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Leaders: Evolving in a changing world

Silvy Wright of Northbridge Insurance shares her perspective about the transformation of the transportation industry with Lou Smyrlis and the audience of the Surface Transportation Summit


FE: As CEO of Northbridge, a company that is very well known in trucking circles, what can you tell us about the trends you see both in the transportation and the insurance industry?

Wright: Our landscape is changing, consolidation being one of the factors. But one of the prevalent trends I think we really need to pay attention to, which is going to impact the next five to ten years, is the adoption of technology. When we think about technology, most of us think about using technology to become more efficient and effective, but I see technology changing service models. Where service models are becoming more competitive and more successful potentially than the traditional service models.

One of the examples we see today is the Uber app. Uber is an application on your smart phone that you use to call a cab. Young people today do not call 411. I call 411 to ask for a number so I can get a cab. Young people today use this app to get the cab closest to them. They have an account and it’s all paid. So here we go: one application has bypassed the dispatcher and has changed the customer experience. That is very, very interesting. Very quickly it has started to gain a lot of traction around the world.

Most interesting to me was not necessarily the customer experience but what happens to the taxi driver. One day I arrived at Billy Bishop Airport and jumped in a cab with my 16-year-old and she recognized the cab driver had the Uber app technology on his dashboard, so I started to talk to the guy and asked him: ‘what do you think about Uber?’ He said, ‘I love it. I’ve been working with Uber for three months. They give me feedback on how well I’ve serviced the customer. I earned points. I’ve gotten a new suit. I’ve been working with my taxi company for 10 years and they’ve never told me how well I did my job.’
So here this technology not only changed the customer experience and the service model, but it changed the driver experience. Yes it was a taxi driver, not a transport driver, but the concept of impacting the driver through technology because he was getting instant feedback that he was doing his job well applies. So how could that translate into the transportation industry? How do we make our drivers feel special and feel they are doing a good job in a unique way? I thought that was a very interesting adoption of technology. It very quickly started to change his work experience and all of the sudden he became more loyal to Uber than the company he had been working for for 10 years.

FE: Certainly technology can be disruptive, but at the same time, there are positive elements to it, particularly if it is used well, in growing efficiencies and improving the relationship between the company and its employees. The thing I wanted to ask you, because you mentioned in your comment about technology USage and younger people’s acceptance of it, is the issue we have within transportation, as well as the insurance industry, with human resources. I’ve heard you talk passionately in the past about people. But the industries, both insurance and transportation, face some really important challenges When it comes to recruiting people. Would You Share your thoughts on that?

Wright: Technology is reshaping our world, but we all know that people are at the core of our success. The insurance industry and the trucking industry have had challenges recruiting, for different reasons. Part of it though is awareness and image. Both industries probably haven’t done the best job we could do in improving the image of both industries with regards to the professional experience it provides to young people.

I’m chair of the Insurance Institute, the body that provides training to people in the insurance industry so they develop expertise. As well, the Institute reached out to schools to improve the image of the insurance industry. As we all know, nobody puts up their hands and says, ‘I want to work in the insurance industry.’ Image is very important, and by using social media, in particular, and visiting the schools, high schools in particular where students are thinking about their careers and what to do next, I think that’s an opportunity for both the insurance and the trucking industries.

I applaud the Blue Ribbon Task Force. That is an example where the industry has come together to deal with the big issues, such as the driver shortage. I know that issue has been there for 20 years. I’ve been in the insurance industry for 20 years and have been very fortunate that the bulk of that time has been spent serving the trucking industry. Twenty years ago we had a driver shortage. The issue went to sleep in 2007 because of the recession. Now it’s top of mind. It’s really great to see the industry come together with innovation with regards to improving the driver experience, which I think will transcend in the image of the trucking industry.

FE:  Keeping in mind that young people seem to be a lot more comfortable with technology than us slightly older folks are, is that a missed opportunity? Should the insurance and transportation industries be focusing more on the cool technologies we actually get to play with every day as a way to attract more younger people into our industries?

Wright: You know how kids spend their time and how they connect with their friends, how they connect with their communities. I think we cannot close our eyes to that. That goes to all our employees: using technology, getting instant feedback. I think that is one of those things that is changing in this world—people want instant service, and instant feedback. With regards to our employees, how do we give them the appropriate recognition in the way they want to receive it? Once a year claims free award? I don’t think that’s going to be enough for the younger generation entering into this industry.

FE:  So technology obviously is a force of change for both our industries. There are other forces that can also have an impact. I know one of the things definitely on the minds of industry leaders is climate change. What do you see as the impact of climate change on our respective industries?

Wright: With regards to climate, the big change now is that severe climate, severe weather, is all of the sudden being more common than not. We all remember 1998 was the Quebec ice storm. Basically that would be the catastrophe we all remember. Now what’s happening is every year we’re having severe weather. Climate change is creating severe weather, and obviously creating damage and creating havoc on property, and transportation and automobiles. For the last five years starting in 2008 we have had catastrophes north of one billion dollars every year.

We need to be prepared. How well prepared are you to change routes, how well prepared are you to deal with certain equipment that gets affected by lower than average temperatures? Your drivers and dispatchers need to have that Plan B in place. The key is being prepared. I know that sounds very common but sometimes we think, ‘oh that just won’t happen.’ I just want to highlight the fact it is common. Having those plans, those routes in place so you don’t lose business is important. It’s not just Plan B if the day will come, it’s just Plan B as the normal course of doing your business. In Toronto two hours of rain cost one billion dollars. It was that severe, it had that impact.

FE:  Any final thoughts you want to share with us?

Wright: As I mentioned, I’ve been in the industry 20 years, the bulk of that serving the transportation industry. They are two very strong industries and very hard working. One of the things that I do want to leave with you is that for too long, both industries have been seen as commodities, and we have to be open to innovation so we can leverage our expertise, leverage the people we have to really deliver the best service to our customers. So be open to innovation and evolve because that in the end will win in the long run.


Lou Smyrlis

Lou Smyrlis

With more than 25 years of experience reporting on transportation issues, Lou is one of the more recognizable personalities in the industry. An award-winning writer well known for his insightful writing and meticulous market analysis, he is a leading authority on industry trends and statistics.
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