I got into this logistics journalism racket about 20 years ago. My roots in the news business stretch back a bit further, to a time when the key tools of the reporter were a notebook and pen, a Rolodex and telephone, a cigarette and ashtray, a cold cup of coffee, and a manual typewriter. We looked on the term "journalist" with a bit of disdain; we were reporters.
Back then, the Teamsters were the dominant force in the trucking industry, the disappearin' railroad blues were more than an anthem, and the United States was as likely to run a trade surplus as a trade deficit.
I confess that before I started covering supply chain issues full time (and that was before the term "supply chain" caught on), what we today call logistics was unknown territory to me. Truckers were ruffians in cowboy boots barking warnings to good buddies about Smokies up the road. Yes, I had spent a little time right out of school picking orders in a warehouse from a paper pick list and wondering if the foreman would share the goodies brought in by trucking salesmen at Christmas time in those still-regulated days. (He didn't.) A friend once offered to help get me papers to work in the merchant marine. (I declined—a decision I sometimes regret.) But in my newspaper days, trucks were mainly big vehicles that we wrote about only when they were involved in accidents.
I've learned a bit since then, and I have had the opportunity to report on enormous changes not only in logistics, but also in the way the world does business. When I first started covering the transportation beat, motor carriers and railroads were still working their way through the deregulatory process. Shippers and ocean carriers were at loggerheads over maritime reform. Mergers and consolidations were the order of the day, and many truckers were closing shop. The undercharge crisis, in which creditors for failed carriers tried to collect the difference between discounted and tariff rates for old shipments, was in full swing and preoccupied thousands of shippers. Various intrastate deregulatory initiatives were just making their way through legislatures and courtrooms. One indication of the way the industry was changing: A leading advocate for the deregulation of intrastate surface transportation in California was at the time primarily an air-freight specialist, FedEx.
Since that time, the transportation industry has changed in ways that many deregulation advocates had not anticipated. In the years following deregulation, shippers and carriers developed new and more efficient ways of doing business—first reluctantly, then enthusiastically, embracing technological tools that helped drive communication and productivity. We've come a long way since Don Schneider shocked the trucking industry by equipping his company's trucks with satellite communications.
Even in the five years since we launched DC VELOCITY, we've seen rapid change in transportation, technology, trade, and sourcing. We started this magazine because we wanted to offer a publication that reflected the changes we were seeing in the way companies did business. Managers with a "global" view, if you will, of the supply chain recognized that while functional excellence was imperative, so too was greater coordination of those functions within companies, as was greater communication and collaboration with suppliers and customers. Efficient and productive operations within the DC had to mesh with efficient and productive purchasing, transportation, order management, customer relationship management, and more. As one automotive executive said at a conference a few years ago, "When a customer orders leather seats, I want the cow in the field to get nervous." Eventually, of course, demands for speed, reliability, lean inventories, and fast cycle times ran up against the limitations inherent in sourcing across vast distances. All those challenges have led to the development of technological tools for managing warehouses, transportation, and trade, and to provide visibility and control of goods and materials across the world. We have had the opportunity to write about all of that and more, to report on success stories, the growth of outsourcing, and the challenges of building efficient logistics networks both at home and around the world.
At the same time,we've looked at some of the ways the world has changed and the implications of those changes for distribution, logistics, and supply chain management. When our first issue hit the streets in January 2003, the aftershocks from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were still being felt. (Indeed, in some ways, they still are, as evidenced by the concerns about the terrorist threat voiced by nearly every presidential candidate.) In the years before 9/11, U.S. shippers and carriers had seen enormous progress in shedding the fetters of economic regulation and were hard at work helping to develop the safety and environmental rules that replaced them. Security for the most part referred to protection against physical or intellectual property theft.
After the attacks, the government began looking hard at transportation and trade, based on fears that terrorists might make use of the international transportation system to smuggle in destructive weapons or attempt to use airplanes, trucks, railcars, or ocean vessels carrying dangerous materials as weapons themselves. Supply chains faced a new regime of security-related regulation. The regulatory regime continues to evolve, as we've seen with legislation adopted this year that could require scanning of all U.S.-bound containers in the port of origin within a few years.
Those security efforts have paralleled the rapid expansion of international trade. Supply chains and logistics are at the heart of globalization. And we are seeing new challenges take center stage. The rapid growth in environmental and sustainability efforts has enormous implications for logistics managers, as transportation and distribution operations consume vast amounts of energy and offer great opportunities for reducing emissions—and saving money as well. Trade issues are likely to come to the fore once again, owing to concerns over the reliability of some offshore suppliers and a rising tide of protectionist sentiment. Growing highway, airport, and port congestion and the implications for commerce demand engagement by logistics and distribution professionals. Internet commerce continues to grow apace, enabling seamless communication around the globe, and at the same time elevating customer expectations about how the physical supply chain will match up with the virtual.
The cigarettes and the manual typewriter are long gone, and the phone fits in my pocket along with the notebook and pen. But reporting on the way this profession continues to develop by talking to those on the front lines, and getting good stories into the hands of DC VELOCITY's readers, remains as interesting and fruitful as ever. To borrow a logistics metaphor, it's always fun to wonder what's over the horizon.