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J.B. Hunt executive defies tradition; journey for Jun Li began in rural province of China.

The distance between the rural provinces of China and the executive offices of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., the Arkansas trucking giant, is measured in more than just miles. It is a journey that requires a unique combination of exceptional talent and ability.

Jun Li could write a book about it, and probably should. He survived famine, political persecution and exile to reach the top floor of the nation's largest publicly traded truckload carrier, just two doors down from the company's chief executive officer, Kirk Thompson.

Li is president of J.B. Hunt Logistics Inc., the fastest growing of the three divisions of J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell. In July, he also was named executive vice president of integrated solutions, a new position that reflects the company's vision of the industry's future.

Since joining J.B. Hunt in July 1994, Li has transformed the company's logistics business from a fledgling enterprise into an operation setting the standard for the rest of the industry. In fact, he's something of a legend in the business. The mere mention of his name has been enough to sway customers to the company.

Logistics, essentially, is the trucking industry's term for the outsourcing of a company's internal trucking needs. It is a recent trend but one that many, including Li, believe will be the future of the trucking industry. Many companies, including some of the largest in the nation, have dissolved their own trucking divisions and hired logistics firms to handle all their transportation needs.

Li's rise to the top of his profession defies the traditional climb up the corporate ladder.

He was born in China in 1958. His father, a newspaper editor, was imprisoned soon after Li's birth for writing articles critical of the Communist government. The family was forced to relocate from Xuanching, a city about the size of Fayetteville, to one of the more rural provinces in China. There, he and his family endured demanding physical labor and hunger.

"It was a terrible thing to happen to my family, but it shaped my character," he says.

His father was released from the labor camp after two years and assigned to work as manager of a print shop about 10 miles from the village. Li and his family only saw his father on weekends, he says, but his father remained a major influence in Li's life.

"His biggest influence was in the way of thinking," Li says. "He wouldn't follow the trend. He questioned everything, which was very dangerous in China. He taught me integrity, honesty and discipline."

His father was exonerated in 1979 and became CEO of a company that trades in farm machinery and related products.

When Li was about 4 years old, a famine swept China, claiming the lives of millions. Entire villages became ghost towns.

"I was lucky to survive," Li says.

Two of his siblings didn't survive the hardships of rural living. He had a sister who died at 13 months from lack of medical treatment and a brother who died at 7 days from an infection.

Li excelled at school from the beginning. He graduated from high school at age 16 as the undisputed top student in his class.

After high school, Li wasn't allowed to attend the university because his family wasn't part of the Communist Party. Li says he refused to join the party, too.

Instead, Li spent the next two years as a middle school teacher, sometimes teaching students older than he. At his mother's insistence, he quit teaching and became a film projectionist for a year. He traveled to other rural areas of China where he set up a screen and showed movies at outdoor theaters.

"My mother insisted," he says. "I made more money and it was a more respected job."

Li didn't want to be either. He wanted to be a scientist and never gave up on the idea of attending the university. During the three years after high school, he found college textbooks and studied them.

"The biggest problem was I had nobody to turn to when I had questions," he says.

He also discovered the "Voice of America" radio broadcasts early in life. Since it was a crime in China to listen to the station, he did it secretly, holding a small radio against his ear while hidden under his blanket, he says. Even his parents didn't know.

When Mao Tse-Tung, the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, died in 1976, the government opened the universities and held examinations nationwide for admittance. Li scored among the top students.

"The competition was fierce," he says.

Li qualified to study English and science. The government decided he should be an English major because the country needed English teachers. He was more interested in science and engineering and studied the subjects on his own time.

In 1981, his fourth year at Hefei Polytechnic University in the Anhui Province, the Chinese government allowed several professors from universities in the United States to teach in Shanghai. More exams were given to Chinese students, and 26 were chosen to study with the American professors. Li had the highest grades among the students.

After two years of study, he returned to Hefei as an assistant professor of management science and assistant director for the department of research. In 1985, he was offered a scholarship to the Georgia Institute of Technology. He borrowed money from Hefei and flew to Atlanta. He received his doctorate in industrial engineering in the summer of 1989 and was named one of the school's top graduates.

He learned logistics from CAPS Logistics Inc. of Atlanta, his first job after college, and soon became director of operations research for the company. In June 1993, he was hired by Schneider as vice president of logistics engineering. He remained with the company until he was recruited and hired by Hunt.

Hunt opened its logistics division in 1992 and now considers it a key to the company's future.

Li helped build the logistics division for Schneider National Inc. of Green Bay, Wis., before joining Hunt. Schneider is a privately held trucking company with annual sales of about $2.5 billion and is Hunt's biggest competitor.

"I made a name for myself there," Li says. "We signed a contract with General Motors that shook the entire industry."

Li was at Schneider about 13 months before he was recruited to join Hunt. He started as senior vice president of logistics engineering. Ten months later, he was president of the logistics operation.

"We are trying to convert J.B. Hunt from a traditional trucking company to a company that can solve all of a customer's transportation problems," he says.

The first change Li made at the company was establishing a business development process for the logistics division, which Hunt lacked. Li set up a process of identifying potential customers, developing a plan addressing their transportation needs, signing a contract with them and providing a level of service that keeps them as customers.

Li shocked other executives at Hunt when he suggested the company eliminate some of its logistics customers. Hunt can't be all things to all customers, he says.

The change left Hunt with some of the biggest customers in the nation, including J.C. Penney Co., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Stores Inc., Miller Brewing Co., Anheuser-Busch Co., Office Depot Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., Weyerhauser Co., Auto Zone Inc. and Quaker Oats Co.

"We do business with the leaders in the industry," he says.

Today, Li lives in Springdale with his wife and two children. He became a naturalized American citizen late last year and is excited about voting in his first election in November.

"I love this country," he says.

Not bad for a man who shyly admits he once dreamed of being the premier of China.
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Author:Lovel, Jim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Sep 28, 1998
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