As I look at the LTL freight transportation today, it is hard to believe that just a few years ago, this was one of the most battered sectors of the freight industry. The LTL freight industry took a tremendous pounding during the Great Recession as business volumes contracted by about twenty-five percent. As operating margins shrunk, LTL carriers closed or consolidated terminals and cut staff in an effort to right size ether businesses. Shippers took advantage of the situation by conducting multiple freight bids to leverage their volumes to extract rate concessions.
Seven years later, the industry has changed dramatically and the pendulum has swung back in the carriers’ favour. As volumes return to pre-recession levels, LTL carriers are finding their networks full of freight. As the North American economy improves, manufacturing is on the rise. The near shoring movement is also bringing some manufacturing jobs back to America. In addition, the driver shortage is making it difficult to find drivers, particularly for long haul truckload routes. A clogged intermodal system is limiting the opportunities to divert over the road truckload freight to the rail system. The net result is that some of this freight is being diverted to large LTL shipments so it can move with an LTL carrier. In other words, this is creating traffic for an already full LTL system.
Unlike the truckload sector where even the largest players control only a small (single digit) percent of the total truckload sector, the LTL industry is highly concentrated among a core group of companies. The top 9 LTL carriers in the United States (e.g. FedEx Freight, Con-way, YRC, UPS Freight, Old Dominion, Estes, USF Holland, Reddaway and New Penn, ABF, R & L Carriers and Saia) control almost seventy percent of the LTL market. In Canada, the major players, TransForce (e.g. TST Overland, Canadian Freightways, Kingsway, QuikX, Quiktrax, Clarke Transport and Vitran), the Day and Ross Group and Manitoulin would also control a major share of the LTL market. With limited capacity and pricing discipline, this gives this group of companies considerable pricing power. With high quality costing models, these companies can now seek meaningful rate increases or de-market poor paying accounts. In other words, the “fun” is back in this business.
To further improve yields, FedEx Freight and UPS Freight are introducing density based or dimensional or cube-based pricing. I wrote about the potential of this trend years ago(http://www.dantranscon.com/images/downloads/mtr%20sep_oct%202009.pdf) and it is finally starting to take hold. Just as airlines charge for “bums in seats” and adjust their plane sizes to each route and the potential passenger traffic, LTL freight carriers are going to become much more diligent about charging shippers for the cubic space occupied on their trailers. Shippers with poor packaging, who don’t nest their products effectively or don’t design their products well or load them smartly, will face a nasty surprise. With so much industry consolidation, it won’t take long before dimensional pricing becomes more standard across the industry.
Another reason why LTL carriers are having more “fun” is in their attitudes toward logistics service providers. A few years ago, 3PLs were viewed as the enemy. They were seen as trying to poach LTL customers and replace their carriers by taking control of the direct customer interface. Times have changed. LTL carriers are increasingly viewing 3PLs as business partners. They are forming alliances with companies that have common objectives and customer profiles so they can collectively bring value to the customer. The large LTL carriers are going a step further by creating their own internal logistics or at least freight brokerage arms.
The terminal networks of the large and even medium-sized LTL carriers serve as barriers to entry. As a result, it is not easy to establish an LTL freight business as it is a truckload business. This is producing some new models of LTL carriers. In addition to marketing alliances between regional LTL carriers (to expand market coverage) such as the Reliance Network, we are also seeing the creation of asset lite or even non-asset based (technology driven) LTL players. Roadrunner Transportation Systems and FreightQuote are just two of the companies now targeting this sector using these new models.
The thrill was gone in 2007 and 2008 but the fun is back in 2014.
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