Johnelle Hunt once tried to retire on Johnnie Bryan Hunt.
Johnelle had helped her husband run a poultry litter-producing company in Stuttgart and helped him build J.B. Hunt Transport of Lowell into one of the nation’s largest transportation companies. Every step of the way, Johnelle Hunt was happy to be the right-hand wife, helping Johnnie Hunt, however, he needed her.
J.B. Hunt grew successful after its founding in 1969. By 1983 it had surpassed $1 billion in annual revenue; this past year it reported $6.2 billion.
For Johnelle Hunt, the company didn’t need her anymore, so she told her husband she was ready to go back to taking care of their home, which is all she ever really wanted to do in the first place.
“Johnnie said, ‘Oh, what would you do? You would be bored,’” Johnelle Hunt said. “I said, ‘I’ve never had a bored day in my life. He said, ‘Johnelle, you’ve always been there to take care of things I need you to do, and I don’t want you to retire.’
“I said, ‘I will be there until the day I die.’ I realized he really did depend on me.”
Johnelle Hunt, now 84, may have been the last person to realize that. In 2001, Johnnie Bryan and Johnelle Hunt were elected to the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, the first couple to be so honored. The couple was preparing to leave on a business trip when Reynie Rutledge told them the news.
“When they said both of us, I said, ‘No, not me, just Johnnie,’” Hunt said. “It really bothered me. I never felt like I had to have that recognition. That was a big honor for him, but even bigger for me because I didn’t feel deserving.”
This past year, Johnelle Hunt was a member of the inaugural class of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame. Hunt, worth more than $2 billion, said she is still just a girl from Cleburne County chasing after her man.
All Johnelle ever wanted to be was her husband’s wife and her children’s mother.
She met Johnnie in Heber Springs in 1947. Johnnie Hunt was cruising through town when he stopped to give a ride to the “Dirty Dozen,” the name Johnelle and her girlfriends had given themselves.
During the first ride, Johnelle’s best friend had sat beside Johnnie in the cab of the truck. The next night, when Johnnie stopped his truck, Johnelle made sure she was at Johnnie’s side.
“We were all arguing who was going to sit by him,” Hunt said. “When he stopped, I outran all of them and got in next to him. She didn’t speak to me for three days. I got in beside him and I just stayed there. I had to fight hard to get him.”
The Hunts married in 1951 and Johnnie went to work as a truck driver. It was a happy time for Johnelle Hunt, keeping house and raising their two children.
“Life takes you in the direction it wants to,” Hunt said. “Cooking, sewing, cleaning house, I love doing those things. I have an immaculate house because that is what makes me happy. I loved being a mom and staying at home.”
Life changed for Johnelle Hunt in 1961 when her husband started J.B. Hunt Co. in Stuttgart, which produced poultry litter from rice hulls. Her husband needed her to help out — just temporarily — while the business got off the ground.
“I say don’t ever start working for your husband part time,” said Hunt, laughing. “I was used to having a say in how things were done.”
Part time turned into full time, and Johnelle Hunt turned into Johnnie Hunt’s indispensable woman. She worked in collections, calling all day every day to make sure bills were paid.
When Johnnie Hunt started J.B. Hunt Transport in Lowell in 1969, Johnelle Hunt continued as his partner and most valuable worker. Most everyone who knew him will tell you Johnnie Hunt was the idea man, the good ol’ boy in a white hat who made everyone feel energized and important.
“He used me as the wicked witch who went through with her broom; he had the white hat,” Hunt said. “He didn’t like the details of the daily operations of things. I always felt like that was my job. Whatever he said, I worked for him just like everybody else.
“It is not easy. I don’t always advise that for a husband and wife to work together because it’s not easy. We did work well together. We were trying to do the same thing: make the company work.”
The Hunts were married for 55 years before Johnnie Bryan Hunt died Dec. 7, 2006, from injuries sustained in a fall five days earlier. Hunt had retired from the trucking company and started the Pinnacle Group, which is now called Hunt Ventures, a real estate development company in Rogers, in 1995.
Hunt envisioned an immense development plan for the Rogers area alongside what is now Interstate 49. Those plans were moving into action when he died.
Johnelle Hunt was a member of the board of directors at J.B. Hunt Transport, but she knew where her responsibilities were. She told her husband she knew the day before he died.
“They say you need to let people go when it is so hard,” Hunt said. “That Wednesday morning, I just felt it was time for him. I told him, ‘Johnnie, I thank you for allowing me to work with you all these years. I can take care of the family and I can continue doing what you want to do.’
“The next morning was his last day. Maybe I needed to tell him I could continue.”
Hunt Ventures has thrived under Johnelle Hunt’s leadership — which she said is because she has such a talented team supporting her. Hunt Ventures owns and manages more than 1 million SF of space in northwest Arkansas and recently built the 10-story Hunt Tower in Rogers.
It’s Johnnie Hunt’s dream of Rogers’ development come true. Executive Vice President John George of Hunt Ventures said Johnnie and Johnelle are still working together.
“These last 10 years she is still in a partnership,” George said. “She is running this thing, but she has talks with Mr. Hunt. She is doing this as a partnership. She’s not doing this herself. She’s not crazy. She talks to him.”
Johnelle Hunt said she keeps going because of the people who depend on Hunt Ventures for jobs and for her husband, who always depended on her.
“I couldn’t sit at home in a rocking chair feeling sorry for myself,” Hunt said. “I knew he knew I would do it. After a long day here, I’ve gone home and had some talks with him.
“I might cry a little bit, and I’d hear his little voice, laughing, ‘Oh, Johnelle. It’s OK, you can do it.’ I get up the next morning and come back.”
by Marty Cook, Arkansas Business