How Athabasca University helped a trucker go from highways to boardrooms
Jim Little of Turner Valley, Alta. traded the open road for an MBA and roles as manager and mentor
It’s fair to say that if it weren’t for Athabasca University (AU), Jim Little (Master of Business Administration ’03) would never have fulfilled his dream of earning a post-secondary degree. Growing up, that had always been his goal, but then life got in the way.
After graduating from a Winnipeg high school in the mid-1970s, he didn’t get into the resource management program he wanted, so he took a job in the family trucking business. Then there were the road trips with buddies, marriage, children, a move to Alberta and a budding career in transportation management.
By the late 1990s, he had worked his way up to being director of operations at Mullen Trucking in Aldersyde, just south of Calgary. Yet despite his success, something was still missing.
And then a colleague recommended AU.
“For a guy who never went to university and had no undergrad degree,” says Little, “it was an opportunity to leverage my management experience and finally get some higher education.”
“For a guy who never went to university and had no undergrad degree, [AU] was an opportunity to leverage my management experience and finally get some higher education.”– Jim Little (Master of Business Administration ’03)
Turning real-world experience into an MBA
Little made the most of it. In 1999, he enrolled in AU’s Graduate Diploma in Management program, the first step toward the Master of Business Administration degree he earned in 2003.
AU offered the flexibility, remote learning platforms, and recognition of real-world experience that he needed to realize his lifelong goal—all while still working full time.
“I couldn’t have done it anywhere else,” he says. “I was working long hours, often on weekends, and we were living a 45-minute drive from any urban centre, so going to night classes or whatever just wasn’t feasible.”
Putting in 50-hour weeks at work meant his nights, and more than a few early mornings, were taken up with schoolwork.
“And on top of that, I had to go through this huge learning curve—studying at the university level—to figure out what I was even doing,” he adds. “One thing I learned was, you could get by on 4 or 5 hours of sleep for long periods of time.”
Applying learning into real life
While challenging, the AU program was flexible enough that when his job duties became too onerous at one point, he was able to take a one-year hiatus then return to finish.
Studying business helped him adopt new modes of analyzing, strategizing and executing management and operational tasks.
“All of a sudden, I had a lot more tools in my toolbox, and I put the concepts to use,” Little says. “You know, let’s do a competitive profile matrix, or let’s use this idea for hiring templates. It let me bring different things to the table and change my way of thinking.”
“All of a sudden, I had a lot more tools in my toolbox, and I put the concepts to use.”
Growing as a leader and mentor
His AU degree helped Little advance to senior management roles, including president of the petroleum transportation company Heavy Crude Hauling, and vice-president of the trucking firm Cascade Carriers.
And Little’s connection with AU didn’t end with his MBA. Over the years, he enrolled in leadership and management development courses offered by the university.
He also became a mentor to several AU business students, helping them navigate challenges and make the most of opportunities while maintaining the right perspective.
“I tell them it’s all about pacing yourself, right?” he says. “It’s a marathon, not a race, and the finish line doesn’t really matter if you do it right. But do it right.”
Advocate for AU
Little remains a strong supporter of the university and its value proposition, noting that AU has staked out a leadership position in remote and online learning that deserves to be recognized and celebrated by Albertans.
“It’s like with companies today,” he explains. “They have people working all over the world because you have to go where the intellectual capital is. In this day and age, and especially post-pandemic, AU’s model just makes a lot of sense.”
“In this day and age, and especially post-pandemic, AU's model just makes a lot of sense.”
Little left the corporate trucking industry in 2015, and now, at 64, spends his time pursuing his personal passions, including fishing, writing history books and spending time with his grandchildren. He stays active in business through his AU connections and as president of Little Diamond Enterprises, a transportation consulting firm founded by him and his wife.
Career success is just one of the benefits he attributes to his experience earning an MBA at AU.
“It gets you out of your little box,” he says. “You have this massive paradigm shift that is with you for life. You start to see things through a different lens. And once you do that, you’re never quite the same.”
Open for Alberta
Read more profiles of AU learners and grads in our Open for Alberta series.