Charles "Chuck" Clowdis knows whereof he speaks. Unlike many of the analysts who follow the freight transportation market, he has actually worked in the business. Before switching gears two decades ago, he was a trucking professional himself, working at various times as a dock foreman, terminal manager, sales rep, and vice president of sales and marketing.
Last June, Clowdis joined the renowned economic forecasting and analysis firm IHS Global Insight as managing director - North America in the Global Trade and Transportation Advisory Services practice. In that role, he is responsible for all trade and transportation products and clients in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Clowdis brought to his current position 30-plus years of experience in transportation, logistics, and supply chain design and management. Earlier in his career, he served as vice president of marketing at Transcon Lines, as vice president at TNT North America, and as an executive at Sun (Oil) Carriers Inc. and Mason & Dixon Lines Inc. He established an independent consulting practice in 1988, and has been an executive consultant since 1992 to Ernst & Young LLP, and since 2001, to KPMG.
His industry involvement includes stints as chairman and past president of the Sales & Marketing Council of the American Trucking Associations and membership in the National Defense Transportation Association.
A frequent contributor to industry publications and speaker to industry groups, as well as author of numerous white papers, Clowdis met recently with DC VELOCITY Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald to discuss his unorthodox career path, the gathering economic storm clouds (and their silver lining), and which carriers stand the best chance of survival.
Q: How did you begin your career in the motor freight business?
A: A I started as a trainee with Roadway Express in 1972 and worked at various times as a dock foreman, a salesman, a city sales manager, a regional sales manager, a terminal manager, a director of operations, and a vice president of sales and marketing for both large and small carriers. In 1988, I decided that I possibly could offer my services to the motor carrier industry as a consultant. After establishing my own little practice, I was fortunate enough to become a subcontractor or an executive consultant to Ernst & Young when they had a national transportation practice. Up until June of this year, I was a sole practitioner transportation consultant but working with KPMG, Capgemini, CSC, Index Consulting, and a lot of other clients along the way as either a subject matter expert or as a project manager on specific trade and transportation matters.
Q: I'm sure you've seen a lot of change since those early days in Akron with Roadway.
A: I was just talking with a colleague about the changes in the industry over the past 30 years—things like the emergence of third-party logistics service providers and the contribution that they make and how much things have changed.We fought for years to bring the purchasing agents or the procurement function or the sourcing function into the supply chain. We finally won that battle. Now, when you think "supply chain," the first link in that chain is the sourcing of raw materials and the transport to either the processing center or the manufacturing plant.We have come a long way, and as you just said, we've seen a lot of change over those years.
Q: Absolutely. I think one of the most intriguing developments we've observed is the emergence of this thing we call the "supply chain." It seems that the logistics component in particular is involved at almost every stage of a business's operation.
A: It does indeed touch every function—everything from the purchasing agent who is looking for the best price on goods or raw materials or services to the marketing director who needs to get his product to market on time and in good condition.
Right now, the supply chain is starting to get more attention at the CFO level because there are an awful lot of dollars spent at every link of the chain. I think each time the economy suffers, good companies start looking for ways to trim costs and do things more efficiently for less money.
Q: The economy is certainly in the forefront of almost everyone's mind right now. How would you describe the environment we're in? Have you ever seen anything like it?
A: I never have. In all my years in this industry, I have never seen the economic stars, if you will, align in such a manner as they have this year. First, we had the slowdown, which I think did start over a year ago, in December 2007; then there was the oil price spike in June and July—I don't think any of us saw that coming or expected we'd ever see $5 per gallon diesel fuel and gasoline. I think that has left a lasting impression, especially on the consumer. We're not only reeling from that experience, but all of a sudden, we're becoming concerned about our jobs. We are concerned about making the mortgage payments. We are concerned about buying the kids new shoes.We are concerned about basic everyday spending. All of those signs plus the credit crunch have aligned to make it a challenging, challenging time for not only motor carriers and transport service providers but for the consumer as well.
Q: From the forecasts I've been hearing, it sounds like we're looking at a deep recession that could last as long as 30 months.
A: Exactly. It is not a pleasant outlook. I think it takes every bit of executive skill that management can muster to deal with the cards we've been dealt. It is not going to be easy.
Q: How do we go about surviving the downturn? Do you think there are ways shippers can actually thrive during the recession?
A: I think there are some opportunities in both cases. It may sound trite to some, and it is not an original thought on my part, but if you are a shipper, you really have to work more closely with your carriers, as genuine partners, than ever before. You need to work together to recognize and understand the carriers' costs and do all you can to help them control and lower those costs.
For years, we've been hearing carriers complain about showing up on time for a delivery, then having to wait two hours to get an empty door and unload. Likewise, we've heard from plenty of disgruntled shippers who wanted a truck there at, say, 11, but had to wait until 1: 30. I think a closer dialogue between the parties—between the shippers, receivers, and the motor carriers—could help both the shipper and the carrier understand the costs that they can control and then work toward controlling those. I think that if we have ever needed teamwork between the transportation provider and the transportation buyer, it is with the situation we are in now.
Q: Some have suggested that, as painful as the economic downturn may be, there could be a longer-term benefit in that it's likely to force many of the weaker players out of the market. Do you think that is correct?
A: I think that is absolutely right. I think there is tremendous overcapacity now, despite the fact that we still have carriers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. When the economy rebounds, we are the first to know in the transportation industry. We can feel that recovery first, and that is good. That will give us a chance to ramp back up.
It is my opinion that the carriers that survive this are those that don't have a great deal of debt, aren't struggling to hold their creditors at bay, and have some extra cash— and at the same time, are devoting executive attention to finding new revenue sources and making sure that their sales forces maximize their penetration of every possible account. I hate to say it—it is not like picking over the bones of the dead—but you have to take advantage when a carrier does unfortunately drop out of the market. You have to be in a position to capture that business while still being careful—even with those new accounts—to go in and open that dialogue and work closely together. The carriers that survive will be the smart ones, and there are an awful lot of smart ones out there.
Q: I've been covering this field since 1988, and I doubt if a year has gone by when I haven't written at least one story or column about the state of our bridges and roads, or the fact that we don't have enough runways, and so forth. But now it seems that for the first time, we're actually hearing officials at the highest level of government saying, yes, we have a problem; yes, we should invest in infrastructure repair and rebuilding projects as part of our economic stimulus package. Is this perhaps a silver lining in the economic storm cloud?
A: I think it is a silver lining, if not gold. I think it puts people back to work. If people are at work, they are going to spend money. If they are spending money, transportation providers are going to have something to haul. I think it is a great idea.
Like many in this business, I've been talking about the need to repair and rebuild the country's transportation infrastructure for years, long before our newly elected president put it at the top of his administration's agenda. And I'm not even talking about new interstates; I am talking about repairing what needs to be repaired. The bridges, like the bridge in Minnesota. And that's not an isolated case— something like 60,000 other bridges need to be inspected more closely. They have faults and problems, not so much that they are unsafe but that they can become unsafe.
We need to look at ways to move trucks more efficiently on the highways. We need to look at rebuilding a lot of our rail infrastructure and finding ways to do that. If there is a silver lining, all those things mean people can go back to work, and that is needed more than anything.