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Managing Smartly, Smaller Truckers See Success

4 min read

It is not the chosen few that drive the Arkansas trucking industry.

Although the big industry names are well-known and successful — publicly traded companies like J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell and ArcBest Corp. of Fort Smith — they represent just a portion of the trucking companies in the state. Smaller, private trucking companies are an essential element of the story of trucking in Arkansas.

“The small carriers are an important part of the industry,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “They really are the glue that connects everything together.”

The ATA has about 350 members. Newton said Arkansas is home to more than 5,000 trucking companies registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“If you look at the quantity of companies in Arkansas, the number of small companies significantly outweigh the big 10 or the six or eight you could think of, the juggernaut of the industry here,” Newton said.

According to the latest data available to the ATA, the trucking industry provides nearly 100,000 jobs in Arkansas, both directly and indirectly, which is 1 out of 10 statewide.

Newton said Arkansas is the No. 1 state in trucking jobs per capita in the country. Trucking companies paid about $5 billion in wages and $571 million in state and federal roadway taxes.

“Arkansas lends itself to [trucking] from several different aspects,” said Bill Davis of Bill Davis Trucking in Batesville. “First off, it is agricultural with the poultry and the rice, and everything that we do here requires trucking.

“Geographically we are located with I-30, I-40 and I-55, and we are well suited in lanes that are very popular and well-used.”

Not for the Weak

To be clear, of the 5,000-plus number Newton uses, not every one of those companies is a traditional over-the-road (OTR) trucking company. Some are trucks that provide local services such as trash hauling.

Davis, in his 49th year of business, runs 60 trucks and deals mainly with pharmaceuticals and produce. Brent Higgins of Brent Higgins Trucking in Mulberry runs 27 refrigerated trucks.

Hugh McConnell is the third generation of leaders at McConnell & Son Trucking in North Little Rock. McConnell’s company runs 30-plus dry bulk hauling trucks.

“It is a very interesting industry, especially in this state where everybody knows everybody,” he said.

The smaller companies differ in the services they offer and what delivery lanes they cover. What they do have in common are tight management and operational flexibility.

When the trucking industry was booming a couple of years ago, there was a rush to expand. Higgins, who started his company in 1997, did not rush to expand.

Now that there is a freight recession, many companies that jumped into the bull market are fighting for survival. Higgins said his company cleared $10 million in revenue in 2022, up about 10% from the previous year.

“We did find the sweet spot of operations,” Higgins said. “Necessity is the only thing that has ever made us expand. The issue we have right now is we have so many people in the business right now. There is just not a huge demand because the economy is retracting.”

Newton said the reason so many smaller companies are well run is because those that are not do not survive for long.

“You have to save and spend wisely,” McConnell said. “If you play too loose, it’ll catch you. One thing about this business that anybody will agree with is it will change. Your customer base will change; lanes will change. That’s just part of it. It ain’t for the weak.”

Relationship Game

Higgins said he learned how to run the business through “trial and error” that cost him more than a college education would. McConnell, whose grandfather founded the company in 1931, joked that he could write a book about all the things not to do as a trucking executive.

“The Lord looks after fools and children, and I’m not a child,” McConnell said.

Executives like Davis, Higgins and McConnell do know that trucking is all about relationships.

“Anybody can buy a truck,” McConnell said. “Service is the only thing we can sell. It’s a service industry. You live or die off that [relationship]. You earn people’s trust. “Opportunities present themselves and you have to deliver, no pun intended.”

McConnell & Son’s office is a family operation, but it pales in comparison with the office at Higgins.

Brent Higgins oversees operations, while his wife, Connie, runs the financial side. Their son, Dillan, is in charge of maintenance, and their daughter, Whitney, works in payroll.

“My sister-in-law even works here,” Brent Higgins said. “Our employees become like family, especially the ones who stick around.”

Davis also owns a cattle farm and won the 2002 Daytona 500 as a Nascar owner. He said his trucking company is about people and emphasizes that he knows his drivers and their families by name and not just as “Driver 1286.”

“We have certainly made an excellent living out of it and continue to do so,” Davis said. “There are challenges; it’s hard and it’s competitive.”

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