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Less-than-Truckload Market Update: Profitability improving

With pricing power back in the hands of the rejuvenated LTL sector, carriers are now laser focused on margins while concentrating on profitable freight.
By John D. Schulz, Contributing Editor
August 01, 2012

Is there too much capacity?
Analyst Ross says carrier capacity discipline is the key to LTL profitability. At this point in 2012, carriers are saying that capacity is, more or less, in alignment with demand—largely due to the downsizing of YRC Worldwide. Because of the Great Recession and more than $2 billion in losses the last five years, YRC has reduced itself from a $9 billion carrier to one that is projected to do about $5 billion this year.

“Taking $4 billion out of the LTL market is akin to closing a company the size of Roadway,” says Con-way’s Stotlar, referring to the LTL giant that was absorbed during the Yellow-Roadway merger nine years ago. “Real capacity has come out of the LTL environment, and that’s the single best thing to happen to LTL carriers. We are right at capacity now, and margins are still not adequate,” he says.

That, in turn, is causing carriers to re-examine their capital expenditures for new trucks. If fleets buy trucks, it’s merely replacement—not adding any real capacity. “Until we get decent returns on capital, why should we be taking our shareholders’ money to buy trucks?” Stotlar asks.

Along with rolling stock, the other factor affecting capacity is an adequate supply of drivers. The effects of CSA, the government mandated driver-monitoring program, are just now being felt, and there remains the possibility of a reduction in effective hours of service, which the government is studying.

Demographics, mandatory drug testing, and other factors are working against the industry as well, carriers say. “We simply are not producing enough drivers to fill the ranks of those leaving the profession,” says O’Kane. “And this driver tightness exists in an economy with 8.2 percent unemployment. With a healthier employment level, there will be heightened demand for drivers and likely less supply as some drivers return to construction or other trades.”

Proactive carriers aren’t waiting. Con-way, for instance, has begun driver training schools where it recruits promising dock workers and trains them to get their Commercial Driver’s License. A. Duie Pyle puts talented dock and warehouse employees through a 10-week program at its driver training academy. O’Kane says it costs more than $20,000 per driver to train new drivers, but it’s worth it. “We find the market for drivers challenging at 8.2 percent unemployment,” he says. “What will good economic times bring for those carriers that do not provide the high quality jobs that we provide?”

Drivers are often the face of the company and reflect, poorly or otherwise, on how a carrier treats its customers. “We are in a people business and the carriers that have the highest quality of people generally operate in the top percentile,” says Pitt Ohio President Chuck Hammel.

Asking shippers to do their part
Interestingly, many leading carrier executive said rate negotiations with shippers increasingly are taking on greater importance. With capacity tightening and volumes increasing, carriers can afford to be more discriminating at what freight they haul and at what rates.

“We’re getting murdered by every kind of cost,” says NEMF’s Shevell. “When I bought a new truck in 2006, it cost $65,000. That same truck today costs $100,000. Everything is up—fuel, driver pay, insurance, tolls, terminals. You can’t build a new terminal anywhere in the Northeast today because of exorbitant cost and regulations. The only way we recover that is through rate increases.”

Hammel of Pitt Ohio, a $305 million regional carrier, says the biggest challenge his company now faces is how does he keep rates stable while still offering the highest levels of service. “Our salaries, benefits, tires, truck parts have and continue to increase, yet customers balk during discussions of rate increases,” he says. “We know how important low rates are to our customers, so we constantly look for ways to reduce our costs of doing business.”

Technology and operating efficiency helps, Hammel says. He says the best LTL operators do a few things differently. “One way is that they use the newest and best technology to reduce any manual intervention possible,” he says, adding that Pitt Ohio uses several different business intelligence tools.

Analyst Ross says that because carriers are less hungry for market share and more focused on margins, pricing, and operating efficiencies are the “chosen paths” to profitability. Density should come later, he adds. Carrier execs say that it’s always a balancing act to find the right levels of pricing and service to each customer.

“Finding balance in pricing continues to put pressure on carriers,” says Averitt’s Spain. “There is value in services we provide, and we know our customers are looking for ways to take cost out of their supply chains.”

ABF’s Keenan adds that shippers are just now seeing results of strategies adopted by LTL carriers during the recession. The winners, he said, were those carriers that continued to invest in new services despite financial challenges.

“Those who invested in their business models are unveiling new dimensions to their service offerings, and able to provide new value to customers,” says Kennan. “This is important because shippers are emerging from the Great Recession with new demands placed on their businesses.”

Bottom line: Rates are rising. Analysts Ross and Jindel are predicting LTL rate increases in the 3 percent to 4 percent range for the next year or two. Most LTL carriers have taken a 6.9 percent general rate increase, effective midsummer. In the past, discounting has taken away about half that hike, but this year it appears that pricing power belongs to the carriers.

“We believe pricing power should remain with the carriers as long as capacity and pricing remain rational,” Ross says.

About the Author

John D. Schulz
Contributing Editor

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. He is known to own the fattest Rolodex in the business, and is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis. This wise Washington owl has performed and produced at some of the highest levels of journalism in his 40-year career, mostly as a Washington newsman.

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