The story of almost every rural Southern boy travels through three major destinations: the ballpark, the river and the woods.
Any given weekend or after school in Gurdon, Ark., if you were looking for Brent Hilton – the son of the local postman and the secretary at the hometown bank – you’d surely find him one of those places.
If he wasn’t to be found with a ball, fishing pole or rifle in-hand, there was one other place you might look: the garage.
“When we had problems with vehicles back then, we fixed them,” he says. “We didn’t have the money to have them fixed. We didn’t tow it to the shop. We towed it home.”
While a young Hilton displayed a budding mechanical aptitude and strong work ethic, the calls of tennis, baseball, football and golf were difficult to ignore.
In the late 70s, if you were an all-around athlete looking for a path out of a town with a population of about 2,000 people, college was a popular way to find it.
Hilton enrolled at Henderson State University, “for a couple of years,” he says. Having taken all his basic courses, Hilton still hadn’t found his calling so he decided to leave the classroom in search for it.
“I got tired of going to school,” he says. “I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do in life.”
Hilton worked at a handle mill from 1982-83, making garden tools. He was the supervisor for the second shift before moving to a sawmill from 1984-85. It was at the sawmill that Hilton’s raising – and that “tow it home and fix it” mentality – stood out.
“If you’ve ever worked at a saw mill, when things break you fix them,” he says.
Calling becomes clear
Hilton ran a stack track machine at the saw mill, which consisted of a Briggs and Stratton motor with hydraulics that ran up and down a track system to pick up and stack crossties.
“It would develop leaks occasionally and we’d have to tear the engine down and take it out, and the hydraulic pump, and replace all the O-rings in that system,” Hilton says. “I watched an ole’ boy do that one time and I was thinking, ‘I can do that.’”
Following one breakdown in particular, Hilton says the mechanic came by to make the usual repair but left before completing the job.
“He took off,” he recalls. “He left all his tools laying there. I kept waiting and kept waiting … and finally, I said to heck with it and I jumped over there and started fixing it myself. I’d seen him do it before. I fixed it and got it going and that’s when I first thought being a technician might be my calling.”
From 1985-86, Hilton went to work for Fafnir’s bearing plant heat-treating bearings, learning the basics of metallurgy and spent much of his downtime working on his car.
“During that time, I had an old ‘65 Volkswagen. Of course, I jacked it up like a dune buggy and the thing would constantly burn out clutches,” he says. “I got pretty good at replacing them.”
In 1986, Hilton’s career in trucking finally came into shape when he joined Gurdon-based Rickett’s Trucking. After a crash course in changing oil and tires, Hilton’s work quickly became much more complex.
“We would rebuild those old 6V and 4V Detroits,” he says. “We built bolt trailers. We would fabricate those from scratch. We worked on anything from engines to bushing on trailers. I learned a lot at that location. I really got my feet wet.”
Make or break opportunity with Maverick
About two years a later, a friend told Hilton that his company – a small Little Rock-based fleet with about 15 trucks and 75 trailers, Maverick Transportation – was hiring.
After surviving a two week, “prove yourself” period, Hilton hasn’t worked anywhere else in the last 30 years.
“I interviewed with Mike Jeffress,” Hilton recalls. “Mike hired me and I’ve worked for him ever since.”
“Brent was the first tech I ever hired,” Jeffress recalls.
At the time, Maverick only had one shop in Little Rock, which meant Hilton’s job change came with a change of address – a move about 90 miles north of Gurdon.
Hilton’s career with Maverick started on the ground floor – as a C-level tech changing tires and oil and doing brake and grease jobs.
“At that point [30 years ago], I don’t know that we had A-level, B-level, C-level technicians,” Hilton recalls. “You just did what you needed to do. I remember one day when it got slow, Mike [Jeffress] asked me to wash down the wash bay walls. I learned real-quick we do whatever it takes to keep all the plates spinning.”
Jeffress says Hilton initially joined a group that consisted of two other technicians and despite their experience, Hilton rose to leadership within that group because his peers recognized that Hilton had a knack for figuring things out.
With his professional life on the upswing, Hilton’s personal life was also in store for an upgrade – again, thanks to a friend.
Hilton’s roommate had a friend named Ann and she invited Brent to a party thrown in Ann’s honor. A year later they we’re married.
“When I saw him, it was like this rush came over me,” says Hilton’s wife of 26 years.
Through marriage, Brent also became a father to Ann’s two children, Jennifer and Jeremiah.
“That was really a great experience in life in general,” Hilton says of helping raise a family.
“He didn’t come off as strict,” Ann recalls. “He wouldn’t yell at them. He’d talk to them. He ask them why they did what they did and show them where they went wrong, and there was always a big hug at the end. He treated the kids like he was raised. He took what his dad instilled in him and instilled that in Jenny and Jeremy. And what we see now is Jenny and Jeremy instilling that in their kids.”
After two years of spinning plates at work, and now with a family at home, Hilton moved on to more complicated work, transitioning from oil changes to day-shift supervisor in the days of pre-telematics.
“About the only thing we never did was rebuild transmissions and rear-ends,” he says. “Freight drives what you do day in and day out. We centered all of our work on the loads and based on the driver’s needs, where they’re at and when the load had to be there.”
Before real-time tracking was possible, Hilton says prioritizing and scheduling the work was a daily challenge.
“It was all up to the driver,” he says. “Where today the telematics can tell us and Hours of Service can tell us exactly what time that truck needs to leave by in order to make his or her delivery. Techs communicated with the driver and talked to them about when they needed to be out [of the truck].”
Brent wasn’t the only Hilton enjoying a successful career at Maverick. Ann was soon was hired to handle the company’s driver recruitment, a position she held for 20 years.
“We decided we weren’t taking work home with us and sometimes that was hard,” Ann says of how the couple managed to separate work and home life. “We went to lunch together a lot, but it was because we wanted to. It was because we wanted to spend time together, not because we wanted to talk about work.”
From 1995-1997, Hilton served as Maverick’s service manager and oversaw the growing operation.
“We added a shop at that time [Gary, Ind.] I was over that location. We had an acquisition during that time, buying out Kissick Trucking in Kansas City, Mo.,” he recalls.
He also oversaw the company’s Road Assist program and all outside and in-house work, two responsibilities he still holds.
From 1998-2004, Hilton was named service director, with oversight of outside maintenance and warranty, but a re-organization in 2004 saw Hilton named director of maintenance, the position he currently holds.
Currently, he oversees all seven of Maverick’s shop locations and 95 technicians, 15 shift supervisors, seven service managers, three regional service managers and three district service managers.
The day Hilton first walked on to the Maverick lot 30 years ago this year, the trucking company had about 15 trucks. Today, that number has swelled to more than 1,600.
“One of Steve [Williams’] sayings is ‘if you’re not growing, you’re dying,” Hilton recalls. “And I believe that, too. As an individual, too. Try to learn a little every day. If you’re not growing and learning new things every day, then you’re dying. I’ve always took that to heart. Mike [Jeffress] has been my teacher through the years and he has taught me so much. And he still teaches me every day. You think you learn everything in this industry and you better think again.”
Giving back to the industry
Hilton has tried to pass some of what he has learned back into trucking through his involvement with several industry groups.
He officially joined the Technology and Maintenance Council in 1994, having first became involved in TMC by volunteering to help develop flatbed securement standards.
“I learned real quick that to really learn and be supportive of the organization, you had to get involved,” he says.
Hilton served as Chairman of S.7 (Trailers, Bodies and Material Handling Study Group) from 2002-2006 and helped develop several recommended practices, including RP 738, “Spec’ing Guidelines for Cargo Securement Systems Used on Flatbed Vehicles.” and RP 739, “Maintenance, Inspection and Operating Guidelines for Cargo Securement Systems Used on Flatbed Vehicles.”
He earned the Silver Spark Plug in 2006.
In 2007, Hilton served a year as vice-chair. He was general chairman and treasurer in 2008 and served as Future Truck chairman from 2011 to 2014 and served two terms on the Board of Directors. He was the Peggy Fisher Study Group Leadership Award recipient in 2014.
As many accolades that have followed Hilton in his career, it’s the work he put in to developing the S.16 Service Provider Study Group that makes him the most proud.
“I felt really strong about getting them into TMC, about them having their own group,” Hilton says of service providers. “It’s great to have those people at the meetings and develop relationships with them.”
Service provider involvement, Hilton says, was initially met with some pushback.
“What do you mean we don’t need them in here,” he says of the nay-sayers. “We use these guys every day. Let’s make them part of the team so we can communicate with them.”
Having service providers involved with TMC, Hilton says, was about much more than simply networking and communicating.
“They are developing RPs that have to do with the provider side of things, like prioritizing shop work load,” Hilton says. “That’s always been a big issue: getting in a shop. It’s nice having the voice there.”
Their involvement, Hilton says, also gives fleets a voice in helping the service provider learn the expectations of their customers.
“The value [service providers] bring is getting to know them, building the relationship with them and being able to have a say in their study group that [fleets] may feel they’re weak on,” he says. “Helping them focus on their week areas enables us to give them direction on problems we’re having that they may not even be aware of. Twenty-four hours [down time] is good, but that should not be our goal.”
It’s also helped grow TMC. Currently, there are more than 150 service provider members.
“When I first started it, there was like 26,” Hilton says.
In 2009 Hilton served as secretary of the Arkansas Trucking Association Maintenance and Technology Council and vice-chair in 2010. He served as chairman of the Arkansas Trucking Association in 2011 and in 2011 also chaired Arkansas state technician competition.
Growing the industry
Trucking is a career that has a history of treating well the people who put forth the effort, and that’s something Hilton says he hopes to make clear to the generation entering the workforce.
“Give it a try. Look into the industry. Get involved in this industry and learn what it’s about,” he says. “I don’t think a lot of people know what a technician does or means to a company any more. Moms and dads think technicians are grease monkeys and it’s a nasty job, and that’s not the case.
“There’s a huge future in transportation. There’s a huge need for technicians,” Hilton adds. “Mike [Jeffress] told me a long time ago that one day techs will be making as much [money] as doctors make and I believe that.”
Hilton has focused much of his efforts with the Arkansas Trucking Association on educating the families of local school-aged children about the potential for techs entering the market and helping the local trade schools build the kind of program that can adequately support the trucking industry.
“They go out a visit the schools and evaluate their programs,” he says of the state association. “They’re providing feedback to these technical schools that we feel the techs need to be trained on. We see a huge need to have the schools update their equipment.”
Golfing with Pap-paw
It’s funny how life comes full circle.
If you’re looking for Hilton today and can’t find him at Maverick, you’d be well-served to look in just a handful of places: the Ouachita River, the woods hunting for deer or the golf course with any of his 11 grandchildren whacking the ball around with their “Pap-Paw.”
But, if you can’t find him with a wrench, rod, reel or golf club in-hand, try checking the garden. Hilton may come home with greasy hands from time-to-time, but he’s got a green thumb.
He even bred is own species of rose by intertwining the roots of a pink and peach rose.
“It’s kind of like technicians and people,” Hilton says of his love for gardening. “I like watching things grow and mature. I think that’s something that inspires me. I fertilize those things, I weed them and I feed them. I’ve always gotten a lot out of seeing positive results.”
Much of the professional success Jeffress sees Hilton enjoying stems from Hilton’s own delight in putting the work in to develop people.
“He accomplished all that because he never forgot where he came from,” Jeffress says. “He was a tech once before an he needed that leadership and he received it. And now he’s providing it.”
“I’m really proud of … where he’s come from and what he’s done,” adds Ann Hilton. “He’s worked his butt off. He gone the extra mile.”
Through all those extra miles there’s been no shortcuts, and with the benefit of hindsight Hilton says that’s just fine with him.
“I wouldn’t do anything different,” Hilton says of his 36 year career. “I haven’t got anything to complain about. I wouldn’t change anything.”