Reflections from the Stifel Transportation Conference 2013

Richard Mikes of Transport Capital Partners (TCP) recently attended the Annual Stifel Transportation and Logistics Conference held in Key Biscayne, Florida, chaired by John G. Larkin, Managing Director at Stifel. About 40 publicly-held transportation and logistics companies were in attendance, presenting information on their firms and trends affecting the industry to a larger than last year investor group. Here are his observations from the conference.

 Truckload Carriers Volumes

The general consensus among the presenting carriers is that volumes began flattening in the last half of 2012 and have not recovered in the seasonally slow first quarter. Retailers remain cautious and inventories are managed tightly. The uncertain economic recovery makes future volumes hard to predict. However, there are bright spots in ag equipment, energy exploration and chemicals with construction showing some life. Dry van business remains slow with the seasonal restocking from clothes to turf supplies/equipment and summer recreational merchandise about to begin.

Efficiency and New Strategies

Companies emphasized ongoing and new initiatives in most areas of operations. Most publicly held truckload carriers are no longer “just truckers” but also offering logistics, transportation management, dedicated carriage, 3PL initiatives, and intermodal options.

Focus included reducing costs, enhancing efficiencies, aerodynamics for equipment, and watching natural gas as a potential game changer. Deeper customer interfaces with cross-selling of the increasingly broader array of services were highlighted by many. Collaborative activities with shippers are gaining efficiencies and other mutual benefits.

Equipment Purchases Cautious by Public Carriers

Publicly held carriers in aggregate have reduced their tractor fleet 20% from pre-recession peak levels and are not gaining tractor count, which is in line with TCP quarterly surveys of both private and public firms showing little fleet addition or interest in expansion. While investors favor “asset light” models, discussions of “someone must own assets” were common.  Small fleets, 6 trucks or less, account for 88% of the carriers. Smaller fleets are pressured by aging tractors and tight credit. New tractors have improved miles per gallon (mpg), but at a high capital cost with used trade-in prices flat for the past year.

Rates

Generally, carriers anticipate single digit increases for rates assuming stable capacity and loads “in balance”. However, we may be subject to a freight spike environment pushing them upward. A shipper panel declined to provide much information on rates. The uncertain economy remains the gorilla in the room as an uptick of 3 to 5% in GDP growth will push higher rates.

Drivers the Constraint?

Carriers mentioned driver staffing issues are becoming more critical for the variety of reasons (demographics, lifestyle, wages, and HOS/CSA regs), and are directly now impacting carrier capacity along with a stable fleet base. Driver wages must, and will, increase, but the only question is timing. If construction ramps up this could be sooner rather than later.

Brokers and 3PL Providers

Volumes have recovered and general outlook is for a slow growth environment. The focus appears to be on small to mid-size shippers along with broadening international exposure and competition. Growth rates of 3PL’s were reported at 11.6% over the past 15 years in North America contrasted with 30% in South America and 15% in Asia Pacific markets. Over the same time dedicated carriage grew 7.5% in the US.

 

Have questions?  Contact Richard Mikes at  239-395-2595 or RMikes@TransportCap.com for more information or to learn more about the Stifel Transportation Conference 2013.

Interested in learning what other carriers are expecting in the coming months?

Click here to participate in TCP’s First Quarter Business Expectations Survey.