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Transportation Best Practices/Trends: Advantage Private Fleets

Private fleet operators have decided to pump up investment, expand capacity and battle the tight for-hire market with training, improved technology and better driver pay. Will the preparation pay off in the long run?

Based on the National Private Truck Council’s (NPTC) latest benchmarking survey, private fleets are doing exceptionally well and the future is markedly bright. Whether measured by volume, tonnage or value, private fleet shipments are up more than 10% year over year.

This data speaks to the strength of the U.S. economy and the pervasive capacity constraints that exist in the for-hire side of the industry. Even if for-hire carrier service were available in all the lanes, the companies that operate private fleets would have to pay more for it. As a result, many companies have chosen to invest in and expand their own in-house transportation capacity.

In fact, after years in which the big news was the outsourcing of private fleets, we’re starting to see the pendulum start to swing back in favor of the private fleet. That’s according to Gary Petty, president and CEO of the NPTC, an organization that represents the $320 billion private truck sector.

“There have been a number of companies that outsourced their transportation in its entirety that have now decided to reinvest in their private fleets and bring transportation back in-house,” says Petty, adding that this conversion has been going on for at least two years.

When you roll up all the details, it’s hard to beat running your own private fleet when it comes to service. Increasingly, private fleet operators say, it can result in not only a cost competitive transportation alternative to using for-hire capacity, but because of the direct management of your own drivers, fleets can be a cost, service and value differentiator.

And that value may only be growing. According to John Larkin, the veteran trucking analyst from investment banking firm Stifel, an increased scrutiny of drivers will potentially cause “the mother of all capacity shortages” lurking just over the horizon.

“All of the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place for greater capacity shortages in the for-hire sector,” says Larkin. He notes that regulations are coming down the pipeline at an accelerated pace as the Obama administration endeavors to complete its agenda; driver demographics continue to deteriorate; new driver quality is suspect; insurance companies are clamping down on unsafe practices and shoddy safety cultures and practices; and the persistent inventory glut appears to be slowly diminishing.

“We suspect that supply/demand tightness will become increasingly apparent as we push deeper into 2017,” Larkin predicts. “And all of these factors would indicate much greater growth in the near term for private fleets.”

Now, let’s take a closer at the advantages some of the better run private fleets are brining to U.S. logistics operations.

Advantage by the numbers
What gives private fleets their edge? An enhanced safety profile and the ability to stay largely insulated from capacity swings have traditionally played a major role. Moreover, according to this year’s NPTC’s benchmarking survey, private fleets are using latest-generation, on-board technology to scorecard drivers while working to reduce empty miles and improve utilization.

Safety. Private fleets are significantly safer—generally three times or more—when compared to the overall safety performance of the for-hire trucking industry. This is based on a Department of Transportation (DOT) Recordable Accident Rate of 0.5 accidents per million miles of travel and the industry’s aggregate CSA Scores. Private fleets continue to increase the amount of advanced safety technologies into their fleet operations.

Protection from economic swings. To a large degree, private fleet growth, like trucking in general, is a function of economic activity and the strength of the economy. The for-hire sector has been judicious in adding capacity since the Great Recession; however, drivers are scarce. By keeping a lid on capacity, the for-hire sector has boosted freight rates and yields—much to chagrin of some shippers.

Given that backdrop, NPTC’s senior vice president Tom Moore, author of the recent benchmarking survey, says private fleets will remain largely insulated from what has the potential to be a very bumpy ride for shippers who depend on outside capacity providers to get their products to market.

“As capacity owners, private fleets will continue to enjoy greater control of their freight, their transportation costs, and their brand image,” says Moore. “In addition, those companies that operate a private fleet as an extension of their primary business endeavors are finding the control over their distribution and logistics to be worth its weight in gold.”

On-board technology. One way private fleets continue to accelerate performance is with the rapid deployment of on-board technology to track and improve various elements of their performance. Last year, 98% of the fleets in the NPTC survey reported adopting the technology.

This is in line with the near universal penetration of on-board technology achieved in each of the last three years. To put that number in perspective, in 2005, the penetration of on-board technology was reported at less than 50%. In addition to providing the tools to manage their investment, on-board technology provides the data that can lead to more effective methods to understand, communicate and improve a fleet’s value.

“The penetration and broad deployment of these on-board technology resources underscores the private fleet migration to more capable and professional operations as they tailor resources to best serve their needs,” Moore says. Not surprisingly, private fleets are backing their on-board technology with systems in the office to optimize the investment. This year, 90% of the fleet respondents reported deploying back-office technology.

Reducing empty miles. Another strategy private fleets continue to employ is the focus on reducing empty miles. In fact, for the total fleet population, the number of empty miles that were available for backhaul for all fleets in the survey improved slightly to 21%—down from the 22% levels of the past two years. For comparison purposes, just five years ago, the empty backhaul percentage crested 30%, which puts the near ubiquitous drive to improve productivity into great perspective.

One of the most effective strategies deployed by private fleet managers in their quest to improve utilization and create more efficiency is to obtain for-hire authority to convert those empty miles into revenue producing miles.

To that end, 67% of the respondents in the survey report having for-hire authority. That’s up from 57% attained last year, but more in line with the highs reported over three and four years ago. This year, 24% (verses 19% last year and 32% the previous year) of the respondents reported not having authority.

Best practices for private fleets
NPTC’s Moore says companies with private fleets exercise considerable leverage as they utilize their own fleet capacity in conjunction with available for-hire capacity. These advantages are not inherent just by virtue of operating a private fleet, however. That competitive advantage must be continuously demonstrated, Moore says.

The fleet must prove over and over again to be superior to and more reliable than services available through outside carriers, adds Moore. And, of course, making the case for the private fleet is a never-ending process and can never be taken for granted even when successful—as expectations and performance standards continue to rise.

So, how does a private fleet sustain success in the long-run? Think of three tiers within the success pyramid of private fleets:

Support. The top and most important tier is support from upper management. Private fleets must be thought of as the cost of doing business in a better way, and as desirable and distinctive symbols of corporate pride and achievement.

Size and scale. The correct business model—setting the proper size and scale—is the next most important tier. The fleet’s number of drivers, trucks, and frequency of runs—outbound and inbound—needs to be strategically targeted through constant analysis for possible expansion or contraction, as appropriate.

Metrics. Benchmarking is the foundational tier of the pyramid. The most critical metrics need to be measured are on-time service, out-of-service time, driver utilization and other key performance indicators. This process provides the working formula for tactical execution of fleet enhancements, upgrades and continuous improvement.

“All three tiers of the pyramid must be simultaneously strong,” says Petty. “Private fleets can fail when any one tier is weakened. The vast majority of long-standing operating private fleets have success pyramids in place, and most will continue into the foreseeable future by staying on the leading edge of change.”

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May 2016
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