hunt’s workers were nonunion and still are.
In 1980, the trucking industry was deregulated, and J.B. Hunt Transport took off. Three years later, the company went public and by 1983 it had $63 million in revenue.
Hunt introduced computers to truck drivers in the 1990s. Drivers use on-board computers to communicate with fleet managers, ending the search for telephones to find out about the next load.
In 1995, Hunt retired as chairman of J.B. Hunt and became senior chairman, a position he held until his retirement.
After he retired, Hunt pursued interests as a private investor in real estate, construction and development. He and his wife, Johnelle, remained the largest shareholders of J.B. Hunt stock.
Aside from his business success, Hunt was known for his kindness to others. He carried a wad of $100 bills in a gold money clip and regularly handed them to people he thought needed the money.
“I was hungry once. And once you’re hungry, you’re different,” he told Forbes magazine in 1992.
The son of a sharecropper, Hunt was born in Heber Springs on Feb. 28, 1927. He quit school at 12 to help support his family, earning $1.50 a day at his uncle’s sawmill. He also sold the mill’s wood shavings to poultry farmers for ground cover in their chicken coops.
Hunt joined the Army at 18 and was recruited for officer training school. He declined and later called that his biggest mistake.
“It was my only real chance to get an education,” he said.
Hunt said his most desperate time came in 1949, when the sawmill went broke, leaving him $3,600 in debt. He got a job driving a truck between Texarkana and Fort Smith, and by 1952, had paid off the debt. He and Johnelle DuBusk were married that year and settled in Texarkana.