Thursday, April 24, 2008

Jim Hebe is back

Last week I wrote in a daily news story that former Freightliner CEO James Hebe had a new job with Navistar International as senior vice president of North American sales. He’s accepted a high profile position with the company he started out with way back in 1971. Yep, he’s going back into the executive thick of it. And he seemed so happy pheasant hunting.

I am getting a load of e-mail from trucking industry veterans who found particular interest in my story. Some truckers wanted to comment on Jim’s role as the Freightliner guy who wanted to put black boxes in trucks. Some comrades in the trucking press shared interesting memories of interviews with Hebe. Some readers were amused that I wrote that Hebe is to trucking what William Shatner is to television, likening his roles in trucking to Shatner’s Capt. Kirk and Denny Crain – a good likening in my mind.

But most just wondered why he would want to be back on prime time during such a tough time for Class 8 truck sales. I guess that’s why I called him last week.

The last time I spoke to him was before Christmas. He was pheasant hunting and seemed to be enjoying his work at Co-Van International. He sounded relaxed, joking around. When I talked to him this past week, he recalled some of the fun times with the trucking press when he was Freightliner CEO.

Fun? I will agree with that. But it wasn’t all fun. His desire for on-board recorders and his disastrous buyback fleet plan often placed Hebe squarely in the crosshairs. In 1999, he said – on the record – that he believed on-board recorders were going to be “required” and that Freightliner was going to place them on their trucks as standard equipment. He told Transport Topics that it wasn’t a question of if and when anymore, it was only a question of when. He added, “I don’t care what the industry thinks about our position on data recorders: The ball game is over.”

Suddenly, the war of words between Jim Hebe and OOIDA’s Jim Johnston was red hot. Hebe eventually backed off. Of course, he had to when his customer base was going nuts. He told Land Line Magazine that it didn’t make sense to pursue it if customers did not want it.

A fellow trucking editor said recently that the press always regarded Hebe as an engaging and likeable honcho in his role at Freightliner. One thing for sure, his press conferences were full of the unexpected.

I recall one presser at Louisville, the annual Freightliner breakfast, that could have been a bore but wasn’t. It was during the week before they threw the doors open to the public, so other booths were under construction on the big floor of what used to be the South Wing.

Against a background of buzzing drills, beeping forklifts, white-coated waiters served up scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, muffins, the works, to the business press. Then we sat down to hear the CEO push the company line and maybe introduce a new model truck. Hebe attempted his speech but was interrupted several times by a call over the loudspeaker for two guys named Juan and Miguel to return to the Caterpillar (I think it was Caterpillar) booth. He resumed his speech, but was interrupted a third time by the call for the two workmen to return to their work area.

Hebe leaned forward on the lectern and roared into his microphone, “Juan, Miguel! Get your asses back to the Caterpillar booth!” Then he straightened the tie under a pristine white collar and without a trace of his previous ire, continued his speech to the press.