If attendance at industry events is an economic indicator, we're doing better in early 2013 than you might think. Approximately 600 people attended the NASSTRAC Shippers Conference and Transportation Expo in Orlando this week, a gain of more than 100 attendees from 2011. The number of exhibitors — motor carriers, logistics companies and technology firms — was up as well.
Most of the attendees I spoke with had a pretty positive outlook for 2013, despite continued uncertainty emanating from indecision and deep partisanship in Washington. The $85 billion sequester is hurting transportation companies that do business with the federal government, though many expect that freight to come back at some point. Those hauling for manufacturers and retailers said business was steady. Those hauling construction and home building supplies and furniture were more optimistic.
“We’re trying to figure out if there is a new norm,” James Welch, CEO of YRC Worldwide, said during a NASSTRAC CEO panel on “New Realities in a Multimodal World” April 23. He noted the cyclical slowdown from late March through the fall that has repeated each year since 2009, leading to fears of a “double dip” recession. “Spring is the new fall,” said John White, president of U.S. Xpress.
Of course, people come to industry events for help with problems, too, and there were plenty of controversial issues on the table at NASSTRAC. A big one was the pending change in federal truck driver hours-of-service rules scheduled to take effect July 1. That regulatory change became the fulcrum on which a number of topics turned, especially feared shortages of drivers and truck capacity.
Boil the issues down and they resolve — as they usually do — into concerns about rising costs. Shelley Simpson, president of the Integrated Capacity Solutions division of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, summed it up succinctly: “I haven’t met a shipper yet who hasn't told me their costs need to be reduced, and I haven't met a transportation provider who hasn’t told me their costs are going up.”
Collaboration, or even greater cooperation, between carriers and their customers and their customers was a key concept at the conference. Shippers had the chance to do some on-the-spot collaborating through a series of learning labs covering capacity challenges, carrier selection, managing transportation costs, and the federal CSA initiative — the first such learning labs run by NASSTRAC.
“We have to work together,” Virginia Albanese, president and CEO of FedEx Custom Critical, said during the CEO panel. “There has to be a win-win. You need to save money on your transportation; I have to control my costs. I also have to make sure we make money, and I have 1,400 trucks that are run by small businesses, independent contractors, and they need to make money, too,” she said.
In a shipping environment where large trucking companies are cutting capacity, 3PLs are the pipeline to smaller carriers and freight is shifting modes, those goals can’t be mutually exclusive.