It was 1961 when Mose and Dorothy Higginbotham started Ozark Motor Lines with a 1949 Ford pickup they used to carry freight from Memphis to Missouri.
John Rumsey of AAA Mobile Wash sprays off an Ozark Motor Lines tractor. The company has grown from humble beginnings to employ around 900 people today.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“We were a less-than-truckload carrier,” said their son, Steve Higginbotham. “We had that 1949 Ford pickup truck, and it wasn’t always full.”
When deregulation came along, Ozark Motor Lines switched to being a truckload carrier. Starting with only two trucks, Ozark hauled outbound loads for a manufacturer of Sanyo televisions in Forest City, Ark., a move that likely saved the company.
“After about four years, we shut down the LTL operation and started off in truckload – and that’s what we are today, a truckload carrier,” said Higginbotham who began working for the family-owned company in June 1961, just after graduating from high school. “If we hadn’t started into truckload, we’d be out of business.”
Ozark has risen from its humble beginnings to employ around 900 people today, delivering freight across the United States, with terminals in Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi and Indiana.
“I thank the good Lord for being with us,” Higginbotham said. “We were pretty lucky. I used to hear my mom cry herself to sleep, saying we’d never make it, but we did. We worked hard, everybody did, but we couldn’t do it without our employees. We have great employees and we owe it to them.”
This year Carnival Memphis is honoring brothers Steve Higginbotham, president of Ozark, and Tommy Higginbotham, CEO of Ozark, with the Cook Halle Award for outstanding contribution to the Mid-South community.
As part of its 83rd anniversary celebration, Carnival Memphis will salute the Mid-South trucking industry during the annual Business & Industry Salute Luncheon on Wednesday, April 30, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Hilton Memphis.
Steve Higginbotham said the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 helped pave the way for a new course for the business. The act prohibited rate agencies from interfering with any carrier’s rights to publish its own rates, eliminated many restrictions on which commodities could be carried, and, perhaps most importantly, deregulated the routes that fleets could use and the geographic regions they could serve.
“That really was the big thing,” Higginbotham said. “Back then it was heavily regulated. We had to get permission for the territories we were allowed to go in, and they didn’t just freely hand that stuff out.”
Quick thinking helped the company survive and thrive. After realizing that Ozark would have a hard time competing with other LTL carriers, the Higginbothams switched gears and transformed Ozark into a truckload carrier.
“We saw the handwriting on the wall,” Higginbotham said. “We couldn’t compete with all the big carriers going into our territory.”
The Higginbothams have been witness to a wide variety of changes in the industry. Today, satellite and GPS technology keep track of every shipment, a huge leap forward from when the company first began operating – and one that has transformed scheduling into a near-exact science.
“Technology has made big strides in the trucking industry,” Higginbotham said. “Where it really helps you is in planning. It helps with knowing if a truck is an hour out of Chicago and you have a load that needs to be picked up the next morning, that load that will be dropped off and we can tell them we can pick up the load in the morning.”
Despite challenges like changing regulations, a driver shortage and rising fuel costs, Higginbotham said the family, including mom Dorothy, now 89, still looks forward to work.
“In the trucking business, it’s a different day every day when you come in,” he said.