FRESH FOOD: PMA Fresh Summit Preview: Spinning their wheels

It's hard to be asleep at the wheel with an 800-pound gorilla breathing down your neck. But that doesn't seem to apply to many produce industry executives, at least when it comes to the complexities of transportation that continue to mount amid the tightest truck driver market in 20 years.

This month's PMA Fresh Summit will include discussions intended to open some eyes, and shed needed light on the tangle that is the produce driver-receiver-shipper network. That's largely thanks to Bud Floyd and Bill Schuler, at the head of a pack of industry leaders working to shake things up via a forceful wake-up call. Their mission: Jump-start a long-overdue dialogue that would openly address, and ultimately patch, a few gaping potholes.

It's familiar territory for Shuler and Floyd, executives with Cincinnati-based Castellini Co. and Eden Prairie, Minn.-based CH Robinson Worldwide, Inc., respectively. Both are board members of the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), based in Newark, Del., as well as key members of its year-old Transportation Task Force.

While transportation-related issues perennially rank among the produce industry's chief concerns, these two say the sector's collective costs and corresponding challenges, chronicled throughout the past year, have grown to astronomical proportions. Unfortunately, so apparently has indifference to the issue on the part of many industry officials. "Not my business, not my problem" seems to be the refrain.

"America moves by truck -- it's real simple," declares Shuler. Regardless of one's job title or company name, "if a truck is used in the receiving or shipping of the products you help bring to the marketplace, it's necessary to acknowledge you're in the transportation business."

And up to now, retail produce officials have seemed largely unaware of the scope

of the problems, as well as the ways in which their own decisions, processes, and actions affect the business efficiency of grower-producers and truckers.

Evidence of this lack of awareness was brought to light in a recent retail study, Executive Insight Series: The Produce Supply Chain Challenge, conducted by Progressive Grocer and jointly sponsored by CH Robinson and PMA (see the June 1, 2006 issue). As the first endeavor of its kind, the study proved to be insightful indeed, say both Shuler and Floyd.

Prior to embarking on the study, "we had a pretty good understanding of what the big issues were, which [the research] obviously validated," recalls Floyd. However, the real eye-opener, he says, was the severity of the "blame game, [in] which everybody thinks the next guy is the guilty party. Everybody readily agrees we need to talk to each other. But what we weren't previously talking about was how everyone else thought the burden of responsibility fell in the next guy's lap.

"The perception of who's responsible needs to go away, in favor of the imperative that we all have a problem that needs to be collaboratively addressed," continues Floyd. "Otherwise we're never going to move off this topic. Rather than seeking to pin blame, we need to focus on finding solutions to control our value chain costs."

Floyd draws an unfortunate parallel to the fuel shortage of the late 1970s, which has been mirrored of late. "Here we are again, yet what have we done? Not a lot. We ought to try and fix it for good this round, instead of putting it on the sidelines and letting it go away."

Shuler concurs. "The PG study did a great job exploring the degree of disconnect within the industry, which is simply astounding." The good news, he adds, is that a major hurdle has now been cleared by bringing the communication gaps to the forefront. "The first step to effective problem solving is identifying that a problem exists, so we're certainly on the right path," he adds, noting that a best practices white paper is currently in the works at PMA.

Heal thyself

Among the first orders of business on the road to improved collaborative communications is to establish a level of "openness [and] trust, and a willingness to accept outside opinions" among all trading partners. This goes double for larger companies, "who often cling to the view that if something is not in place here, it mustn't be considered," says Shuler.

So, how to bring about systemic change in the produce industry's increasingly complex transportation framework? Floyd and Shuler say the ideal starting points for discussion center on the five specific areas identified in the study: adhering to loading/unloading appointment times, "lumper" fees (paid-for extra labor by a trucking company to help a driver and/or customer unload or load), pallet exchanges, unduly narrow time windows for receipts, and protracted unloading times.

And in all cases, keeping drivers happy is key, especially as truck-based transportation needs increase across the spectrum.

"We can't cure the driver shortage, but what we can do, or attempt to do, is make sure there are drivers for the produce industry," says Shuler. As such, he says, everyone in the entire chain of command "must ask themselves, 'What can we do in the whole scheme of things to make a driver want to haul produce for a living?'" Making truck drivers' lives easier, adds Shuler, returns dividends on both sides "by making [other industry players'] own lives easier as well."

Floyd readily agrees. "If we don't have drivers and/or companies that want to haul produce, then retailers are going to have a hard time generating revenues through their registers" by way of the produce department.

"Drilling down a bit further," says Shuler, "there's not an infinite amount of drivers, and the pool is shrinking. They don't have to haul produce for a living." Floyd chimes in: "There a lot of companies competing for refrigerated trucks. And while there's certainly no shortage of accounts or equipment, there is a shortage of drivers. But more than that, drivers have a choice, and they can easily decide to take a less anguishing route, which is something our industry certainly doesn't want to see happen."

In the interim, says Shuler, "The retailers that have a respectful relationship, who do something about it, are more likely to get their truck than those that don't."

In addition to robust competition, the produce transportation experts say the tightness of the long-haul trucker market is further provoked by demographic trends of an aging work force, a lack of qualified drivers, and a job made more difficult as a result of challenges in recent years related to industry measures for stricter security and safety.

Scores of long-haul drivers exited the trucking industry after average weekly earnings fell 9 percent below average construction earnings in the 2000 recession, and have since been slow to rebound. Extended periods away from home and unpredictable schedules are also finding many drivers transitioning to other occupations that offer far more favorable quality-of-life considerations.

The Alexandria, Va.-based American Trucking Association (ATA) is attempting to tackle the driver shortage problem with its first-ever unified national advertising campaign, which leads with slogans like "My office has a better view than yours" and "Ever seen purple mountain majesty?"

Launched this summer, the campaign takes aim at four primary groups that ATA says offer the greatest pool of potential drivers, based in part on demographic shifts: Hispanics, baby boomers looking for second careers, men and women leaving the military, and people in the 30-to-54-year-old age bracket.

While the driver shortage issue is clearly part of a larger prevailing problem, Shuler advocates that the produce industry "must be better prepared to deal with it, and one way to do so is to better anticipate the challenges ahead."

Shuler cites Castellini's recently implemented "load and go" program as an effective strategy. "As a way of helping one another understand what the drivers go through, we are sending our salespeople and other senior staff members out on the road to spend a day in the life with a driver, riding the routes and making the stops."

Not surprisingly, the effort has spawned a discernable difference in awareness and attitude among Castellini's varied work force. "It may only take one time for somebody to experience a day in the life of a driver, to make all the difference in the world," notes Shuler. He recommends other organizations do the same, and put produce directors, procurement personnel, and local warehouse and transportation staff members in the truckers' cab.

"The transportation study was the beginning of a journey," says Floyd, "and it's going to need a consistent drumbeat and a continuous approach for at least the next few years, to bring about a change of mindset.

"We're really looking for behavioral changes, and this first important step is making people aware of the problems. The equally important second step must now get underway, with customers being actually willing to initiate change."
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