If you want perspective on life, talk with a centenarian.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity in June to interview J. Harwood Cochrane, founder of Overnite Transportation, who turned 100 last November. Cochrane was born a few weeks after Woodrow Wilson was elected president and five years before the U.S. entered what would be called “The Great War” until an even greater war came along. In 1912, the average U.S. life expectancy for a man was slightly less than 50 years, so Cochrane has more than beat the odds stacked against him from Day One.
That same year, a Chicago-based publication called The Traffic World launched a column dedicated to “Increasing Efficiency on the Short Haul,” primarily to promote the motor truck, an invention the magazine, now part of The Journal of Commerce, predicted “will exert a profound influence upon our industrial progress.”
In 1913, the annual cost of operating a gasoline-powered truck was $1,839.17, compared with $1,591.63 for a two-horse wagon. The annual pay for a “motor truck driver” was $840, compared with $750 for a teamster who handled horses.
Cochrane is one of few men living to have seen trucking grow from its horse-powered roots through eras of regulation and deregulation, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. Much has been written about the transportation revolution led by the railroads in the 19th century, especially the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Trucking’s story, just as significant to the 20th century, should be known better.
In 1931, freelance journalist Homer H. Shannon wrote, “Something revolutionary is happening in transportation. Just what that something is cannot readily be made out just because it is happening so fast.” Cochrane was part of that revolution. In 1933, he and his brother began hauling whatever they could wherever their trucks would take them. Two years later, he founded Overnite, just in time for the economic regulation of trucking under the Motor Carrier Act of 1935.
Competition between railroads and truck operators was intense. The number of trucks registered in the U.S. increased more than 200 percent in the 1920s. By the 1930s, less-than-carload traffic was fast becoming less-than-truckload. Cochrane discusses the battle between the modes, and why trucking won. Still, he sold his company, which survived to prosper under deregulation, in 1986 to none other than Union Pacific, for $1.2 billion.
Today, trucking is entering a new era, arguably the industry’s third epoch, following the 2008-9 recession. Once again, something revolutionary is happening in transportation and, as Shannon observed in 1931, it’s happening fast. Trucking companies such as the former Overnite — since 2005, UPS Freight — are being forced to reinvent themselves to meet evolving supply chain demands, cope with higher operating costs and comply with more stringent safety regulations, including hours of service rules first introduced when Cochrane was a trucker.
If there’s a lesson I can draw from my talk with Cochrane, it’s to be open to change and ready to adapt. He pioneered new technologies in his day, switching early from gasoline to diesel engines, which while heavier gave truckers better mileage and the ability to haul freight farther, compensating for the loss of some capacity.
His successors will need that adaptability to succeed in the years to come.