J. Harwood Cochrane, Overnite founder, dies at 103
William B. Cassidy, Senior Editor |
Jul 26, 2016 6:13PM EDT
J. Harwood Cochrane, pictured, expanded his small Virginia hauling company into a nationwide powerhouse through 52 acquisitions from coast to coast.
J. Harwood Cochrane, who began his career in the 1920s driving a horse-drawn milk wagon in southern Virginia and went on to found Overnite Transportation, now UPS Freight and one of the largest U.S. trucking companies, died Monday. He was 103 years old.
Cochrane was one of the last — perhaps the last — surviving member of a generation that transformed the industrial distribution landscape of America by establishing trucking as a mode of long-distance freight transportation, ending the dominance of freight railroads.
“He ran a tight ship, and he was proud of his people and he was proud of his facilities,” said Chuck Clowdis, managing director for transportation at IHS Markit Economics and Country Risk and a long-time trucking veteran. Among trucking CEOs, Cochrane, he said, “set the standard.”
Cochrane was also a fierce foe of the Teamsters union. From the 1930s through the 1980s, his less-than-truckload company was one of the few nonunion businesses in a highly organized industry. Cochrane also helped draft Virginia’s “right-to-work” law in the 1940s.
When he started Overnite in 1935, “I did everything wrong,” Cochrane told JOC in 2013
. “I bought the wrong tractors, the wrong tires. How I survived nobody will know.” He did survive, though, and through 52 acquisitions expanded Overnite coast to coast.
Cochrane’s career spanned enormous change in transportation, from the decline of the railroad to the rise of containerization. He saw the regulation of trucking in 1935, which he supported, and deregulation in 1980, which he also supported, with some reservations.
He saw union influence in trucking decline following deregulation, as many of his competitors collapsed once restrictions on economic competition were removed. But he also eventually watched his former company be organized by the Teamsters following its acquisition in 2005 by UPS.
The business Cochrane entered in 1930, when he first began to drive a “motor truck,” was tumultuous. The 1920s experienced a 236 percent increase
in the the number of trucks on U.S. roads, as what the railroads called “less-than-carload” freight became less-than-truckload freight.
The amount of freight carried by railroads declined by double digits as trucks expanded from purely local service to more regional operations, with ranges of hundreds of miles. “A new kind of transportation is being forged,” the journal The Traffic World reported in 1930.
In many ways, Cochrane personified the entrepreneurial drive that fueled the growth of many trucking companies and continues to do so. Trucking is still dominated by small businesses. Necessity drove him, and he continued to be driven long after that necessity was gone.
“I came from a family of seven where only one finished high school,” he told JOC.com during an interview in 2013. “My kinfolks were all poor. I knew I wasn’t going to get much of an education. I was looking for something I could succeed in, and trucking looked like something I could do.”
And do it he did, starting by driving a truck himself and then running the trucking company. “I was a driver for two years, and those were a tough two years,” Cochrane said. “I usually worked about 12 hours a day. I’d stop and sleep on the side of the road where I was.”
That was, of course, before hours-of-service regulations and even economic regulation of trucking under the Motor Carrier Act of 1935. Regulation "was the best thing that ever happened," he said. Overnite's minimum charge went from 35 cents per mile to 55 cents overnight.
In 1934, Cochrane married Louise Odell Blanks. The day after the wedding, he climbed into his truck cab to make a run to Brooklyn, New York.
“As I left she was in tears and she said, ‘I’d hoped we could have a little honeymoon,’” Cochrane said. “And I said, ‘I promise you we’re going to have one and it will be a humdinger.’” It proved a humdinger of a marriage: the Cochranes were married for 81 years until Louise died at 99 in 2015.
Cochrane sold Overnite in 1987 to the nation’s largest railroad, Union Pacific, for the then-staggering sum of $1.2 billion, and founded another trucking company in Richmond, truckload carrier Highway Express. He sold that company to Celadon Group in 2003, at the age of 91.
When Jack Holmes, a career UPS executive, was named president of UPS Freight in 2007, he called on Cochrane, then finally retired, to learn more about the company’s origins and the LTL freight business. That began a friendship that renewed Cochrane’s trucking connections.
“I think Mr. Cochrane was the one who really taught this business how important customer relationships are and what they can mean to the business,” said Holmes, who retired last month
. Cochrane once said he learned that lesson early.
“When I first went to see R.J. Reynolds, people warned me, Don’t you dare go up there without a pack of cigarettes in your pocket, because he’s going to ask you for one,’” told JOC.com in 2013. Cochrane brought a pack with him, and won the business.
Overnite also, Holmes said, was one of the first companies to offer employees stock ownership. “One of his first lessons for me was don’t focus on the people above you, focus on the people below you,” Holmes said. “If you do that, they’ll take care of everything else.”
Eight decades after entering the trucking industry, and 10 years after retiring, Cochrane still saw room for growth in the freight business.
"I think there’s a desperate need for more mergers," he said in 2013, during an interview at UPS Freight headquarters. "You can’t start from scratch and build companies anymore, I think. You’ve got to buy something and make it better. There are plenty of opportunities out there still."
Contact William B. Cassidy at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @wbcassidy_joc