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July 26, 2016 5:30 PM, EDT

Overnite Transportation Founder J. Harwood Cochrane Dies at 103

Cochrane, wife Louise in 2010 (Jonathan S. Reiskin/TT)
J. Harwood Cochrane and wife Louise in 2010 photo. (Jonathan S. Reiskin/Transport Topics)

Trucking legend J. Harwood Cochrane, who entered freight transportation by driving a horse-drawn carriage and founded Overnite Transportation Co. during the Great Depression, died July 25 at 103 in Richmond, Virginia.

UPS Freight, the Richmond-based less-than-truckload carrier that is the successor to Overnite, confirmed Cochrane’s death, which was first reported by the the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Cochrane sold Overnite to Union Pacific Corp. for $1.2 billion in 1986.

“We’re all fortunate to have had Mr. Cochrane around to grow this industry the way he did, and to grow it the right way. All of us at UPS are extremely grateful for everything he accomplished. He had an impact on everyone he met. The industry lost a giant. He is missed,” said Rich McArdle, president of UPS Freight, North America’s fifth-largest LTL carrier and a unit of UPS Inc.

Cochrane’s wife, Louise Odell Banks, died in December at 99 after 81 years of marriage.

“This is a sad day for trucking in Virginia,” said Dale Bennett, president of the Virginia Trucking Association.

Cochrane was a legend within the state, Bennett said, for his longevity, his business skill and his post-retirement philanthropy — to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Baptist groups, the Red Cross, and toward financing the digging of wells for drinking in Africa.

He rose to great wealth from the most humble beginnings, having quit high school at 16 to find work after his father died. Cochrane’s first transportation job was delivering milk for Virginia Dairy with the help of Charlie the horse. That was in 1929, the year the Great Depression started.

With the help of his brother Calvin, the two men ran Cochrane Transportation from 1930 to 1934.

The year after the brothers went their separate ways, Harwood founded Overnite with one tractor, one trailer and one straight truck. That was also the year the Interstate Commerce Commission began the regulation of trucking.

As part of a 2010 profile in Transport Topics, Cochrane described the discipline and thrift that allowed him first to survive and then prosper during the Depression. He slept in a day cab, curled up with an oil heater for warmth.

Overnite became publicly traded in 1957. It was highly profitable despite an epic labor relations battle with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Cochrane said he tried to run Overnite as a family, encouraging employees to recruit their relatives as new employees.

Bennett said Cochrane also gave out Overnite stock to employees and when the company was sold to Union Pacific, many of them became rich.

Cochrane stands next to a company truck in a 1956 photo. (UPS Freight)

Cochrane said one of his favorite pieces of memorabilia was a photo of a check for $359,000 written in 1963 to Overnite and signed by the late Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa to satisfy a judgment against the union and in favor of the trucking company.

At the time of the sale to Union Pacific, Cochrane was tremendously wealthy, but he kept working. He remained with Overnite as its chairman for four years, until 1990.

Then he switched to the truckload side of the industry by starting Highway Express at 78. Cochrane ran that company until 2003, when he sold it to Celadon Group.

The sales contract included a five-year noncompete clause, even though Cochrane was nearly 91 then, so he retired from daily trucking.

Earl Congdon, chairman of LTL carrier Old Dominion Freight Line, said in the 2010 profile that Cochrane is “probably the greatest LTL trucker of us all.” ODFL started in Richmond and briefly shared a terminal with Overnite.

Bennett said he and Cochrane spoke regularly about trucking after the Highway Express sale. Cochrane also developed a relationship with Jack Holmes, McArdle’s predecessor at UPS Freight.

“Mr. Cochrane built the envy of the trucking industry while dealing with the Great Depression, deregulation and an antiquated system of granting privileges to service states. He was a hero to many who are still part of the UPS Freight family,” Holmes said.

A list of survivors was not immediately available.