Keep on Tech’n: How local logistics companies are growing through tech (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Business Journal) — The past year and a half have been a period of turbulence for America’s logistics industry: Shifting supply chains, new customer habits, turmoil in the flow of goods from overseas and more.
But it was also a time of opportunity.
As the pandemic shaped and reshaped the movement of goods from factory to households, many First Coast trucking companies responded by leaning into technology, finding new ways to connect with clients and drivers, track packages and get things moving.
“The supply chain and logistics technologies the trucking industry has employed for years was put to good use during the pandemic and showed how nimble the trucking industry can be in responding to ever changing needs from consumers,” said Florida Trucking Association President Alix Miller.
The last 18 months have illustrated the merits of investing in technology, be it through the launch of an app for drivers, creating a web-based platform for end users, making the tools currently in place more effective or developing new ones that provide better integration of various management systems.
Michael O’Leary, CEO of Drive Logistics said it is important for companies to know what they need, evaluate what is commercially available and make a decision that is right for them.
In O’Leary’s case, that was building and launching an app, called myDrive, that Drive Logisitcs launched in July. Work on the project began last summer, with the company nailing down what the initial version of the app would look like in the first quarter of this year and development taking place in the second quarter.
The company parlayed its executives’ decades of experience into developing its own algorithm. From there, the company developed its graphic user interface, documented the functionality of their screens and turned it over to their contracted programmers.
“There are a million transportation management systems out there,” O’Leary said. “The larger trucking companies will have an app because at some point they realize they need that. They need that interface with their clients, or their truckers, to remain competitive.
“What we looked at was whether any of the commercially available software systems could give us what we wanted. The answer for us was no. Rather than try to make our business fit someone else’s software, we decided to build the expertise in-house in order to build the software that fits our business.”
VIRTUAL EYES ON THE PRIZE
Mike Williams is the President and Chief Operating Officer for Jacksonville-based AGX Freight LLC. The company was founded in 2016.
Drive Logistics designed its app to make the work-life balance of its truckers easier. Meanwhile, AGX Freight, a transportation services firm that was also founded in 2016, has established Yard Management Systems that allowed shippers to have better visibility of their product.
Vice President of National Sales James Bagwell said he cannot recall a time in his 29-year career in logistics that has been “more challenging” and has evolved “on a daily basis than this last 18-month period has been for us.”
Bagwell said AGX Freight’s aim was to identify the needs its clients in manufacturing and in distribution centers had in terms of visibility for their trailers, the contents of said trailers as well as visibility of the trailer throughout the supply chain.
“Over the past 18 months we have implemented some new offerings within our software solution to make things more integration friendly with our existing software,” Bagwell said. “If a customer has an existing (Transportation Management System) or a (Warehouse Management System) so a customer has a seamless delivery throughout their supply chain. We have tried to implement things in our (Yard Management System) to make our operations more efficient.”
AGX Freight partnered with Exotrac, a New York City company, to develop its newest Yard Management System earlier this year.
“It’s become invaluable to have (this) technology, instead of having downtime and material planners trying to figure out what they have on hand and what they can make,” Bagwell said. “We are giving them the visibility to make the necessary adjustments to their production schedules in real time.”
Bagwell, like O’Leary, has devoted decades to transportation and logistics, but has enough familiarity with emerging software trends to implement them as they come online. Bagwell has found it easier to work with a software company to build software and apps rather than building from scratch because the former has the nous to locate and eradicate the inevitable bugs that arise.
INTO THE BLUE
Jim Gattoni, new CEO of Landstar. Gattoni started with the company in 1995 and was previously chief financial officer. He is also president of the company.
LandstarOne is an app designed to help the company’s contracted drivers work efficiently.
Landstar may be a blend between the Drive Logistics philosophy of creating in-house with full development being handled by contractors and the AGX Freight approach of hiring an outside company.
The publicly traded logistics provider has been called a tech company that moves things — and following its second quarter earnings call, CEO Jim Gattoni said the company is focused on more effectively using the technological tools that are available for use. The current focus is on technologies that will allow their agents and trucks to become more efficient.
Landstar’s investment in technology is approximately $25 million to $30 million annually. Gattoni indicated it will remain there for the foreseeable future.
“On the back end, (something) we don’t have to rush into is an (Enterprise Resource Planning) and billing system, because our stuff is pretty much from the’ 80s,” Gattoni said last month. “It works today, administratively, but sooner or later we will jump on that. There is no reason to jam that in. It will help build efficiencies within the building. But, we are really focused on user experience.”
That was one reason Landstar purchased Fernandina Beach-based McSwain Worldwide LLC in May 2020 to serve as an innovation laboratory for its business capacity owners. It was renamed Landstar Blue shortly after the purchase was finalized,
“Our systems, the core systems, are designed for the spot world,” Gattoni told investors. “They are very good for what we do in that arena. We are getting into the dedicated contractual business and it needs a new TMS.”
That new system will feature pricing tools and real-time data and be integrated into the Book It Now app that Landstar launched in August 2017.
Gattoni mentioned the new TMS system should be up and running in the third quarter.
PORTAL TO POSSIBILITY
Suddath conducts 52,000 moves a year, has 2.5 million square feet of warehouse space and is a freight broker with more than 600 carriers under contract.
THE SUDDATH COMPANIES
Landstar’s technological push came in the third quarter. The Suddath Cos. couldn’t wait that long.
In April, Suddath announced the launch of MoveDay, an online web portal designed to help families making intra-state and across town moves. Vice President of Local Moving Darren Cook said the focus of the new site was to create a one-stop user experience that streamlined the moving process.
Cook said Suddath intertwined prior moving-related data with machine learning capabilities to create the linear regression formula that estimates the price of a move. There are multiple application programming interfaces and webhooks, but customers only see one interface.
“The process isn’t perfected yet, but as we get more data and we iterate things further, we’ll be able to make them more accurate and refine our UX,” he said. “We’ve segued that into our customer portal, which is what is used for the rest of the move, so once a customer books online they will use that portal for just about everything else.”
Suddath build the customer portal and booking tool in-house. Suddath purchased virtual survey platform software and a field management platform but built the interface that connected the two systems in-house to suit their needs. One of those was to connect the back-end of the site in a way that provides customer interconnectivity.
MoveDay’s April launch was the confluence of 10 months of work between Suddath’s marketing and branding divisions as well as with third-party developers who worked within the company’s information technology infrastructure.
“We knew we were going to be technology driven and we got right into identifying which services made sense to purchase and which ones made sense to design and create ourselves; coding it ourselves and owning that code so that we can have control over certain aspects of it,” Cook said. “We made the decision on both immediately.”
Jacksonville was one of the first cities where Suddath launched the MoveDay brand. It has since expanded to Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas.
Cook said two lessons he took from the MoveDay launch was to simplify and not overcomplicate things. The other was having a customer feedback loop so they understood how things worked in real-time.
“We explored different avenues of hiring a big Bay Area firm, or something like that to basically throw some storyboards in front of us, build some prototypes and let us pick and let them create the user experience; but we did it,” Cook said. “We thought we had a competitive advantage with the data we have and the designs we were building and the way we were going about it.”
INVESTMENT IN IT
Though the companies all had different approaches to how technologies were incorporated, there was universal agreement that the Covid-19 pandemic made considering technology options a critical facet of trucking and logistics companies in the months and years to come.
O’Leary, whose firm started with fewer than five employees five years ago, said there are software solutions available that allow smaller trucking companies to compete with larger competitors.
“The investment in developing your own software is significant,” O’Leary said. “For some companies it might be incredibly daunting, if not prohibitive. …There is a reason software companies price their product for six figures. They know you can’t duplicate a TMS for $100,000. You’re not going to write that code yourself.”
However the code is written, though, it’s clear that today’s marketplace is one that requires it.
While innovations like electric vehicles and driverless trucks may be on the horizon, the impact of data analytics, artificial intelligence and systems that link the various nodes on the supply chain may be the technologies that really shape the logistics industry of the future.
Photo courtesy of Landstar