ProAVmag

Uncommon Carriers

Spend time on the road with drivers, as ProSales did recently, and you'll get a new perspective on what's happening with dealers today. 9/12/2011 5:18 AM Eastern

Uncommon Carriers

Spend time on the road with drivers, as ProSales did recently, and you'll get a new perspective on what's happening with dealers today.

What does your mind's eye see when you imagine your dealership? Perhaps it's the big sign out front, or the neatness of the pallets, or the shine on the showroom floors. But ask someone who drives the trucks that regularly bring goods to your yard, and he's more likely to mention other things: The tightness of the turns in your facility. The width of your lanes. And how long of a wait there is in the left-turn lane before traffic relents and he can roll through the gates.

Spend time on the road with drivers, as ProSales did recently, and you'll get a new perspective on what's happening with dealers today. Haulers for building material distributors arguably see more stores, and have witnessed more changes at those dealers, than any other group in construction supply. LBM logistics managers often regard drivers as sales ambassadors, a status that many drivers relish–even to the point of trying to sell the pallets of chipboard that loaders put on their trailer in winter to help weigh it down on icy morning roads.

The drivers that ProSales accompanied on their routes this summer carried the same demeanor as ship's captains or airline pilots: They commanded that truck and its trailer full of goods, refusing to roll out until they were satisfied the rig was safe. They also see a stark connection between what they do and the fate of their company.

"If my truck is empty, my wallet is empty," declares Randy Henderson, a driver for Huttig Building Products in Washington state. "If that truck is full, I'm bringing food home."

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Larry Almaas has driven for Huttig and its predecessor for 27 years. "I enjoy the customers, getting to know them," he says. "I also enjoy the freedom. Once I leave, I'm my own boss."

Credit: Michael Hanson / www.michaelhansonphotography.com / www.auroraselect.com

Partners in Adversity

Half a decade ago, big builders and assorted others dismissed distributors as a needless link in the supply chain. Those were the days when carloads of goods would fly out of the yard as fast as they arrived, and dealers kept storage bins full because so many products were on allocation. Then again, not long before that, some distributors would ship out a product out only when they could fill a truck that was going your way.

Today, builder demand is so low and dealers' need to conserve cash so high that distributors have become the dealer's de facto storage yard. That has been made possible by increases in the number and consistency of routes that distributors serve, as well as the speed with which they can process a request. "The customer has to have absolute predictability and absolute quality" from its distributor in order for that company to succeed, says Paul Rust, district manager of Huttig's facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

Just-in-time product delivery adds to many services that distributors have long done for dealers. They include job-lot packaging, training sales reps, providing product knowledge sessions, drafting engineered wood floor plans, and helping sell products to pro customers. Huttig is even offering a take-off service to its Northwest customers. We've reached the point where, rather than being superfluous, distributors are so closely tied to a dealer's operations that it's getting hard to tell where one link in the supply chain ends and another begins.

At its core, though, distribution is still about the logistics of bringing building materials to your store. And while logistics might not quite be the black art that UPS hails in its ads, it's not all that simple, either.

For one thing, it's very labor-intensive: Up to 60% of the payroll at distributors goes to receiving, storing, picking, loading, and delivering goods. In an ever-shrinking time window, an army of people must sort through a mountain of goods (Do it Best's warehouses hold 67,000 SKUs) to find exactly the right products for your order, put them on a pallet, and encase the goods in shrink wrap. "There's much more emphasis now on product quality," notes Brian Nunes, director of operations at ONEtree Distribution. "Something that used to be able to be sold 10 years ago–where there's nothing really wrong with it but there's a slight dent–doesn't fly anymore."

Once the goods are bundled, the complications continue. Loaders must place pallets and unwrapped items onto a trailer in such a way that: a) the pallets for the first stops are on the outside of the trailer and the last stops are inside; b) there's slightly heavier stuff on the left side of the trailer to counteract the crown of the road; c) the goods are placed on a side where the fork lift driver in a tightly configured dealership can grab them; and d) the overall weight is balanced and legal. No wonder several people interviewed described the process as being like filling in a jigsaw puzzle–but without a picture.

Distribution mixes the old and new in several ways. People rather than machines still do the picking, but computer systems help route them efficiently through the warehouse. Likewise, computerized mapping systems assist dealers in figuring out the most efficient delivery routes, but they're not totally reliable; early versions failed to notice when a road was interrupted by the Puget Sound, for instance. Even today, they don't know which stretches of the Interstate will get backed up at certain times. That's when humans trump machines.

One thing that definitely has changed is the ever-shrinking number of hours distributors need to fulfill an order. In 2007, more than half of BlueLinx's facilities required you reach them before noon in order to get a package the next day. Now 90% of them let you call as late as 5 p.m. As a result, now more than ever, the magic that is distribution takes place after dark.

Thumps in the Night

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TRACKING DELIVERIES: A day in a driver's life

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Uncommon Carriers

Spend time on the road with drivers, as ProSales did recently, and you'll get a new perspective on what's happening with dealers today.

Coffee Chatter

Shrinking sales keep distributors busy figuring out how to shave pennies delivering less-than-truckload quantities. On the other hand, if they do keep you on the route despite meager purchases, it may be because it enables drivers like Henderson to do valuable marketing work.

Energetic as he is, Henderson doesn't need coffee, but he still gets a cup from as many as five different dealers every day because it gives him a moment to chat with the staff and pick up details about its business that he acts on himself or relays to the home office. That makes him even more welcome at places like Curtis Lumber in Olympia, Wash., where manager Roxy Palm gets a regular courtesy call.

"He's not a sales guy, but he knows his customers," Palm says. "He'll notice what he's delivering. If it's a special order for us, he'll call and see if we need it right away."

While Almaas avoids coffee, he can talk about fruit. His visits in central Washington take him past miles of orchards, and some of his dealer customers also are part-time growers. Thus, the state of the crops is an evergreen conversation topic. Almaas also keeps his ears open to sales opportunities. At one store, he learned that a driver for another company had accidentally left a glulam beam at a previous stop 47 miles away. That driver refused to go back and get the beam. Almaas saw an opportunity to acquire additional business and called the store's Huttig rep with the story.

Notes Crossland: "If I go to a new customer, I'll introduce myself, ask what they want, find out when they open and where they want me to park. They appreciate that." That effort can pay dividends later, he says. "If I go to a place and there are five or six trucks ahead of me, they'll serve me first. If you can get along with your customers, they'll take care of you."

Executives for distributors view their drivers in differing ways, in part because the range of connections varies so markedly. At BMD, drivers also are owners–the company is employee-owned. Huttig, Wolf, and BlueLinx employ their own drivers, while iLevel by Weyerhaeuser outsources its deliveries to trucking companies that tend to use the same drivers. Do it Best maintains its own team of drivers for hardlines but contracts out for lumber. At the far end of the scale are common carriers that get hired to haul a load of sticks. It's possible you'll never see that driver again.

Roll With the Changes

Truckers used to be notorious for avoiding both sleep and the rules by making caffeine- and drug-fueled runs in which they kept two logbooks so they could conceal the true hours spent behind the wheel. That era is fading fast. Just above the gear-shift lever on Huttig and Wolf trucks are computers that automatically–and honestly–track when folks like Almaas, Henderson, and Crossland are on the road. This makes it near-impossible for distributors to make their truckers drive longer than legally allowed. It also constricts a company's ability to increase worker production. On the other hand, those computers also help distributors track potentially cuttable costs like idle time.

Nunes of ONEtree Distribution predicts that federal trucking guidelines coming in are forcing the trucking companies "to have A-1 equipment. No more second-hand stuff; the fines are so big and so large. Their equipment has to be perfect, and violations now go on the driver's license. The drivers will only work for the big boys. That's going to trickle down and cause a shortage of trucks."

Bob McCollow, vice president of operations at Palmer-Donavin in Columbus, Ohio, is working now to cross-train drivers and stock pickers so that they can fill in for each other as needed. He also sees the day coming when drivers will scan products upon delivery and have dealers sign an electronic receipt, similar to what UPS and Federal Express do now.

But that won't change the thrill that drivers like Almaas get when they fire up their rigs and head to your door.

"I enjoy the customers, getting to know them," he says. "I also enjoy the freedom. Once I leave, I'm my own boss. It's freedom ... and responsibility."



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