Saturday, April 30, 2016

Inventories Continue to Grow

For those who read this blog regularly, you know a key metric I track regularly is the Inventory to Sales ratio.  The reasons I do this are threefold:

  • As a supply chain professional and one who takes pride in our industry I feel this one measurement is a core metric to how the industry is doing.  Of course, inventory is built when information is less than optimal and therefore we miss forecasts or we feel the only solution to this problem of lacking information is to build inventory stocks. Finally, we all know inventory ties up working capital, has the problems of obsolescence, damage and shrinkage and consumes resources.  All of which is bad for business.
  • It is an early warning indicator of economic issues.  As either consumers stop buying or business start overproducing (due to irrational exuberance to borrow a phrase) inventories build.  So, it is a signal that one of those two things are happening and sooner or later either the consumer has to come raging back (highly unlikely given the wage situation) or businesses will start cutting back.
  • It is an indicator of pricing in transportation.  As inventories build, inbound will start slowing, transportation capacity will become in excess and ultimately prices fall for transportation.  It is, in fact, that simple.
As we look at the latest Inventory to sales ratio we see continuation of a troubling pattern:

Inventory to Sales Updated 4/2016 Data through February 2016
What we see is inventories have increased pretty dramatically since 2012 and do I dare say this - they are almost at recession levels.  

This is not a good indicator for the economy or for transportation in general.  Perhaps the wild bull is coming to an end. I guess we shall see but one of two things has to happen - consumers better start buying or businesses better slow down.  

Pricing Declines in Both Truckload and Intermodal

The promise of "pay me now so you don't have to pay me later" continues to be a mirage.  With the release of the March CASS reports we saw that pricing actually declined in the truckload sector YoY for the first time since 2010.  Intermodal continues to be a problem as well with significant price declines.  Intermodal declines were 3% YoY in March and 2.2% in January YoY and 3.8% in February YoY.

This all stems from the fact there is overcapacity.  Further, as shippers get far smarter in terms of network design, designing products for efficient shipping and inventory management, the problem of overcapacity is being exacerbated.  Avondale partners believes the "risk" is to the downside of 1% to 2%.  The overcapacity in rail can be attributed to the sharp decline in some commodity shipping such as oil.   The other part playing havoc on transportation is the Inventory to Sales ratio which I will discuss in my next posting.

At the end of the day, this continues to behave as a commodity market.  The idea that you should "pay up" during overcapacity months / years so you are protected when the market "turns" is a fools errand.  Of course, you should always be a good partner, you should always work to turn drivers fast, make their life easier and work with your carrier partners to balance demand.  But those are things a good business person does anyway.  Just makes sense.

But, to think you should "pay up" to be a "shipper of choice" is crazy and will only put you in a position of uncompetitiveness relative to your peer group.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Another Year of Dashed Hopes for Trucking

Well, another year starts off with the "this is the year for trucking" story and it is starting to look like it is another year where it is going to fizzle.  I am traveling a lot this week so it will be tough to get into the details here.

Having said that there are clearly two big data points.  As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in an article titled "Trucking Stocks Tumble on Downgrade, Pricing Outlook", the bid season has not gone well for truckers.  This generally means there is excess capacity and that is driving lower prices.  An interesting quote (which blows apart the "shipper of choice" boloney over the last few years) is the following from a Stifel report lead authored by John Larkin:
"Many shippers have effectively elected to toss to the wayside any talk of partnerships, relationships, cooperation, collaboration, etc.,” the report read. “Shippers are under enormous pressure to cut transportation costs and seem not to be satisfied with the massive fuel surcharge reductions racked up over the past year and a half.”

If you don't believe that then use the trucking companies' actions to tell you what they think.  FTR reports Class 8 Orders at Lowest Level since 2012.  Having worked in the trucking sector I know as soon as the trucking executives see a prolonged slowdown the first thing they do is cancel truck orders.

Back to the future....

Class VIII Orders source:  FTR

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Supply Chain Talent As Competitive Advantage - Traction

I recently published a posting about the Ascendency of Supply Chain and the proof point I used was Amazon suing Target over "poaching" of supply chain talent.  20 years ago no one cared about hiring someone from supply chain.  Now it is seen as "stealing competitive secrets".

Well, the good news is the Wall Street Journal has caught on to this and after my post, Loretta Chao wrote her own well written article titled: Supply-Chain Lawsuits Mount Amid Drive For Logistics Talent.  You should read it.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Leadership in Distribution Centers - Employer of Choice

It is a fierce battle out there for great talent in warehousing.  I mean for all talent - hourly and salary. This segment has really become the "manufacturing" of the 21st century.  While everyone seems to talk about manufacturing, hoping for jobs, what they really find is manufacturing has come back to the US due to high levels of automation and robotics.  It is warehousing and distribution, as E-Commerce grows, that will drive supply chain employment.

Back in September we were warned about the shortage of warehouse labor at both Marketwatch and in the JOC in an article titled: US Warehouse and Logistics Sector Warned of Labor Shortage.  Both of these predictions have come true and they are even more pronounced during the "busy" season(s).  So what is a leader to do?

One thing you do not want to do is get into a wage war.  That does not solve any problems for anyone.  The real activities which influence great employees to want to work in your warehouse v. the competitors are three-fold:

  1. Treatment:   It should go without saying if you do not treat people with dignity and respect, they will not want to work with you.  This is true for managers and it is true for hourly associates.  While this seems like a truism, in my travels and consulting, I find I almost always have to remind people of this.  Activities like communication, sharing business results, and involving people in decisions all show people they are being treated as true partners in the organization.
  2. Environment:  Make the environment a place you would want to work.  If you would not want to work in the location why would you expect others to want to work there?  This does not have to mean you have a fancy place.  But, it does mean, attention to cleanliness, a place for people to take breaks that you would be willing to take a break in, a safe environment and ergonomically friendly all will lead to people wanting to work in your location.
  3. Ability to Advance:  Nothing makes people more mad than when they see people coming "off the street" getting the benefit of the doubt over current employees.  People want to work where they are respected and one sign of respect is to offer them training and opportunity for advancement.  
Finally, yes, you do have to pay competitively (that goes without saying).  However, if you do not do the three items I mention above, your chances of having a great workforce, with low turnover and high engagement, will be next to nil.  

A great recent read is over at Forbes on Line and the article is titled: Employee Engagement is Not Just a State of Mind.  I will not recite everything it says as you should go and read it however the author lists 4 key factors for engagement:
  1. Recognition
  2. Planning
  3. Communication
  4. Contribution
Every manager needs to have an employee engagement plan.  It needs to be written, tracked, measured and adjusted as needed.  You may find, if you are a center manager, this is the biggest leverage point you have to drive both quality and productivity.  

For some more ideas, read a great article over at Harvard Business Review How One Fast Food Chain Keeps Its turnover Rates Absurdly Low.  We in supply chain can borrow these ideas.