Freight brokers coping with Fuel-Price hike

Skyrocketing fuel prices and the weak U.S. dollar are creating unanticipated new opportunities and challenges for local freight brokers and forwarders.

Since the cost of diesel fuel has risen 135 percent in the past year, these shipping intermediaries are watching customer loyalty erode as local manufacturers and importers struggle to find cheaper transportation for their goods.

“Because of the escalating fuel prices, manufacturers and shippers are breaking out of their routine because they’re being forced to look for more competitive pricing,” says Mel Eardley, owner of America Transport Systems (ATS), a San Antonio freight forwarding company with 14 employees. “Some of the loyalties built on customer relations are bending a little. We’re also getting calls from completely new customers, too.”

Freight forwarders are third-party logistics companies, also known as “3PLs,” that negotiate shipping arrangements and prices. They are the middlemen between two types of customers: those shipping goods and those who own and operate road, marine or air vehicles.

For example, if a local business needs to ship products to Buffalo, N.Y., a freight broker shops huge international databases for trucks and airlines that frequent that San Antonio-to-Buffalo “lane” for the best price and then coordinates the pickup and delivery of the goods.

In addition, the freight broker arranges for these same trucking and airline companies to refill their vehicles with cargo for the return trip.

Forwarders charge their customers a percentage of the cost of the total transaction, which is based on existing fuel prices and a variety of other factors, including the type of transportation, distance and delivery complexity.

So when fuel prices rise, these forwarders pass the cost on to their customers in the form of carrier fuel surcharges, calculated by using fuel indexes. These flat-fee surcharges have risen 11.5 percentage points in the last six months from 18.5 percent in November to about 30 percent today.

So, a $10,000 shipment in November that yielded a $1,850 surcharge would now have $3,000 tacked on to the price. Customers are not happy, but freight forwarders hands’ are tied.

“We’re in a very competitive business, and it is very difficult to retain customer loyalty when prices are an issue,” says Oscar Garcia, president and CEO of Global Highways Inc., a San Antonio freight-forwarding company with five employees. “On the flip side, we’re getting calls from customers who have never contacted us before. They’re shopping around now purely for price.”

Pamela Grzonka, a San Antonio branch manager for the four-employee broker and freight-forwarder Pioneer International — Texas, concurs.

“I can’t say people are happy about it (the surcharge). I get a lot of complaining about it.

“But if they’ve got to move their freight, they’ve got to move their freight,” she says. “I feel bad. But the price of fuel gets passed on to everyone. I’ve got to feed a family, too.”

Exports flourishing

While these fuel surcharges are most burdensome to companies shipping domestically and local importers, they are not affecting exporters. Thanks to the weakened U.S. dollar, exports are soaring.

“The dollar is so low that exports are booming,” Grzonka says. “Europe is paying for the freight because they’re getting more for their dollar.