This article was first published in the Journal of Courier (https://www.joc.com/) here:
There may be no ships waiting in queues outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, but “there’s still a lot of freight moving through that pipeline,” and US importers want it moved inland fast, according to Chris Jamroz, executive chairman of less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier Roadrunner.
The long-haul direct point-to-point LTL carrier is launching an expedited service connecting Southern California and Chicago using team drivers, as part of a network reorganization that will shorten freight transit times on 130 major lanes by one to four days, Jamroz told the Journal of Commerce in an interview.
“We use team drivers exclusively on the lane from Los Angeles to Chicago and Chicago to LA, allowing shipments as fast as one business day,” Jamroz said Friday. “We run direct with no relays or re-handles.” Service is three business days Monday through Wednesday, two days on Thursday, and one on Friday.
“Our Weekend Plus [service] enables freight to move through our network on Saturday and Sunday with multiple daily departures,” Jamroz said. Scheduling multiple daily departures means Roadrunner won’t hold trailers until they are full before releasing them, with on-time delivery trumping utilization.
The Southern California-to-Chicago service will be attractive to manufacturers moving components from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach into the US market, companies such as automakers, Jamroz said. “They have plants in the Midwest, and once shipments hit the ports, it’s rush, rush, rush,” he said.
But that rush doesn’t depend on higher expedited freight rates to the extent that it did during the worst of the pandemic disruption. “Are importers willing to pay 30 percent more in 2023? No, but if you can get a shipment from the Pacific Northwest to Miami in four days, they want it,” Jamroz said.
Manufacturers and retailers are on different inventory tracks in early 2023, he said. While many retailers are working to drive down inventories built up in early to mid-2023, manufacturers are just now recovering from supply chain disruption that led to parts shortages and production delays.
“The automotive business continues to be the sweet spot,” Jamroz said. “It’s the third year of low production [because of chip shortages], so there’s a lot of pent-up demand. Manufacturers still want to sell more products. So, everybody needs speed, they’re just not willing to pay as much for it.”
Eventually, Jamroz sees freight shipping patterns shifting from “horizontal” to “vertical,” with more freight entering the US through Mexico, in particular. “The recalibration of the supply chain to that north-south angle is going to be the theme for the next decade,” he said.
Roadrunner — the18th-largest US LTL carrierranked by revenue, according to SJ Consulting Group — sees opportunity in what is turning out to be the weakest trucking market since 2019.
Market cycles “always run out steam at some point,” Jamroz said in the interview, accompanied by CFO Jack Korslin.
“Shippers are really eager to reevaluate deals they’ve struck with carriers over the past couple of years,” Korslin said. “They’re under pressure from their CFOs to reduce costs.” And that means shippers are more willing to look at replacing incumbent carriers, he said.
“Their mandate used to be secure capacity no matter the price,” said Korslin. “Now their mandate is to aggressively reevaluate their carriers and they’re breaking from the status quo.” And that benefits Roadrunner, which has been focused on offering improved service at a “competitive price.”
That doesn’t mean a cheap price, Korslin said. “We’re not going to be all things to all people,” he said. “We’ve been quietly building this differentiated long-haul product at a competitive value, and the market has started to notice.” Roadrunner has cut loose some shippers looking for low rates, said Korslin.
Learning by machine
Roadrunner has refined its network and service through its ongoing reorganization. Last year, Roadrunner closed its doors in 18 markets that didn’t provide enough freight. Transit times have been cut on many lanes multiple times. The latest transit time cuts tighten the network further.
“It’s been a dynamic couple of years of restructuring,” Korslin said. “It’s been like rebuilding an airplane while you’re flying it.” Roadrunner’s network is now 100 percent over-the-road, with no intermodal rail use, the CFO said. That’s eliminated purchased transportation costs and sped up service.
Technology is a key element in making the point-to-point network functional, Korslin said. “Network businesses are moving, breathing entities that are really difficult to optimize,” he said. “The beauty and frustration of LTL is that it’s a different set of problems and equations to solve every day.”
Much of Roadrunner’s information technology investment over the past two years has been in machine learning systems, Korslin said. “We’ve spent a tremendous amount on end-to-end shipment visibility,” he said. The company also launched Haul Now, a mobile app that helps drivers find and book loads in its system.
“People have been the number one drivers of our success,” Korslin said, “but technology is a very close second.”