Trucking industry has cause for optimism despite challenges, insiders say

Cautious optimism was a common thread during the Highway Transportation Session at the National Industrial Transportation League’s 2020 Summit.

The NITL 2020 panel discussion Tuesday featured executives from trucking and logistics companies discussing issues such as contract rates, trucking capacity, truck parking, driver retention, delivery demands and hours-of-service regulations.

“Obviously 2019 was a challenging market to say the least, and I’m glad it’s in the rearview mirror from a truckload operator perspective,” said Justin Harness, chief marketing officer of U.S. Xpress. “It’s still to be determined what 2020 shakes out to be — I do believe we will see some inflection in the supply-and-demand equilibrium at some point midyear.”

Chattanooga, Tennessee-based U.S. Xpress (NYSE: USX) is the fifth-largest asset-based truckload carrier by revenue in the United States.

Along with Harness, other panelists included David Marsh, chief operating officer of Celtic Intermodal; Travis Krous, director of transportation for Nestlé Purina; Jeff Tucker, CEO of Tucker Company Worldwide; and Mark Willis, host of the Road Dog Trucking show on Sirius XM radio.

The 2020 NITL Summit was held Jan. 20 through Jan. 22 in San Antonio, Texas. The summit brought together hundreds of professionals from across the freight transportation sector for three days of forums, networking and discussions about the future.

Justin Harness of U.S. Xpress, right, speaking at NITL Summit 2020, with David Marsh of Celtic Intermodal, left, and Mark Willis of Road Dog Trucking. Image: FreightWaves

Tucker also said the freight marketplace could be nearing an equilibrium of supply and demand, but it’s still a wait-and-see situation.

Haddonfield, New Jersey-based Tucker Company Worldwide is a family-owned third-party logistics provider (3PL) founded in 1961.

“I see the marketplace beginning to transition and stratify, and because we’ve got these visibility tools, prices aren’t coming down quite as much as you would expect in high-service scenarios,” Tucker said. “You can’t afford it, you can’t afford to be late.”

Marsh said it does seem like the market “has hit the bottom” in terms of rates. He became COO of Celtic Intermodal in April 2019. The company is the intermodal division of Frisco, Texas-based Transplace, a $2.8 billion-a-year 3PL.

“The good news from an intermodal perspective is that the services responded very nicely and a lot of customers said they enjoyed the services we provided,” Marsh said.

Krous said Nestlé Purina (NASDAQ: NSRGF) tries to work with its carriers by being a “shipper of choice.” Nestlé Purina was founded in 1894 in St. Louis and is a global manufacturer of pet products.

“As everyone knows, carriers have struggled to find drivers. So what is it that we can do to help them keep the drivers and retain the drivers? We can do things like parking at our facility,” Krous said. “So we allow parking at our facilities. We don’t advertise it. We don’t want a bunch of trucks just showing up and parking there But we’re not going to kick you off the lot. Those kinds of things.”

Krous said they have also looked at providing Wi-Fi for drivers at Nestlé facilities, as well as making invoicing and payments easier.

Willis, host of Road Dog Trucking, said one of the big issues for drivers is when their company promises them they will get home at a certain time but they frequently don’t make it.

“They tell me fleet managers will divert them somewhere else in order to go cover a load,” Willis said. “So, many of the drivers will miss out on family events, family opportunities, and that really creates a tremendous concern for them.”

Willis said he also hears from many drivers that there are so many regulations and so much technology involved in trucking that training feels inadequate.

“We need to maybe step up the game when it comes to driver training,” he said. “Many have called in to the program and they’ve said it’s great to be able to put the technology on board the truck, but they are waiting to make the investment inside the training structure itself to take this forward to help the driver understand the rules of the road and to move things forward.”

Harness said U.S. Xpress has been around “almost 35 years, and we get a lot of drivers that have been with us for a long time.”

However, Harness said U.S. Xpress also launched the Professional Driver Development program in 2019, aiming to afford younger drivers “an opportunity to have a better learning experience on the front end through our orientation program. And beyond that, ongoing and continuing education programs throughout the lifecycle of their career with us.”