Change ahead for J.B. Hunt; logo’s not one

Mod­ern chal­lenges evoke firm’s first ones, CEO says

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - EMMA N. HURT FOR THE ARKANSAS DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE

Many peo­ple have asked John Roberts why he hasn’t changed J.B. Hunt’s sig­na­ture yel­low and black scroll logo. His an­swer is al­ways the same.

“I would say it is here for the long run,” said the com­pany’s pres­i­dent and CEO of over six years in a re­cent in­ter­view.

De­spite that same logo, the ac­tual busi­ness Roberts runs out of

Low­ell looks lit­tle like the truck­ing com­pany J.B. and Johnelle

Hunt started back in 1969.

These days

J.B. Hunt is work­ing through things such as au­ton­o­mous truck­ing and ecom­merce, while main­tain­ing a con­nec­tion to its past.

Even though the com­pany still owns many trucks, Roberts said J.B. Hunt stopped be­ing “just a truck­ing com­pany” long ago.

The J.B. Hunt of to­day, he said, needs “to be able to think like a sup­ply chain com­pany, and not just a truck­ing com­pany, and even not just trans­porta­tion.”

With that in mind, the com­pany re­cently merged its bro­ker­age di­vi­sion, In­te­grated Ca­pac­ity So­lu­tions, and its truck­load di­vi­sion un­der one “High­way Ser­vices” sales and op­er­a­tional banner.

He said they made that de­ci­sion be­cause, “In my mind, it isn’t as im­por­tant to­day whether a J.B. Hunt as­set or con­tracted as­set han­dles the load. We’re just here to an­swer your ques­tion: Mr. Cus­tomer, what do you need? Mrs. Cus­tomer, how can we serve that lane for you? If you want drop trail­ers, OK, we have an an­swer there in High­way Ser­vices.”

He com­pared the “mod­eag­nos­tic” ap­proach to the av­er­age con­sumer’s in­dif­fer­ence about which com­pany ful­fills an or­der they place on­line.

John Kent, direc­tor of the sup­ply chain man­age­ment re­search cen­ter at the University of Arkansas, Fayet­teville, said the ap­proach is ev­i­dence of J.B. Hunt be­ing a “leader.”

“They’re say­ing, ‘Hey its 2017, it’s a mod­ern in­dus­try that we’re work­ing in. We feel with the tech­nol­ogy that we have de­vel­oped we can in­te­grate these units to­gether op­er­a­tionally and mar­ket it that way to pro­vide more value to our cus­tomer in ways that com­peti­tors can’t,’” he said of the com­pany.

Roberts said keep­ing the same logo sym­bol­izes a re­ten­tion of the orig­i­nal ethos of the com­pany amidst a changing 21st cen­tury sup­ply chain.

“Any time a com­pany is named for a per­son, you find a dif­fer­ent el­e­ment flows through the busi­ness than if it’s called ‘Dy­namic In­sights’ or some­thing ref­er­enc­ing the ser­vices pro­vided,” he said. “It has a dif­fer­ent fla­vor to

● it.”

For Roberts, the in­no­va­tive spirit of its co-founder and name­sake still lies at the cen­ter of J.B. Hunt.

“It’s OK to hold onto your core value, es­pe­cially if your core value sys­tem is dis­rup­tive by na­ture,” he said, as­sert­ing that dis­rup­tion has been a part of the com­pany’s his­tory for decades.

When Hunt de­cided to part­ner with the rail­road to share freight in the late 1980s, he was tak­ing a big risk on in­ter­modal trans­port. Rail­roads and truck­ing com­pa­nies had been fierce com­peti­tors, and Hunt made a daunt­ing in­vest­ment in all new con­tain­ers and equip­ment.

One non­tra­di­tional idea fac­ing the J.B. Hunt of to­day and its in­dus­try peers is au­ton­o­mous truck­ing tech­nol­ogy.

“Au­ton­o­mous truck­ing is very real,” Roberts said. “We will be very ac­tive in test­ing, as we are any new idea — like nat­u­ral gas and other al­ter­na­tive power sys­tems, or im­port changes in­volv­ing the Panama Canal.”

“We are not go­ing to be caught look­ing over our shoul­ders say­ing, ‘Why didn’t we pay more at­ten­tion to that?’” he said.

When asked what J.B. Hunt would have thought about this new de­vel­op­ment, his wi­dow and co-founder Johnelle Hunt said he would be all for ex­plor­ing it. “He was al­ways look­ing for some­thing new and bet­ter. That’s

why ev­ery­thing came about the way it did, like in­ter­modal.”

Roberts said the com­pany be­gan investing in au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy about five years ago, when they in­stalled au­to­matic brak­ing sys­tems in all their trucks, which re­duced rear-end col­li­sions by 60 per­cent.

But at 52, Roberts said he doesn’t see the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment and the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion adapt­ing to the idea of to­tally self-driv­ing trac­tor-trail­ers in his life­time.

In re­gards to pla­toon­ing, in which one truck can wire­lessly con­trol the speed and brak­ing of oth­ers to save fuel, he said there re­main “unan­swered chal­lenges” be­fore a clear safety record and a good re­turn on in­vest­ment.

“Switch­ing lanes, nav­i­gat­ing ex­its, merg­ing, and reg­u­la­tions are some of the road­blocks we’re find­ing as op­er­a­tions ex­plore pla­toon­ing,” he said.

Craig Harper, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and the ex­ec­u­tive in charge of ex­plor­ing au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy and pla­toon­ing, said new semi­au­tonomous tech­nolo­gies, in­clud­ing lane as­sis­tance and eva­sive ma­neu­ver as­sis­tance will be rolled out “as they are com­mer­cially vi­able.”

Harper said he ex­pects the com­pany to be in­volved in pla­toon­ing some­time in 2018, re­fer­ring to fore­cast sta­tis­tics that show “a lead truck could use 4 to 5 per­cent less fuel, and the sub­se­quent truck could con­sume ap­prox­i­mately 10 per­cent less fuel.”

Ul­ti­mately, he said, “there is still a long way to go be­fore

we see ma­jor im­ple­men­ta­tion of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles, pla­toon­ing, and other such tech­nolo­gies,” high­light­ing that the driver will re­main an im­por­tant com­po­nent of any new de­vel­op­ments.

An­other di­men­sion of the com­pany’s evo­lu­tion with to­day’s sup­ply chain en­tails hefty in­vest­ments in new tech­nol­ogy and a re­vamp­ing of its over 20-year-old core op­er­at­ing sys­tems. It has pledged $500 mil­lion to­ward tech­nol­ogy over five years to re­build the old, de­velop a new cloud in­fra­struc­ture and con­tinue work­ing on its sup­ply chain man­age­ment plat­form, J.B. Hunt 360.

Af­ter spend­ing time with cus­tomer groups, Roberts said he re­al­ized J.B. Hunt could help its cus­tomers of all sizes as they adapt to the dis­rup­tion of e-com­merce.

“They need to be able to see what’s go­ing on in their sup­ply chains,” he said. “They need to be able to al­ter what’s hap­pen­ing, and now more than ever be­cause of e-com­merce.”

To pro­vide that trans­parency and pre­dic­tive an­a­lyt­ics, Roberts said the com­pany is work­ing to­ward “a por­tal of ag­gre­ga­tion” for all im­por­tant parts of a sup­ply chain.

“The cus­tomers re­ally, more than any­thing, want crisp, real-time data that they can use, that they can act upon,” he said.

Much has changed in the com­pany as a re­sult, down to the very lan­guage the J.B. Hunt team uses.

“We used to use terms like in­duc­tion, dis­tri­bu­tion, ag­gre­ga­tion, re­tail re­plen­ish­ment,

and now we’re hav­ing to think about that dif­fer­ently,” Roberts said.

These days, he ex­plained, the terms are “the first mile, the mid­dle mile and the fi­nal mile.”

In 2015 the com­pany brought in Stuart Scott as chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer to lead these ef­forts. He is the first ex­ec­u­tive to not have spent at least 20 years in the com­pany. Roberts has been at J.B. Hunt for about 27 years.

As Roberts re­called, “I told him, you’re go­ing to need to dis­rupt this com­pany, and we’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to like it very much. So, use my card when you need to and stay out of trou­ble.”

Roberts said that in a con­ver­sa­tion with a di­vi­sion team, he im­pressed on them that one of the 360 ap­pli­ca­tions has the abil­ity to show a cus­tomer his op­ti­mal trans­port op­tion.

“If that means that your di­vi­sion is not the best an­swer,” he said to the team, “you bet­ter fig­ure out how to im­prove your value propo­si­tion, be­cause we are go­ing to give them the best an­swer.”

Roberts said the com­pany needs to find and present the best value for its cus­tomers be­cause, “if we don’t do that, some­body else is go­ing to. We can’t be too overly com­mit­ted to forc­ing busi­ness into our seg­ments only for the sake of grow­ing the seg­ment,” he said.

“The right an­swer for the cus­tomer needs to win out over ev­ery­thing else,” he ex­plained.

“That path will take us where we need to go.”

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