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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.

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

Launch Slideshow

TRACKING DELIVERIES: A day in a driver's life

PROSALES' Craig Webb spent three days riding with drivers. Here's his photographic report.

TRACKING DELIVERIES: A day in a driver's life

PROSALES' Craig Webb spent three days riding with drivers. Here's his photographic report.

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