J. Harwood Cochrane founded his first transportation company in 1929. Cochrane, who became one of the best-loved and influential men in transportation history, started by hauling milk in Virginia using a horse named Charlie. The company was founded out of necessity when Cochrane’s father passed away when he was 16, and he needed to support his family.
In 1930, Cochrane and his brother Calvin entered into business together under the name Cochrane Transportation. The brothers primarily hauled furniture. Brotherly love was not enough to keep the company afloat, however, and the brothers went their separate ways in 1934. The following year, at 22 years old and unable to ignore the call of the transportation industry, Cochrane founded Overnite Transportation Co. He started the company with just one tractor, one trailer and one straight truck. In the same year, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) began to regulate the trucking industry.
Overnite grew due to strong management
Cochrane’s leadership helped the company to grow quickly. Overnite Transportation won steady business customers, hauling tobacco for Philip Morris Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. After the U.S. entered World War II, Overnite Transportation also hauled freight for the U.S. Marine Corps.
By 1952, the company had grown from its original tractor-trailer operation to 360 over-the-road units and 500 employees. Its service network had grown to include its home state of Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Overnite Transportation went public in 1956.
Trouble with the Teamsters
Cochrane was strongly anti-union and went head-to-head with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters several times. In 1959, the Teamsters picketed several companies in North Carolina, including Overnite. Over 1,400 Overnite employees picketed, seeking union representation at the Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia terminals. Cochrane maintained that his company’s work and customers remained unaffected.
When the Teamsters urged other companies to boycott Overnite Transportation’s freight if it flowed into their networks, the ICC granted Overnite temporary authority to take over those networks and deliver freight outside of its usual routes. The strike eventually ended; Overnite Transportation remained a non-union carrier.
Following the strike, Overnite Transportation sued the Teamsters for $1 million in damages from the strike itself and the resulting boycott. The court ruled in Overnite’s favor in the amount of nearly $900,000, which was later reduced to $300,000 by the state Supreme Court. Cochrane never did succumb to unionization, and Overnite Transportation was once the largest non-union carrier in the United States. In order to prevent his employees from seeking union representation, he treated them like a family and created a work environment in which people felt represented.
Overnite Transportation grew via acquisition, as was the custom during ICC regulation of the trucking industry. In 1962, the company acquired Hill City Transfer Co. At that time, Overnite Transportation had grown, operating 1,500 pieces of over-the-road equipment and employing 1,700. Revenues that year were reported at $19.5 million, and service was now offered to Tennessee.
In 1963 Overnite acquired Rutherford Freight Lines, located in Bristol, Virginia. The company continued in this fashion, acquiring other companies and building its customer base. In 1972, the company reported revenues of $79 million, and was the fifth-largest less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier in the United States.
Growth continued after deregulation
Unlike some other carriers, Overnite Transportation supported the final draft of the Motor Carrier Act in 1980, stating companies needed to “rise to the challenge.” A savvy businessman, Cochrane took advantage of the companies torn asunder by deregulation by buying their assets and properties as they collapsed, stating that a bankrupt company was always in need of quick cash.
In 1980, the company had 81 terminals and 6,400 employees. In 1981, it added 11 terminals. In 1982, Overnite Transportation received permission from the ICC to operate in all 48 states, and opened two terminals in California. By this time, the company had grown to 95 terminals and 8,700 pieces of equipment. Deregulation was a death sentence for many LTL companies, but Overnite had risen to the challenge and emerged a stronger company.
The company is sold… and a new company begins
Cochrane’s hard work paid off tremendously. In 1986, he sold Overnite Transportation to Union Pacific Corporation for $1.2 billion. The acquisition was a natural fit for Union Pacific, as its other subsidiaries covered the western United States, and Overnite’s primary coverage lanes were in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast. At the time of the acquisition, Overnite Transportation had 111 terminals in 40 states. He remained as chairman of the company until 1990.
In 1991, at age 78, Cochrane founded a truckload carrier. That company, Highway Express, was sold to Celadon in 2003.
UPS acquired Overnite Transportation from Union Pacific in 2005; the company was rebranded as UPS Freight. The announcement that UPS was selling its UPS Freight subsidiary to TFI was reported by FreightWaves’ Nate Tabak on January 25, 2021. Read more here.
Cochrane passed away in 2016 at the age of 103. He is widely regarded as a pioneer of the U.S. trucking industry.
The patches shown above are from the Dale Bridge Collection and are used with his permission.