Give us this day our daily bread

Give us this day our daily bread

Given the many daily challenges in the logistics game, it will come as no surprise to learn that JIM WARD believes even the most professional managers seldom get everything right. He did, however, encounter one such contract manager in his career…

In the logistics game, we seldom get everything right: not some of it, or even most of it, but all of it. The synergies only appear when different departments all push in the same direction, but this doesn’t happen very often; it’s like a rare alignment of the planets.

It happens more often under truly inspired leadership than that of autocratic tyrants, but these events are still rare and precious.

When the marketing teams get their lead distances, downtime allowance, and fleet calculations right to arrive at a realistic rate with achievable operating costs, establishing a sound relationship with the client from the outset to boot, that’s a good start.

Then the technical team must identify and specify the best possible vehicle combinations. They need to secure a sweetheart maintenance rate with buy-back agreements and specify exactly the right tyres, brakes, suspension, transmission, and so on… right down to details like paint spec and washing routine. Furthermore, they should forecast the fuel consumption, tyre life, maintenance costs, and depreciation so accurately that these targets are met in real life. Plus, they need to find a trustworthy local maintenance partner, meet the key players, and bring them all on board.

Human resources should consult extensively and draw up an accurate job specification to profile the kind of person they are seeking, then arrange worthwhile interviews and shortlist the best possible candidates to find a committed and energetic contract manager. That individual, once appointed, helps to interview and select the most suitable drivers, reliable admin staff, trustworthy operations controllers, and every other employee involved, down to the general workers and cleaners. They all begin to share one vision: they want to be part of something new, starting with a clean slate and new equipment.

When the fledgling business unit is then given the right level of support in its first few months, that elusive balance can be found between resolving issues and eliminating potential problems on one hand and avoiding excessive interference on the other. It is important to give employees room to breathe, trusting them with an operation while reassuring them that they still have support on tap until they have found their feet. Achieving this is a management feat all on its own.

When these myriad aspects fall into place, you may end up stumbling across the mythical holy grail: a contract that does what it was intended to do, earns the anticipated revenue, and generates the profits everyone visualised a year before.

After the pictures have all been taken, the assets have been depreciated and disposed of, and that first renewal has been secured, you can look back and say: “We got that one right.”

This is a product of all those late nights spent poring over the details, scrutinising the numbers, picking apart the costing – questioning incisively without quenching the fire of initiative and enthusiasm. You hit your target by adding that voice of caution and allowing cover for wear and tear, unplanned operational damages, inclement weather, route diversions, delays, accidents, rebranding, cleaning, tyre write-offs, and all the other potential pitfalls: scouring the future landscape for the pitfalls, the landmines, the hidden snags, and subtly allowing for these setbacks in the costing model. Yes, it can be done. All it needs is for everyone to approach the challenge with the same mindset, not thinking: “What can I do to make a name for myself?” but rather: “What can I do to make this hit the ground running?”

In this case, our client was a flour mill in the Eastern Free State. Deliveries were 24/7 most days of the year, to industrial bakeries spread across Gauteng. South Africans eat enormous amounts of bread: approximately 2.2 billion loaves a year. That’s a lot of flour delivered to high-capacity bakeries.

The major players – such as Sasko, Tiger Brands, Albany, Blue Ribbon, Sunbake, and Premier – have ultramodern bakeries, producing millions of loaves of freshly baked bread each day. Premier alone bakes about 835 million loaves a year. This involves mountains of bread flour, endless tankers of yeast, and a lot of transport. 

With our client based in the Eastern Free State, the fleet delivering flour covered around 850km twice a day; their seats and engines never grew cold. At shift change, one driver would climb out and the next climb in, while they refuelled and checked tyres and lights. They ran on tarred roads and freeways; we recapped the drive tyres. The trucks and dry bulk tankers averaged over 40,000km per month, non-stop, for a first contract period of three years.

They were serviced religiously, at intervals stipulated by Cummins, Fuller, and the manufacturers; the trucks’ performance was faultless. We replaced a couple of clutches around the million-kilometre mark, and had one or two other component failures, but vehicle maintenance was excellent, and the service was legendary. The trailers sometimes required more attention than the trucks.

The dealers looked rather startled when the operating leases expired three years later and the trucks were duly handed back to them for agreed buy-back values and scheduled vehicle replacements. Each truck had covered about 1.3 million kilometres over its three-year operating period. This is known in the game as sweating your assets.

The contract manager who drove this success story was a great operator, with a strong feel for the business coupled with a high emotional quotient. She was also a great lady to work with.

Published by

Jim Ward

James (Jim) Ward was born in Ghana. Educated in Zambia, the UK, and Swaziland (Eswatini), Jim is a Henley MBA with engineering and transport qualifications. He studied agricultural engineering before spending 13 years managing field operations in Swaziland. He entered the transport industry as a regional technical manager in 1987 and moved into operations management during 1998. Jim became divisional technical manager in 2006, then general manager technical for a leading logistics company, remaining in technical management and consulting until 2021.
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