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.”