Channeling the winds of change

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We need to be careful not to become so obsessed with the challenges of the moment that we give up on the opportunity of the future.” –Bill Graves, president and CEO, American Trucking Associations

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There’s a wry (and ancient) Chinese curse that I am sure Kyle Treadway (at right), the outgoing chairman of the American Truck Dealers (ATD) trade group can fully appreciate: “May you live in interesting times.”

Indeed, Treadway’s four-year term as ATD’s chairman (his nominal two-year added to another left vacant by a member unable to serve) occurred during some of the most tumultuous economic times ever experienced by the trucking industry – much less our nation.

Yet despite the hammer blows delivered by the oil price shock of 2008, the “Great Recession,” the implementation of the super-strict 2010 emission reduction mandates, formation of the first ever heavy truck fuel economy mandates and much, much more, truck dealers – like truckers themselves – soldiered onward, albeit in many cases in very reduced numbers.

“As you all well know, it’s been an amazing ride – not for the fainthearted,” Treadway noted in his final speech at ATD’s convention in Las Vegas this week. “Between the relentless waves of government regulations altering the engineering and cost of our equipment, the collapse of the housing and construction markets, the whipsaw effect of fuel pricing and the manic-depressive stock market, we have witnessed the demise and rebirth of our economy, industry and markets.”

He also pointed out that consolidation – a fact of life in the trucking business long before the 21st century got rolling – accelerated significantly over the last decade.

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“There are far fewer of us, yet we are tasked with managing what the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) predicts will be a doubling of domestic freight volume from the year 2002 through 2035,” Treadway noted.

“At the same time, the practices and methods we use to manage that demand are increasingly under scrutiny by federal, state and local officials. Our customers have been bearing the increasing weight of hours of service, [the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s] Compliance, Safety, Accountability [CSA] program, diverse weight and length restrictions, mandatory drug testing, [and] questionable emissions and fuel economy regulations – all while balancing operational challenges of driver shortages, overcapacity, freight rates, equipment costs and maintenance expense.”

Treadway stressed that those pressures combined to decimate truck markets, and consequently dealership ranks. From the onset of the recession to today, he said roughly 10% of truck dealers exited the industry – leaving fewer yet bigger dealers behind in its destructive wake.

Yet Treadway remains upbeat – indeed, that’s one of his “calling cards,” in a way, as he’s always looked for the positives in any given situation. (I experienced that optimism in an interview with him back in 2009; not one of trucking’s brightest years by any stretch of the imagination.)

For example, he made reference to the “Arab Spring” movement that’s reshaped the nations of Northern Africa and the Middle East – leading to ouster of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the overthrow and death of Libya’s dictator Mummar al-Qaddafi, and the ongoing civil war in Syria.

“You might interpret all this revolution as anarchy – a misguided, disorganized cacophony of unproductive noise,” Treadway said. “But you could also read a few encouraging trends: the youth of the world care; they are using their voice to lead change movements; modern technology in the form of ‘social media’ is more powerful than we all realized; and change will come with or without our cooperation.”

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He explained that today’s truck dealer is facing this same reality – that, “change will come, with or without us.”

Freight distribution is experiencing a sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, change in its business model, Treadway noted, pointing to research conducted by Frost & Sullivan concerning the rise of global “mega-cities” against a backdrop of increasing government control of freight movement, creating fundamental changes in equipment configuration, highway design and commodity distribution.

“This suggests we need to understand the long range ramifications of these dynamics, and comprehend how to adapt,” he stressed, meaning a range of questions will need answering: Which technologies will evolve, and which will fall by the roadside of good intentions? What customer service extras will become “must haves”? How will dealerships find and train qualified personnel? How will dealers price their products and transact for their services?

“If you’re as intimidated by these prospects as I am, I suggest we all look at our management training pipeline and beef up the program,” Treadway said. “That is easier said than done, of course. Our training budgets these past few years have tripled, while our gross margins have shrunk. But as former Harvard President Derek Bok has said, ‘If you think education is expensive … try ignorance.’”

In the end, it means truck dealers – indeed, any business owner within and without the trucking business – must recognize that the required skill set for the chief executive now and in the future is more complex than ever.

“We must be part accountant, social worker, personnel manager, marketer, salesman, diplomat, economist, asset manager, leader, educator, futurist, consultant, strategist, lobbyist, schmoozer, technician … and more,” Treadway said. “The responsibilities can be staggering at times, but we are fortunate to have each other – and ATD – standing alongside.”

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