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NTG Slides Between Old Guard and Freight-Forwarding Disruptors

NTG

NTG Slides Between Old Guard and Freight-Forwarding Disruptors

If there is one common theme among newish freight-forwarding disruptors, it is that they seek to replace an old guard that relies on paper, clipboards, and telephones with a brave new world that relies on cloud software, analytics platforms, and smartphones.

The stakes are high: tracking and handling freight is a $1 trillion industry. And so, the business media falls all over itself to profile the likes of Qwyk, Flexport and Zencargo. It’s a small wonder that established players have moved into the freight forwarding “startup” space, as evidenced by Twill, a so-called “Maersk innovation.” Amazon is also breaking into the freight-forwarding market, as is another well-known disruptor, Uber, which launched Uber Freight in 2017 and expanded into Europe last year.

Falling somewhere between the newbies and the established players is Nolan Transportation Group (NTG), a multimodal freight brokerage firm that was founded in Atlanta in 2005. Featuring parcel, truckload, less-than-truckload and intermodal transportation services for more than 7,000 customers across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico—as well as a carrier base with over 30,000 independent transportation/trucking companies that aid in facilitating the movement of clients’ products—NTG has mostly been in the news lately due to industry consolidation.

After Gryphon Investors injected capital into third party logistics company Transportation Insight in September, the private equity firm and the 3PL together acquired NTG three months later. Then, in January, NTG announced it had acquired Eagle Transportation LLC, a Mississippi-based freight brokerage specializing in temperature-controlled shipping. Out of the deal, NTG added Eagle’s expertise in cold-chain logistics and brokerage of refrigerated equipment, and Eagle received access to NTG’s vast pool of carrier representatives.

But NTG Freight is now seeking to turn industry heads with its new portal for carriers and shipping customers that went live for the public on Jan. 18, after months of beta testing. Those who log in 24/7 get real-time access “to every available shipment we have as a company,” says Garrett McDaniel, NTG’s vice president of Software Project Management. “Carriers like it because available loads are not on public boards where you have to beat out the competition to find lanes you are interested in running. The second a shipment is created, it shows up on our system as available.”

Previously, NTG communicated with its more than 8,000 companies and 100,000 trucking companies via fax, email, and phone. The portal makes that process communications and booking loads faster and easier, with bidding and rate confirmation handled automatically—and via a smartphone.

“We have created a few access levels for our preferred carriers, who not only see the loads available but the offer rate for that load as well,” McDaniel explains. “It’s created a bidding system that is pretty different than the eBay-style bidding that our competitors are doing.” With the latter, a bid amount is entered and after other bids are made, a “winning bid” is selected. But with the NTG portal, a carrier submits a couple of different amounts and is automatically chosen without having to debate.

Asked whether the new portal came about based on what customers were seeking or what NTG saw needed refinement, McDaniel answered, “A little bit of both. The platform was originally created based on some specific needs of carriers.”

You might assume here that NTG’s answer to those needs came in June 2019, when the 3PL deployed Descartes Systems Group’s MacroPoint, a cloud-based freight visibility solution. After all, Perry Falk, senior vice president of NTG’s Carrier Operations, said at the time: “Our customers can opt to get real-time visibility on every shipment we move. The drivers for our carriers can provide location updates with minimal interactions while in-transit, leaving us with happier carriers who can focus on driving safely.”

However, McDaniel corrects that the new portal’s inception actually stretches back a couple of years before that, when carriers were telling NTG as far back as 2017 that they needed online access to their payment information. “One thing they wanted was access to payments in real-time. Paperwork was missing on some loads, and they wanted to see information on available loads. Over time, as we grew as a development team, along with the experience of the users, things were refined internally.

“One of the very first versions that rolled out showed the payment status. You’d log in to see when you were being paid if you were paid already what the check number was and when it was mailed. Really within the last year, we rolled out a lot more core functionality, including bidding on loads, rate confirmation, as well as some of the customer-focused functionality as well.”

McDaniel considers all of this to be part of NTG’s mission “to improve the carrier partnership.” Relationships with loyal carriers and customers were already in place during the NTG portal’s beta phase. “We’ve received a ton of positive feedback, especially among the smaller carriers that have one to five trucks,” McDaniel says. “It’s been a great tool for them to be able to keep their trucks completely filled with loads purely by using the system.” Carriers “with thousands of trucks” also participated in the beta phase, he adds. “They were able to get in, play around with it and give us their feedback. We’ve taken a lot of the feedback and been able to implement changes.”

The live version features a redesigned front end, more user-friendliness and a more modern-feeling than the beta tester, according to McDaniel, who credits Gryphon Investors with steadfastly supporting his company’s high-tech vision. “They have been a really incredible partner in developing this application,” he says.

However, while new freight forwarding disruptors scramble to build new customer bases, McDaniel is also quick to applaud the NTG network with continuing to push his company to refine with the digital times.

“We have been around for 15 years,” he notes. “In that amount of time, we’ve grown a deep network of carriers and shipper partners. These were not acquired overnight as a tech startup disruptor.”

Which, McDaniel believes, gives NTG a competitive edge over the upstarts. “We have a pretty dedicated group of users. This is something we view as an enhancement for our carrier partners. You don’t ever want to replace human relationships. Rather, this is something that quite frankly helps strengthen that relationship with us.”

intermodal

HOW TO BE AN INTERMODAL SHIPPER OF CHOICE

Fluctuating capacity and freight rates along with increased focus on efficiency and sustainability have led to substantial growth in the intermodal market in recent years. As more companies now compete for intermodal capacity at competitive rates, it is important for shippers to set themselves apart from the competition by being attractive partners to their intermodal carriers. 

By being a “shipper of choice” and implementing flexible and efficient practices, companies can build collaborative, mutually beneficial relationships with their intermodal carriers. This better positions them to secure capacity at stable, competitive pricing and enhance service levels and improve overall performance. 

Why It’s Important to be an “Intermodal Shipper of Choice” 

While being a “shipper of choice” has been a hot topic in recent years, the focus has primarily been placed on over-the-road shipping. And while there are many similarities between the two modes, there are also some nuances that must be considered to be an “intermodal shipper of choice” in particular. 

First, because loads are tied to the equipment instead of to an individual driver, there must be an equal (if not greater) focus on equipment management and efficiency in addition to driver efficiency. By placing equal focus on implementing “carrier-friendly” tactics for intermodal freight, shippers can strengthen carrier relationships and better control costs. This, in turn, ensures enhanced intermodal service performance–increasing the ROI of utilizing the mode.

Here are some strategies organizations can use to become an intermodal shipper of choice:

Engage in annual renewals with incumbent carriers rather than annual RFPs. While annual RFPs can yield savings, they also increase uncertainty and risk for both shippers and carriers. By focusing on long-term commitments with incumbent carriers through annual renewals, shippers and their core carriers can continuously foster a relationship of mutual trust and ongoing success. Through this relationship, the carrier and its drivers become intimately familiar with the shipper’s network, freight and business, and the shipper gets to know the carrier’s operations and the drivers responsible for picking up and delivering their loads.

Accurately forecast freight volumes. The ability to forecast freight volumes and seasonal swings allows shippers and carriers to proactively plan (and reposition) equipment and drivers to provide adequate capacity. Sharing this information not only helps provide more consistent service but can be beneficial for both sides on an ongoing basis. 

Consistent freight volumes. Having consistent volume spread out throughout the week, month or year makes appointment scheduling and equipment planning easier for the carrier. And if shippers do ship heavier at certain times, it is important to set and manage expectations with carriers. 

Equipment pool requirements in line with volume. Pool requirements that are in line with volume allow shippers to turn boxes on a regular basis and keep loads moving at a consistent pace. This helps maximize equipment utilization while minimizing equipment costs.

Inbound and outbound volume. Setting consistent inbound and outbound volume out of facilities allows drivers to pick up loads immediately following a drop-off. This reduces empty miles and improves both driver and equipment utilization. These efficiencies will ultimately result in better rates from carriers. 

Utilize drop and hook freight capabilities. Drivers want to be able to get in and out of a facility in an efficient manner, at any time. Drop and hook freight capabilities create load flexibility, reducing congestion in the yard and maximizing driver utilization by minimizing detention time. 

Flexible pick-up and delivery appointments. For customers that require pick-up and delivery appointments, it is important to make them as flexible as possible. This drives further efficiencies for both the carrier and the shipper.

Reasonable payment terms. Shippers should have timely freight payment terms (often 30 days or fewer) and keep to those terms. It is also important to have a system in place to quickly resolve any discrepancies.

Provide driver amenities at the facilities. By providing driver amenities at their facilities (such as bathrooms or waiting lounges), shippers help make the pick-up and delivery process easier and more comfortable. These simple comforts show that the shipper views the carrier (and its drivers) as a valuable part of their operations versus a commodity. 

Utilize facilities in close proximity to intermodal terminals. Facilities that are located near intermodal rail terminals allow rail to be a more competitive option for a shipper. While this is not always possible, shippers looking to build new facilities should consider placing them near rail ramps in order to take advantage of more intermodal opportunities. 

Intermodal Presents Significant Opportunity for Shippers

Intermodal continues to be a cost-effective, efficient and sustainable way to move freight and should be a key piece of any strategic modal mix. And as more shippers compete for capacity and competitive rates, it’s important for shippers to best position themselves to be attractive partners to intermodal carriers. This will allow them to better take advantage of intermodal while helping to control costs and enhance service performance. 

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Doug Punzel is president of Celtic Intermodal, Transplace’s intermodal business unit. David Marsh serves as Celtic Intermodal’s chief operating officer and helps oversee all daily operations.