A renaissance man. That's an apt description of John Ficker—and not just because he's been an office manager, a rail sales rep, a transportation manager, a lobbyist and an association head. Ficker, who is president of the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL), is also one of the leaders of a renaissance in transportation.
Today's revival of interest in basic freight transportation is easy enough to explain. Given the current capacity shortage, managers who once had time to ponder abstractions like collaboration, visibility and optimization, now struggle simply to find a truck or railcar to move their freight. It's hard to imagine a more opportune moment for a transportation organization to step forward to push legislative remedies and adoption of a national policy.
Ficker began his transportation career as an office manager for Penn Central Railroad in 1970. Two years later, he joined the Southern Pacific Railroad, where he worked in sales.
But after a decade, he joined the other team, so to speak, switching from a seller of transportation services to a buyer. In 1983, he accepted a post as corporate transportation manager for Publishers Paper Co. Three years later, he moved to Weyerhaeuser Co., where he worked his way up to logistics development manager, a position whose responsibilities included contract development, monitoring regulatory and legislative issues, and lobbying at both the local and national level.
Over the years, Ficker has been active in numerous trade and industry associations, including stints as the vice chairman of the NITL and vice president of its Paper and Forest Industry Transportation Committee. He became the president of NITL in September 2003.He also serves as president of the American Society of Transportation and Logistics (AST&L), NITL's educational affiliate.
Ficker met recently with DC VELOCITY Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald at his Arlington, Va., office to talk about why he decided to give the NITL post a shot, the challenges of developing a national transportation policy, and just how long the nation can ignore its crumbling transportation infrastructure before it all hits the proverbial fan.
Q: Let's start with your background. How did you come to be head of the National Industrial Transportation League?
A: Well, I've been involved with transportation for almost 36 years now. I started in the rail industry in the mid 1970s. After deregulation became the law of the land, I moved into the buyer's role from a seller's role. I began working for a couple of shippers. The last shipper I worked for was Weyerhaeuser, based in Federal Way, Wash., where I was involved in issues like transportation, contract management, legislative affairs, regulatory affairs, that sort of thing.
I was also very active at that time with the league. I was a member and I participated on committees, including the executive committee. In 2003, our president resigned and we launched a search for a new president. I thought to myself, "This would be something I might enjoy doing." At that point, my children were grown, and my wife encouraged me to give it a shot. So I gave it a shot and lo and behold, they thought I was the right person for the position, and I ended up here in September 2003.
Q: So you came to the job as a former practitioner as opposed to a professional association manager?
A: Yes. Essentially, I went from being a member of the organization to running it. And as much as you think you know about an organization, when you get inside, you find it is different. You learn you won't be spending all your time on what you thought you would—policy work, testifying on [Capitol] Hill, and so forth. In a job like this, running the association and day-to-day administrative activity consume much of your time. You worry about personnel, you worry about finances, you worry about just keeping the organization running and meeting members' needs.
Q: What, in your view, is the league's place in this business?
A: The league's strength is affecting transportation policy. That will continue to be our strong suit.
That said, the league's role has changed over the years. Back when transportation was heavily regulated, the league's work was largely following cases before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and occasionally doing battle with the commission. Deregulation of the industry and the sunset of the ICC changed all that. From then on, we became more focused on legislation that would facilitate things for our members. That's when we got into the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, the Undercharge Relief Bill, intrastate trucking deregulation, and every three or four years, reauthorization of the highway bill.
Then along came the freight capacity crunch, and the whole world changed again.
Q: The so-called "quest for capacity" has certainly refocused folks on core issues like transportation, hasn't it?
A: Absolutely. The world flat out changed. Up until the third or fourth quarter of 2003, getting transportation to move goods was easy. There was plenty of capacity. I don't care what mode you went to—trucks, trains, boats or planes—there was plenty out there. Then one day, it seemed, the whole thing collapsed. Almost overnight, the supply and demand situation did a full 180.
Prior to that, transportation took a back seat to broader logistics and supply chain issues. A lot of folks took transportation for granted because it was easy to get. Those days are over.
Along with the capacity crunch, the other thing that changed the industry's dynamics was 9/11. Transportation and supply chain security have become enormous issues and they're not going away any time soon.
Q: Security consistently ranks among the top three topics our readers want to read more about.
A: That's not surprising at all. We need a rational and effective approach to security—not just sound bites about, say, the need to inspect every container. People often ask me what are the major issues the league is facing today. I say it's very simple: capacity and security—but I don't know which one is first on any given day because they can switch.
Q: Do you see this revival of interest in freight transportation as a kind of renaissance?
A: I'm absolutely convinced that there is a transportation renaissance going on. That's why the league is more important than ever today. But making sure that our transportation system, which is the finest in the world, stays that way will require hard work on a lot of people's part. Users, providers, government policy makers, all of those folks have to join this discussion.
There is a lot of talk about a national transportation policy. I'm more interested in a national freight transportation policy. We need to get the stakeholders to deal with this. It's easy for me to say in an interview, but it's very difficult to execute.
Q: Is that a reasonable goal? To isolate freight from the larger national transportation policy?
A: Well, I think we need to roll it into the larger picture, but we have to identify what we stand for, what we are willing to support, and what we are not willing to support. The league's role is to direct and influence that effort so that it meets the needs of the economy, of the country and of our members.
Part of the challenge will be raising awareness. At its most effective, transportation is totally invisible. It tends to get very little attention because it's so rare that something goes wrong. That's because transportation people are brilliant. Transportation professionals are the most creative and innovative people I know because whatever roadblock is thrown in their way, they somehow figure out a way around it.
But we are eventually going to run out of those ideas. So our members' job is to go back to their companies and make the invisible visible, to let people know what goes on behind the scenes. Otherwise, we may have to wait for a crisis to get people's attention—whether it's a natural disaster or simply wear and tear on, say, one of the locks on the Mississippi that leads to a six-month shutdown.
Another example is the current capacity shortage. Though it's obvious we need more trucks, trains, boats, planes, concrete, asphalt, railroad tracks and ports, we don't pay enough attention to it as a nation. Nor do we pay enough attention to a looming shortage of human resource capacity.
Q: Like the perennial driver shortage?
A: The driver shortage, the railcar operator shortage. We have a demographic challenge in this country that goes well beyond transportation but will affect transportation dramatically. That is the aging of the Baby Boomers. I was born right after World War II ended, so I've been around for a while. In the next five to seven years, this generation is going to walk out the door (or begin to walk out the door). Who's following behind? When I'm asked to speak, I often raise this human resource issue. I ask the audience how many have encouraged their children or grandchildren to become truck drivers. Do you know how many hands go up?
Q: I'd guess you'd see most of them sitting on their hands. So you're saying this has economic implications as well, right?
A: Absolutely. And we can't solve the problem by throwing money at it. We have to ask how we can enhance productivity. How can we take better advantage of the systems we have in place, make better use of the modes?
Q: It's not going to get better anytime soon, is it?
A: It's doubtful. Just look at the American Trucking Associations' and the Department of Transportation's growth projections out 15 or 20 years. Some are saying 50- percent growth, and some are saying 100-percent growth. Suppose they're wrong, and we only end up with 25-percent growth.We've still got a problem.
Q: From the league's point of view, what does a sound national transportation policy look like with regard to freight?
A: First of all, I think it encourages the use of the correct mode of transportation to deliver the goods. Second, it provides an economic environment that offers competitive alternatives to users. There are always new people coming into the marketplace. The area where that is the biggest challenge, of course, is the rail industry because you just can't build a new railroad overnight.
I think an environmentally friendly system is critical. We can certainly look to some of the things that the EPA is doing, or trying to do, with engines. The trucking industry has had some issues with that, but we also have to have an environmentally sustainable policy. You can't walk away from these things.
I think we have to be able to build the capacity we need within a reasonable time frame. I understand that there's a proposal to build a new connector in Long Beach and the estimates are it might take seven or eight years to get through [the permitting and approval process]. Now that is ridiculous. Obviously, you need to make sure that you protect the environment, but my goodness, I'm sure you can do that in less than eight years.
So those are the issues. Users and providers also need to know that they'll have to pay for it. We need to look at ways to improve productivity—whether it's technological improvements or allowing the use of longer trucks—because if you don't have enough drivers, you'll need to get more into existing trucks. Those are hard questions because there are people on both sides of these issues who will refuse to budge.
Q: What do you say to them?
A: If you can't move the goods, people will soon discover they can't find what they expect at the store. That's when the fan is going to get messy.
Q: Do your members, by and large, share your concerns?
A: Yes. My members today are concerned with two things: having efficient capacity to move their goods and receiving value for the price they're paying.
Q: Any closing thoughts?
A: I'd just like to mention two clichés that I like to use when I'm talking about the importance of joining an organization like the league. One, you can either have it done to you or you can have it done by you. Two, you can either be at the table or you can be on the menu. I think those people who are able to see past this morning or this afternoon will want to be at the table and will want to have it done by them.