CABOT If Rhonda Usery could go back and tell her 16-year-old self all the things she’d accomplish in her life, that teen would be amazed.
Growing up, Usery floundered at the thought of picking out a career. Being a business owner never even crossed her mind, let alone being a competitive bass fisher.
But just a few decades later, Usery has been involved in so much it’s hard to keep track. There’s the J & R Farms cattle operation she owns with her husband, her years spent nursing and tournaments fished with prizes won. She’s a mother and grandmother.
She’s a business owner-operator, too. Since 2008, Usery has worked as president and CEO Of UCO Equipment Inc. Located in Cabot, UCO sells, rents, repairs and modifies heavy machinery for companies across the U.S., including many electric and oil companies.
It’s been a busy five years for the woman who claims to have known very little about the machinery and rental business when she started, but Usery said she wouldn’t change a thing.
“We started out with just five machines to see how it would work,” Usery said. “People started wanting bigger and bigger machines, and it just took off from there.”
Born and raised in North Little Rock, Usery was the middle child in a family of five. Her mother worked as a nurse, while her father worked as a butcher and restaurant owner. Usery started working in her father’s restaurants at 13, building toward a lifelong work ethic.
After graduating from high school, Usery headed to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro with plans to become a medical technologist. At 19, she got married and had two children back to back.
Usery briefly switched career paths, getting a degree in computer-aided drafting and working at Uniforce Technologies and at Dillard’s for years before nursing called her back.
Her mom, aunt, sister-in-law, brother-in-law and a sister were all involved in nursing. It seemed like a natural fit.
With her third child just 6 weeks old, Usery started back to school. Though her first marriage had ended, Usery was able to find the time and funding to finish the program.
After graduation, she took on her first assignment at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock. She went on to spend 10 years working in an oncology unit at Children’s, a job that affects her even today. To Usery, it was inspiring work.
“When kids get sick, they don’t know they’re sick,” Usery said, holding back tears. “They live each day as if it’s just another fun day.”
One patient, a 16-year-old with leukemia, especially touched her. Usery promised the boy that when he was done with treatment, she would take him fishing. She’ll never forget that day, paddling their boat to get away from an over-eager dog who wanted to get in the boat with them. The teen was staying at the Ronald McDonald House at the time, but the following year, his condition deteriorated.
“I was off work when they told me he was sick and I needed to come up,” Usery said.
The boy died at age 17. Usery felt an enormous loss.
“I knew then I was too close to my patients, and I needed to step back,” Usery said.
A few years earlier, Usery had met her now husband, Jim, at a Sunday School picnic. As the two dated, she started helping with billing for his underground-utility business. As she slowly backed away from nursing, she started putting in more time with Jim’s business. Eventually, she had to make the choice to leave nursing altogether.
“When I made the decision, I just bawled,” Usery said. “I really wasn’t ready to give it up.”
In addition to their work together, Jim helped Usery develop a love for bass fishing. She’d fished for catfish as a kid, but her new-found hobby was much more intense.
“He’d sit me down at the kitchen table, and we’d tie knots over and over,” Usery said about studying with her husband.
Soon, she was competing and driving her own boat during tournaments.
Fishing became so important to the couple that it factored into their marriage. After the two had been dating for several years, Usery was eager to make it official to unify their families.
“We came home, and Jim told me to go down to the dock because there was a huge bass there,” Usery said.
She went to the dock by their pond and looked all over for the bass he’d described. Frustrated, she turned around to walk back to the house.
“He was standing behind me with the ring,” Usery said.
The couple married a few months later at their church at 7 a.m. so their kids could get to school. After the ceremony, they headed to a fishing tournament, which served as their honeymoon.
These days Usery, who lives in the small White County town of Floyd, doesn’t have as much time for fishing. In 2008, at her husband’s suggestion, she opened UCO Equipment Inc. Though she didn’t fully realize it at the time, while working at her husband’s business, Usery had gained extensive background knowledge on the machinery used in gas and powerline work.
The company has around 77 machines that are rented out to local companies and some out-of-state businesses. While she at first thought the company would simply sell and repair the equipment, the recession was in full swing when the business opened, and people were looking to rent equipment.
“Gas and oil companies like Entergy will rent our personnel carriers or our digger derrick trucks,” Usery said.
Her company is often contacted following natural disasters, such as tornadoes, to send equipment. Many of UCO’s larger trucks are currently being used at the Mayflower oil spill site.
The company also employs welders and mechanics to service large vehicles or to retro-fit truck beds with new machines.
“Just a few years ago, I wouldn’t have known how much some of this equipment costs,” Usery said.
Now she can rattle off prices, names and functions of the tank-looking vehicles the company supplies with ease. Usery acknowledges that dealing with heavy machinery tends to be a male-dominated field, but she’s unintimidated.
“It really doesn’t come into play at all,” Usery said, though people are occasionally surprised to hear that she’s the founder and CEO of the company.
In her free time — which is limited — Usery stays involved with the local chamber of commerce, her church and spending as much time as possible with her four grandchildren. After a long string of businesses — she even helped sell log-home kits for a time — Usery is happy to be settled with the successful UCO Equipment Inc.
“I didn’t think I would ever own a business,” Usery said. “The benefits of setting your own schedule are great, and I work with an amazing team. I’m definitely in the right place.”
Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or firstname.lastname@example.org.