LOWELL, Ark. — Johnnie Bryan Hunt Sr., a former truck driver who founded J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., one of the nation’s largest trucking companies, died yesterday, the company said. He was 79.

Mr. Hunt had been in critical condition at a Springdale hospital after hitting his head on ice in a fall Saturday.

A sharecropper’s son, he began J.B. Hunt in 1969 with five tractors and seven trailers. By 2004, when Mr. Hunt stepped down as chairman, the company was a billion-dollar business with more than 16,000 employees and a fleet of some 11,000 trucks.

After he retired, Mr. Hunt pursued interests as a private investor. He and his wife, Johnelle, remained the largest shareholder of J.B. Hunt stock.

Mr. Hunt grew the business by courting Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owner Sam Walton, who became Mr. Hunt’s largest customer. Mr. Hunt’s workers were non union and still are. He saved on fuel costs by giving bonuses to drivers who drove at 55 miles per hour.

In 1980, the trucking industry was deregulated, and J.B. Hunt Transport took off. Three years later, the firm went public; by 1983 it had $63 million in revenue.

Aside from his success, Mr. 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 who he thought needed the money. “I was hungry once. And once you’re hungry, you’re different,” he told Forbes magazine in 1992.

He 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, Mr. Hunt retired as chairman of J.B. Hunt and became senior chairman, a position he held until 2004. After retirement, he was involved with the Pinnacle Group, which most recently opened Pinnacle Hills Promenade, a 1 million-square-foot retail and office center in Rogers.

Mr. Hunt was born in Heber Springs. He quit school at 12 to help support his family, earning $1.50 a day at his uncle’s sawmill.

He joined the Army at 18 and was recruited for officers training school. He declined and later called it the biggest mistake of his life. “It was my only real chance to get an education,” he said.


Boston Globe by Associated Press