J.B. Hunt Forging New Customer Links

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Over the last decade, J.B. Hunt (NASDAQ: JBHT) has not only tripled in size, but has evolved from a big truckload and intermodal operator to offering dedicated services and what has turned into a billion-dollar brokerage and third-party logistics provider (3PL).

The next stage, according to Shelly Simpson, the company’s chief commercial officer, executive vice president and president of Highway Services, is to become a major transportation technology innovator.

“We don’t think we’re going to be the only technology platform that’s going to do good work – we think there will be other people right beside us,” Simpson said during a keynote “WavesSide Chat” with FreightWaves President George Abernathy, at FreightWaves’ Transparency19 event in Atlanta, Georgia on May 7. “But if we can be more agnostic about the way we talk to our customers [about our service offerings] – whether we move it or someone else moves it – we will give them the best value, as we start to solve customers’ problems completely differently than we did just five years ago.”

An outgrowth of that philosophy was unveiled at Transparency19 the day before. J.B. Hunt 360box, an app-based drop and hook service that appears to be a major step in the company’s push to become a mode-agnostic capacity provider.

Explaining how “disruption and innovation is not just for startups” – the title of the keynote discussion – Simpson said one of her challenges will be to continue to innovate while holding true to the philosophy of J.B. Hunt himself.

“When I think of Mr. Hunt, I think of two huge things. He always used to say, ‘this is going to be a big day.’ And when we were about to launch 360box, I thought of him. The second thing I think of is when he used to walk the halls of the office and say, ‘hello, good morning, how are you.’ That was his way of saying people are a difference-maker. In this business, we are big believers in that. You can have as much technology out there moving transportation, but relationships still matter. And technology can enable those relationships by connecting us more quickly.”

During her 25-year career at J.B. Hunt, Simpson said she was fortunate to have executive-level support to complement her drive to succeed. It included the opportunity to lead two turnaround stories: converting two pieces of the company’s business that weren’t making money and “honing them into profitable partners.”

She also had the opportunity to participate in two startups within the company, one of which became Integrated Capacity Solutions (ICS), J.B. Hunt’s third-party logistics and brokerage division.

“Saying you want to start a brokerage company within an asset-based organization was like cussing in Sunday school,” Simpson said. “It was so counter-cultural to who we were and what we knew. We had to spend so much time communicating to help our people understand ‘the why.’ But if you can paint a picture where your people can see that it’s good for our company drivers and it’s good for our contractors, you can illustrate there’s benefits on both sides.”

To move that innovation and disruption to the next level – and to the next generation of J.B. Hunt employees – Simpson and her colleagues have created an employee grassroots effort called “Elevation,” where anyone can submit ideas. The company has had almost 18,000 ideas submitted so far, and have moved forward on roughly 1,500 of them.

“Every single person that’s submitted an idea gets a response back from the team, letting them know we’ve reviewed your idea and it’s moving to this level, or it’s in motion and already happening. When you do that inside an organization, people start to say, ‘wait, I can come up with an idea, I can help create change’.”

Bold ideas from both seasoned employees and those just out of college will be key to helping J.B. Hunt improve the transparency that customers are demanding from their transportation partners.

“Transparency around price is just something that’s going to be known, so I really believe that companies that will win will be those that differentiate themselves through customer experience,” Simpson said. “People are going to do business over the long-term with people that give them a pleasurable experience and allow them to get time back and eliminate waste in their day.”

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