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Why People are a Key to a Transport Conglomerate

J.B. Hunt president and incoming CEO Shelley Simpson spoke at the NUTC’s Patterson Lecture

The people in her company are crucial to J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. president and incoming CEO Shelley Simpson. She takes pride in how the transportation and logistics company backed its employees during the Great Recession, and how it’s doing the same during today’s “freight recession” that is squeezing J.B. Hunt and the rest of the industry. 

A J.B. Hunt employee for 29 years, Simpson trusts the company’s staff to execute new plans.

“Everything for us and our cycle of innovation, the most important part is our people making it happen,” Simpson said.

Simpson delivered the 42nd Annual William A. Patterson Transportation Lecture, held May 15 at the Walter Athletics Center Auditorium. Hosted by the Northwestern University Transportation Center (NUTC), the lecture is named for William A. “Pat” Patterson, a central figure in the US air transport industry for more than four decades who served as president and chairman of United Airlines from 1934 until his retirement in 1966. He was a life trustee of Northwestern University and was instrumental in the establishment and strategic leadership of the NUTC. 

Hani Mahmassani

Simpson was introduced by NUTC director Hani Mahmassani, William A. Patterson Distinguished Chair in Transportation and professor of civil and environmental engineering. Introductory remarks were also delivered by Jeff Silver, the founder of Mastery Logistics Systems and chairman of the NUTC’s Business Advisory Council.

A story of people-based innovation 

J.B. Hunt successfully implemented an inward-facing camera system in trucks to ensure safety for its drivers and others who share the road. The method, however, is not just to “spy” on the drivers. The cameras are programmed to pick up any behavior that might be distracting or unsafe, such as looking at a mobile phone, eating, or not wearing a seatbelt while driving. But the company also reviews the footage and will overturn any judgments that turn out to be errant.

The company has worked to stay ahead of trends. Less than 40 years ago, the trucking industry viewed rail as its biggest competitor. The late Johnnie Bryan Hunt, the company’s founder, meanwhile, established a relationship with BNSF Railway to combine their services and provide customers with a sprawling intermodal freight network.

That flexibility has been key, both during the challenges of 15 years ago and the current era. Today, the freight industry is in a market where prices for their services are decreasing, even though their own costs through inflation are rising. Simpson also said refined organized crime also targets freight carriers, increasing insurance and security costs.

Shelley Simpson

To counter those disruptions, J.B. Hunt looked for their own disruptions through technological innovation. In 2022, the company listened to customers and heard their frustrations. In conjunction with BNSF, J.B. Hunt launched Quantum, which offers customized solutions at scale, around-the-clock oversight by a J.B. Hunt and BNSF joint team, dynamic mode selection that adds value through agility, and proactive interventions to mitigate service interruptions before they happen.

“How do we respond to what this disruption is?” Simpson said. “That disruption is happening to us. But one of our objectives is to be offensive in our strategy, and we’re going to do some disrupting ourselves.”

That spirit of trusting people to disrupt, Simpson said, comes from Hunt. Hunt and his wife Johnelle founded the company in 1961, and it blossomed into a Fortune 500 firm. Hunt himself delivered the Patterson Lecture in 1992, making Simpson’s appearance something of a full-circle moment for the company that has grown from one doing $780 million of business annually in 1992 to one that now does $12 billion.

“We invest in our people, our technology, and our capacity,” Simpson said. “We think there’s nothing that can stop us.”

Industry workshop examines cybersecurity practices 

Bret Johnson

Earlier in the day at the Allen Center, the NUTC and the Center for Connected and Automated Transportation hosted the Spring 2024 Industry Workshop: Cybersecurity Practices in the Transportation and Logistics Industry. Co-chaired by Mahmassani and Bret Johnson, NUTC senior associate director and director of the Center for the Commercialization of Innovative Transportation Technology, the event explored how transportation and logistics companies can better safeguard their data and systems. 

Speakers at the event were Mike Ehrich, senior vice president, global IT and security, project44; Brian Faz, assistant vice president, technology services, BNSF Railway; Sean Moore, chief information officer, CJ Logistics America; and Sheeba Varughese, chief information officer, Port of Los Angeles.

A common theme was the sophistication of dangers and the importance of keeping up with the constant threats from bad actors. 

“Security from leadership and a process perspective, if you as a company are not thinking about that,” Ehrich said during a Q&A session moderated by Dana Regan, the senior vice president of business development at TranzAct Technologies, “you are way behind.”