Transplace Shipper Symposium: Transformation and Innovation

The streak ended at 19 months.

When I spoke at the Food Shippers of America Conference in February 2020, I never imagined it would be the last time I would attend an in-person conference that year, and for eight more months after in 2021. The dry spell ended earlier this month when I attended and participated in Transplace’s 19th Annual Shipper Symposium

When I checked in, I was given a small welcome bag containing three N95 masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, and color-coded wristbands to let others know whether I was okay with handshakes and hugs or if I preferred to keep my distance.

Yes, things aren’t completely back to “normal,” whatever that means anymore. But it was certainly nice to be back with others in person instead of Zoom (there were close to 200 attendees at the conference). The learning and networking that takes place during the meals and breaks is what really sets in-person events apart from virtual ones — and there was plenty of learning and networking at this event.

Keynotes & Panel Sessions

The agenda featured several keynote speakers: Emmitt Smith, Daymond John, Tony Seba, and Alan Beaulieu. As you would expect, they were all inspirational and thought-provoking in different ways. 

I participated in two panel discussions, one as a panelist (“The Future of Supply Chain”) and the other as the moderator (“Supply Chain Sustainability”).

In “The Future of Supply Chain” session, which was moderated by Carmen Palo (CMO, Transplace), I was joined on stage by Bill Driegert (Head of Operations and Cofounder, Uber Freight), Jason Seidl (Managing Partner, Cowen), and Jim French (CTO, Transplace). We discussed a variety of topics, including:

  • Risk mitigation (real-time visibility, freight matching, resiliency, market consolidation)
  • Supply chain talent (drivers, warehouse workers, important skills moving forward)
  • Technology (AI, autonomous vehicles, robotics)
  • Sustainability/ESG (corporate initiatives, alternative fuel trucks, regulations)

It’s impossible for me to recap everything we discussed, but as you can see from the topics we covered, the future of supply chain is an endless landscape of challenges and opportunities. If you’re a college student or young professional, the future of supply chain is your future too. 

In the “Supply Chain Sustainability” session that I moderated, I was joined on stage by Stephanie Collier ( Sustainability Program Manager, Rockline Industries), Olivia Hu (Business Development Manager, Uber Freight), and Matthew Harding (SVP, Data Science & Engineering). We discussed a variety of questions:

  • Why are your respective companies focusing on sustainability?
  • How can driving innovation in transportation operations support sustainability objectives?
  • How are your companies using data to inform and support your supply chain sustainability initiatives?
  • When it comes to supply chain sustainability, what capabilities or attributes will separate the leaders from the laggards moving forward?

Again, it’s impossible for me to recap everyone’s responses to these questions, but everyone agreed that eliminating waste and inefficiencies from transportation operations is going to be critically important in achieving sustainability objectives, and that data, analytics, and standards will be important too.

With regards to why their companies are focusing on sustainability, although they didn’t put it this way exactly, I’ll borrow Yossi Sheffi’s comment from a LinkedIn post to summarize their responses: “No self-respecting company is without a sustainability strategy, and at the center of these strategies lies the supply chain.”

Back to the Future

This past July, Uber Freight announced that it was acquiring Transplace, which surprised me and many others in the industry (see my commentary about the acquisition). The deal hasn’t formally closed yet, but Lior Ron, Head of Uber Freight, joined Transplace CEO Frank McGuigan on stage for a Q&A session.

I’m going to summarize the discussion with two quotes:

“Logistics is going through a historic transformation.” — Frank McGuigan

“We’re here to innovate together, all of us as a community.” — Lior Ron

Is innovation driving transformation or is it the other way around? The question is purely academic because it doesn’t really matter: nobody can deny that both are happening today in the logistics industry. How everyone in the industry (shippers, carriers, logistics service providers, technology companies) responds to this rapid pace of transformation and innovation will dictate who will emerge as leaders tomorrow.

Earlier this week, as I was looking through our Talking Logistics archives, I came across an interview I conducted with Frank McGuigan back in March 2017 (“Uber: The Newest Entry On Your Carrier Scorecard”). The interview happened shortly after Uber had officially launched Uber Freight. As I wrote at the time, “there still isn’t much information on the Uber Freight homepage, other than its creative tagline with its double meaning: ‘We’re in for the long haul.’”

Here is what Frank had to say at the time about Uber entering the freight industry:

“We will see Uber with our shippers this year. They have worked to get into our routing guides, so we’ll be able to see their performance this year and we’re excited about it. While the concepts of automated brokerage and reducing system miles aren’t new, anything that brings value to the shipping community we are all for, and if there’s innovation [in what Uber is doing] that will drive value, we look forward to learning more about it.

“Everybody gets excited by the term Uber because of the positive experience people have had hailing transportation in New York City or any other major metropolitan area and the impact Uber has had from a cost and capacity standpoint in that particular industry. To my knowledge, Uber is not really adding [trucking] capacity right now, but we think there is value grinding out the waste in the system. But to make that work, a tremendous amount of collaboration is required between the shipping community and the highly-fragmented carrier community. Again, we’re excited by the potential innovation there and we look forward to hopefully being a party to delivering some of that innovation to our shippers in the years to come.”

It’s interesting to read this post again and see the connections between what Frank discussed back in March 2017 and what he and Lior communicated on stage at the conference. Maybe he knew something back then (consciously or not) that the rest of us didn’t find out until July 22, 2021 when the acquisition was announced.

And with that, I’m out of time and space. Until the next conference.