Estes and Overnite—A Friendly Rivalry

“I liked competition, but I didn't like my competitors. I also told him that he was an exception—and he really was.”

That's how Harwood Cochrane, founder and former president of Overnite Transportation, remembered his close longtime friend, Robey W. Estes, Sr., at the Estes Express Lines 75th anniversary media event back in April 2006. Mr. Cochrane recalled that Robey called him “Big O” for 30 years and visited his office about every two weeks up until 2004.

A legend in the transportation industry who retired from Overnite after more than a half century of service, Mr. Cochrane started doing business with Estes Express Lines just a few years after W. W. Estes founded it in the midst of the Great Depression.

“I well remember the first time I met Webb Estes,” he said. “He came by my dock driving a Chevrolet truck with a homemade wooden body. (It wasn't yellow!) At 93, I can't remember what I had for breakfast, but I vividly remember that occasion. He had on board eight cans of milk, a day-old Holstein calf and a 40-pound box of overalls from Chase City that was going to Sears in Greensboro, which he transferred to me (for interline purposes to cross the state line).”

In an interesting side note, both Estes Express Lines and Overnite Transportation made their first deliveries with used Chevy trucks. The fledgling companies also hauled agricultural goods during those early days. And despite the challenging economy, they were able to find and fill gaps in underserved markets.

“I wasn't impressed with his operation, but we all started the same way,” Mr. Cochrane recalled. “He was a part-time farmer and a part-time trucker working about 14 hours a day.”

A common background—plus a shared work ethic and value for integrity—helped lay the foundation for both a long-lasting friendship and a friendly business rivalry that spanned decades. As W.W. observed years later, there was no secret formula to success: “Just hard work followed by more hard work.”

It was a principle embraced by both Harwood Cochrane and his good friend, W.W.'s eldest son.

“(Robey's) contributions have raised our industry a few notches,” Mr. Cochrane declared at Estes' 2006 anniversary event. “If you play by the rules and remain a good corporate citizen, the next 75 years should be even better!”

Fast-forward to 2011. Having just celebrated his 99th birthday, Mr. Cochrane remains a respected philanthropist and museum benefactor who still follows the trucking industry. He's also a self-described survivor who, like his old rival Estes Express Lines, had a vision that continues today.

"I wanted to do things better," he explained during a recent interview. "It's not so much that I wanted to be rich, but I wanted better trucks, better tires and better terminal buildings. I always want a way to do something better."