The king is dead. well, almost dead.
He's certainly on the verge of a heart attack.
It's Friday morning at the Roberts Express call center in Akron, Ohio. Emergency-shipment orders are streaming in over the phones. A couple of hundred dispatchers are typing away on PCs. Powerful software is locating trucks by satellite. The clock is racing. And dispatcher Bill Vasilatos - aka the King - is entrenched on the front lines. Wearing a telephone headset, he scans the dispatch board, trying to match trucks with shipments between New York and Philadelphia - shipments that have to be picked up almost immediately.
But Fridays being Fridays, and this being Friday the 13th, nothing comes easy. According to the computer, Brooklyn is experiencing "low power." Translation: not enough trucks. In a wry, bemused voice, as if he can't quite believe it, the usually unflappable Vasilatos confides, "I'm getting killed."
Talk about a fast company. Roberts Express, the largest "expedited freight carrier" in North America, delivers the goods nonstop, door-to-door, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Think next-day service is fast? More than half of Roberts's shipments arrive on the same day. "We're the ambulance service for industrial freight," says Joe Greulich, manager of management information systems. He's not exaggerating. Because so many shipments are "hot" - meaning they better get out fast, or else - Roberts picks up most of them within 90 minutes of receiving a customer's order. About 96% of the time - not counting runs delayed by "acts of God" - Roberts delivers on time. More amazing still, it does the job almost entirely with trucks.
But Roberts is nothing like what you'd expect from a trucking company. It's a 50-year-old organization that's using cutting-edge technology to reinvent an old-line industry. Roberts was one of the first trucking outfits to monitor its fleet with satellite tracking and onboard computers. The system calculates whether shipments are on schedule and, when they fall behind a 15-minute grace period, alerts the appropriate dispatcher and the driver. Roberts is rolling out a system of IBM network computers with Java-based graphics to "push" delivery information to dispatchers. It has implemented amazingly powerful software, called Dynamic Vehicle Allocation, to determine which trucks Roberts should dispatch where, and to predict future business. "We are as much an information company as we are a transportation company," declares Bruce Simpson, the company's president.
But the company's success is really as much about customers as computers. What do Oprah Winfrey, James Cameron, and President Clinton have in common? They've all used Roberts Express. Oprah needed lighting equipment - pronto - when she decided to film her show in the Texas town where she was battling cattle ranchers in court. Cameron needed equipment on the set of Titanic in Nova Scotia. The White House needed its Christmas cards.
You name it, Roberts has moved it. Baseball bats belonging to Mo Vaughn. Paintings by Monet and van Gogh. And it continues to find ways to keep its business moving. In the last decade, it launched CharterAir, an expedited air service with companion ground support; White Glove Services, a division that handles sensitive cargo (such as radioactive materials) or cargo requiring the use of a specially equipped vehicle; and AutoQuik, a service that hauls automotive components.
"In some ways, we're a current-events company," says marketing manager Joan Mileski. "If you're reading about it in the paper, we're probably involved in it." Sometimes Roberts gets involved before the news breaks. In the days leading up to Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the company hauled low-level explosives for the U.S. military. "We had a feeling that something big might happen," says David Hodge, manager of White Glove Services. "I hate to sound so matter-of-fact, but in this business, we get used to unusual things happening."
The stories that Roberts employees relish most involve major logistical obstacles and tight deadlines. Greulich recalls the time a Roberts truck was stuck in traffic. Its CharterAir division dispatched a Huey helicopter to carry the load to its destination. Vasilatos tells about a load he needed to get to Ontario. He couldn't find a truck that could take on enough hours to make the run on its own. So he pieced together a team of vans and trucks to pick up the shipment at two different locations and transfer the loads in mid-run. They made it on time. "We could have gotten hit for a number of service failures on that job," Vasilatos says. "I take pride in the fact that we pulled it off."
But those are yesterday's victories. Today, back in the trenches, the King is working on his next challenge. Finding trucks is only half the battle. The other half is persuading drivers to accept a short run. Take the load Vasilatos is trying to dispatch from Elkton, Maryland, to Jamaica, New York, a 155-mile delivery that's about as popular as a state trooper at a truck stop. To reach the destination, JFK International Airport, a driver must cross Brooklyn. Through tolls and traffic. In an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer. On a Friday afternoon. Good luck.
Earlier, Vasilatos had managed to assign another Jamaica delivery by predispatching a driver on a second, more lucrative run to be made later. "You've got to wheel and deal a little," the King explains. The other dispatchers on his Customer Assistance Team - seven to nine people cross-trained to organize the transport of a load from start to finish - gave Vasilatos the nickname "King" because he's so adept at handling drivers, some of whom can be prickly and impatient.
And that's on a good day. Drivers for Roberts aren't employees of the company; they're independent contractors. Since they, not Roberts, own their trucks, many drivers feel that they should decide which loads to accept, and naturally they want the long (and thus the more profitable) hauls. So Roberts will occasionally allow a driver to refuse a run. Today everyone seems to be exercising their right of refusal.
The computer locates a truck 56 miles from the pickup point. The driver is Leroy from Texas. Instead of beaming an electronic message, Vasilatos calls him. "I've got a load from Elkton, Maryland to beautiful Jamaica, New York." There's a long pause on the line, then a groan. "I can't handle that today. I just can't," says Leroy. After hanging up, Vasilatos discovers another run on the dispatch board. Lovely. He starts wheeling and dealing. Things start clicking. The computer finds trucks; the drivers accept the loads.
Vasilatos covers a short run of four crates of Avon makeup from Newark, Delaware to Philadelphia, then a hazardous-materials load that's traveling from Waterbury, Connecticut to Woburn, Massachusetts. Still, the Jamaica run looms, and time is running out. Then the computer system makes another suggestion. It's got a truck that's dropping off a load not far from Elkton. Vasilatos fires a dispatch offer over the satellite to "D3228," a driver named James. A minute or two later, a much-relieved Vasilatos reads James's reply on the screen: "No Problem."
Just like that, Jamaica's covered. The King has done it again.
Rewriting the Rules of the Road
Roberts Express has been in the business of expedited shipping since 1981, when Bill Blodgett, the former treasurer of Emery Air Freight, saw the potential for a high-performance alternative to the status quo in trucking. Up until then, if a manufacturer needed a shipment on demand, it had two choices: Pay through the nose for air freight, or send the shipment by truck and wait several days. Roberts, formed in 1948 by the merger of two Ohio trucking companies, had worked in tandem with air freight for years. It operated regionally, delivering critical freight first for the airlines and later for Emery, after the air-freight provider acquired Roberts in 1971. Five years later, after the trucking operation failed to turn a profit, Emery gladly sold it to Blodgett, who envisioned a new market and a unique service.
Today Roberts provides shipping that's often cheaper and faster than air freight. How is that possible? Planes travel faster than trucks only while they're in the air. So while air freighters wait around for a trucking company to bring the shipment to an airport, unload and reload the shipment, and then do it all over again at the destination, Roberts trucks remain on the move. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race.
"You know how a tennis racquet has a sweet spot?" asks Greulich, a lanky, gregarious narrator of Roberts's history. "Well, our sweet spot is 500 pounds, 800 miles or less. That's the center of our market." At that weight and that distance, Roberts costs a third as much as air freight and can deliver the goods one day sooner.
By obtaining authority to run trucks throughout the United States and Canada, Blodgett, who eventually sold the company to Roadway Services Inc. (which later became Caliber Systems Inc.) and has since retired, took the northeastern Ohio regional company national. The new company became such a success that last January, FDX, parent company of FedEx, added the shipper to its arsenal as part of its acquisition of Caliber Systems. Roberts Express has amassed a team of independent contractors who own and drive five types of vehicles, the smallest being minivans, or "A" units (in Roberts's parlance), and the largest being 48-foot tractor-trailers, or "E" units. The idea is to match the cargo with the right-size vehicle. Unlike companies that send a truck on multiple runs, commingling cargo from different customers, Roberts provides dedicated service. Your freight is the only freight on the truck, which is why the company charges substantially more than standard trucking companies - often two to three times as much.
In the early 1980s, 80% of Roberts's business came from the Big Three automakers, which relied on precise pickup and delivery times. As more companies realized the need for time-critical shipping, the market grew. "For years, we were the only ones in this business," says Simpson. "We used to go on sales calls and people would say, 'Expedited trucking? That's a neat idea. But we'll never need you.' Then a few weeks later, the phone would ring and it would be those same people saying, 'We're embarrassed to have to use you. It means we made a mistake.' "
Those mistakes keep adding up. In 1982, Roberts had its biggest year ever to that date, exceeding $3 million. Eleven years later, it raked in more than $138 million. Last year, its fleet of more than 1,600 vehicles traveled more than 80 million miles and made more than 200,000 deliveries. Net revenue topped $200 million.
All this success came at a price. The new Roberts was no longer a folksy operation with a handful of agents who knew their customers by name. That was a problem - customers liked the intimacy of the old Roberts. Thus was born another of the company's fudamental rules of business: Stay small in the eyes of the customer, even as you grow big in the marketplace. "We might have 700 critical shipments for 700 customers in a day," says Simpson. "But we want each customer to feel like he's the only customer."
Roberts "shrunk" itself by dividing its operations into self- managed Customer Assistance Teams. Each CAT is assigned to a specific geographic area, and the phone system routes calls accordingly. (The calls get sorted by area code at an AT&T database in Kansas City.) New York calls go to CAT 1, Maine calls to CAT 2, Chicago calls to CAT 5, and so on. Stroll through the call center in Akron and eavesdrop on the dispatchers, and it will sound as if you're strolling across America, one cluster of cubicles at a time. To regular customers, Roberts is no bigger than a particular CAT. For instance, when a call comes through from Art at Atlantic Metal in New Jersey or Joanne at Transgroup in Brooklyn, they hear the same familiar voices - it's Mary or Debbie or Bill in CAT 1. And if Art calls back that day, his call is automatically routed to the dispatcher he spoke with earlier, the person most familiar with his order.
But the folks at Roberts do more than talk on the phone. They think about their phones - a lot. Whose call should take priority, a driver's or a customer's? How long should these conversations last? How do you free up agents to take more customer calls? And it's not enough to be available to customers. Roberts wants to know as much as possible about its customers. When a company's shipping manager calls, Roberts's computer searches its database of more than 180,000 customers for a match. If it finds one, the dispatcher sees a "screen pop," a detailed customer profile, before picking up the phone. No need to ask which company the customer is with, the address, or the size of the loading dock. The system "remembers" all that and more, including the company's most recent shipments and quotes.
"We knew that the first 20 seconds of every call was spent identifying the caller," says Greulich. "And we knew from our customer surveys that they didn't like playing 20 questions when their plant was about to shut down. So right there, by having our phone system talk to our computer, we've made ourselves more efficient, and we've made our customers happier."
Often, when outsiders visit the Akron office, says CharterAir Division Manager Kevin McClellan, they're struck by how ordinary - and how calm - the place appears, especially considering what the company does. Its business revolves around deadlines, high stress, and high stakes. But the demeanor of its employees is confident and focused. That's not to say you don't sense the urgency in the phone calls. But nobody's panicking. Roberts solves big problems every day - back-up-against-the-wall, job-on-the-line problems. The process has become almost routine. Almost. "Every day, you've got a new challenge," says Vasilatos. "You do get a high. An adrenaline rush. It's like, Good grief, how are we going to get that covered?"
Information Is Power
How did something so simple - moving freight from point A to point B - get so complicated? Blame it on the emergence of speed and precision as critical success factors in the new world of business. Roberts used to be a prosaic, low-tech enterprise like every other trucking company. Before the arrival of computers and satellites and digital-mapping software, agents wrote orders on run-cards and calculated mileage with a ruler and a map. "I used to keep a cheat sheet on my desk with the mileage," says Vera Dizdar, the company's very first agent, who now works in accounting. In the old days, agents and dispatchers worked separately. The former took orders from customers without knowing which trucks were available; the latter retrieved the run-cards off a bulletin board, then scrambled to cover the deliveries.
The telephone was the only technology to speak of. Drivers were required to call in every four hours to update their positions. It was the only way the agents knew if their shipments were on schedule. If a truck broke down, they might not hear about it for hours. And there were other inefficiencies. Roberts calculated that by the time a driver had found a phone and a parking place for his rig and reached an agent, he'd already wasted 15 minutes. Counting check-ins and constant dispatch inquiries, each driver was making 11 telephone calls per shipment. With thousands of these drivers' calls coming into the company each day, drivers often wound up on hold, wasting more time, and customers had a hard time getting through.
In 1988, Roberts learned about OmniTRACS - QUALCOMM Inc.'s two-way satellite communications system. Roberts modified the system to create Customer Link, or C-Link, and installed satellite dishes and computers in its entire fleet, about 800 trucks at the time. The first year, the number of driver calls plummeted by half, the productivity of its dispatchers nearly doubled, and the fleet's loaded miles (that is, miles traveled by trucks carrying loads) jumped 5%.
Today Roberts knows where its trucks and its shipments are at all times, thanks to about 23,000 daily C-Link transactions. Three-quarters of these transactions are automated tracking "pings" - every hour, the computer determines the latitude and longitude of every truck whose onboard computer is turned on. In less than 30 seconds, the signal travels over phone lines from Akron to QUALCOMM's Network Management Center in San Diego, then 22,500 miles into outer space, where a satellite redirects the signal back down to the trucks, wherever they may be. Thirty seconds later, the signal retraces its path to Akron with "lat-long" positions accurate to within about 1,200 yards.
CharterAir's McClellan has a favorite saying: "We didn't invent the truck, the plane, the phone, the computer, or the satellite. But we did put them together." Roberts pioneered the use of satellite communications in trucking. It was also one of the first companies to integrate satellites and computers. From Akron, dispatchers instantly send a "run offer" to a driver with the total mileage of a job and what it pays. If the driver accepts the run, he downloads directions and any special instructions regarding the shipment directly into the terminal in his cab. The entire transaction doesn't require a single phone call.
Of course, collecting all this information raises another big challenge: how to inform, rather than overwhelm, the dispatchers who have to process it all. Under the company's old computer system, dispatchers used at least 48 different keystroke combinations to switch screens. Retrieving weather reports or help files was unwieldy, especially while juggling in-coming orders and tracking runs in progress. "They had to pull the information to them," says Del Rae Grose, Roberts's performance technologist. "What we're trying to do now is push the information at them."
Enter the network computer (NC). Roberts has worked closely with IBM to prototype a new NC device for its dispatchers. The NC divides the screen into five frames. The largest frame is the order screen, which works in conjunction with newer elements, like a shipment monitor. This Java-based graphic fits in the upper-right-hand corner and displays the status of up to 11 dispatched trucks. Since agents get hundreds of "alerts" each day, from drivers picking up or trucks running late, the graphic encourages triage: Green trucks are running on time, yellow trucks are cutting it close, red trucks are late. Agents focus their attention where it's needed most, on service failures.
There's more. Before the NCs, customer-service teams didn't have an easy way to send or receive systemwide messages. If an express center closed or a section of highway was shut down because of bad weather, someone in Akron sent out an email message and hoped that everyone would stop what they were doing and switch screens to read it. Or an announcement came over the public address system. Or CAT leaders, known as facilitators, scribbled the message by hand on each team's board. Today a ticker tape scrolls across the screen with breaking news or important announcements. An up-to-the-minute weather map displays current road conditions, and an Internet window links team members to a Web site with help files on special needs, like how to handle a hazardous- material shipment.
"Before, it was as if we were working in watercolor - limited to two dimensions," says Greg Mulhollen, manager of operations planning. "Now we're working in clay."
The Customer Is King
Lots of companies claim to offer reliable service to their customers. Roberts guarantees it - and knows it delivers on that guarantee. The company is crazy about measuring performance. In the center of each CAT station stands a whiteboard propped on an easel. The boards tell everyone how the teams are doing. Each morning, a team member or a facilitator records the vital statistics from the day before: percentage of on-time pickups and deliveries, percentage of customer calls and service failures handled promptly. "Everybody likes to see where they stand," says Jeff Sitzlar, the facilitator for CAT 5.
But there's more at stake than team pride. These numbers determine how much money employees take home. Quarterly bonuses are based on whether a team meets, lags, or exceeds its service objectives. Current performance is compared with performance over the previous two years, with on-time delivery and phone service getting the most weight. "In CAT 2," says one team member, "on-time pickup numbers were down a month ago, to only around 92%. So the CAT took a look at that area and said, 'What can we do to fix this?' It wasn't getting enough trucks to cover outbound freight in its area, so it started moving trucks from some areas that were overstaffed. Since then, its numbers have shot up."
There's a second set of "customers" at Roberts Express - the drivers. Throughout the trucking industry, the relationship between dispatcher and driver is tricky, to say the least. "A monster" is how Scott McCahan, manager of contractor relations for Roberts, describes it. That's why Roberts encourages its dispatchers to go on "ride-alongs" with truckers, to get a sense of life on the road and a better understanding of what it's like on the other end of the C-Link. For example, many drivers are away from home for weeks at a time. They sleep in the truck cab, eat and shower at truck stops, and hope for long runs that'll make the payments on a $100,000 rig. From the drivers' point of view, the dispatchers control how much money they make. Roberts pays its contractors 58% of the shipping cost. The drivers pay for their own fuel.
"You have to know the drivers' personalities to know how to deal with them," says Brenda Arthur, a dispatcher who came to Roberts in 1983. "There's one couple, a husband and wife team, who was near-impossible. They took everything personally. Later I learned they were having money problems and that they had a grandchild with leukemia. The next time I talked to the wife, I asked for the grandchild's name. She was taken aback. I told her I wanted to pray for him in the Sunday school teen group I lead. Well, that broke the ice. After that, she warmed up to me."
It's certainly important for Roberts to keep its drivers happy. But nothing takes precedence over satisfying its customers. And those customers are very satisfied, thank you: Roberts knows this because it measures customer satisfaction. Every month, the company pays National Market Measures in Westlake, Ohio to survey 150 of the most recent customers and ask them about service. On a scale from minus-2 to plus-2, the customer-satisfaction level almost always measures around 1.9. Ten years ago, when the company's initial scores came back at around 1.8, Mark Traylor, director of quantitative services for the research firm, warned Roberts that the number would drop. It's the law of averages, he said. Instead, it went up.
"Satisfaction is so high that there is almost nothing Roberts can do that will raise it any higher," says Traylor. "Roberts has defied the laws of probability. I know technology is behind it, but that's just a symptom of its philosophy. It focuses on the customer."
At the end of each of its reports, National Market Measures attaches a run-down of some of the comments from customers. Here are a few of them:
"I called late morning, telling them this shipment had to go out. They got there before noon to pick it up. When I came into work the next morning, there was a message on my voice mail saying the delivery had been made."
"When I call Roberts and give them my name and company, they know everything about me."
"Roberts can make the right-size truck available to me 99 percent of the time. I was told by the customer to use them in an emergency situation. They never let us down."
The one thing that customers don't mention, says Greulich, is Roberts's technology. "Customers don't say, 'Hey, we use you because of your fancy computers and your satellites.' They say, 'It's because you get there on time.' "
Chuck Salter (firstname.lastname@example.org), a writer based in Baltimore, contributes regularly to Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the September 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.