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intermodal transport


In today’s hyper-globalized world, the ease at which goods are moved from A to B in many ways defines how we live and work. 

If you were to take a straw poll of your household or office, the chances of somebody not wearing, carrying or using an item made from components that were produced or assembled hundreds if not thousands of miles away is almost zero. The ease at which we can acquire everything, from food and clothing to tech gadgets and furniture is, largely, taken for granted. 

However, without the non-stop functioning of transportation networks at the local, national and international level, none of this would be possible. And the way in which these networks operate continues to evolve in sophistication, both in terms of routing efficiency, technology leveraged and coordination between players on land, at sea and in the air. 

Indeed, the latter refers to the concept of intermodal transportation. 

In the simplest of terms, intermodal transportation is the use of two or more modes, or carriers, to transport goods from shipper to consignee, without any handling of the freight itself when changing modes. 

A TEU container, for example, could conceivably leave a Chinese factory on a haulage truck to a nearby rail depot, travel by freight train to the nearest seaport, be ferried by container vessel to the U.S. coast, transferred onto a railway line and moved to another depot, before being unloaded onto a truck and driven to its final destination–all without a single hand touching the goods inside. 

Despite the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the value of such activity is estimated to have hit $25 billion in 2020. As the world’s economy starts to recover, the global intermodal freight transportation industry is forecast to grow at around 15 percent year-on-year between now and 2027, when it is set to be worth $67 billion. 

North America holds a significant share of the global market. The U.S. alone is expected to register at around $6.8 billion for 2020, a figure which should steadily rise given how increasingly dependent intermodal transport activity is on the consumer economy’s demand. 

The region’s rail industry is concentrating on creating new intermodal services that can successfully rival over the road options. 

For instance, in August 2019, Canadian National Railway (CN) and CSX Transportation announced a new intermodal service offering between CN’s greater Montreal and Southern Ontario areas, and the CSX-served ports of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the New York City metropolitan area. 

This intermodal offering is expected to convert long-haul trucks to interline various rail services. Trains will be able to run directly into the center of Toronto and Montreal’s urban markets via CN intermodal yards, making this partnership a natural opportunity for both railroads. 

Meanwhile, there are signs that intermodal activity in the U.S. is bouncing back from the initial COVID-19 slump. 

According to the Association of American Railroads, during the first week of August 2020, 277,054 intermodal shipments were made by U.S. railways, the highest level seen since December 2019 and 30 percent up on the 2020 low in April. 

Around the States: 5 key Intermodal Transit Hubs

The signs are indeed healthy, and many cities and regions across the U.S. are ready to help the country bounce back by increasing throughput of goods once more. 

Critical intermodal transport conduits exist all over the States, from east to west and north to south–without them, supply chains would be far costlier and more difficult to operate seamlessly. Here, we take a look at just five key nodes which provide leading intermodal infrastructure, starting in the Midwest. 


For well over a century, Chicago has acted as a key artery in America’s commercial transport network. Around a quarter of all rail freight calls into the city, either as a final destination or stop on a journey elsewhere, while O’Hare International Airport processes around 2 million metric tons of cargo at a value of approximately $200 billion every year. 

Illinois is also extremely well served by what is North America’s largest inland port in the form of CentrePoint Intermodal Center. Located in the Joliet and Elwood area, around 40 miles southwest of Chicago, it is a 6,400-acre master-planned intermodal development that sees 3 million TEUs pass through it every year. 

It includes a 785-acre Union Pacific Railroad complex just south of Joliet and a 770-acre BNSF railway complex farther to the southwest. Furthermore, it is built with heavyweight roads able to withstand massive pressure and contains a number of other useful features such as water and utility systems, public bus service connections, no restrictions on trailer parking ratios and 24/7 on-site fire and police protection. 

The site constitutes something of an intermodal fortress, and it is currently home to more than 30 tenant companies who between them occupy more than 14 million square feet of space.


Dallas strategically sits at a crossroads of numerous railroad lines, four major interstate roads and one of the world’s busiest airports, making it among the country’s most important intermodal transport hubs. 

The Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is a 9,000-square-mile urban center located near the geographic heart of the United States and equally accessible to the East and West coasts. Its location means that around 80 markets can be reached overnight either by road or rail, with major regional business heartlands such as New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Mexico City all within easy reach, an advantage that few other intermodal nodes can offer. 

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport considers itself “the nexus of Latin America-Asia transit freight,” and for good reason. In 2019, it saw almost 985,000 tons of international and domestic cargo move through its site and, despite the impact of COVID-19, still recorded more than 870,000 tons of goods in 2020, a drop of around 11.5 percent.

Another important facility is the Wylie Intermodal Terminal. A fairly recent addition to Dallas’ intermodal transport infrastructure (opening in 2015), it is a $64 million development owned by Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS), and it is set to capitalize on significant opportunities in cross-border activity with Mexico. 

Wylie is a city and northeastern suburb of Dallas, with the KCS terminal spanning 500 acres and servicing 12 gulf ports and one Pacific Ocean port, as well as more than 140 transload centers and 11 intermodal ramps. KCS also provides 181 interchange points with other railroads, including all U.S. and Mexico class 1 railroads.


Norfolk, Virginia, is home to a vibrant intermodal transport scene thanks to its ability to serve rail, sea and air freight seamlessly. It is built on a formidable maritime history, centered around the enormous naval base on the Chesapeake Bay, a tradition that has very much expanded into the sea freight domain. 

The Port of Virginia, which is situated around two and half hours from the open sea, handled 2,327 vessel calls and departures in 2019, equating to around 3 million TEUs and 55 million tons of cargo worth almost $75 billion. Thanks to the port’s two on-dock class 1 railroads, more than a third of the cargo managed here arrives or departs by rail–this is a higher proportion than any port on the East Coast. 

Logistics firms using Norfolk can also rely on its international airport. It is one of the most efficient cargo operations in Virginia and moves around 30,000 tons of air cargo every year, with the likes of FedEx, Mountain Air and UPS all regular customers. 


Around 2,700 miles due west of Norfolk, you will find Los Angeles, arguably the West Coast’s most important intermodal transport hub. 

Its beating heart is undoubtedly the Port of Los Angeles, a massive seaport covering 7,500 acres of land and water along 43 miles of waterfront that brands itself as America’s Port. Indeed, it is the nation’s No. 1 container port and prides itself on providing a global model for sustainability, security and social responsibility. 

Founded in 1907 as a far smaller operation, today it holds 82 ship-to-shore container cranes spread across 15 marinas with 3,376 recreational vessel slips and dry docks, facilities that enabled it to move 9.2 million TEUs in 2020.   

It adjoins the Port of Long Beach, itself one of the busiest seaports in the world. The operation here houses 68 gantry cranes, which between them move around 7.5 million TEUs every year, all valued at close to $200 billion. 

This is not to forget the contribution of Los Angeles International Airport, the world’s fourth busiest, which handled almost 2.5 million tons of cargo in 2018, FedEx alone is responsible for carrying 16 percent of the freight that moves in and out of the site. 


It is also important to consider the significance of intermodal transport infrastructure away from the coast. Memphis, unlike our other four locations, is situated in a landlocked state (Tennessee) and is home to one of the country’s most active intermodal freight systems.  

Its focal point is Memphis International Airport which, thanks to its heavy use by FedEx, is the top U.S. gateway in terms of cargo weight and the second busiest cargo airport in the world. 

FedEx employs more than 11,000 staff at its Memphis hub and has more than 34 million square feet of space under lease on airport property. The company operates around 400 flights daily and handles over 180,000 packages and 245,000 documents per hour.

In striking distance of Memphis International Airport is America’s fifth-largest inland port–the Port of Memphis. It serves more than 150 industries and moves a rich variety of goods, from petroleum and cement to grain and steel, and can connect to sea, rail, road and air via the Mississippi River, five class 1 railroads, major north-south and east-west interstate highways, and the nearby airport. 

Such is its vital role in facilitating economic activity, it claims to carry an annual economic impact of more than $9.2 billion. Indeed, it refers to itself as “the Mid-South’s best kept industrial and economic secret,” even though it has been operational since the 1950s. 

Exploiting the Intermodal Advantages

These are just five examples of cities and regions enabling supply chain and logistics firms to exploit the numerous advantages offered by intermodal transit hubs. 

Economically, they help to minimize truck movements, which reduces fuel consumption, driver costs and the need to invest in road-based vehicles. Lower fuel consumption also results in fewer carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions, vital if the country is to drive future development along a sustainable path. 

From an operational perspective, businesses can benefit from more reliable transit times (due to reduced road reliance), elimination of border documentation and hold-ups, reduced impacts from adverse weather and fewer accidents and damage to cargo. Meanwhile, hauliers can benefit from working within their own country and avoid making long trips across borders. 

Intermodal transportation is, above all else, designed to create an even more fluid supply chain from which all commercial enterprises and consumers can benefit. By taking advantage of the numerous modes of transport via critical junctures and hubs along long-distance routes, freight need not rely on a single truck to make it from destination A to destination B. 

Rather, intermodal relies on input from a variety of stakeholders along the way, spreading the wealth generated by commercial and consumer-based purchases more widely than it otherwise would. Hubs such as those seen in Chicago, Dallas, Norfolk, Los Angeles, Memphis, and many others not cited, help to realize this.   

And as the country recovers from the enormous health, social and financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, intermodal transport will no doubt play its part in remobilizing the U.S. economy for the betterment of all American businesses. 



Whether you prefer to call it the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0, there is no denying that industry is getting smarter. 

Summarized as the ongoing automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices using smart technologies, it is a seemingly unstoppable trend that has transformed enterprises, captured imagination and generated value. 

According to McKinsey, Industry 4.0 has the potential to provide returns of $3.7 trillion to manufacturers and suppliers around the world by as early as 2025. 

However, a caveat is that today only one in three companies are capturing this value at scale. 

“Approaches are dominated by envisioning technology development going forward rather than identifying areas of largest impact and tracking it back to Industry 4.0 value drivers,” McKinsey adds in its report, “Industry 4.0: Capturing Value at Scale in Discrete Manufacturing.”

“Further governance and organizational anchoring are often unclear. Resulting hurdles related to a lack of clarity regarding business value, limited resources and an overwhelming number of potential use cases leave the majority of companies stuck in ‘pilot purgatory.’

The report identifies several steps organizations can take to make the most out of the opportunities created by Industry 4.0 and its associated technologies. 

Chief among them is investing in human capability to leverage such innovations. 

Last year, the U.S. National Skills Coalition (NSC) reported an “invisible drag on productivity” created by an alarming digital skills gap. In the manufacturing sphere, one in three workers are thought to have no or limited key digital skills, according to research carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Given that the NSC defines “limited digital skills” as an ability to complete simple tasks with a generic interface and few uncomplicated steps (like sorting emails into different folders), it is clear that a large portion of the current manufacturing workforce requires serious upliftment in digital literacy or risk being displaced by more tech-savvy recruits.

Education is the answer

For those about to join the manufacturing workforce, learning digital skills has never been more important. 

This rings especially true against the current coronavirus backdrop, with many industrial businesses having to make cutbacks as a result of drops in business and legal mandates to close as part of pandemic-induced societal lockdowns. 

It is something tech giants are responding to. For instance, in June 2020, Microsoft announced plans to provide free digital skills training to 25 million people around the world in response to predictions relating to a surge in unemployment. 

The speed and extent of economic recovery in part rests on how much productivity can be gained from Industry 4.0 activities, manufacturing being a key economic contributor to communities across the United States.

Education is a key enabler of productivity growth, be it through programs for upskilling current workers or training initiatives designed to ensure new generations of jobseekers are armed with the knowledge they need to hit the ground running.  

In Charlotte, North Carolina, this holds the key to unlocking the manufacturing sector’s bright future. The industry has grown here at twice the national average over the past five years with four clusters driving activity–machinery manufacturing, advanced materials, automotive manufacturing and energy manufacturing. 

“There are many synergies among these clusters,” explains Antony Burton, VP of Economic Research at the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. “For example, 50 advanced materials firms in the textiles, plastics and composites industries serve the automotive industry in the Charlotte region which requires strong, durable, lightweight materials. 

“There is also synergy between the automotive and energy industry. Arrival, a leading electric vehicle manufacturer, has announced its North American HQ in Charlotte along with two micro-factory production facilities in the bi-state region.”

An enormous lithium deposit also feeds the area’s manufacturing scene. One of the largest such resources in the country, it has lured in major players in the lithium battery value chain and is supplemented by leading automotive and energy research assets at the Charlotte-based University of North Carolina. In short, the region is gearing up to lead and benefit from the transition to electric vehicles. This means new skills will be required to fully exploit the opportunity. 

“Manufacturing enterprises increasingly require a workforce with advanced industrial technology skills that include knowledge of mechatronics, robotics, and computer-aided machining as low-skill jobs are increasingly automated,” Burton adds. “In addition, manufacturing enterprises will require more engineering expertise. The Carolinas have over 7,000 graduates in engineering fields every year to help supply this pipeline of talent.

“It is crucial that the education programs continue to evolve to the needs of industry. Talent continues to be a top factor for location decisions, and the labor market has remained very tight throughout the country despite relatively high unemployment rates. To help provide this talent, along with the University of North Carolina, which has 600 engineering graduates, we have a strong community college system made up of 10 community and technical colleges with a total of 30 locations throughout the region.”  

Burton also cites the North Carolina Motorsports and Automotive Research Center as a unique training asset. Here, the next generation of automotive engineers are trained through a series of partnerships with key industry manufacturers, collaborations which conduct research and drive innovation in the sector. 

COVID-19, without doubt, has presented obstacles to delivering the sort of hands-on training the manufacturing sector requires. However, Burton points to virtually hosted events and research conducted by The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance as examples of its ongoing support for the industry.

“With state and local economic development partners, we organized STREAM 2021, a supply chain tradeshow which brought together manufacturers across the region to learn from industry experts and to help manufacturers find local suppliers,” he says. “In February of 2021, this inaugural event created a virtual opportunity for local manufacturers and suppliers to network and potentially work together to restore supply chains, especially in a time when COVID-19 has disrupted traditional supply chains. 

“Our economic research team also completed a deep-dive analysis of the manufacturing industry in the region and a manufacturing labor and wage survey. The report, “Manufacturing in the Charlotte Region,” provides business intelligence to the local community and to prospective companies.”  

Due west, in Kansas, Franklin County represents one of the top markets in the country for industrial and business development thanks to easy access to Interstate 35, Interstate 70, Logistics Park Kansas City and the Kansas City International Airport, as well as inclusion in the Foreign Trade Zone.

Paul Bean is executive director of Franklin County Development Council, a body which helps businesses to establish themselves and thrive in the area. As well as the digital skills identified by Burton, Bean highlights the critical importance of attitudinal traits sought by his association’s membership base, and how Franklin County Development Council helps them to find the right people.  

“Soft skills are the number one request,” he says. “They report to us that they can train folks but need people that show up, think critically, and are willing to work.

“We work closely with our area school districts, community colleges and private universities to provide programming to support our manufacturing industry. For example, we are just kicking off an online program through Nepris, which helps connect educators and learners to industry professionals. We’re also beginning the process of becoming an ACT Work Ready Community, and work with local higher education institutions on specific programs for new certifications and learning refreshment.”  

Charlotte and Franklin County are just two examples of regions investing in the next-generation workforce. Activity is also taking place at a federal level, supported by former President Trump’s pledges to prioritize homegrown industries. For example, June 2020 saw the launch of a new workforce training grant with several hundred million dollars for states to access. Unveiled by then Education Secretary Betsey DeVos, the scheme supports job training for in-demand occupations and entrepreneurship development. 

“America’s colleges and universities are a national treasure, but it is time for them to reinvent themselves and to be more responsive to the needs of their students and local communities,” DeVos said at the time of the launch. 

Through a mix of national incentives underpinned by bustling activity and support driven at a regional level, the manufacturing labor force has every chance of being future-proofed. Education lies at the heart of this transition and must continue to be substantially invested in if vital American industries are to remain competitive on the global stage.



Throughout the course of human history, civilizations have relied on transit across water to travel, trade and invade. Archaeologists can trace the use of boats back many thousands of years, with circumstantial evidence pointing toward their use as early as 9,500 BC, well before the Pesse canoe, commonly thought to represent the world’s oldest known boat.

Navigational knowledge and boatbuilding techniques have advanced steadily over time; the enormous ships we see transporting people and goods today are extraordinary evolutions of their ancestors.

In the container ship realm, it was not until the 1950s that the first commercially successful vessel completed its maiden voyage. Named Ideal X, it was a T2 tanker owned by Malcom McClean that carried 58 containers between Newark, New Jersey, and Houston. By contrast, today’s largest container ship, the HMM Algeciras, can carry up to 24,000 TEUs. 

Shipping is, quite literally, big business. In monetary terms, the $900 billion shipping logistics industry is expected to be valued at more than $2 trillion by 2023, growth underpinned by increasingly efficient vessels that make use of cutting-edge innovations. 

For instance, by 2025 the global market for electric-powered shipping vessels is set to be worth $8.4 billion, rising to $15.6 billion come the end of the decade. 

Meanwhile, the demand for maritime data analytics is set to increase from $895 million in 2019 to more than $1.8 billion by 2027. Wherever you look, technology is steering the value of big ships upwards. 

Artificial intelligence – an unstoppable tide?  

One strand of technological innovation in ships that is making waves is artificial intelligence (AI). 

Defined as the ability of a machine or a robot controlled by a computer to do tasks that are usually done by humans because they require human intelligence and discernment, AI is taking on an increasing number of use cases aboard large vessels. 

Fuel is one of the largest costs for shipping companies. For Swedish shipping giant Stena Line, it constitutes a massive 20 percent of all running costs. Innovation to help cut fuel consumption has therefore become a major priority. 

Stena, which is also one of the world’s largest ferry operators, has been experimenting with the use of AI technology on one of its vessels as it travels overnight from Gothenburg to the German Port of Kiel. 

Working in collaboration with Hitachi, the Stena Fuel Pilot can predict the most fuel-efficient way to operate a vessel and assist the onboard captain and crew to lower the fuel consumption. The results from Stena Scandinavica show a reduced fuel consumption of 2-3 percent per trip, results which have prompted Stena to deploy the AI assistant across its entire fleet of 37 ships.

Niklas Kapare, captain on M/S Skåne, has used the technology first-hand. He commented: “We can see that it is working, even though we need to continue to adjust it to improve the results. As a captain, I get a good overview of several factors such as wind, currents and squat, and assistance to use the right power and number of engines to lower the fuel consumption.”

Another important use case for AI aboard vessels is navigation. Using sophisticated tracking software in tandem with IoT connectivity, these systems can be leveraged to analyze multiple navigational scenarios. 

Stena is, once again, leading the way in this regard through its AI Captain solution. It is capable of recalculating routes during voyages when it receives information to suggest that problems may lie ahead. Such problems could be in the immediate distance, and it is here that AI-powered image recognition technology has a role to play. 

An example of this in action is a collaboration between Chinese tech firm SenseTime and Japanese shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines. SenseTime’s system leverages ultra-high-resolution cameras and a graphic processing unit to automatically identify vessels in a ship’s surrounding area, designed to prevent large vessels such as container ships and cruise liners from colliding with smaller ones. The solution can also alert crew to other hazards when visibility is poor.

It is not just aboard ships that AI can have an impact, however. The industry could also benefit from slicker terminal operations, with AI being trialed in a number of areas such as container handling, decking systems, gate volume predictions and vessel stowage. 

According to a study from Navis toward the end of 2019, 88 percent of respondents indicated that automated decision-making will be very, if not extremely, important for the future of innovation at terminals. 

Andy Barrons, chief strategy officer at Navis, said at the time: “Just a few short years ago, only a handful of our customers were even open to the idea of automation or other disruptive technologies designed to make the container terminal smarter, safer and more sustainable.

“The survey demonstrates just how far the industry has come–and will continue to go–in harnessing technology in the right ways to automate decision making within terminals. We firmly believe that automation and the use of AI is our future, and will continue to support our current and future customers as they embark down this critical path.”

A fully autonomous future?

But just how far will AI technology embed itself into the workings of ships and the wider industry? 

It is a mightily difficult question to answer, but there are signs that we are only just at the beginning of AI’s shipping industry voyage. 

Yara Birkeland is an emission-free and fully autonomous 120 TEU container ship that is under construction and due to be launched imminently. At the end of November 2020, the ship was handed over to Yara from the Norwegian shipyard Vard Brattvåg, where it is undergoing testing for container loading and stability before being sailed to a port and test area in Horten for further preparations. 

Elsewhere, the European Union through its Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program is funding a three-year project aimed at creating trade lanes linked by automated port services and used by autonomous ships. 

The Advanced, Efficient and Green Intermodal Systems (AEGIS) initiative is expected to complete in May 2023 and is in line with the EU’s plans to accelerate efforts to shift road transport volumes to rail and waterborne transport. Although the project is targeting smaller ships and short-sea operations, the wider implications could be momentous if it is deemed a successful endeavor. 

However, one of the stumbling blocks in relation to automated ships is cost. 

The enormity of the technology required (at least at present) means that many ship operators, especially those with large vessels, will not be entertaining the prospect of full-scale fleet conversion anytime soon. The Yara Birkeland, for example, is estimated to cost around $25 million–three times more than a conventional container vessel of the same size. 

While AI has proven to yield considerable financial savings, operational efficiencies and safety benefits across a range of use cases, it may be some time before we see unmanned giants roaming our seas. 



At the end of 2019, there was a quiet sense of economic optimism in the air. 

The American economy had expanded by a greater than expected 2.1 percent, bringing overall growth for the year to a respectable (albeit unspectacular) 2.3 percent. While it may have been the lowest GDP expansion seen during the Trump administration, the foundation had been laid for what conceivably could have been a successful election year in 2020.  

This was, of course, before the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Fast-forward into 2021, and the landscape looks entirely different to what was being forecasted by analysts at the back end of 2019. 

While some economists warned that a recession was overdue following more than a decade of successive growth years since the financial crash of 2007-’09, nobody could have foreseen what has been the biggest blow to the U.S. economy since the Great Depression of the 1930s. 

And the figures, whichever way you analyze them, do make for depressing reading. 

Around the time of writing, nearly 500,000 people had died either with or because of COVID-19, with slightly more than 28 million cases recorded, making the United States one of—if not the most—devasted countries to be hit by the virus. 

It has been a public health crisis of astounding scale, one which is, thankfully, being addressed with a series of vaccinations that is a feat of human ingenuity and endeavor given how rapidly they have been developed, tested and approved by medical authorities. 

But while there is light at the end of the tunnel in this regard, attention will soon turn more squarely to the monumental economic fallout that the events of 2020 have created. 

As nations across the world responded and took steps to protect their populations, a trail of financial destruction inevitably followed. Economies have ground to a halt as localized and nationwide lockdowns have greatly limited the means by which the world’s workforce can move and keep the economic wheels turning. Certainty, the one thing businesses and investors crave, has been diminished. 

The exact amount of economic damage caused by COVID-19 is mightily difficult to predict accurately, but the headline figures which have come out of various analytical houses during the course of last year are stark. 

In July 2020, for example, the World Economic Forum (WEF) reported a GDP contraction at an annualized rate of 32.9 percent, the deepest decline since records began just after the end of World War II. The WEF also confirmed that more than 30 million Americans were receiving unemployment support at the time. 

More recently, in December 2020, the University of Southern California published a study that calculated possible losses in real GDP of between $3.2 trillion and $4.8 trillion over the course of just two years. This depends on a range of variables, including the extent and duration of business closures, how quickly areas open up, infection rates and fatalities, and consumer appetite to spend.  

Much of the United States’ overall recovery will depend on the support provided and actions taken from state to state, areas which have adopted drastically different levels of measures in response to the public health threat. 

From California to Florida, interventions have varied markedly, but there is no denying that every corner of the country is facing a battle to emerge from the other side of the economic troubles that lie ahead. 

So, against a nationwide backdrop of unwanted broken records, how have responses to these challenges been coordinated at a localized level? We start in the Upper Midwest.


Josh Hundt, the chief Business Development officer and executive vice president with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), witnessed first-hand the devastating impact caused by the coronavirus. 

“It comes as no surprise that as the global pandemic spread across the country last spring, industries and businesses felt an immediate impact to production and revenues streams,” Hundt says. “In Michigan, one of the state’s hardest hit in the early days of COVID-19, the manufacturing of PPE and life sciences equipment became essential services seemingly overnight.

“In the face of this adversity, Michigan’s Arsenal of Innovation was set in motion with manufacturers retooling their production lines to support the frontlines and create new revenue streams in uncertain economic times.”

MEDC responded in kind by immediately launching the COVID-19 Emergency Access and Retooling Grants through its Pure Michigan Business Connect program. In total, 12 businesses received retooling grants and produced 2.5 million units of PPE in a matter of months, generating $27 million in new sales, vital revenue to support their workforces and viability of operations. 

“As our manufacturers pivoted, small businesses all across the state faced unprecedented challenges as a result of the necessary steps to slow the spread of the virus, and overall changes in consumer behavior in the pandemic,” Hundt continues. “Again, the MEDC stepped in to help provide more than $240 million in relief over the past year to help our small businesses weather the economic storm and keep their workers employed.”

In total, 23 relief programs have provided support to more than 24,400 companies in Michigan and helped to retain 200,000 jobs. Hundt and the MEDC were also aware of the hardships endured by minority-owned businesses, issuing more than 9,000 awards to minority-owned, women-owned or veteran-owned business statewide. 

“In all corners of the state and across all industries, Michiganders have joined together to find innovative ways to use every resource available to fight this virus,” he says. “As we begin to look toward long-term recovery efforts, the MEDC and the state of Michigan remain committed to ensuring Michigan businesses of all kinds have the resources and opportunities to survive, succeed and grow here.”

New Mexico 

The Southwest state of New Mexico recorded a rate of 171 COVID-19 fatalities per 100,000 people as of Feb. 19. 

New Mexico has adopted a county-by-county, three-level restriction system (red, yellow and green), which details numerous measures surrounding retail, food and drink establishments, gatherings and more. Brought in at the start of December, the tiered approach is designed to enable maximum flexibility in a bid to restart New Mexico’s economy.

Impetus is needed if August 2020 figures are anything to go by. At that time, more than 97,000 residents were in receipt of unemployment benefits, this after more than 250,000 new benefit claims were made in the five prior months.

Around 30 companies in the state had declared bankruptcy, with four in 10 restaurants temporarily closed and 3 percent closed permanently. Meanwhile, consumer spending had fallen year-on-year by 12 percent. 

However, the state Economic Development Department’s (EDD) economic diversity and job expansion drive has done its best to support businesses throughout the worst of the pandemic. 

There are two flagship initiatives being pushed. First is the Job Training Incentive Program (JTIP), designed to assist businesses as they create jobs for new workers and advance skills of existing employees. In 2020, JTIP pledged training reimbursements to 75 businesses across the state in support of 2,380 jobs, around 30 percent being targeted in rural areas. 

The second major scheme is the Local Economic Development Act, known as the LEDA job-creators fund, which made strategic investments in 18 companies that will create 2,500 new jobs. The beneficiary companies have committed to invest $761 million in New Mexico over the next decade, $150 million of which is being spent on staff wages. 

The EDD has also been working to keep the public informed about existing financial assistance programs, publishing a weekly newsletter that lists economic assistance resources for communities and businesses, and hosting more than 30 webinars since the start of the pandemic in March.


A particular pain point in this Pacific Northwest state has been the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on travel. Home to a tourism industry that boomed in decade leading up to 2020, Oregon saw travel-related spending increase by 4.2 percent to some $12.3 billion in 2018, activity which provided employment to more than 115,000 Oregonians.

COVID-19, unsurprisingly, has hit hard. While Oregon avoided the worst of the virus when it first arrived in early 2020 in America (and, more specifically, neighboring Washington), deaths have passed the 2,000 mark during the winter period. 

As a result, authorities have issued statewide guidance around social distancing, mask wearing and how to undertake a range of activities safely. Alongside this is a four-grade restriction system based on the prevalence of the virus, the highest risk areas subject to the toughest measures, which include closure of indoor entertainment venues and exercise centers. 

Tourism and leisure activity are thus enormously reduced. Quarantines, travel directives, event postponements and restrictions placed on venues have all created hardships for the sector, with passenger numbers passing through Portland International Airport still well under 50 percent of pre-COVID levels.

The wider economic impact has been profound. In its Economic and Revenue Forecast published in September, the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis said the state’s economy remains “in a Great Recession-sized hole,” although not as a big a hole as feared previously. For instance, expectations are that the labor market will return to a healthy state by mid-2023.

In response, several economic associations have come together and pooled resources to help companies in all sectors get back on their feet. From business reopening tools and occupational health and safety advice to free COVID-19 safety training and social media drives, many activities are taking place in line with the statewide mission to vaccinate the population and restore public health. 

Early on in the pandemic, the Oregon Economic Development Association (OEDA) released a series of economic development priorities for COVID economic recovery, a framework that has informed its ongoing response. It advocates a range of measures, including flexibility for local non-discretionary funds to target those that need support the most and protection of existing state development resources such as the Strategic Reserve Fund and Special Public Work Funds. 

The OEDA also supports moves to ease tax burdens on small businesses through loans and grants, as well as the continuation of incentive programs to encourage investment into the state. 

“Undoubtedly, more communities will experience significant drops in local wages and employment opportunities,” states the OEDA in its plan for recovery. “Oregon needs to leverage our existing programs to bring sustainable jobs to disadvantaged communities and keep capital flowing to employers looking to invest. Allowances should be made for companies that may be seeing temporary employment reductions related to the pandemic which jeopardize an existing program qualification.”

The OEDA also makes several process-based recommendations, which stress the need to engage a wide range of stakeholders, ensure fair distribution of federal funds, and determine the needs of local employers. 

New York 

New York State experienced more COVID-related deaths (46,436 as of Feb. 19, 2020) than any other U.S. state except California (48,259 as of the same date). And the economic crisis that currently faces New York City because of the region’s rapid virus transmission is similarly shocking.

In total, the pandemic cost the Big Apple 570,000 jobs in 2020. Its performing arts, retail and hospitalities that would usually have thrived have been some of the hardest hit, with around 1,000 store locations shutting last year.

Such action has resulted in a surge of joblessness, particularly among young people, with 19 percent of all city workers under the age of 25 having lost their jobs by summer 2020. Fast forward to January 2021 and total unemployment stood at 12 percent–a figure that would have been even greater had 240,000 New Yorkers not dropped out of the workforce altogether.

A lack of tourism, dwindling commuter numbers and evacuating residents all put further pressure on a struggling economy. Yet, the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) has been taking various actions to support the individuals and small businesses bearing the brunt of the pandemic-induced recession.

The Queens Small Business Grant Program is one such endeavor. Signed on Jan. 19, 2021, it will provide $15 million in grants to small businesses in the borough, each eligible of receiving up to $20,000.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities and their success is key to the city’s long-term economic recovery,” said James Patchett, president and CEO of the NYCEDC.

“We’re thrilled the fund will provide much-needed relief to Queens businesses, particularly to those in the neighborhoods and populations hardest hit by COVID-19.”

The NYCEDC also launched the NYC Small Business Resource Network, a one-stop shop built to accelerate the recovery of small businesses and strengthen the city’s economy. Here, $2.8 million in grants—funded by the Peterson Foundation—are available, with most of these set to go to the minority-, women- and immigrant-owned businesses that have been disproportionately affected.

Approximately 1.3 million people are employed by the city’s 236,000 small businesses, a figure that truly demonstrates their importance to its economic success.



A particularly virulent and nasty airborne virus, it has so far accounted for 2.5 million deaths worldwide with more than 110 million cases recorded at the time of writing. Given these numbers only represent reported incidences, the real tolls could well be substantially higher.

The pandemic has especially caught western societies on the backfoot. Unlike regions more used to infectious disease outbreaks such as Asia and Africa, the likes of Europe and North America have not had to deal with a public health threat of this kind since the Spanish flu disaster of 1918, a four-wave pandemic which is thought to have killed 675,000 people in the USA and 50 million worldwide.

Vaccinations are key to emerging from the worst of the crisis during 2021, both in terms of public health and the economy.

Regarding the latter, COVID-19 has been nothing short of a disaster. America has disproportionately suffered from the coronavirus: Not only does it have the highest registered death toll, but it is also forecast to lose trillions of dollars in revenue.

Predicting the size of the economic fallout is far from straightforward, and estimates vary tremendously.

According to a study by the University of Southern California, anywhere between $3 trillion and $5 trillion could be lost over the next two years, while economists at Harvard believe the pandemic will cost the U.S. $16 trillion, assuming it is over by this fall.

While uncertainty remains as to the exact extent of the financial damage, what cannot be denied is that the financial losses are and will continue to be enormous for years to come.

The second quarter of 2020 saw real gross domestic product in the U.S. decrease at an annual rate of 31.7 percent, the largest quarterly plunge in activity on record.

And one of the most worrying patterns emerging from 2020 is companies struggling to manage cashflows and stay afloat. Payments simply are not flowing through supply chains as they ordinarily would, an observation which is borne out by several reports and surveys.

For example, trade credit insurer Atradius reports in its annual Payment Practices Barometer that businesses across the USA, Canada and Mexico are facing widespread cash and liquidity pressures. Meanwhile, business credit information firm Cortera reported that in May 2020, large companies with more than 500 employees paid their suppliers 15.6 days late on average, up from around 10 days a year earlier.

Responding to economic disruption

So, how can companies safeguard themselves against this sort of financial disruption both now and in the future?

Paying particular attention to cash flow during times of crisis is essential if businesses are to emerge from this black swan event intact–even those that appear to be in strong financial shape, given the longevity of the demand and supply chain disruption being witnessed.

At the start of the pandemic, around March 2020, Deloitte released a series of advice papers on how supply chains can cope with the then anticipated fallout, one of these being “COVID-19: Managing cash flow during a period of crisis.”

“Given the importance of cash flow in times like this, companies should immediately develop a treasury plan for cash management as part of their overall business risk and continuity plans,” the report states. “In doing so, it is essential to take a full ecosystem and end-to-end supply chain perspective, as the approaches you take to manage cash will have implications for not only your business but also for your customers.”

Deloitte draws on lessons learned from the 2003 SARS epidemic, the 2008 global financial crash, and the 2011 Japanese earthquake, offering 15 specific practices and strategies for companies to better manage their cash flow.

15 ways to better manage your cashflow

1. Ensure you have a robust framework for managing supply chain risk.

2. Ensure your own financing remains viable.

3. Focus on the cash-to-cash conversion cycle.

4. Think like a CFO, across the organization.

5. Revisit your variable costs.

6. Revisit capital investment plans.

7. Focus on inventory management.

8. Extend payables, intelligently.

9. Manage and expedite receivables.

10. Consider alternate supply chain financing options.

11. Audit payables and receivables transactions.

12. Understand your business interruption insurance.

13. Consider alternate or non-traditional revenue streams.

14. Convert fixed to variable costs, where possible.

15. Think beyond your four walls.

*Source – Deloitte, “COVID-19: Managing cash flow during a period of crisis”

Among them is advice to extend payables–in other words, take longer to pay suppliers. However, Deloitte warns against delaying payments without prior agreement with customers, urging dialogue between both parties to ensure the supply chain is as minimally disrupted as possible.

Indeed, companies may wish to bring forward payments to suppliers if it prevents them from going out of business, the consequences of which being far costlier than using up some of your own cash reserves early.

As a supplier, offering dynamic discounting solutions for those able to pay more quickly could be a way to improve your cash flows; by using this technique, you are essentially paying customers to provide you with short-term financing. Going down this route could be expensive in the long term, but it could be the only viable option if other financing methods are not available.

Perhaps the most important, albeit least tangible piece of advice is to think outside of the confines of your own business. Rather than simply focus on your own operations, companies should think about how their actions will impact the wider supply chain ecosystem.

A further question revolves around the ways in which payments are being made.

COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital and automated payment methods. For instance, according to research by digital transformation platform MX, there has been a rise in mobile banking engagement of 50 percent since the end of 2019.

The U.S. has been behind the curve on supply chain financing for quite some time. Widescale adoption of electronic, data-driven invoicing will create fluidity and working capital for both suppliers and buyers.

Responding to social disruption

Another dynamic to consider is how to mitigate social disruption.

There is already evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has rekindled divisions within society–black and ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by the virus, while the poorest have been hit hardest by the financial costs of lockdown policies.

While not being ostensibly linked to coronavirus, the traction gained by the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. has undoubtedly been heightened in the pandemic’s context.

It has also prompted major shifts in consumer and business circles: Citizens and enterprises are putting time and capital towards prioritizing diversity and inclusion.

“Supplier diversity initiatives are no exception,” states supply chain software provider GEP in its 2021 Outlook. “In 2021, procurement and supply chain leaders will need to do more–by developing new approaches to include minority-owned businesses to achieve real targets for supplier diversity.”

Indeed, hardwiring diversity and inclusion into the procure-to-pay process will help organizations respond to the social unrest of 2020. This will involve tracking and benchmarking metrics at a transactional level, and companies can start by focusing on direct spending with small and diverse suppliers.

Going back to Deloitte’s advice on thinking beyond your four walls, businesses should also monitor the revenue growth of their suppliers in order to fully assess the impact of their supplier diversity and inclusion strategies.