Former ATA Chairman, industry legend Ross Neely dies at 92
Thomas “Ross” Neely 92, founder of Ross Neely Systems, Inc. of Birmingham died Friday, Sept. 6 after a brief illness. He was 92.
A statement on the company’s Facebook page reads, “He was the patriarch and founder of our company. At 92 years of age he was still coming to work every day until some health issues forced him to stop a few months ago. He loved this company and more importantly loved his employees. He often used to say, ‘they don’t make them like they used to’. No, they don’t, and he will certainly be missed.”
Neely was a veteran, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II aboard the destroyer Samuel N. Moore in the Pacific Theater and was five times awarded the Bronze Star.
He later bought a 1947 1.5-ton International Harvester for $240 and began Ross Neely Trucking, driving between Birmingham and Gadsden. Within a few months, he hired his first full-time driver and began expanding the company. For years, the trucks bore the company’s famous slogan, “Breathe freely … ship Ross Neely.”
By the late 1960s, the company had grown to 26 terminals from Georgia to Texas and was operating in 48 states, as well as van, tank and flatbed divisions.
After industry deregulation in the early 1980s, Neely began reducing the size of the company to meet changing market conditions and focus more on truckload shipping. “Somewhere between deregulation and wanting to spend more time with family, we really changed the structure of the company quite a bit,” he told Alabama Trucker in 2018. “It took 5-6 years to downsize to fit our new business model and maintain profitability without having to lay oﬀ a bunch of people. It was important to help everyone maintain employment.”
After countless market and regulatory changes over the years, Neely was firmly committed to retaining the family-owned business vibe, with family values driving much of the business model. His son, Tommy Neely, III spent 35 years at the company before his passing in 2004. His daughter and son-in-law also had long careers at the company, and all played an integral part in the growth and success of the business. “I couldn’t have done it without family,” Neely said in 2018. “And I still couldn’t.”
His Grandson, Tommy, now serves as company president. He also serves on ATA’s Board of Directors.
According to company officials, the operation enjoys one of the lowest turnover rates in the Southeast and, except in rare cases, makes certain that drivers are home with their own family every weekend. “No one lives to drive, they drive to live,” Neely told Alabama Trucker. “It’s important to make a living but people with families and children want to be home with them. They want to coach or attend ball games on Saturdays. And we want them to be able to do just that.”
He was preceded in death by his first wife, Margaret Ann Cundiff Neely; sisters, Judy Greene, Dot Gilliland; brother, James Neely; son, Tommy Neely, III and granddaughter, Lynn Miller Wicks.
He is survived by his wife, Wanda Arnold Neely; his beloved dog, Lily; sister, Anne Boston (Bob); daughter, Carol Miller (John); granddaughter, Neely Miller Franklin; grandsons, Tommy Neely, IV (Alicia) and Mitchell Neely (Jennifer) and many great-grandchildren and other relatives and friends.