John Gentle understands better than most the problems shippers face in finding good, reliable trucking services. Gentle has spent a long career in transportation, retiring last year as transportation affairs leader for Owens Corning. For several years, he chaired the highway transportation committee for the National Industrial Transportation League (NITL). His service to the league— and to the industry—was recognized last fall when the league selected Gentle for its annual executive of the year award.
Gentle continues to be active in the transportation industry. He now runs a private consulting practice, John A. Gentle & Associates, and is also a member of the DC VELOCITY Editorial Advisory Board. Well known in transportation circles for his forthright, indeed blunt, assessments of the problems facing the industry, Gentle is especially forceful in arguing that shippers who expect to develop successful transportation programs had best learn that the world has changed—and that the buyers'market that dominated the first two decades after deregulation is history. Shippers who don't understand those changes and alter their own ways of doing business, he warns, may put their companies in peril.
"In the '80s and '90s, you could get a new carrier every week," he says. "Everybody was buying market share. It was a great time for shippers." But the last decade has brought about a dramatic shift, he contends, and carriers are far more savvy today about who they do business with and how. "Technology has helped in both optimizing business operations and driving out waste," Gentle explains. "Carriers are more conscious of unprofitable shippers, deadhead miles and detention. A carrier will look at a particular shipper and say, 'There's a claim every time. I cannot afford to do business with them.'"
It's all about trust
But what really matters today is willingness to collaborate. At heart, Gentle contends, carrier and shipper relationships are built on integrity. "You have to talk to people and understand if they have what it takes in terms of honesty and integrity.... If your partner is unscrupulous or cannot do the basics, it is not going to work. If you cannot trust your business partner, you've got nothing."
He believes that many shippers and carriers—but hardly all—have gotten the message. "I think today that shippers and carriers are starting to make holistic decisions about their business partners," Gentle says. John Gentle is on a mission. NITL's executive of the year wants to persuade shippers that the rules have changed in the trucking business and that shippers who don't get the message are looking for trouble. Carriers evaluate customers not only based on rate, but on shipper behaviors that can affect such things as claims rates and driver recruitment and retention.
"We have to make the decision to do business based on a new set of guidelines, not just the best rate," he argues. "We all went through micromanaging, when we did a whole bunch of bids."
He argues that the complexities of developing efficient networks require nothing less of carriers and shippers than real collaboration. Furthermore, the truckers have a stronger hand than they have had in the past. "Carriers are looking for partners who are not going to change truckers every day. That's the kiss of death: It takes them so long to figure out a network and to configure it to work optimally."
He adds, "If you want to build networks and programs, you have to find partners. Carriers really look for that. Shippers who are not so willing to do that will not find carriers. You'll call a carrier for capacity and if business is good, you'll be told they're not sure if there will be trucks today."
Knowledge is power
Successful carrier and shipper relationships are also built on a clear understanding of each other's expectations. Gentle suggests shippers invite potential carriers to see their plant or DC operations and learn the nature of the freight.
He also insists that the collaborative effort cannot stop at the management level, but must extend to operations at the dock. With a driver shortage that is expected only to grow worse, treating drivers appropriately is essential. "You want the driver to know what experience he is going to have when he gets there. You want to send a message that you are really concerned that the driver has a good experience," Gentle says. If he does, he is more likely to want to come back. That makes it easier for the carrier to recruit. But if the driver has a bad experience, he'll tell all his friends, and no one will want to go there."
Gentle emphasizes that finding good carriers requires an ongoing effort. It is not a matter of negotiating and signing a contract and then expecting things to go smoothly. "Finding a carrier is a long process," he says. "It is not something you accomplish in a day or a week." In fact, he sees it as sort of a perpetual process.
Shippers should also keep in mind that occasionally, things just don't work out, Gentle adds. "There are a lot of reasons people fall out of love," he says. It might be that a carrier loses a significant amount of business in a shipper or consignee geography, changing the economics in a way that makes existing terms unprofitable, for example. Gentle urges taking that as part and parcel of the business process."Don't get upset about it. Stuff happens and you have to roll with the punches."
Talk, and talk some more
Gentle is also a strong advocate of regular meetings between carrier and shipper management— and he sees the willingness of carrier management to participate as a good leading indicator of how successful a collaborative effort is likely to be. "If I say, 'Let's talk,' and they blow me off, how well do you think that will work out?" he asks.
Carrier councils are crucial to developing carrier willingness to make a greater investment in a shipper, Gentle believes. "Invite carriers in and talk to them for a day and a half, look at what values you want to create for the company and the carriers. Solve some of the problems you are having. Look at how to increase my productivity as well as the carrier's. It cannot be, 'I'm just going to beat you up and tell you what you are doing wrong.' Ask them in and tell them it will be a great investment for your company and mine. People do want to make an investment. They want to make sure you are successful." The payoff in that sort of mutually beneficial relationship comes at the dock. "When you need a truck, 99 times out of 100, you will get a truck," Gentle says.
Another crucial part of a successful transportation program, Gentle adds, is communication within the company to make sure that management throughout the shipper's firm understands just how important transportation is to the overall business success. That means not just senior management, he says, but everyone involved in moving a company's product."You have to try to explain how decisions they make affect the company overall. If you just talk about the warehouse, that's not right. They have to understand their role in the big picture. I think all around, people have to understand how their actions affect the business. Once they understand that, they can rally behind the concept." Ensuring that the message resonates requires a commitment, he adds. "Sometimes it takes a few calls and visits to the plant."
But getting that message across is crucial, he contends. "Especially today, a lot of carriers are inclined to walk away from someone with a challenging dock or receiving area compared to someone who wants to work to solve problems," he says. "The issue is your willingness to work. If you are not willing, you are not a player for the 2000s."