Johnelle Hunt: Carrying On and Still Making Things Happen

Johnelle Hunt says she never knows exactly what her day is going to be like, and that's easy to understand.

More than three years after the death of her beloved husband and business partner, J.B. Hunt - just Johnnie to her -  she remains very active in projects they started together. From her office at The Pinnacle Group in Rogers, she maintains a busy schedule related to the business ventures in which she's involved and the many groups and organizations she helps support.

"The work that I'm involved with is a continuation of what Johnnie started," she said. "It's his vision for this part of northwest Arkansas. I feel like when I am working on these projects, he's still here with me and we're working on these together.

"He had started many new projects, and so I'm just involved in those divisions that he had, the things that he was doing, moving forward, doing new things every day. I get up and come to work every morning and try to carry on, and I think he would be pleased to know what we are doing. We're progressing and we're making things happen for northwest Arkansas. But he was the one who had the vision and liked a new beginning every day."

The Hunts opened the J.B. Hunt Co. in 1962 in Stuttgart as a rice hull packaging company and, just seven years later, co-founded and built J.B. Hunt Transport in northwest Arkansas. That company, of course, is now one of the largest transportation logistics providers in North America and the largest truckload, dry-van carrier in the United States. All along the way, they were so much a team that they were inducted together into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame in 2001, the only couple so honored.

"Johnelle and J.B. Hunt were a true team, both in life and in business," Lane Kidd, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said. "They added some flair to our industry meetings because you never saw them in a bad mood even when the economy might be in the tank. Those in the trucking industry always knew what most people outside the industry did not know. J.B. was the marketer, but Johnelle was as much a part of their company's growth because she was the anchor in the office, managing the money and signing the checks. Johnelle is a legend in her own right."  

Her current projects with The Pinnacle Group, an office and retail development partnership, range from continued development of the Pinnacle Hills area in Rogers, which includes the upscale Pinnacle Promenade shopping center, to a rock quarry in Honduras and gas and oil drilling in Texas.

"I hope that I will just be a good steward of all that Johnnie and I have been blessed with, and hopefully make life better for those whose paths I cross," Hunt replies when asked her objectives for the year. "That's the kind of people we were together, and I want to continue to be that way."

She and her husband of 54 years shared a simple but effective business and management philosophy. "Hire the best and treat others like you would want to be treated," she said, "and always treat people with respect and make them know that every job is important. I just feel like that you have to make everyone know, from the maintenance people all the way through, their job is just as important as someone that's the chairman or president of the company."

It's pretty easy to guess who was - and still is - the biggest influence on her career.

"Well, the obvious answer to that is Johnnie," she said. "Because of the years of working with him, I was prepared to carry on the companies he had started after he retired from J.B. Hunt Transport. I immediately knew after his death that I had to go to work, I had to be involved, because these were new projects - so many of them were new projects and just started - I couldn't sit home and feel sorry for myself and where I was at that time in my life, although it was the most tragic thing I've ever been through, but I felt like that I could do it. I had always worked with him, I knew what he wanted, I knew what we wanted together and that because of our working together and the things that we had done together, I was prepared for this time and I would be able to manage it."

Away from work, Hunt keeps up with the activities of her two children, Jane Hunt Hardin and Bryan Hunt, and enjoys spending time with friends and family, including her seven grandchildren.

"I'm the proudest that I was married to J.B. Hunt," she said, "and being a mom and a Nunnie. That's because my grandchildren call me Nunnie. So, as far as what I've achieved, those are the things that are dearest to my heart. As for business, it was having the pleasure to work with my husband, guiding a company that was able to provide opportunities for so many, and the satisfaction that it is still doing so today."