Hebe leaves his mark on an industry he loved

Love him, or hate him, there’s no disputing the fact that Jim Hebe has been one of the prime movers in the North American trucking industry for 20 years now. His brash personality matched the bold business moves he made both as president of Freightliner Trucks and more recently in his role at Navistar.

His job title there was senior vice president, North American Sales, but in reality, at times he looked more like recently departed CEO Dan Ustian’s chief enforcer — standing firm against all EGR criticism, no matter how small, and using the considerable force of his personality and take-no-prisoners business philosophy to keep customers happy and dealers in line as Navistar became increasingly isolated in the EGR-SCR wars.

Hebe survived those wars, but left the company today. He was most recently in the news for comments he made during a Navistar dealer and media event last month in Utah: “Things are bad,” Hebe said. “We’re seeing battles over who’s going to be on our board of directors. But I don’t think that matters. It didn’t matter three years ago, and it won’t matter going forward, because the strength of this company rests with its dealer organization.”

In addition to Hebe’s retirement, Navistar today announced two additions to its board and plans to name a third. The move followed widely publicized criticism of the board by Carl Icahn, one of Navistar’s largest investors.

Hebe is a risk-taker. And not surprisingly his legacy will be a controversial one: At Freightliner, he acquired Ford’s heavy-duty truck line — a move that left many of his competitors scratching their heads. The establishment of Sterling Trucks was a bold move at the time. But as sharp as the trucks looked and as strong as the customer base was, Hebe never really managed to differentiate the brand and it fell victim to Daimler cost-cutting measures a few years after Hebe left the company.

Incidentally, it was at the Sterling brand launch that I first met Hebe. I was a very green editor then, just starting to learn about big trucks. I’d heard about Hebe, and he didn’t disappoint: Everything about him is larger than life. And so, it was only fitting that Sterling’s new corporate headquarters was a beautifully restored Colonial-era farm outside of Cleveland. Hebe, decked out in cowboy boots kicked up on an antique desk, was holding court, sipping on a scotch and rolling a fat cigar in his fingers. A roaring fire warmed the room. It occurred to me that I was listening to a man talk about total domination of the trucking industry in a room where gentlemen farmers had once stood, possibly complaining that Andrew Jackson — of all people! — had just been elected president.

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To this day, Hebe loves cabover trucks. We discussed them the last time I saw him — over steaks at International’s Boot Camp in Salt Lake City just a couple of weeks ago. He attempted to bring the cabover back in a big way at Freightliner and Sterling with the Argosy. And the new International LoadStar has Hebe’s fingerprints all over it. Hebe’s love of cabovers was more than just nostalgia, though. He truly believed — and continues to believe — the longer trailer lengths and other benefits they offer will help fleets be more efficient. And all the snickering in the world can’t disabuse him of that belief.

It’s not hard to find industry insiders who say that Hebe’s guaranteed used truck buy-back program at Freightliner single-handedly brought the North American trucking industry to its knees when the 2001 recession took hold. And given Navistar’s current woes, there are many who will say that instead of acting as an enforcer, Hebe would have better served the company by grabbing Ustian by the lapels, slapping his face a few times and telling him to bail on EGR-only technology and get some damn SCR-equipped trucks into production! Fast!

All controversy aside, there are a lot of guys — both dealers and fleet owners — out there who love Jim Hebe. They see a reflection of themselves in his swagger, his can-do, never-say-die philosophy and his unquestioned passion for both trucks and the trucking industry. He’s one of them and they know it.

One last thing that can be said about Hebe is that he relishes a challenge. Will retirement stick with him? It’s far too soon to say. But don’t be surprised if you see him stride back onto the trucking stage in the not-to-distant future.