Stumbling Across a Bit of Vietnam off of I-40

As I was driving my now-familiar route from Fayetteville to Little Rock, a sign on a building caught my eye with words I hadn't seen since Southeast Asia.

A few Google searches later and sure enough, it was the site of the first Vietnamese company to open a manufacturing facility in the U.S.: Vinh Long. While they announced their expansion to Arkansas in 2013, it has taken them some time to juggle cultural and industry learning curves. They will finally start trial production this summer.

After a winding series of emails, I ended up meeting with the bi-national team that's been pulling Vinh Long Arkansas, LLC together. The site will produce wooden furniture, primarily for IKEA, though the leadership team has big dreams to expand their U.S. business quickly.

It was special to see these two worlds collide. Who would have predicted I'd be talking about bun cha and Phu Quoc in a warehouse in Morrilton, Arkansas?

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Vietnamese plant near state debut

Investment now $15M, Morrilton site gears for summer start

By Emma N. Hurt

In 2013, the state of Arkansas announced that the first Vietnamese company to open a manufacturing plant in the United States selected Morrilton as its new home. More than three years later, the plans conveyed in that news release finally are becoming a reality.

Vinh Long, a woven-products and furniture manufacturer based in Vinh Long province in Vietnam's Mekong delta, promised to invest $5 million at the site of the former Bosch factory on Telex Drive. It originally planned to begin production in 2014.

While that timeline has been extended, so has the size of the investment, to about $15 million. The more than 200,000-square-foot building has been extensively renovated, has a new coat of paint and is just starting to fill with new manufacturing equipment.

The company now employs 11 people and plans to begin trial production this summer with 25. Its owner, Phan Thi My Hanh, bought a house in the area.

"They are definitely determined to make this business work," said Jerry Smith, president and chief executive of the Morrilton Chamber of Commerce.

"The owner, Madame Hanh, is very much involved with it, and she takes everything about this project very personally," Smith said. "I appreciate that she is bullish, if you will, on Morrilton and the economy here. She really thinks this is a growing community."

Hanh has family members in Maumelle and purposefully selected Arkansas for its slower pace of life and ease of access to the wood needed for furniture, said Le Thai Tinh, Vinh Long's sales director who is coordinating the setup of the American operation. He has been back and forth from Vietnam about 20 times, so far.

Dung Tran (left) Danial Evans and Le Thai Tinh of Vinh Long, a Vietnamese manufacturing company that will open in Morrilton

Dung Tran (left) Danial Evans and Le Thai Tinh of Vinh Long, a Vietnamese manufacturing company that will open in Morrilton


"This is not only for business; it's not only to make money," he said of Vinh Long Arkansas. "Part of our mission is to create something here for the community."

Of the 11 employees in Morrilton, three used to work in the same building, when it was the Bosch plant. When Bosch moved its production to Mexico in late 2012, 140 people lost their jobs. Vinh Long has been working with the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton to coordinate internships, recruiting and ongoing training programs for employees.

"I think what Vinh Long is bringing in is a sense of high-tech," said Robert Keeton, division chairman of technical studies at the college.

"Everything they're doing is going to be automated. They're bringing in some state-of-the-art equipment over there. Once they're fully operational, I think they'll be a pretty significant employer in Conway County."

Of the delayed timeline, Smith said, "They have nothing other than the intention to do what they said. It's just taken them longer to adapt to the way things are done in the U.S."

Tinh said there was a steep learning curve between business in his home country and business in the United States.

Specifically, he noted that there had been some miscommunication involving contractors and the renovation of the building.

"The way of working with contractors here is very different. In Vietnam, they give you a quote at the beginning and that's what you pay at the end," he said. "But here, the price can end up being more or less than what they originally quoted."

Additionally, the operation in Morrilton -- particle board furniture manufacturing -- was an entirely new segment for Vinh Long. Until now the manufacturer primarily produced woven goods in a 700-person factory and a 10,000-person team of weavers in Vietnam.

Ninety percent of the company's business is done with furniture retailer Ikea.

Hanh decided to expand her company into wooden furniture with a new workshop in Vietnam and in the U.S. at the same time, learning everything from scratch. Vinh Long ended up hiring a German consulting company to help figure out what machinery to buy and how to lay out its new facilities, also contributing to the delay.

Smith said the company is "going first class on everything they do." He said that when people ask if it's ever going to open, "I say, 'They've spent too much money not to.'"

"I'm just really looking forward to when they get going," he said.

"It's good to see it all finally coming along," said Danial Evans, information-technology manager and Vinh Long Arkansas' third employee. "For six months when I first started we were just cleaning, painting and prepping. And all of a sudden machines are starting to roll in."

Marc Roberts is working at the plant through an internship with the college, where he studies industrial mechanics and maintenance technology.

"From what I can see here and from what I see of the people they're trying to hire, it's going to be great for the community and a great relationship between the two countries," he said.

Mike Preston, executive director at the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, agreed that there are "some learning curves along the way for any country to start doing business in another."

"It takes them a while to understand our customs and our traditions," he said. "Every country is a little different, and you're talking about a country halfway around the world."

Vinh Long was promised an incentive package from the state once it employs 75 people.

"Until then, we will help them however we can to get them to that point, as long as it's not monetarily," he added.

Preston said Vietnamese companies "are just getting ready to take off" and have "a world of potential" in terms of global investment. He said the commission has two offices in Asia to help foster relationships with that part of the world.

In 2015 Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a memorandum of understanding with the chairman of Dong Nai province's People's Committee at a ceremony in Little Rock. The gesture formally declared a mutual desire to keep expanding the relationship between the state and the province just north of the country's capital, Ho Chi Minh City.

Tin Nghia Corp., a major Vietnamese company in Dong Nai, opened a trade office in Arkansas about the same time.

The Vietnam-U.S. trade relationship represented about $52 billion in both directions in 2016. It is the United States' 12th-largest import partner.

While Vinh Long posted $35 million in export sales last year, it has ambitious plans to make that $100 million by 2020. The company hopes to quickly start diversifying its business through other opportunities in the U.S. market.

"This is our future," Tinh said, gesturing to the Arkansas plant.

SundayMonday Business on 03/26/2017

The Arkansan Roots of a "Prince of Truffles"

Well, I've got another non-trucking story for you because it's too interesting not to share. If you're looking for trucking news, check out my clips tab where I continuously link to all my articles as they post. (The latest? How Arkansas's recent legalization of medical marijuana might affect the trucking industry.)

Ian Purkayastha has captured the imagination of many around the country, with good reason. His is the story of a teenager who started foraging for mushroom in the Ozark mountains and long story short, now supplies truffles and other exotic foods to 80 percent of New York's Michelin restaurants. He's 24. Forbes called him the "prince of truffles," the New Yorker just published a profile and the Wall Street Journal and Planet Money have also done stories, to name a few. Oh and he just published a memoir.

I interviewed him too, digging into his Arkansas story. While born in Houston, his family moved here while he was in high school, he made his first truffle sales in downtown Fayetteville and his parents still own a local restaurant. One of the reasons he likes his second home in the Berkshires, he told me, is that it reminds him of Arkansas.

If you want to learn even more, consider checking out his book. As he told me, he used it as a way to "demystify" the story and industry, and he really lays it all out there in detail.

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Truffle firm rooted in Arkansas

Business of entrepreneur who foraged for mushrooms reaches nearly $8M

By Emma N. Hurt

In the forests of Northwest Arkansas, a teenage Ian Purkayastha first discovered his passion for mushrooms and rare, wild foods.

Today the 24-year-old lives in Manhattan and is on track to sell $8 million worth of truffles, mushrooms and other exotic foods like caviar, wild greens and live seafood in 2017.

His company, Regalis Foods, manages over 300 accounts nationwide, including 80 percent of New York's Michelin-starred restaurants. He also published a memoir, Truffle Boy, this year.

Back in his midteens, Purkayastha and his family had just moved to Arkansas from Houston as his parents sought a simpler life amid the recession. His uncle, Jared Pebworth, an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, had been living in Fayetteville and taught his nephew to forage for mushrooms around a family cabin in Huntsville and all over the Ozarks, near Harrison, Goshen and even at Finger Park in Fayetteville.

Purkayastha dug into researching edible mushrooms and ultimately became fixated on the truffle after tasting the rare, expensive delicacy for the first time on a trip back to Houston. It was a meal that would shift the trajectory of his life.

"When he gets into something, he's very focused. He's always had this ability to take something he's learned and take it a little bit further," Pebworth said. "I never doubted that whatever he did he would take it to the next level."

After saving up gift money, the 15-year-old found a French truffle supplier and ordered his first kilogram, intending to re-create that first truffle dish. He quickly realized a kilo was too much, so he put the best two truffles in his refrigerator, and his dad drove him to downtown Fayetteville to try to sell the rest to Ella's, Theo's and Bordinos restaurants.

That inaugural $260 sale launched Purkayastha's first company, Tartufi Unlimited. The staff at the Washington County Courthouse had to check with a supervisor because they had never seen someone so young apply for a tax ID number to legally sell wholesale products.

By the end of high school, the prospects of his truffle distribution business outweighed the appeal of college. Even though he had won an entrepreneurship scholarship, "I convinced my parents to let me move to New York, defer college and pursue this dream of selling truffles and mushrooms. I've been very lucky to have such supportive parents who have let me take this different path to education," he said.

His parents, Lisa and Abhijeet Purkayastha , are longtime entrepreneurs (they operate Khana Indian Grill in Fayetteville) and championed their son's dream despite his setbacks, including when he was beaten and robbed on his third day in the city.

"I think any other parent would have made me come home right away, but they were supportive and encouraging," he recalled. "That has really been the success in this whole thing: having a strong foundation in my parents and a strong support system. Without that it would have been impossible to achieve any of this."

Pursuing his dream to "make it big in New York" came with even more challenges. Purkayastha was only paid commission by the Italian distribution company he sold for. He lived in a bad part of Newark, N.J., his office was above a methadone clinic without air conditioning and he had to "fight for every order," initially facing a lot of rejection. Eventually though, his persistence, reliability and the high quality of his truffles won over some of New York's best chefs.

"I assumed that if I continued pushing through and continued to hustle that I would become successful someday," he said. "It obviously took a long time, but it got to a point where people started reordering truffles and started trusting me. The cold calls turned into restaurants calling me wanting to do business with me."


In the six years since, Purkayastha has learned a lifetime of business lessons. He has had suppliers swindle him and undergone many logistical nightmares, from a shipment getting incinerated at customs because of suspected bug infestation to having a car towed, full of truffles to be delivered. He had to include money for parking tickets in his budget and ended up parting ways with the Italian distribution company as well as his original Regalis Foods business partners once he realized they were undervaluing him.

Today, he says things are finally stable. Before, Purkayastha recalled living a lonely life "in a depressive state, working myself to death, 18-hour days, six days a week," but now he has seven employees and four delivery trucks. He lives on the Upper West Side with a second home in western Massachusetts.

While he estimates he is the third largest supplier in the country, "there is endless competition," he said. "Every year is harder and harder" as more people try to break into the lucrative market.

"We're constantly trying to find that next big thing," he said.

Over the years he has gotten threats, had his tires slashed and had competitors approach him to price fix the market. Truffle smuggling is also a problem, he said, given the ease with which someone can slip some truffles in a suitcase.

Regalis' competitive edge, according to Purkayastha, came from several directions. First, he said, he has always been militant about the quality of his products. "Everyone assumes that because they're very expensive, these products will automatically be high quality. That's just not the case."

He sells an ounce of Italian white truffles for $230 while French Perigord black truffles are $65 an ounce.

"We have to literally inspect every single truffle that arrives," he said.


Additionally, thanks to some excellent timing, he was on the cutting edge of the recent foraging movement among high-end restaurants.

"I started foraging when it wasn't hip and fashionable with my Uncle Jared in the Ozarks," he said, explaining that Regalis, founded in 2012, differentiated itself with its variety of foraged products.

"I got into these kitchens not with the truffles but with these other foraged, wild plants and mushrooms. The truffle business was kind of a trickle-down," he said.

Ultimately though, Purkayastha's identity has become enmeshed with those truffles. He called his memoir Truffle Boy, after all.

While he says he definitely does not eat truffles every day, and some days he feels "smothered" by their powerful smell, "I still love truffles. I still get excited when we get a new shipment."

"I tell people all the time truffles are the last natural ingredient left on earth. Nothing else is almost exclusively wild."

Truffles have not been commercially produced on a large scale, adding to their cachet and expense.

Back in his teens, Purkayastha had an idea for his Fayetteville neighbor and general surgeon, Wayne Hudec. "He came to me very professional-like and said, 'Dr. Hudec, I have a business proposal for you,'" Hudec recalled.

Purkayastha suggested that his neighbor invest in trying to grow truffles at his farm, Hazel Valley Ranch, that Purkayastha could later distribute, with an equal profit split. They shook hands on it.

It has been six years, so Hudec and Purkayastha suspect they have some truffles under hazelnut trees by now. They are looking for a truffle-sniffing dog to locate their underground harvest.

"He's gotten a different kind of higher education in the world of unique foods," Hudec said. "He's just grown by leaps and bounds. For him to be a success at his age, I'm just proud as hell."

Purkayastha never made it to college. He ended up returning his scholarship money when it became clear scheduling wouldn't work.


His rejection of the "traditional" educational path to success had an effect on his former creative writing teacher at Fayetteville High School, Boyd Logan.

Last year, Logan founded the Future School charter high school in Fort Smith with the goal of cultivating students' extracurricular and professional passions. Each week students spend a day at internships wherever they choose.

"Ian was the turning point," he said. "I realized that at school we were cutting kids capable of all this crazy stuff off from those passions. Ian would leave and do what he was most passionate about after school, versus us cultivating that passion at school."

Purkayastha's business continues to grow. He has opened Regalis Texas after acquiring an exotic foods company in Dallas, and Williams Sonoma now carries Regalis truffle oil, butter, salt and sauce.

However, he's proceeding cautiously. Given the trust each of his transactions require, his profit is rooted in relationships, which makes expansion tricky.

"The success of the business is the personal relationships with the chefs. You lose that the larger you get. I'm walking this fine line between wanting to scale up and putting the brakes on, because I don't want to lose track of what has made me successful."

He still forages whenever he has a chance at his property in Massachusetts and with his uncle in Arkansas. "Wherever we go, it turns into foraging," Pebworth said.

"I'm glad Ian was paying attention," he said of those first foraging trips in the Ozarks. "I like the fact that in such a modern world, he's bringing a little bit of nature to the city."

SundayMonday Business on 02/19/2017


A World-Class Art Company in a Town of 600

In an unlikely place about an hour into the Arkansan countryside, I met some incredible people making exquisite art.

Heidi and Christian Batteau run a global company from a converted seed mill off a two-lane road in the Ozark Mountains, while living off their own farm nearby. They've developed a unique way to hand-make custom, high-end wallpaper, and their work hangs in 19 countries on the walls of the homes of A-list celebrities, luxury hotels and stores like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Tiffany & Co.

Since they rarely allow visitors to their studio, I was honored to see it. I can vouch that they are the "real deal," and if you're in the market for beautiful art to paper your walls with, look no further.

While I don't know if photos can do their work justice, you can find even more images at their website.

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Arkansas artists’ wallpaper goes global

It’s made by hand; formula is unique

By Emma N. Hurt

In a converted seed mill off of Arkansas 23 in the Ozarks, Heidi and Christian Batteau are at work hand-making luxury wallpaper and shipping it around the world to the likes of Tiffany & Co., Saks Fifth Avenue, the Koch brothers and Chanel.

In 2011 the couple left successful careers in textile design and sculpture in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to Heidi's native Witter to pursue their dream of living off of their farm and developing a unique way to make custom wallpaper.

Their work, which can cost anywhere from $60 to $400 a yard, now hangs on the walls of homes, hotels, offices and stores across five continents, including in four of the world's top 10 tallest buildings. And their company, Assemblage Inc., shows no signs of slowing down.

After Chanel asked whether it was possible to replicate a piece of fabric in wallpaper form in 2004, Christian Batteau, 42, set to work trying to find a way to do it. The Los Angeles-native studied sculpture and spent time working for contemporary artist Jeff Koons but said he has been working with plaster and painting "to support my sculpture hobby" since age 17.

Most handmade wallpaper is applied directly to the wall, which requires paying expensive crews for weeks to install on-site. With that process it is also impossible to produce the kinds of designs like the Batteaus now make, because gravity causes them to drip.

He tweaked paint formulas and experimented with different kinds of paper until he found the perfect formula that would be able to handle heavy products like layers of marble dust plaster, precious metals, beeswax and lacquer and not crack when rolled up for transport.

They eventually ended up with the perfect recipe that has allowed the Batteaus' business to take off on a global scale. Unlike traditional bespoke -- or made-to-order -- wallpaper, their product can be shipped anywhere and takes just a day to put up.

Their adopted home in Arkansas has made the business and their current lives possible, they said. "We could not be doing this in New York," said Heidi Batteau, 35.

"It's a competitive industry, and we would have to charge more to pay our artists a livable wage. If somebody is coming to work for us on contract, it's got to be worth it for them to be flexible with the production schedule. In New York we were paying people $20-$25 an hour. The profit margin was low, and you can't even live well on that wage in the city."

They have had two children since they moved, something they say they couldn't find a way to do in New York, given the costs and space constraints.

Batteau grew up in Witter, an unincorporated community in Madison County. Her mother, Betty Blackwood, still owns and operates a hand-crafted textile company, Dogwood Designs, in Witter.

"I knew there was a large craft movement here. There are a lot of people here supporting themselves by making things," Batteau said. "You see that and think, OK, we can do this. We can go out there and make a living."

"Although," she qualified, "it was a lot scarier once we actually got here."

While their best year so far has yielded $850,000 in revenue, it took time to see numbers like that.

"Brand equity is way harder to generate than I realized," Christian Batteau said. "When you have a new brand, big architecture firms are reticent to place purchases from you, because they're trying to see whether you survive."

"We had to wait that out. It took two years. And in the meantime, we were doing anything to make a living," he said. "I was chopping wood on the side to pay the people working for us."

"You constantly wonder, should we just say it's done and go back?" Heidi Batteau recalled. "But you've got to try and keep your positive attitude."

As to why he stuck it out, Christian Batteau said, "I believed in the dream. It sounds ridiculous. But I believed in being able to have our sustainable life, grow our own food, hire people for a livable wage and make beautiful work."

Recently, with help from international sales representation, the Batteaus' business has expanded beyond exclusively custom orders to existing designs people order specifically. "It has made the business steadier," Heidi Batteau said.

Another component of their customer service is "value engineering," Christian Batteau said. "By removing some of the more expensive layers like marble dust plaster, someone like Banana Republic can afford to buy a design, instead of just a Chanel," he said.

"We are an art studio," Heidi Batteau said. "We'll do anything. If someone comes to us and says, 'Can you do it?' We will do it."

Their flexibility and willingness to customize has proved one of their strongest selling points. They have taken things like fabrics, tortoiseshell and leathers and interpreted them into complex wallpaper design, and they have taken complicated and expensive designs down a notch for smaller budgets.

"They're so approachable even though they're producing this really beautiful, luxurious art," said Nancy Winston, general manager for the Texas showrooms of Holly Hunt, a company that designs and manufacturers home furnishings and also represents Assemblage.

"They've done installations for the likes of Louis Vuitton, but you can create your own little jewel in your powder room or bathroom. For example, they use a lot of precious metals, but there are alternatives if budgets don't allow for that."

"Assemblage is one of my favorites to work with because they are so hands-on and passionate," she said. "It makes it fun. You can feel how committed and detail-oriented they are, and you just know it's going to work for a client. Mistakes don't happen, because they are so detail-oriented."

There are almost no other businesses around the world producing work like the Batteaus. Most wallpaper is printed nowadays. Christian Batteau said that even when he tried to outsource orders when it was particularly busy, he could not find a competitor willing to do the same work at the same price.

"It's a lost craft," he said.

The more the Batteaus are doing this, the more orders they have received -- more than 400 as of now. These early weeks of 2017 were supposed to be quiet for them, but they suddenly have five rush orders on their hands.

"It's finally started to really take off in the last six to eight months," Heidi Batteau said.

They've had to hire artists from around the area to help, but they have long-term dreams to bring on even more. They are interested in someday exploring furniture and lighting design and expanding their production studio into a co-working space for other craftsmen.

In the meantime, they continue to run their global company from Arkansas 23, but they hope to increase engagement with architects and interior designers closer to home.

"We interact with the world constantly. This morning I was interacting with Chanel in France," Heidi Batteau said.

However, she said, "I would love to be able to have more local support and work."

"I think people don't know that we're here," Christian Batteau said. "We really are engaged globally, but the local thing is a piece of the puzzle we've just been starting to cultivate."

SundayMonday Business on 01/29/2017

Print Headline: Artists’ wallpaper goes global

"A Pioneer and a Trailblazer:" Being on the Road for Nearly 50 Years

Idella Hansen learned to drive at age 11 and started in commercial vehicles at 18. As you can read in the story below, she's driven nearly every kind of rig imaginable all over the country. She's now 66 and as passionate as ever about her life's work. She currently drives for a specialized company hauling extremely high value cargo and carries a .357 Magnum to protect it. 

We had a fun three hours talking about everything from the "talking books" that keep her mind busy on the road to widespread abuse of student drivers by trainers. I'm really happy to have gotten to know her and to have been able to tell this inspiring story of a true "trailblazer."

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Hansen, a professional truck driver, has been driving since she was 11 years old. She recently talked about her years on the road at the Iron Skillet restaurant in the Petro Truck Stop in North Little Rock.

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Woman trucker once one of the few in Arkansas

For Camden resident, life at the wheel started early

By Emma N. Hurt

Much has changed over the course of Idella Hansen's life, but one thing has remained constant: a love for driving.

The Camden resident first learned to drive a car at age 11. She had an elderly neighbor who liked to go to the roller derby, but he couldn't see well enough to drive at night. So he put her on the edge of the driver's seat of his 1941 Chrysler.

"If I saw an 11-year-old driving a car like that now, I would have a heart attack," she said. "But he made me go fast. I learned how to drive, and I've been driving ever since. It's just second nature to me. I knew then that that's all I ever wanted to do: drive."

Now -- at 66 -- she hauls high-value cargo for IBI Secured Transport in a team with her longtime boyfriend and driving partner, John Smith. Transporting valuable cargo means they are licensed security officers who carry .357 Magnums for protection.

During her life she has driven a wide range of equipment: log trailers, a wrecker, an open-top wood-chip van, refrigerated trailers, dry van, flatbed, a dump truck and a school-bus van.

"If it'll crank," she said, "I can drive it. It doesn't make any difference what it is. It can be a front-end loader."

Beyond the breadth of her career, Hansen started driving when there were even fewer women on the roads than the minority driving now. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated women made up about 5 percent of the occupation in 2015.

"I just think that she's a superstar," said Desiree Wood, a fellow driver and friend of Hansen's. "And I know a lot of other people do, too. She deserves an enormous amount of recognition as a pioneer and a trailblazer that all women in trucking should look up to."

Hansen graduated from high school early to start driving a five-speed transmission straight tanker for her then-husband's family's bulk-gasoline plant. "To this day I'm not really sure I knew what I was doing," she said. "I taught myself how to drive. Everything I did was self-taught."

Settling in Morrilton

In 1968, a pregnant, 18-year-old Hansen and her husband moved from her native California to Morrilton, where his parents were. They eventually bought a cab-over tractor and a dump truck, and Hansen was back on the road. While her children were young, she stayed on local routes, which had her home every night.

She wasn't even deterred when she accidentally fell into an open-top trailer full of wood chips when trying to pull a branch out. It took an hour for someone to hear her and open up the trailer.

"I don't think you can drive a truck for as long as I have without a sense of humor," she said. "You can't let things bother you. You've got to laugh it off. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself."

By her late 30s, she had gotten divorced, her children were grown and she had been driving most of her life. She was a perfect candidate for over-the-road driving. Around that time, Prescolite in El Dorado realized that to win a government contract, they needed to hire a black person and a woman.

Hearing of her reputation as a good driver, Hansen was offered a job, "a great job," as she called it. She took her first driving test in a pair of heels. "From the very beginning," she said, "they treated me with respect and equality. I would still be there if they still had jobs."

"My first trip was to Pinebrook, N.J. I had never driven that much interstate all wrapped up in one trip in all my years working local."

Mud-flap solution

While she has few complaints about this stint, she did face one challenge: Because they didn't have permanently assigned trucks, other drivers would often take hers because she kept it extra clean. So, she decided to buy some chrome decals with the silhouettes of naked men and put them on red mud flaps. "My truck was always there from then on. Nobody took my truck again. I ran with men on my mud flaps for years and years and years."

After a decade she bought her own truck and became an owner-operator until a stint at Tyson Foods in Springdale. While it was "an education" in electronic logs, PeopleNet communications software and driving an automatic transmission, "the [refrigerated] unit isn't for me," she said.

Soon thereafter she was offered her current job in secured transport, which has allowed her and Smith to work together. They stay out for three to four months at a time, traveling all over the country.

This doesn't stop her from staying actively involved with four different trucking-related nonprofit groups, including Real Women in Trucking. Wood, the group's founder and president, connected with Hansen over social media, and they quickly became friends.

"There's something about Idella that draws you to her," Wood said. "She's just, to me, very motherly and comforting and soulful. She's very charismatic, and people are drawn to her. She also, of course, has got a lot of driving experience."

Wood explained they connected over shared personal experiences, too: "She was a single mom for a lot of years, and I was, too. There's a certain amount of struggle, hardship and heartbreak you go through when you live that life, when you're the one putting the food on the table, you're the breadwinner, you're the mom, you're the dad," she said. "It's really an inspiration that she's still out here working the way that she does. ... And she quilts!"

"I tell my friends all the time that my grandma is a trucker. And they say, 'What?!'" said Hansen's grandson, Isaac Barr. "Everyone else's grandma is sitting at home, watching TV, calling other people on the home phone. They don't even have cellphones."

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
At 66, Idella Hansen has made truck driving her life.

Less lonely with tech

Hansen definitely has a cellphone and praised the role social media and connectivity have had in opening up the lives of truck drivers and keeping them occupied. She said that now "I couldn't survive without my talking books!"

She admitted it's still a "lonesome job," but not as much as in the past. "One time, I was going across Columbia River Canyon. We didn't have cellphones. I was by myself. I saw a triple rainbow. I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to show it to somebody. I don't have the words to tell you what it was like. I wanted to have the means to share what I was seeing. I stood there, and I cried because I couldn't share it."

Now, she said, that's not as big of a problem, thanks to camera phones and the internet, though sometimes she still gets lonesome, even with her partner in the truck. That's when she connects her ever-present headset and calls someone up, she said.

Hansen has seen a lot of changes to her industry over the years and hopes to leverage her experience when she stops driving. One idea is to become "a trucking tutor."

Right now, there is a relative gap in the industry for this kind of further training, Hansen said. There are drivers who have had to abandon training midway because of trouble with intimidation, exploitation or harassment by trainers. Often these trainees are left in debt to a company or left without enough experience to get another job.

In addition, there are more experienced drivers who'd like to work on something in particular, like backing up. As Hansen put it, "I don't know if you've ever backed up a trailer before, but they get away from you."

Wood and Hansen have long-term hopes to put together a certified training program like this within Real Women in Trucking.

"When I started, I got pushed out on the road so fast. I didn't want to be an irresponsible driver, but that was just the way that it was," Wood explained. "I still struggle with things and wonder if I'm doing it right. I would just love the opportunity to be in the truck with someone like Idella who could say, 'You could make it easier on yourself and the truck if you would do it like this.'"

Hansen attributed her deep knowledge of her line of work to the chances she has had to make mistakes.

"If you don't make a mistake -- get lost, make the wrong turn, pull in somewhere thinking you can turn around -- if you don't make those mistakes, then you're not driving," she said. "It's part of life. I still screw up. I miss turns all the time. It's not fun screwing up in New York City, though. That's nerve-wracking."

SundayMonday Business on 01/08/2017

Print Headline: Woman trucker once one of the few

Coming Soon to a Lane Next to You: Cameras

When I found out Wal-Mart had announced a pilot program to test in-cab and forward-facing cameras in its private fleet, I started digging into the technology industry-wide. Some companies have already opted for full-implementation of both kinds of technology, and it seems that everyone is pondering it.

While many drivers feel the inward-facing cameras are an intrusion of privacy, most across the industry agreed that some kind of camera will be an "inevitable" status quo shift in the industry. Some spoke about these cameras in private vehicles soon as well. You may have even noticed your Uber driver with one, as I have several times.

It seems to come down to a simple thought: if I can afford the overhead of installing cameras that will take out the stress and risk of the "unknown" often involved in accident claims, why not do it? Not to mention the potential savings on insurance premiums, one of the industry's fastest-growing costs.

The forward-facing cameras are not very controversial, because many drivers and trucking companies feel they are often blamed wrongly by "four-wheelers" in accidents. However, how many companies will go for the inward-facing cameras that might alienate their most precious asset: their drivers?

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

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Wal-Mart asks truckers to test in-cab cameras

Critical-event system shows road ahead, driver’s actions

By Emma Hurt

Joining a growing number of trucking companies, Wal-Mart Transportation is experimenting with in-cab and forward-facing cameras in an effort to protect its private fleet of about 6,000 from lawsuits and insurance risk.

What sources inside the company have called a "soft pilot" program, both forward-facing and dual-view cameras will be used in several offices around the country. Dual views show the front and the inside of the cab.

Drivers in those offices must comply, though the company has asked its entire national fleet for volunteers. Future full implementation of the technology will be contingent on driver feedback.

"Utilizing and testing technology to make our logistics network, a core strength for the company, safer and even more efficient is nothing new at Wal-Mart," said Scott Markley, a Wal-Mart spokesman. "We're always striving to improve, and this is just one of many pilots to learn how we can be even better."

"I think it's a protection for the driver group," said Gary Mars, a Wal-Mart driver who volunteered to use the dual-view camera. "I think it is for our protection as well as the company's protection."

Mars said the decision to volunteer was not difficult because he has a friend who was exonerated for an accident thanks to camera footage.

"To me, it's a tool to protect me," said Mars. "As long as I'm doing my job and doing what I'm supposed to be doing, there is no other reason to worry about it."

Many companies report some drivers have purchased and installed their own forward-facing cameras. But the addition of the inward-facing camera has worried some drivers who feel it is an invasion of privacy.

Photo by MEL EVANS / AP A Wal-Mart truck is parked in front of a distribution center last year in Bethlehem, Pa. Wal-Mart is testing the use of cameras inside some of its commercial vehicles.

Photo by MEL EVANS / AP

A Wal-Mart truck is parked in front of a distribution center last year in Bethlehem, Pa. Wal-Mart is testing the use of cameras inside some of its commercial vehicles.

"I feel like it is inevitable that it is going to happen just because that's the way of the industry," Mars said of both camera angles. "To me it only makes sense to have both. If you're in a court of law and they've got your forward-facing camera, and there's no doubt you maintained your lane, the next question out of the lawyer's mouth is going to be, 'What is that driver doing? Why can't we see what that driver's doing?'"

The most common camera technology, which Wal-Mart has opted for, is triggered by a critical event like a hard brake or sharp turn, then automatically records a short time before and after the event. The exact time frame of the recording is set by the company.

Zero Mountain Logistics, a young Fort Smith trucking operation with fewer than 50 trucks, is testing the technology, both the critical-event cameras and a constant live-stream system.

Howard Frost, the company's driver manager, has been testing the live-stream camera.

"Overall, I like it because it does protect me from people being stupid," he said. "You can't help what other people are going to do, but you've got to be able to protect yourself and your company, your insurance and your driver's license."

Frost said he finds the constant recording "a little intrusive" and would feel more comfortable with a camera triggered by a critical event.

"The way that I look at it is the front of the cab is my office, and behind the seats is my home, because that's where I sleep. The last thing you want is a Peeping Tom in your bedroom.

"But I understand the 21st century of trucking, that the trucking companies have to protect themselves," he said. "Now, billboards on the highway advertise, 'Hit by a truck? Call us!' But it may not be the trucker's fault. Everybody seems to be out to get the trucking companies."

The view available to Zero Mountain of Howard Frost on the road with its livestream system pilot Special to the Democrat-Gazette

The view available to Zero Mountain of Howard Frost on the road with its livestream system pilot

Special to the Democrat-Gazette

Barrett Deacon, managing partner at the Deacon Law Firm in Fayetteville, said there is "no upper limit" to the money at stake when there's a lawsuit.

"If the truck driver is not responsible for the accident, and it was the other person's fault, and it's a catastrophic accident, it's the difference between a zero liability for the company or millions and millions of dollars in some of the most serious situations," he said.

Deacon has been on both sides of truck accident claims, though he now primarily defends companies and drivers. He said the technology likely will become the norm.

"I think we're definitely headed to where in the future there will be more trucks than not with cameras," he said.

Deacon said the cameras "take out the guesswork" by law firms to reconstruct an accident from eyewitnesses and experts. "The cameras, in certain situations, render that a moot point," he said.

David O'Neal, director of safety services at the Arkansas Trucking Association, said there are several reasons why a company might install the technology. After an accident, he said, companies "know much quicker how to address it and what they need to do about it."

Companies also can use it "in a preventative fashion" to study driver behaviors that might trigger critical-event detection. There is also the potential for fuel savings in "monitoring how the driver is engaging the throttle and overdriving the equipment," O'Neal said.

Another incentive involves one of the fastest-rising costs for trucking companies -- insurance premiums. While the government requires only that drivers be covered up to $750,000 per accident, most larger carriers self-insure well above that.

Scott Cottingham, a senior broker with Aon Risk Solutions, said investing in safety technology is "probably the No. 1 way to go if you're trying to minimize rate increases right now."

"In our opinion, the more information, the better," Cottingham said. "Our advice is to arm yourself with as much information as you can. Some will say, 'I don't want to invade my drivers' privacy.' That's fine. That's your choice. A forward-facing camera is better than no camera."

Stephen Jones, senior vice president of the transportation group at Stephens Insurance in Little Rock, said larger and smaller companies are thinking the decision through. Because many larger companies are self-insured, they are considering investing in the technology because "they are saving immediate dollars on the claim, which goes directly to their bottom line."

"Smaller companies generally can't afford to put the overhead into the cameras, so some insurance companies are subsidizing the smaller truckers to put in cameras, because it makes the insurance companies more profitable and saves the trucking companies some on their premiums," he said.

Camera systems can range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand per truck.

"We're looking for insurance lower costs, but at the end of the day it's more of a safety measure for us," said Michael Francks, general manager of Zero Mountain Logistics. "We're looking to make sure we can cover our own bases. If there are accidents, and we do have video footage, that can protect us."

He said some of his company's drivers have installed their own forward-facing cameras.

"To retrofit our fleet is going to be a substantial investment. But if we look at it from being able to utilize as evidence, it could have a substantial positive impact financially," Francks said.

"Most of the push-back we hear from drivers is, they don't want anybody invading their privacy," he said. "And you have to respect that it's an individual's home on the road, but it's also a commercial motor vehicle. It's definitely a balancing act."

Business on 12/14/2016

Print Headline: Wal-Mart asks truckers to test in-cab cameras

First Glimpse of Autonomous Trucks in Arkansas: Uber Freight

When people find out I write about trucking, they most commonly ask about autonomous technology. Is it really real? How soon before we will see it on the highway next to us?

Well, in short, it's already here. Otto, a newly acquired division of Uber Freight (yes, that Uber), went ahead and delivered the country's first commercial cargo load (of Budweiser) using driverless technology a few weeks ago. You can watch their promo video about it below.

That same Uber Freight just joined the Arkansas Trucking Association, which has prompted the group to officially discuss the prospect and agree to push it up their legislative priority list. This is a big step for the association's board, filled with executives at "traditional" trucking companies.

Ultimately, much of the industry agrees: "It's not a matter of if but when." The real challenge, as my story reports, will be convincing the rest of us that we're okay with it.

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Robotic trucking assessed for state

Division of Uber joins association

By Emma N. Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Uber Freight joined the Arkansas Trucking Association on Thursday -- less than a month after Uber successfully delivered the nation's first commercial cargo load using driverless technology.

The association now has ramped up its discussion of how unmanned commercial vehicles might make their way to Arkansas.

"As an industry we're really curious about how they perceive us and our future," said Shannon Newton, president of the association. "I think it offers us some insight and some access into what's going on."

She said she was "excited" about Uber joining the association and what it might mean for trucking in Arkansas. Uber has applied to 10 state trucking associations around the country but could not be reached for comment.

Uber Freight consists of two arms: a freight brokerage segment matching carriers to cargo; and Otto, an autonomous vehicle technology firm that Uber acquired in August.

In late October, Otto successfully delivered the nation's first commercial cargo load on 120 miles of Colorado highway with the driver seated in the back for most of the trip. He took the wheel to navigate on and off the highway and on smaller streets.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has adopted six levels of vehicle automation, ranging from total human driver control at level 0 to driverless vehicles at level 5. Many vehicles already are at level 1, in which cruise control, lane-centering or automatic deceleration/acceleration can sometimes assist the driver.

Otto's vehicle, like Google's self-driving car, is at level 2, in which the driver can give up control under certain conditions and rely heavily on the vehicle at times. Level 3 is complete automation in some driving scenarios, but the driver must be ready to take control if the automated system requests it. Level 4 means a system functioning at the same total performance of a human driver, but only in certain environments under certain conditions.

"I think it's the future, to some degree," said Doug Voss, associate professor of logistics at the University of Central Arkansas and member of the Arkansas Trucking Association's board. He said the general consensus among the board members who approved Uber's application to join the association is "soon there are going to be automated trucks on the road. The technology will be there before people are ready for it."

Voss said the technology should be completely ready within the next 5-10 years, though public opinion and the regulatory environment likely wouldn't allow for large-scale implementation for another 20-30 years.

"They already have it now," the board's chairman, Butch Rice, said of the technology.

"Their software is so much more advanced than all the other processes necessary to get there," added Rice, chief executive officer and president of Stallion Transportation Group in Beebe. "Having to sell that to the public is going to be their biggest hurdle."

"The savings and the potential benefits of the technology are pretty astounding really," Voss said of the potential fuel savings and the opportunity to make trucks safer with tools such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication. "Safety for us is always the top priority we consider."

One of those technologies -- platooning -- is when multiple trucks are electronically linked so they can follow closely behind one another safely. It saves fuel by reducing aerodynamic drag, and can also allow drivers to take turns sleeping. In 2015 the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that a team of two platooned vehicles can reduce fuel use by up to 6.4 percent.

Vehicle-to-vehicle communication consists of wireless transmission of information between vehicles on the road about things like speed, position and traffic information.

While a handful of states have passed legislation allowing for regulation of this kind of autonomous vehicle technology, Arkansas has not. However, Uber Freight's application has given the association more of a reason to discuss it seriously.

Newton said Uber Freight is interested in exploring the use of its technology with Arkansas companies.

"In order to have that conversation, we need to shuffle it up the priority list within our organizational topics," she said. "We're going to have this opportunity now. They're going to come in and want us to at least entertain legislation that would be advancing automation and autonomous vehicles, in-cab technology, etc. We need to decide, are we agreeable to that?

"We've got to be ready to talk about that and decide whether our members are willing to engage on those issues," she said. And in talking to board members, she said she believed they were.

Voss said that over his year and a half on the board, this was the first time he had heard a conversation about the topic.

"The issue is so new that I don't even necessarily think that the state knows how to attack it yet," he said. What exactly the association will work on has yet to be determined, but the conversation has started.

"We'd prefer to have a seat at the table rather than sitting on the side," Rice said about the new technology. "I think that's the biggest part of it for us."

Business on 11/12/2016

From Tontitown to Monterrey: Arkansan Trucks in Mexico

Have you ever wondered how your things get between here and Mexico? If not, that's probably thanks to transportation and logistics companies getting the job done. However, it's not simple, and it's very important...$376.6 billion annually important. Many Arkansas trucking companies have made this a part of their business portfolio, but one in particular has prioritized it.

Between a trucking conference in Oklahoma and my second earnings season, I have been a little caught up in my beat. But even though the story ran a few weeks ago, I thought I would still share it.

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P.A.M. prides itself on Mexico inroads

By Emma N. Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Many Arkansas trucking companies include service in and out of Mexico in their portfolios, but P.A.M. Transportation Services Inc. in Tontitown has worked to make it a featured specialty.

In 2015, 5.5 million truck movements transported $376.6 billion worth of goods across the U.S.-Mexico border, and since 1995, U.S. exports to Mexico have grown 355 percent. It's an important market for both countries, though that doesn't mean it's easy.

"I've heard U.S. carriers say, 'We're going to expand to Mexico.' And I think to myself, 'How are you doing that? What's your plan?'" said Dan Cushman, president and chief executive officer of P.A.M. "Because, yeah, it's a great opportunity, but I've got to tell you, if you don't cross all your t's and dot all your i's you're going to get in trouble. I've seen carriers start a Mexican service and all of a sudden you're out because you didn't fully commit."

SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE P.A.M. Transportation trucks cross the Mexico border at Laredo, Texas.


P.A.M. Transportation trucks cross the Mexico border at Laredo, Texas.

Besides the language barrier, the traffic laws and regulations differ vastly between the two countries. For example, Mexico has no hours-of-service equivalent on the books.

Another layer of complexity involves the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism program. The certification, now standard for carriers working in and out of the U.S., classifies compliant companies as low-risk, which generally speeds up border crossings. Companies must pass regular facility and equipment inspections to maintain membership.

As a result of these circumstances, most carriers' preferred modus operandi -- known as through trailer service -- entails switching a trailer between up to three different tractors and drivers: an American trucking company drives to a gateway such as Laredo, Texas, and passes off the trailer to a shuttle carrier that takes it across the border, where it is finally switched to a Mexican partner carrier that completes the delivery. Then the trailer is loaded up with new cargo and sent back to the U.S. the same way.

"In my opinion, it's a better and safer model," said Billy Cartright, senior vice president of operations at USA Truck in Van Buren. USA Truck does about 20 percent of its business in and out of Mexico using the through trailer service model.

"The Mexican drivers have done it; they know how to do it. I don't need to intervene in that," Cartright said. "It's better to leave it at that than try to educate my fleet of 2,000 drivers."

Another component of the decision is safety, Cartright said. "The safety of our drivers is important, so we feel more comfortable operating with our partners down there who know how to do it right."

Since Cushman's arrival at P.A.M. in 2009, he has prioritized expansions in Mexico, now about 45 percent of total business. P.A.M. de Mexico has an office based in Monterrey, Mexico, with 16 employees handling everything from customer service and collections to sales. They also manage 45 partner carriers and conduct annual quality control reviews of those partners.

Fernando Gonzalez, vice president of P.A.M. de Mexico, runs the office and explained that his job encompasses all components of P.A.M.'s business in the country.

"We average 750 trailers inside Mexico at a time, so one of the main responsibilities is to make sure that those trailers run in and out quickly," Gonzalez said.

This means checking on customers, handling any safety or security issues, dealing with any border problems and staying aware of new Mexican regulations.

Gonzalez explained that through trailer service has become an "industry standard," as opposed to a U.S. company adding an in-house Mexican carrier to handle its business.

Notably, J.B. Hunt experimented with this model with Hunt de Mexico in the early 1990s, though today they use the through trailer service model favored by most competitors. The company had no comment for this story.

According to Cushman, creating a Mexican entity tends not to work because customers develop trust in certain Mexican carriers and are often unwilling to take a risk on new ones. His board of directors periodically floats the idea of buying a Mexican carrier and establishing their own, which he always cautions against. When visiting prospective customers, he said, "Nine out of 10 times they will ask who we use for our Mexican carriers," and then that customer makes clear they only do business with a certain carrier.

Carriers with Mexican entities then have to approach the competitor the customer prefers to keep the business. Those other Mexican carriers, however, "know you will be trying to sell [the customer] on your own services the whole time," Cushman said.

Beyond that, it is difficult to get insurance coverage for a Mexican entity, said Sean McNally, vice president of public affairs and press secretary of the American Trucking Associations.

Even though ABF Freight and ABF Logistics make less than 5 percent of their revenue in and out of Mexico, Kathy Fieweger, chief marketing officer for Fort Smith-based ArcBest Corp., called it "very" important to their portfolio. "It's about capabilities and full-scale supply-chain services," she said.

Cartright at USA Truck called it a "critical" part of their offerings. "It's another feather in our cap to say that we can provide this solution."

"Our Mexico service operations differentiates us," Cushman said. A reputation for being able to manage that process lends P.A.M. "instant credibility," he explained, because others know how complicated it can get.

"I look at Mexico as a brotherly country," he said of doing business there. "They're an extension of who we are and what we are. And when I go to Mexico, I believe that that's how they view me. It's such a great partnership."


The J.B. Hunt Story

J.B. Hunt Transport is the Fortune 500 trucking company based in Lowell, Arkansas that comprises a large part of my beat coverage. Its late founder is being inducted into the Supply Chain Hall of Fame tomorrow (alongside Henry Ford and Malcolm McLean) for his industry-changing deal with the Santa Fe Railway Company, which made intermodal transportation work for the first time.

I heard from his widow and business partner Johnelle Hunt for the occasion, as well as many others from the company and industry about how intermodal happened, and why it's such a big deal. It's a long story, but trust me, a lot shorter than I could have written, given all that people wanted to say on the subject.

Over the few hours I spent interviewing Mrs. Hunt, 84, I learned a great deal about her husband, the early days of trucking in NW Arkansas and that she has an admitted weakness for shoes (as her husband had one for cowboy hats). We also realized that in fact, one could argue she helped create my job, since the paper has a reporter covering each of the three Fortune 500 companies and their industries here: Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt.

One thing was clear from our conversation: she's a tough businesswoman. Though she is reportedly worth over $2 billion, when J.B. suddenly died she came out of retirement in her mid 70s to take over his real estate development company, Hunt Ventures. (At the time he was involved in close to 90 projects.)

We spoke in the penthouse office he had designed, which remains much as he left it, featuring panoramic views, much memorabilia and "J.B. Hunt" embedded in the marble floors. I was, therefore, surprised when she said she's thinking about moving. When I asked why, she replied, "Well, we have about 16,000 square feet here, and we don't need this much space. I can rent that out for a lot!"

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J.B. Hunt to be bestowed hall of fame seat

Widow recalls speedbumps, triumphs of trucking firm

By Emma N. Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

September 25, 2016

Johnnie Bryan Hunt was a truck driver in Little Rock when he suggested to his wife, Johnelle, that he quit to start a new business in Stuttgart. Tired of being home alone, she made him promise one thing: "that we will never own another truck."

She tells the story with a laugh because years later, in 1969, Johnnie Hunt bought five tractors and seven trailers. J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., the company it has become, last year boasted $6.2 billion in revenue, making it the fourth-largest for-hire trucking company in the country. Forbes currently ranks Johnelle Hunt as the fifth-wealthiest self-made woman in the U.S.

One of the reasons for the growth was J.B. Hunt's partnership with the Santa Fe Railway Company in 1989, the first successful venture in intermodal transportation between the rival industries. The idea was to share freight between the modes to maximize the long-haul efficiency of rails with the short-haul capabilities of trucks.

Kirk Thompson, then president and current chairman of the J.B. Hunt board, called it "one of the best decisions in the history of J.B. Hunt Transport." Johnelle Hunt dubbed it "our golden goose."

The foresight and willingness to take an expensive risk earned Johnnie Hunt a spot in the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' inaugural Supply Chain Hall of Fame class. The criteria for admission? Supply chain professionals who have "changed the world we live in," said Brian Hancock, a member of the council's board and chairman of the hall of fame development committee.

He will be inducted alongside Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Co., and Malcom McLean, the developer of the modern shipping container and a friend of Johnnie Hunt.

Though Johnnie Hunt died in 2006, Johnelle Hunt and their two children will attend the the council's annual conference in Florida to accept the award on his behalf Tuesday.

"J.B. Hunt said, 'I'm willing to forgo my driver, truck and trailer and share that with the railroad, because I think it's more valuable for the U.S. economy and my customers,'" said John Kent, director of the supply chain management research center at the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "It was really risky for anyone in a trucking company to go out on that limb and disrupt the trucking business. Most of us humans won't do it, but for entrepreneurs, it's part of being an entrepreneur."

"Sometimes I would say, well he never did go to school and learn that you can't do it," Johnelle Hunt said of her husband's entrepreneurialism. Johnnie Hunt, one of seven children raised during the Great Depression in Cleburne County, started school at age 4 but dropped out in seventh grade. The 10-year-old had to go to work cutting timber at his uncle's sawmill.

Soon, he met Johnelle, a 16-year-old from Heber Springs. By age 21, Johnnie Hunt was trying to design a way to package and distribute wood shavings for poultry litter.

"I'm in high school, and he has me typing letters to manufacturers," Johnelle Hunt recalled.

She continued as his partner in business and life until his death and afterward. The Arkansas Business Hall of Fame inducted them as a couple in 2001. At the company she was very involved, collecting debt, keeping the books and paying bills. When Johnnie Hunt died suddenly, she came out of retirement to take the helm of his real estate development company, Hunt Ventures.

In the beginning, though, he drove trucks out of Texarkana and Little Rock while she stayed with their children. When he came home, he would "sit at the table and draw and draw and draw," trying to design the machine to package the wood shavings, she said.

"He always was thinking. His education was driving those trucks all those years, because he had so much time alone."

While driving through Stuttgart, he noticed people burning rice hulls and decided to find a way to sell that byproduct instead. No one had ever managed to find a way to pack them because rice hulls are difficult to compress. Johnnie Hunt eventually did, and the family moved to Stuttgart where, in 1961, they founded J.B. Hunt Co.

Their first year in business they lost $19,000. Ignoring advice to close up shop, the Hunts kept going.

"We never lost any money in the rice hull business after that. We got up the next day, and we just kept working," Johnelle Hunt said.

Eight years later, at the advice of Hudson Foods founder Red Hudson, Johnnie Hunt made that first purchase of tractors and trailers to haul poultry to the West Coast. After a bank loan, the Hunts were officially back in the trucking business, and they moved to Northwest Arkansas.

They did not sell the rice hull business until 1983, when the company went public. It remains in operation today, still using the same machines Johnnie Hunt designed and patented.

"The first 10 years of the trucking company were really a struggle," Johnelle Hunt said. "Everything we touched didn't turn to gold, and everything we did didn't work, but we always tried to make it work. When you know the path you're going down is not working, though, you have to know when to stop."

"With any innovative company, there will always be things you try that don't work. That's just par for the course with being innovative. The key is to find out how to maintain a degree of resilience that allows you to keep on moving," said Terry Esper, associate professor in the department of supply chain management at the Walton College.

Johnelle Hunt agreed, saying resilience and lack of fear of failure were key to her late husband's success.

"We knew if it all failed we could go back to where we were and be happy," she said. "I think that's the secret -- don't be afraid. Because if you're afraid of losing, you'll never make it."

When the trucking industry deregulated in 1980, Johnnie Hunt and others were able to take advantage of the free market. When the company went public in 1983 "millionaires were made in one trading day," his son Bryan wrote in a letter marking his father's retirement from the company in 2005.

Then Michael Haverty from the Santa Fe Railway Co. approached Johnnie Hunt with a new idea. Haverty had written a thesis in business school about how a railroad and a trucking company should team up to provide door-to-door deliveries, but when he first promoted the idea, people said, "this guy doesn't understand that railroad companies and trucking companies hate each other," Haverty recalled.

At that time, as today, the two industries competed intensely for freight. Haverty was confident in the logic of the idea that capitalized on the two industries' strengths.

After visiting them in Lowell in 1988, he invited Johnnie Hunt and then-President Kirk Thompson to see how it could work by riding a passenger car on a freight train from Chicago to Kansas City.

"We got down to Galesburg, Ill., and J.B. walked over to me and said, 'Haverty, we've got a deal.' I said, 'What's the deal?' He said, 'I don't know, but we're going to do it,'" Haverty recalled.

The deal began with a handshake in October 1989, and they signed the official contract in June 1991.

"We were both determined it was going to work, and we told our people to make sure that it did work," Haverty said.

Despite the overhead cost of new containers and equipment to enable the transitions from tractor to rail, "After a year of business there was $30 million worth of revenue. Today, BNSF [Railway] makes $1 billion annually from that handshake," Haverty said.

Last year, J.B. Hunt Transport made about $3.7 billion in revenue from its intermodal segment, comprising about 1.8 million loads and about 60 percent of its total business.

"This deal changed the entire landscape of long-haul freight transportation in America," Thompson said. "Many truckers and truck lines scoffed at this new operation and said we would fail. Thinking outside the box ultimately led to one of the best decisions in the history of J.B. Hunt Transport."

Haverty also faced skepticism from his peers, though it quickly faded. He was inducted to the National Railroad Hall of Fame, which is housed in Galesburg, due to its history as the site of that handshake in 1989.

"There's not anybody in the trucking or rail industries, as far as intermodalism is concerned, more deserving of a hall of fame [than J.B. Hunt]," said Haverty. "He was an entrepreneurial individual. His gut told him when things would work."

"It's interesting," explained Matthew Waller, dean of the Walton College and founding chair of the supply chain management department. "If you look at companies historically, when they focus on delivering value to customers, they wind up doing these things that seem counterintuitive."

According to Bryan Hunt, chief operating officer at the time, when he questioned why the company should turn over freight to their railroad competitor, his father responded, "The customer wants the best for the least, and that's what the railroad and us can do."

The deal would have macroeconomic effects, too. Kent explained that in 1980 about 18 percent of the U.S. economy was attributed to inventory and transportation costs.

In 2015, that number was down to 8.5 percent, he said. "A significant portion of that is because we've put trailers on the railroad."

J.B. Hunt's commitment to entrepreneurialism and prioritization of customers seem to remain at the company today.

"The thing that I know for sure about J.B. Hunt is that they really pride themselves on being innovative," said Esper. "It's not just because they think of these ideas; it's because they have a culture that encourages them."

President and Chief Executive Officer John Roberts said the company is "extremely fortunate to have had Mr. Hunt as our founder. His entrepreneurial legacy lives on at our company and continues to motivate us to achieve greatness."

Esper said students with work experience at the company "are much more attuned to the issues out there and are looking at those issues in a much more innovative way."

Esper is an officer at the council and has been involved with the group for 20 years.

"This honor is something we should be particularly proud of in Arkansas," he said. "There was an entire field to choose from, and his contributions were deemed worth recognizing in its inaugural class."

"I think it's a representation of the kind of people we produce here in Arkansas."

Johnelle Hunt said that while she and her husband thought about quitting, they never thought about moving from Arkansas.

When they used to do investor "road shows" to present the company to potential shareholders, "The first thing he would say, is 'We are from Lowell, Ark. -- the center of the universe,'" Johnelle Hunt recalled. "And Lowell wasn't even on the map yet."

SundayMonday Business on 09/25/2016

Print Headline: J.B. Hunt to be bestowed hall of fame seat

Arkansans in Chicago

Recently, my beat led me to two North Little Rock natives who founded a startup in Chicago. Their service matches people with pickup trucks and vans to people and businesses that need bulky things "schlepped," on the customer's timeline with reasonable prices. Meet Schlep: the thing you wish you had the last time you moved.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette

John Godwin (left) and Hunter Riley, childhood friends from North Little Rock, have started a company in Chicago that pairs people with pickups and other large vehicles with customers needing items moved.

Home / Business /

Boyhood chums find market ready for Uberlike mover

By Emma Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

When Hunter Riley decided to help his brother out by hauling art from his North Little Rock gallery to Chicago in his pickup, he didn't anticipate it would lead to an entirely different career path.

While there, someone heard Riley had a pickup and asked for help moving a credenza. Something soon became clear to Riley and his childhood friend John Goodwin, a fellow Arkansan working in advertising in Chicago at the time.

Growing up on Topf Road in North Little Rock, the two childhood neighbors always had a friend with a pickup. Not so for many people in places like the Windy City, they realized.

So they founded Schlep to match people with large vehicles and brawn to customers who had bulky items too big to be easily moved but too small to justify hiring a moving service.

"You're going to call on anyone with a truck and an extra set of muscles if you have something heavy to lift across town," said Riley, who has a background in international development and nonprofit and startup consulting. "We really formed a vision around that ... anyone with a pickup truck, a cargo van or SUV could utilize them in a way to make extra money."

"We consider ourselves part of the 'gig economy,' the idea that anyone can plug in through our platform and our marketplace, the vision that individuals with these resources could make extra money." Short-term rental company Airbnb and ride-sharing service Uber are examples of this kind of marketplace, providing platforms for part-time income to independent contractors.

Schleppers, as the movers/drivers are called, go through three levels of vetting before they can claim jobs: personality, professionalism and full background checks.

"The screening process is the most important part and the reason we've grown in such a particular way," Riley said. "It really boils down to 'are you comfortable with this person? Would you be comfortable with them in your home?'

"We're offering an independent contractor network for people to make extra money with the neighborliness from Arkansas, the idea that the person delivering your things is someone you'd want to have a conversation with," Riley said.

The company's tagline, "Your Neighbor with a Truck," encapsulates this.

"We're just two Arkansas boys bringing Arkansas values to a Chicago-based company," Riley said.

Once the pair started digging into the issue, it became clear that there were individual and business needs for this service. Event planners, interior designers and furniture stores previously had to rely on expensive and large moving companies and courier services often unable to handle quick turnarounds.

"We still Schlep for consumers who have a one-off need like for a move, but we primarily plan to make ourselves part of the local logistical business, insert ourselves into this ecosystem," Riley said.

"Prior to using Schlep, we would contract out our Chicago-area moves to different providers. This was costly and not scalable," said Schlep customer Michael Stone of Interior Define, a Chicago furniture store. "Partnering with Schlep provides us with the security and efficiency to handle any type of move and has really made a huge impact on our business in Chicago."

"Everyone wants to associate our business as the Lyft or Uber of," Riley said. "But we never saw that as the end-all, be-all of the company. We've adopted a hybrid model."

Independent contractors range from people with seasonal jobs and students to Crossfit instructors. These "Schleppers" get first dibs on jobs posted on the Schlep app, planned generally a week in advance, unlike the instantaneous Uber or Lyft. However, also unlike the popular ride-sharing services, Schlep has six full-time employees who do deliveries, promote and work events, and train independent contractors. Full-timers are relied on if no one is able to take a job.

All contractors are paid per move. Each delivery's price is determined based on how far something has to go and how many "obstacles" are involved, like a staircase or elevator. Riley estimates a typical Schlep is a sectional sofa moving about four miles with one obstacle, which costs about $75-$80.

"Honestly, I think it's one of the best workplace environments, because we [Schleppers] create it," said Josue Barrera, who has replaced two part-time jobs with a job with Schlep on his own schedule. "Yes, the standard set by Schlep is high in regard to quality, but I'm practically working for myself. I'm my own boss.

"I think of Schlep as a broker providing customer leads. I just show up and do the easy part -- lift couches, etc."

Since their first Schlep delivery on Sept. 1, 2014, the company raised investment capital and has now set a goal of $1 million. They currently handle hundreds of jobs per month.

"It is a great idea -- simple and beneficial for the community, especially on short notice," said Aaron Wolf, a part-time contractor and full-time outfitter and wilderness guide. "People love it."

Riley and Goodwin hope to expand the company nationwide.

"The ultimate vision is to really define the Schlep niche," Riley said. "We think this is a niche that doesn't yet have a solution. It's too often defaulted to people doing it themselves or having to spend way more money than they should."

SundayMonday Business on 08/14/2016

Print Headline: Boyhood chums find market ready for Uberlike mover

Rite of Passage for any Business Reporter?

...the first quarterly earnings story! Mine is about trucks and trains.

For those unaware, I recently moved to Fayetteville, AR to start a job covering transportation for the business desk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Needless to say, it's been a bit different than Southeast Asia. However, this paper has proven a great, stable place to start out a career as a business reporter, full of smart people willing to answer my many questions.

(Don't think I'm a total fish out of water though; NW Arkansas has a solid contingent of Lao and Thai immigrants. There's even a Hmong food truck!)

While I know you are all about to sign up for an ADG subscription, here's a preview:

Home / Business /

J.B. Hunt's earnings up 1.5%

Net income of 92¢ per share misses analysts’ average by 5¢

By Emma N. Hurt

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

This article was published 07/19/16 at 5:45 a.m.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. reported Monday its second-quarter net income was up from last year, but for the second year in a row, the company missed analysts' earnings predictions for the period.

A net income of $105 million, or 92 cents per share, was a 1.5 percent increase for the Lowell-based company, from $103.4 million or 88 cents per share, for the same quarter of 2015. The company posted $1.62 billion in revenue, up about 5 percent from last year's $1.54 billion.

The average of 25 analysts polled by Yahoo Finance had predicted 97 cents per share for the second quarter. Revenue matched the average of 19 analysts' estimates.

The company lowered its expected earnings for 2016 to 7 percent, from a previous 9-12 percent projection, citing higher rail costs and "customer rate behavior." Shares dropped more than 4.5 percent in trading on the Nasdaq exchange Monday, after the release.

"I think basically the messaging is the pricing environment has become more competitive. Specifically there are probably customers pushing back on pricing because there are other transportation options. The greatest competition is coming from other trucking companies," explained Brad Delco, a transportation analyst for Stephens Inc. in Little Rock.

J.B. Hunt's intermodal revenue increased by 3 percent, from $904.9 million in 2015 to $933 million this year, rebounding to close to its 2014 levels of $930.7 million. The company explained that last year's issues with West Coast ports have continued to be mitigated, pointing to continued load growth in both its eastern and transcontinental networks.

J.B. Hunt is the largest intermodal truckload carrier in the United States, meaning shipping of freight containers using multiple modes of transportation.

The intermodal segment's operating income was down 11 percent to $105.6 million from $118.6 million in 2015, reportedly due to rail purchased transportation, equipment costs, insurance and claims, and driver recruiting and retention. Intermodal operating income now represents 60 percent of the company's total, down from 68 percent in 2015.

"Usually rail is a cheaper mode of shipping than truck, but because of a loose capacity in the trucking market, pricing has gone down so much that it is encroaching upon some of the intermodal demands," Delco said. In addition, rail companies have raised their prices to make up for a decline in coal output, traditionally a significant portion of rail freight.

J.B. Hunt's trucking division maintained about the same revenue as the previous year, posting a 1 percent increase with the total remaining around $98 million. Its operating income decreased by 9 percent to $8.9 million, due to "lower rates per loaded mile, increased driver hiring costs, higher independent contractor cost and increased tractor maintenance costs." The division also spent about $700,000 on streamlining and technology redevelopment.

The company's brokerage segment posted the most striking increase in revenue and operating income. Revenue was up 17 percent to $204 million, in part due to a 62 percent volume increase offset by lower fuel prices and change in freight mix.

Lower fuel costs have both hurt and helped the company. Its fuel-surcharge revenue accounts for less than 10 percent of its total revenue and fell 27 percent to $131.7 million. However, its fuel expenses decreased 16 percent to about $71.5 million.

The brokerage division's operating income increased 122 percent to $10.9 million, following last year's promise that the $4.4 million cost of streamlining and technology redevelopment in the second quarter of 2015 would pay off over the following two years.

Business on 07/19/2016

Print Headline: J.B. Hunt's earnings up 1.5%