An 18-Wheeled Data Revolution on the Highways of North America
J.B. Hunt was founded in 1961 by husband and wife team Johnnie Bryant and Johnelle Hunt and has grown from five trucks and seven refrigerated trailers to a Fortune 500 company providing transportation and logistics services for customers throughout North America. Since the company’s earliest days, the duo instilled open mindedness and innovation into the company’s culture that has helped it race ahead to become one of the largest providers in the industry. J.B. Hunt still leans on this innovative spirit to move more than just freight in the digital age.
When most people think of disruptive companies, they picture Bay-Area tech giants like Netflix and Google. But J.B. Hunt is applying the same tech- and data-savvy strategies that transformed how we travel and watch movies to the nearly $800 billion U.S. trucking industry that (literally) drives the economy.
Today, with software-led initiatives such as J.B. Hunt 360°®, a digital freight matching system that draws on historic and real-time data to match shippers with third-party carriers, the company is improving the shipping experience for all parties involved—while also breaking down data silos for smoother internal operations. Data Company Magazine caught up with the leaders who are spearheading J.B. Hunt’s digital efforts, Shelley Simpson (Chief Commercial Officer, Executive Vice President and President of Highway Services) and Stuart Scott (Chief Information Officer and Executive Vice President), to discuss how the 58-year-old company has managed to stay nimble—and how technology powers its innovation.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J.B. Hunt has prioritized innovation throughout its nearly six-decade history. Why is that so critical today?
Shelley Simpson: From the introduction of intermodal services in the late 1980s, to the ‘Final Mile’ home delivery service, and, most recently, J.B. Hunt 360, innovation is in our DNA. We’ve disrupted the industry many times along the way, driven by the passion to solve the ever-evolving needs of our customers.
Stuart Scott: Having lived through a few of the most profound technological shifts—from the evolution of mainframes to PCs, the Internet, and now mobile—I’ve learned first-hand the need to embrace a culture of innovation and disruption or face potential peril. In my time at J.B. Hunt, I’ve seen this spirit of innovation across the company. It’s an exciting time to be here.
As part of this effort, J.B. Hunt is in the midst of a five-year, $500 million plan to invest in disruptive technologies. How does J.B. Hunt 360 fit in?
Simpson: When our customers told us they wanted a way to manage their freight online in real time, it sparked our vision for J.B. Hunt 360. It includes a marketplace where all shipments and carrier capacity exist in one location, giving our customers a TMS [transportation management system] at their fingertips. It's about matching the right load at the right time with the right truck.
What role does data play here?
Scott: The data-powered J.B. Hunt 360 platform gives carriers a level of visibility they’ve never had before. We know where they're going, when they're going to get there, and based on their
usage patterns, what they're going to look for next. We can use data science to find those opportunities and alert carriers in advance. It helps carriers operate more efficiently, which can
result in new revenue and cost savings. Any time you’re developing applications, data is your biggest opportunity and potentially your greatest challenge. As an organization, our data volumes increase in size and complexity each day. We’ve undergone a massive modernization effort to promote quick and secure distribution of data across the business to the teams that need it to bring J.B. Hunt 360 and other innovations to life. It’s a true game-changer.
How have your customers responded?
Simpson: The reception and adoption pace of J.B. Hunt 360 exceeded our expectations. In our business—and probably in most businesses—data equals transparency. The platform allows carriers to search thousands of shipments and see characteristics of the freight, the latest offer, and how many other people are making offers on it. That allows them to make informed decisions. In the past, carriers would call their favorite brokers to try to negotiate whatever shipments they thought were available, all the while waiting and wasting time.
Increased transparency is helpful for shippers too. There are about 3.5 million drivers in the U.S., and they have 11 hours in their workday. Nearly one-third of their available hours are wasted by either idly waiting or driving without a full trailer. Our technology provides information carriers can use to cut unproductive time to 25%, 20%, or even 15%, promoting savings to carriers and increasing available capacity for our shippers.
What role did the IT organization play to bring J.B. Hunt 360 to life?
Scott: The pace of ever-evolving consumer demands can be a killer for many organizations and their ability to innovate can be inhibited by poor information flow. For us, there are millions of trucks on the road every day and millions of shipments that need to be moved. Fast data flow is essential to helping match shippers to carriers, all done from the ease of an app. Through this process, we have lowered our operations costs and enabled better service and delivery times. This was a groundbreaker for our industry.
How large of a team worked on the project?
Scott: We employ a large team of supply chain and logistics engineers. We also have a group that handles network design and optimization to provide recommendations on how our customers can improve efficiency, and the team has completely refreshed our systems with data science and machine learning to enable real-time decision making. Our data science team, meanwhile, works on predictive analytics, pricing, and similar projects.
It truly feels like a startup inside of a company. We have the best people coupled with the best operations to provide superior service. I’m committed to empowering and bringing together the best, diverse group of talent in the country who are passionate about making an impact and continuing to evolve our culture of innovation within the business—it’s really an exciting time to be in the transportation industry.
Speed is a critical differentiator for businesses today. If a business can’t reliably or safely deliver to customers, it will be disrupted by someone who can. How are you addressing the speed challenge?
Scott: At the end of the day, my job as the leader of our IT organization is to help our developers be more productive, and more importantly, to create business value—reducing the amount of time it takes to bring a new capability to the market. This is all part of our continued commitment to meeting the evolving needs of our customers.
The speed at which industries are changing is dramatic. With our new technology platforms and initiatives, we’ve moved data analysis to the cloud. We needed the cloud’s scalability, reach, and the powerful data analytics tools it offers.
What’s next for J.B. Hunt? How do you continue to innovate given J.B. Hunt’s legacy status in the market?
Simpson: It’s important to remember that innovation isn’t just something that happens within startups. Being an innovative organization means being willing to try new ideas. That’s something Mr. Hunt instilled early on, and something that has stayed with us culturally. Who says innovation only happens with startups? When you can take an organization with nearly 60 years of experience with industry-leading technology, you create disruption that ultimately leads to great innovation.
Scott: J.B. Hunt has gone through disruption nearly every decade. We’re not afraid to take risks, and we’re ready to lead the industry through the next wave of innovation and reinvention, wherever that may lead us. If you can empower an incumbent brand with a deep knowledge of the industry with all the technology underpinnings and most importantly, data, there’s nothing you can’t do.
Read more stories about data-driven innovation in the first edition of Data Company Magazine.