Like making a restaurant reservation
By Eric Kulisch and Jon Ross
New portal allows truckers to reserve chassis on day leases.
There aren’t any apparent commonalities between fine dining and drayage, but it turns out there’s one link: technology.
Just as a prospective diner can hunt for a reservation at a favorite restaurant at precisely the time and day desired via an online reservation booking portal, trucking companies can now look for the availability and location of chassis online.
Called ChassisFinder.com, the system was developed by a group of industry veterans and went live with the chassis leasing company Flexi Van in May 2013, with all Flexi Van’s chassis nationwide available through the portal.
“We’ve heard the comparison to OpenTable quite a bit,” said Kevin Higgins, chief operating officer of Chassis Finder, referencing the popular restaurant reservation booking portal. “Our objective is to make it easy for truckers to find and lease a chassis. The whole pretense of the system is to keep it simple. Our objective is to be that one place where vendors have their chassis available.”
Higgins said through Chassis Finder truckers can find and lease a chassis by location, date, quantity and type, and chassis providers can make inventory available to customers 24 hours a day to help maximize nationwide utilization.
The Web-based system is designed to be simple to use and analogous to travel booking portals like Expedia. Truckers even pay for the chassis via a shopping cart. The system is based on technology from Winnipeg, Canada-based software provider Imaginet.
“Our belief is technology has to be part of the chassis provisioning solution,” Higgins said.
Chassis Finder currently charges for daily leases — these leases can be lengthy arrangements, but the trucker still gets charged by the day — and the team is hoping to add short-term contracts to the system during the first quarter, opening up Chassis Finder to the entire United States.
T.J. Coveyou, who founded the program along with Bill Knight, helped start a similar exchange for ocean carriers, and when they started shedding their chassis, he knew the online tool would be a perfect fit for the chassis industry. He sees the program as helping out chassis providers who, instead of working with multibillion-dollar ocean carriers, now have to do business with thousands of truckers.
As of now, Flexi Van is Chassis Finder’s sole customer. The system first went live in Southern California for Flexi Van’s inventory, a significant step given the size of container volume moving through the region’s two ports.
“L.A. was not doing a lot of these daily leases,” Higgins said. “When we went live in L.A., they’ve quickly become one of the biggest users of the system.”
Higgins added the company is in talks with several other chassis-leasing companies and regional pools to include their inventory on the exchange. After all, OpenTable doesn’t just handle reservations for one restaurant.
“We hope to add another vendor before the end of ,” he said. “The objective is to be that one place where vendors have their chassis available. What we’ve seen is it’s a sales and marketing tool for the leasing companies.”
Chassis Finder draws from 16 chassis locations — mostly at the ports, but they offer coverage in Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas — to provide truckers with assets in as little time as possible. The model is scalable, and Knight and his team plan on expanding to other locations as soon as possible.
Chassis Finder also hopes to lure vendors to its system by selling them on the greater administrative capabilities (like customer relationship management and reporting tools) that the system provides.
The available inventory is updated multiple times per day via electronic data interchange from Flexi Van, with more than 2,000 transactions occurring each day as of mid-November. That’s eight-times the volume the system handled when it went live mid-year.
Demand for the service, Coveyou said, has proven that the industry needed this online tool. The response has been the highest in Jacksonville, Charleston and Baltimore, so far.
“We knew there was going to be a gap in the market from a commercial perspective — How does a trucker find a chassis? How does a chassis owner find a trucker?” he said. “Our growth has been exponential. It’s been really incredible.”
Also, with the changing chassis model, visibility has increased, and just as shippers can now see the true cost of a chassis, truckers now have a billable figure. Chassis Finder has helped truckers realize the full value of the chassis asset, Coveyou said.
“The key to innovation is adding value to the trucker,” he said. “What we’ve seen is that the truckers love it, and we’re giving them more transparency, more innovation and more ability to do things like track where their costs are and bill it back to their customers — things they can’t do now.”
Chassis Finder allows truckers to take advantage of a proper billing structure that allows them to recoup that expense from shippers much easier. Knight and Coveyou said in the past, a trucker simply picked up a chassis and knew somebody else was paying for it. In this new chassis model, truckers who bill properly could even possibly create a profit by over-utilizing their asset.
The shipper, Knight said, will claim he’s spending more on chassis, and this might push them to get more creative in how they use the asset, changing their shipping habits as well.
“We’re moving beyond when the shipper would import a container and take it to their warehouse or DC and let it sit for 21 days,” Knight said. “At that point, nobody was really absorbing that cost. Now that cost is being absorbed by someone — most likely the end shipper — so they’re going to have to do things a little smarter to avoid that cost.”
One of the major challenges within the new chassis model is deciding who controls the cost of the chassis. Knight said that even though ocean carriers no longer want to own the asset, they still want to control them. Shippers, he said, also want to control the chassis. This confusion over who controls the asset also leads to billing issues and finger pointing, he said.
“Probably the only guy who doesn’t want to control the chassis is the trucker, but now he’s being forced to control the chassis,” Knight said.
By divesting their interest in the chassis business, ocean carriers have helped bring this little-discussed part of the supply chain into conversation. Knight said conference after conference now has panels addressing the changing state of the chassis market, and it’s one of the transportation industry’s hot-button issues.
“Until three years ago, no one talked about chassis. Chassis has become a focal point now,” he said. “There’s a change going on. Right now, we’re in the very initial stages of that change.”