Bernard A. Brown, the visionary behind National Freight, Inc., one of the oldest trucking companies in the United States and the predecessor to the third-party logistics leader NFI, died Thursday, at the age of 96, at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Mr. Brown was formerly from Philadelphia and Vineland, New Jersey.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into a family that fled Europe from religious persecution, Mr. Brown embodied the American dream. At the age of nine, Bernie, as he was affectionately known, and his family moved to Vineland, New Jersey. He graduated from Vineland High School in 1942 and went on to attend Temple University, but left prior to graduating to help his father run his business. At an early age, Mr. Brown was enamored with the trucking business that his father started. Following the untimely death of his father, at age twenty-six he had the vision and courage to take a small company operating a few dump trucks and turn it into one of the most respected trucking companies in the country.
Mr. Brown embodied all of the attributes of a self-made businessman. He quickly figured out that business was all about relationships. In the early part of his career, he created contracts with the government, hauling supplies and goods that supported the military through World War II. He formed partnerships with local glass manufacturers in South Jersey which ultimately led to contracts with the largest companies in the United States. Mr. Brown was a trailblazer in the trucking industry and was at the forefront of federal transportation regulations in the 1980’s. His work led to the acceptance of high-cube trailers and the expansion from traditional 48 foot trailers to 53, 55, and eventually 57 foot trailers. In 1988, he was honored as the Man of the Year by the New Jersey Motor Truck Association. He knew the importance of hard work and perseverance as he led his company through wars, recessions, natural disasters, and deregulation. Most importantly, he knew that his employees were his company’s most important asset, and he continued his relationships with many of his colleagues and veteran drivers following his retirement.
His vision and spirit led to what ultimately became one of the largest and most successful, family-owned and operated, third-party logistics companies in North America, NFI. Today, that company employs more than 14,000 employees, operates over 250 locations in the United States and Canada, and serves the largest and most sophisticated shippers in the world. To this day, his son’s continue to own and operate the legacy freight business that was started in 1932.
Mr. Brown’s entrepreneurial spirit did not start and end in the trucking business. He was a real estate investor, founder of two banks, and an owner of a professional hockey team. Mr. Brown saw the natural extension of his transportation business and invested in warehousing and real estate. His real estate company, Vineland Construction Company, of which he was the Chairman of the Board until his death, is led by his daughter Anne and continues to own and operate commercial and retail properties throughout the United States. He was the Chairman of the Board Emeritus of NFI, Sun Bancorp, and Citizens United Bank. In 1960, Mr. Brown was a founder of Citizens United Bank, which was later sold in 1983. In 1986, he was a founder in Sun Bancorp, a small, regional bank that operated more than 50 branches and was ultimately listed on the NASDAQ. Bernie loved sports, and although it was short lived, he was the owner of the Philadelphia Blazers, a World Hockey Association franchise, in 1971. He was the first owner to give a million dollar contract to a professional hockey player. Mr. Brown even owned a horse farm in Vineland where he bred and raced horses under the stable name of Redwood Acres.
Business was a huge part of Mr. Brown’s life, but it was not the only thing that defined him. He was a man who cared deeply about his family and his community. Bernie is survived by his wife Shirlee, whom he loved and admired. She was the solid foundation that allowed him to pursue his dreams. They would have been married 70 years this coming February. Mr. and Mrs. Brown believed in giving back to the community and never forgot their roots.
Over the years, Mr. and Mrs. Brown supported numerous local and national organizations with their time and philanthropy. In the mid-1960’s, Mr. Brown was instrumental in founding the Cumberland County Community College, where he believed that quality, affordable education, should be accessible to all. As an original founding member and Trustee of Cumberland County Community College he served as Chairman of the Board from 1972 through 1975. In 1991, he was awarded an honorary Associate of Arts degree from Cumberland County Community College. In 2008, the Shirlee and Bernard Brown University Center opened on the campus to support student life. Mr. Brown also served on the Board of Trustees at the former Newcomb Hospital and was a director and member of the Vineland YMCA. He was a Director of the Arthritis Foundation at Hahnemann University Medical Center in Philadelphia. Mr. and Mrs. Brown were also active supporters of the Vineland United Way and Jewish Federation of Cumberland County. In 2004 they joined the Department of Ophthalmology Advisory Board of the Harkness Eye Institute at Columbia University. They endowed a glaucoma research laboratory at Columbia University in 2005, and in 2007, they established the Shirlee and Bernard Brown Professorship of Glaucoma at Columbia. Later, in 2018 they established the Shirlee and Bernard Brown Glaucoma Genetics Initiative Fund at Columbia University. Mr. and Mrs. Brown established the Edward Viner Intensive Care Unit at Cooper Hospital, donated to the Humanism Center at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, and endowed a scholarship fund for the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University. In 2006 Mr. and Mrs. Brown established scholarships at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He was the President of Beth Israel Congregation in Vineland serving two non-consecutive terms and a supporter of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County. Mr. Brown was a thirty-second degree mason.
Bernie Brown was larger than life and an icon in the trucking industry. He was able to impact the lives of many through his hard work and generous spirit. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him.