Yellow Brick Wall: Undercutting YRC keeps LTL rates down

NEW YORK — Sometimes the highways can look a lot like the jungle landscape seen in reruns of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom

Marlin Perkins narrated the ’60’s-era show back then, but today it’s The Wall Street Journal reporting predatory activity along the trucking LTL food chain.

The Prey? Beleaguered LTL freight giant Yellow-Roadway Corp. (YRC), which, the Journal reports, has been under raptor-like attack from its competitors who are trying to price the carrier out of business.

And because of the size of market share controlled by the carriers involved, the cutthroat pricing is keeping rates depressed across the entire sector.

David Congdon, CEO of Old Dominion Freight Line, told the paper that although the recession has led to the worst pricing environment he’s ever seen, some pricing trends "likely stem from deliberate moves to undercut YRC," which has flirted with bankruptcy more than once this year.

Congdon didn’t name names. He admits, though, that his company has defended contracts by "matching price cuts," but hasn’t leveraged price as an offensive weapon, adding that such a business model is "absolutely not sustainable."

At the same time, the company is moving pieces all over the board in anticipation of a possible YRC failure — buying $90 million in terminals and real estate. Congdon told the Journal he’s "absolutely" prepared to pick up new business should YRC exit the market. 

Rivals are banking YRC goes under, but small
improvements and recent financial lifelines have the company
hoping it’ll survive as the LTL marketshare leader

Meanwhile, in a conference call with media on Wednesday, Con-Way Chief Executive Doug Stotlar said his company has also had cut prices "to levels more aggressive than we would normally take."

Industry estimates peg the LTL sector as being over-capacitated by up to 25 percent. That figure could be cut significantly if a major player like YRC goes bankrupt.

Analysts figure that at one point YRC controlled nearly 20 percent of the $35 billion U.S. LTL freight market. It’s said to be a $500 million player in Canada on top of that.

In a recent interview with Today’s Trucking, Aaron Duxbury of National Bank Financial in Toronto said YRC’s larger, direct competitors like Con-Way and FedEx would be the immediate beneficiaries if their rival went under, but the effect would eventually trickle-down to smaller niche carriers who have watched the larger over-the-road carriers encroach on their lanes as well.

"I have to imagine almost all of LTL in North America would benefit," he said. ‘That’s too big of a player to shut down not be felt by everyone."

Just don’t tell any of this to YRC brass.

Chairman and CEO Bill Zollars (who this week named Timothy A. Wicks to take over his post as president) announced this week that the company’s regional and Logistics divisions have reported modest sequential improvements of $50 million in the third quarter.

"We gained significant momentum in the third quarter as we executed on our comprehensive plan to improve operating efficiencies, restore financial strength and position our company for future success," stated Zollars in a press release.

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