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Here is my annual report on the top stories in surface transportation in the United States and Canada over the past year. These stories are not listed in order of importance.

Economic Stability, Political Chaos, and Tightening Freight Capacity

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Freight matching services or “freight exchanges” have become one of the hottest topics in Freight Transportation over the past few years. Venture capital funds, private investors and others have poured at least $200 million — and potentially substantially more — into dozens of on-demand freight start-ups, including Flexport, Transfix, Loadsmart, Convoy, Doft, Cargo Chief, TugForce, HaulHound, Parade, Ship Lync, Load Surfer, FreightCenter, Freight Finder, Freightera, Freightcom, Pickmyload and others. There are new companies entering this space on a nearly daily basis.

Uber, the controversial but successful online taxi app, has recently announced that it is entering the freight matching arena. What is the attraction?

A brief history of freight matching services

DAT (which is an abbreviation for Dial-A-Truck) was the original load board in North America that was created in 1978. TruckersEdge was founded after DAT and was acquired by TransCore in 1992, another internet pioneer in load board services. Truckstop.com and Getloaded.com were launched in the early 2000s. In 2001, DAT was purchased by TransCore. In 2004, TransCore was acquired by Roper Technologies. In 2014, TransCore DAT became DAT Solutions. For four decades, this group of companies has been offering, for a fee, a process for shippers and brokers to post loads that need to be moved and for carriers to highlight available capacity.

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One of the most frequent complaints I hear from carriers, in person, on social media, or at conferences, is about the number and quality of freight bids that they receive. Carriers complain about the poor quality of the data, the number of carriers in the bid, and about the lack of professionalism in the bid process. They also assert that if the shipper would just meet with them face to face, rather than through a bid process, the result would be more successful for both parties and would take a lot less time, money and effort.

My company has designed and executed many successful bids over the past fourteen years. We have learned that for many shippers, success comes from getting “your house in order” before executing the bid. This is what is involved.

Many shippers have been moving the same freight, to the same consignees, using the same processes, for several years. In their haste to put their freight out for bid, they overlook certain aspects of their business.

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The Basics

Freight Transportation is typically the single largest cost component of Supply Chain Management. Data from Logistics Management’s Annual Study of Logistics and Transportation Trends highlights that an average transportation spend is in the range of 10 to 11 percent of revenue for companies with less than $250 million in Sales and it is in the range of 2 to 3 percent for companies with revenues in excess of $9 billion. As a result, my colleagues and I are often amazed that freight expenses are undermanaged in so many companies.

Freight Expenses are Controllable, Manageable and Negotiable Costs

Regardless of mode, freight costs are typically comprised of three elements

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Scan_20170318-185343_1.jpgThe following is my annual report on the state of the LTL Freight Industry in the United States and Canada.

Revenues Stagnated Again in 2017

Here are links to the top 100 carriers in Canada (http://www.todaystrucking.com/top100) and the top 25 LTL carriers in the United States (http://www.joc.com/sites/default/files/u48801/truck-tables_1_0.jpg).

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Much of the work we do at Dan Goodwill & Associates starts with a phone call or e-mail from a President, CFO or Vice President of Logistics or Transportation. One of the first questions that we are asked is can your firm help us reduce our freight costs.

The answer is usually yes. Unfortunately, we are not able to wave a magic wand. Effective freight cost management comes from taking some concrete steps. Here they are.

Centralized Command and Control

Many of our clients have grown through acquisition and/or organically. They have manufacturing and distribution facilities in multiple locations. These sites are often managed individually by local logistics managers who each use a set of preferred carriers. By not consolidating shipments, by moving LTL freight daily and by using a variety of carriers, they sub-optimize on freight cost management.

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Last week I wrote about the consolidation that is taking place in the freight transportation industry in Canada. Thank you for the many positive comments and feedback. I hope the blog has stimulated some thought about the level of competition in the industry, in view of its domination by some very large players.

One of my longstanding colleagues in the industry, who runs an independent transportation operation in Canada, reminded me that there are a range of very fine companies that compete with the industry giants. As a follow-up to last week’s blog, I thought I would provide an overview of the competition in each sector.

As a starting point, I went back over the top 100 for hire fleets in 2016 as published in Today’s Trucking. They range from Canada’s largest trucking fleet, TFI (TransForce International) with over 26,000 pieces of equipment and almost 25,000 employees to the 100th largest company, Transport Matte, with 321 pieces of equipment and 135 employees. It should be noted that there is a steep falloff after you go from TFI to even the second-place carrier, Mullen Group, that has 13, 645 pieces of equipment and 4410 employees. Clearly, TFI is in a class by itself with not just the most trucks but with by far the largest number of fleets under one roof.

The other big fleets highlighted in the previous blog (i.e. Manitoulin, Day & Ross, Mullen) have also grown disproportionately large through a combination of organic growth and/or acquisition. A glance through the top 100 list displays a range of companies, large and small. So let’s take a look at the major freight transport sectors in Canada.

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Canada Needs to Prepare for Negotiations on NAFTA

Posted by on in NAFTA

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The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), came into effect on January 1, 1994, creating the largest free trade region in the world. It was designed to generate economic growth and help raise the standard of living for the people of all three member countries.

“By any measure the NAFTA has been a success by serving as a basis to grow both trilateral and bilateral North American relationships and the results speak for themselves. This integration helps maximize our capabilities and make our economies more innovative and competitive. In 1993, trilateral trade within the North American region was over US$288 billion. In 2015, our total trilateral merchandise trade amounted to over US$ 1.0 trillion.” (Source: Government of Canada Global Affairs Canada website). This is a more than threefold increase since 1993.

During the recent US election, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump frequently spoke about the need to renegotiate NAFTA. They commonly highlighted the impact that “bad trade deals” as they were framed, had on American industry. As the election campaign unfolded, Hillary Clinton fell into line with her opponents on this issue. While the subject of renegotiating NAFTA has come up before, this time will likely be different. Here’s why.

Donald Trump has already stated that one of his major priorities is to create jobs in America. He campaigned with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” A big part of making America great again is bringing back jobs that were lost to other countries. This message resonated strongly with working class people living in “rust belt” states. In fact, the race for the Presidency was decided in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These states turned their backs on the Democrats and voted for Donald Trump. To maintain the support of working class Americans in these states, Mr. Trump will have to demonstrate that he is trying to bring back jobs to these states. To better understand the challenges of people living in cities in this area, who have lost their jobs, I encourage everyone to read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (see my blog on the book http://www.dantranscon.com/index.php/blog?view=entry&id=253 ).

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_xl_31478542_20160826-151328_1.jpgDuring this period of modest economic growth and ample capacity, freight rates have been in decline. This is confirmed by the various market indices that track freight rates. Lower energy prices that have translated in lower fuel surcharges have also helped keep freight rates in check. The data also indicates that some shippers are switching modes and moving from intermodal back to highway service to obtain faster service at more attractive rates. Looking ahead to the future, 54 percent of the trucking companies responding to a recent Inbound Logistics survey expect static growth in the near term.

Despite the drop in freight rates, 75 percent of shippers surveyed in the same study stated that reducing transportation costs is their top priority while only 38 percent indicating that finding capacity is a challenge. The static economy and low energy prices would appear to be creating a “perfect storm” for shippers seeking to meet their greatest challenge. The danger for shippers is to get greedy as many did during the Great Recession. We remember seeing shippers bid their freight multiple times a year in the hope of continuing to drive lower freight costs. While we are big believers in the value of high quality freight bids, we are also a strong proponent of the old adage, “you get what you pay for.”

We all know that just as there are cycles in the stock market and the housing industry, there are cycles in the freight industry. What goes down will go up again. Shippers that surround themselves with “bottom feeder” carriers at discounted rates will likely have a rude awakening when the market turns. Moreover, with new government regulations coming into play and the volatility of fuel prices, capacity will likely tighten and freight rates may rise sooner than later.

So what should thoughtful shippers do to manage their freight costs as smartly as possible? As stated above, we still believe that conducting a professional freight bid exercise, once a year or every two years is a wise thing to do. For shippers that include a range of quality carriers and logistics service partners in the RFP and conduct multiple round events, this is still a great way to secure savings in freight costs.

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On July 1, Canada celebrated its 149th birthday. Just prior to Canada Day, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of industry professionals on the topic of the Canadian freight market during a Stifel conference call. For those of you trying to learn more about America’s neighbor to the north, this and subsequent blogs will capture the highlights from the presentation.

Canada has a population of 36.3 million people, about one tenth the size of the United States and similar in size to the population of the state of California. The majority of the population lives within a 200 mile radius of the US border, the longest unprotected border in the world. About 20 million Canadians live in the major metropolitan locations of Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Canada has the eleventh largest economy in the world.

From a freight perspective, the country can be divided into 4 distinct regions. Each region has its own industries and transportation challenges.

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The 2016 Surface Transportation Summit will take place at the International Centre in Toronto on October 13. The event will be co-hosted by Newcom Business Media and Dan Goodwill & Associates in partnership with the Ontario Trucking Association and the Freight Management Association of Canada. There will be some exciting changes this year.

As always, the conference will be kicked off by a look ahead to the Economy in the year ahead. Carlos Gomes, Senior Economist, Scotiabank will share his overview of 2016 and make some projections for the coming year. For the first time, the Summit will showcase two of North America’s top freight industry investment analysts. Walter Spracklin, Managing Director, Capital Markets, RBC Investment Securities, will offer his insights on the freight transportation industry in Canada. John Larkin, Managing Director of Research, at Stifel Financial Corp., will provide a status report on the current state of the freight industry in the United States.

Wendell Erb, President & CEO, The Erb Group of Companies will provide some commentary on the economy from a trucking company perspective. He will be joined by a Rob Bryson, recently retired Vice-President at Parrish & Heimbecker, who will provide observations and perspectives from a shipper’s perspective.

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Every few years I like to take a look at some of the new technology-based entrants to the freight transportation industry to see who are the “movers” and “shakers.” While Amazon dominates the headlines, there are a host of other companies doing some very interesting things in the technology space.

This blog will look at some names that surfaced in the past and some of the new players that are taking freight brokerage to a new level. While new technology is being applied to a variety of freight related tasks (i.e. calculating freight dimensions, dock appointment scheduling), this blog will examine some of the companies are actually in the business of moving freight. They are bridging the asset world with the technology world. I have selected a group of companies that have caught my attention. They are Cargomatic, uShip, Freightera, Freightquote, FreightCentre, Uship, Project44, Logistical Labs and ZRATE.

Cargomatic

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Back in the 90s, I had the privilege of leading Canada’s largest Intermodal Marketing Company. Since that time, I have been a big supporter of this service. In our consulting work with shippers, we are often struck by the fact that this service remains undervalued and underutilized. The purpose of this blog is to challenge shippers to revisit and rethink their company’s intermodal activity and help them craft an effective plan within their supply chain strategy.

While intermodal service provides various benefits, the top advantage is that on longer lengths of haul (i.e. over 1000 miles), it typically costs less than over the road truckload service. While transit times are longer in some (but not all) instances, the economies of moving multiple containers on an intermodal train usually provide shippers with a cost advantage. When compared to truck transport, lower fuel surcharges and less exposure to driver shortages are also beneficial.

Over the past decade, all of the class 1 railroads in North America have invested heavily in their Intermodal terminal network and service offerings. As an example, a few years ago, CN Rail built a rail facility in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, the closest North American port to Asia. That port allows for the movement of intermodal containers on a single-line CN train from Prince Rupert across Canada or through Chicago as far south as New Orleans, LA. Here are a few steps to consider in preparing an effective intermodal strategy.

Step 1 – Revisit your vendor and customer service requirements

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Every few years I like to take a look at the segment of the freight industry where I got my start, the LTL sector. As I reviewed the landscape for this year’s blog, I am struck by the significant changes taking place in both the United States and Canada.

Revenue Growth Stagnated

Here are links to the top 100 carriers in Canada (http://www.todaystrucking.com/top100 ) and the top 25 LTL carriers in the United States (http://www.joc.com/sites/default/files/u48801/truck-tables_1_0.jpg ). The strong surge in revenue that less-than-truckload carriers enjoyed in 2014 stalled last year, as weaker demand and lower fuel surcharges dragged down LTL trucking’s top line. The combined revenue of the 25 largest U.S. LTL trucking companies declined 0.5 percent in 2015 to $32.1 billion, after shooting up 9.1 percent to $32.3 billion in 2014, according to The Journal of Commerce’s 2016 ranking of the Top 25 LTL Carriers, prepared by SJ Consulting Group. The report concludes that the decline in revenue may have as much to do with falling fuel prices as lower industrial demand.

The LTL Industry has become a “Big Boys” Game

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_xl_66940210.jpgIt was just a few years ago that the airline industry appeared to be teetering on the abyss. During this tumultuous period, many airlines merged or went out of business. Passengers had the upper hand and played one carrier off against another to their best advantage. One of the tools that helped salvage the industry and significantly boost its financial results has been pricing.  The airlines have become very clever in monetizing every aspect of their business.

If you want food on a plane, you have to pay for it. If you wish to reserve a seat or obtain a seat with more legroom, you pay for it. On many airlines, you pay for every bag you check. If a passenger travels to a specific set of destinations on a repetitive basis, some airlines will create a package deal (i.e. offer a block of tickets at a preferred rate).

The size of a plane utilized is tailored to the volume of passengers on the route. Certain larger size planes are utilized on heavy volume routes during the day and then assigned to less frequent evening fights on lower volume routes. Smaller planes or small regional partner airlines are utilized for flights to remote locations.

Now, with dynamic pricing, airlines adjust their fares based on seat availability, time of day, day of the week and other variables. Low fares are available in the early stages to create critical mass. As a flight fills up, rates go up. Passengers are “manipulated” into taking flights at slower times of the day to balance loads and maximize profits.

The brokers of the freight industry, online travel agents such as Expedia, are also skilled at managing travel data and selling flights, hotel rooms and car rentals. The LTL freight industry is in the process of learning from the airline industry.

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The essence of successful freight rate negotiations is an honest exchange of information. Carriers count on shippers to supply them with complete and accurate information on shipment weights, dimensions, volumes by lane, seasonal spikes and any special service (i.e. job site deliveries, weekend pickups etc.) requirements. Shippers expect carriers to be able to supply them with the correct types of equipment to pick up their freight at the designated time, to provide adequate amounts of equipment at the right time to move their loads, to meet their designated transit times over 95% of the time and to provide good customer service and quality information as they outlined in their submission and interview.

While this all seems so straight-forward and reasonable, there are a host of challenges that get in the way of committed shipper-carrier relationships. Here are a few to consider.

Changes in Shipment Volumes

Business conditions are constantly changing. There are ebbs and flows in the general economy that can impact on many industries, including both shippers and carriers. There is ongoing competition in the market where shippers win or lose customers every day. Then there are mergers and acquisitions and new product launches (or old product cancellations) that can lead to rationalization of locations for factories or distribution facilities. The net impact of these changes is that the shipment volumes discussed in an RFP may not come to pass or the actual volumes by lane may vary over time.

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The first part of this blog focused on the operational, service and equipment issues that constitute a strong shipper-carrier freight agreement. This blog will address the financial and business issues that need to carefully captured in detail.

6. Rates and Service Charges

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b2ap3_thumbnail_dreamstime_l_19275327.jpgFurther to the last blog, a well written motor carrier agreement can be a powerful tool in promoting partnerships between shippers and freight companies. Listed below are some of the major components of a comprehensive contract.

1. Parties to the Agreement

The document must clearly identify the parties to the agreement, including the use of any third parties or sub-contractors. This is very important since it is critical that all transport companies that perform services for the shipper have the same licenses, insurance and service levels as the primary party to the agreement. In other words, they must be a replica of the primary party or any differences must be so stated. The agreement must also make clear that the parties to the agreement are independent contractors. Neither Shipper nor Carrier shall have the right to enter into contracts or pledge the credit of or incur expenses or liabilities on behalf of the other party.

2. Services

a) Types of services

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Motor carrier agreements or contracts are documents signed between shippers and carriers that set out the parameters and processes under which two or more companies work together to provide freight transportation services. These documents, often prepared by lawyers (with input from freight management professionals), set out a range of service expectations and freight rates that define the relationship between the parties. While freight agreements have come into widespread use, the question is if and when these documents are necessary?

One could argue that if two or more parties are operating in good faith, do they need a legal document to circumscribe the nature of their relationship? If shippers and carriers are supposed to work together as partners in an open and trusting manner, does a formal, written agreement get in the way of a business partnership arrangement? Does it inhibit open and honest communication?

Do motor carrier agreements create a rigid framework that reduces flexibility? Are they detrimental to the sometime unpredictable and fluid nature of freight transportation? Does a formal agreement make it more difficult for a shipper to obtain additional equipment or after hour’s service? Do they place carriers with a limited set of equipment into a straight-jacket? Does the fear of punishment or service failure force a carrier to provide equipment and service to one client (that has a contract) at the expense of another client (that doesn’t have one)?

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Recent stock market and currency value declines in China and Canada point to a challenging year ahead for the economies of these two countries and many others around the world. While the United States has remained fairly stable amidst current world turmoil, its high valued currency may slow exports to its key trading partners. If business levels deteriorate this year, this will place added pressure on shippers who are trying to manage their freight costs? Is this a year to conduct a freight bid?

Certainly faltering economic conditions typically encourage manufacturers and distributors to conduct RFPs to keep freight costs as low as possible. Beyond the general state of the economy, there are a usually a range of conditions that set the stage for a successful freight bid. Here a few to consider.

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