Navigating Supply Chain Deflections During a Pandemic: How Fuel Shifted Gears to Continue Delivering

Adaptability has always been at the core of how we operate. It is the main call in our playbook and is what allows us to further our game day after day, load after load, and constantly find a better way.

Our ability to quickly react and respond stems from the strong network we have established over the years, coupled with our continuous internal investments that allow us to optimize the solutions we provide our clients with from one day to the next, no matter the reality: warehousing, truck fleets and technology. Over the last few months, a new reality has taken over, and the COVID-19 pandemic has tested that adaptability and those assets to the brink, as we saw and dealt with major shifts across the supply chain network as a direct result of our clients’ market shifts. For the first time, our ability to adapt did not just apply to our clients, but to our company as a whole and to our capability to keep delivering. 

When Adaptability is Second Nature
Deflections in the supply chain are a constant in logistics, but on March 14, 2020, the world was faced with an unexpected and unchartered one, and the Canadian and United States governments forced us to close our offices across North America. We had to adapt. We had to find a better way – and we did. Within 48 hours of receiving the shutdown orders, we were able to shift gears and get 250 employees working remotely across Montreal, Toronto, Chicago and Atlanta, something that would not have been possible had it not been for our investments in process improvement and technology. As a company where remote work was not a common practice, making such a drastic shift in so little time was monumental – but not impossible, thanks to the blueprint our initiative in process improvement had provided us in terms of operations, personnel, deployments and readjustments. Our ability to quickly respond and adapt to this disruptive event came from the strong foundation we built premised on a cell-based work structure that enabled our teams to separate without negatively impacting the proper flow of operations and continue to move 3,000 loads a week without a hiccup, and without the comforts of our usual office setting.

Technology, process improvement and logistics are intricately intertwined, but as Fuel’s founder and CEO, Rob Piccioni, says, “Just buying the best technology doesn’t make you different from the competition or serve your customers better. You have to start with a larger purpose and hire people who will constantly look for ways to use the technology to drive the business toward that goal.” That is why, almost two years ago, we launched a process improvement-tech initiative to really push ourselves forward. “You need people, process, technology,” continues Piccioni, “But it has to be in that exact order. Your technology has to fit your team and how you operate – not the other way around. You can have the best technology out there, but if it doesn’t elevate or better how you work, then it’s not the best for you.” It’s about harmonization, both internally and for our clients. Our internal business intelligence team was tasked with optimizing our processes; taking a lean approach on how the work flows through the organization and finding the best way to allow it to seamlessly transfer from one department to the next by implementing best practices, providing visibility and insights via informative actionable dashboards to help us understand what is coming down the pipeline, make sense of new realities, and make the necessary adjustments within our network. This, coupled with our deep understanding of our clients, their network and their needs, facilitates our ability to bridge and integrate with their systems, as well as adapt to their digital footprint.

With every client having a unique strand of technology, simply ensuring software compatibility is not enough – it is about understanding how each client operates, how their technology works for them, their processes, as well as how they measure their KPIs. Because we have established processes that are conducive to adaptability and fluctuating scenarios, we can then curate all that information and understanding to customize and integrate our processes, regardless of the software they employ, adapting to whatever our client’s reality may be. This is how we achieve harmony in our network and with our clients. Tech is an evolving eco-system and bringing everything together successfully is like a moving puzzle where the pieces are constantly being shuffled. Fuel uses its business intelligence team to help fit those moving pieces together to best benefit our business partners.

Welcome to the Unknown
The network shifts from day to day, month to month, year to year. That is nothing new. A worldwide pandemic, however, causes interruptions and deflections that are unprecedented and completely foreign. When the drastic shifts to the supply chain began, we did not know what to expect – what were our clients going to look like? What were we going to look like? What was the industry going to look like? We did not have the answers, but we had the drive to take on the challenge of the unknown and find solutions that would benefit all parties. It was understanding and accepting that the well-known structure, demand and flow of the supply chain no longer existed and establishing a game plan that would collectively help navigate the new landscape, together, was the solution.

We knew we had to quickly adjust, and that required us to analyze what needed to be done and determine how to do it not only from an internal perspective, but alongside our clients as well, trying to get the most realistic vision possible of what was expected in the days, weeks and months to come. “We’ve been there to listen and to understand what our clients’ challenges are every single day,” says Anthony Perrella, Fuel’s Vice President of Sales, “We have gone into every meeting and taken every call with the purpose of understanding what they’re facing, from a pricing standpoint, a KPI standpoint, an expectation standpoint, a capacity standpoint – that’s our job.” We did not enter any conversation pretending to have all the answers. Instead, we allowed ourselves the ability to sit, listen and regroup. Our hybrid model of asset and non-asset based transportation solutions was designed for situations requiring maximum flexibility and options, much like the reality of the pandemic, and is what allowed us to take the lead on this new reality by helping our partners achieve their goals, ensure that their production, capacity and clients are satisfied, and position ourselves in the best way to make our clients successful.

Leveraging Our Assets Further
Over the past few months, volumes have drastically destabilized as consumer spending has shifted from retail to health & safety products, home improvement and food & beverage, with businesses adjusting as well; the automotive industry pivoted to making PPE gear, and distilleries began producing hand sanitizer. Throughout these deflections, we have managed to leverage our network, our assets and our relationships to align with and support our clients’ new realities. As retail volumes dropped, capacity reopened allowing us to react and respond to the increased demand in the food & beverage industry. We then had the ability to move that capacity and our assets into the spaces that needed it. Our vastly diverse pool of clients allowed us to evaluate and synchronize their needs by matching networks, creating synergies and providing viable service solutions.

Our mantra has always been ‘never say no’, especially during this pandemic, where we have seen an array of shifts, including a client from the pulp and paper industry closing two plants in the U.S. and shifting their production from the United States to Quebec in order to remain profitable, ramp up production and support their base of clients across North America. They were forced to change, and we were able to support that change by flexing capacity, utilizing a different blend of our assets and our 3PL division, honouring our commitments with them and supporting their mill. Ultimately, our one network approach brings flexibility and value to our clients, as well as a better way of doing things. It is about trying to get through this together.

Understanding Our Clients’ Pain Points 
Our hybrid model allows us to listen to and understand our clients’ pain points and respond with feasible service solutions as it is designed to manage deflections and provide options. Even in crucial and unstable times like we have experienced over the past few months, our business model stood strong and the relationships we have with our clients were a fundamental element that we continue to nurture. We have remained a constant presence in their business through regular phone calls and virtual meetings to understand what they are facing on a daily and weekly basis, helping forecast what they need from us and determining how we can better service them. This allows us to continue to build and nurture what we set out to do from day one: establish a transparent, honest and open relationship with our clients, where we build together and where our clients trust us to safely, intelligently and securely deliver their product.

Our clients are our partners, and we are only successful if they are, which is why we are comfortable reducing profitability when we know what the result of the long game will be for both parties, as we did with one of our newer food & beverage clients. “With it being produce season, we have seen volumes peak with 70% growth from one day to the next without warning,” states Fuel’s Vice President of Operations, Peter Perrella, “And we have marginalized our profits as costs are high, while still finding the capacity to ensure that the volume that was given to us is maintained, because our goal is always to build long, confident partnerships with our clients.” A significant part of that confidence is not only the service we provide, but the assets we utilize, including our offering this client unplanned warehouse space to respond to their inventory overflow needs.  Our warehouse, equipped with a fully integrated, cloud-based WMS, allowed our client to give us an additional 70 loads a week and we in turn were able to provide them with access to real-time visibility of their freight, inventory management and order fulfillment. These operations require a vast amount of flexibility, assets, technology and people that help support and facilitate the complexities of logistics.

The process improvement initiative made it so that when this major supply chain deflection hit, we did not skip a beat. Instead, we were able to continue our constant pursuit of a better way, whether it be from makeshift offices or in the middle of homeschooling. It helped us make smart decisions and identify solutions for markets that were drastically shifting daily, while keeping us connected to each other, our clients, and our network. “Our investment in technology and process improvement, as well as our commitment to our relationships, are what have gotten us through the last few months,” says Piccioni, “They are a big part of why we’re surviving.” We adapted along with our clients, listening, learning, and providing the best suited solutions to their individual needs, because we understand that even during times like this, it is not just about securing a load – it is about the ownership of lanes, of contracts, the commitment to our network, our hybrid model and the value that this all brings to our clients. At its core, we have navigated the pandemic with our clients the way we always do – as a two-way street to a better way: mutual understanding, mutual profitability, mutual growth.

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