The trade group known as the National Motor Freight Traffic Association Inc. (NMFTA) has stuck to its very tight knitting since its founding in 1956.
NMFTA survived motor carrier deregulation in 1980 and has acquitted itself well financially throughout its history, mainly on the backs of two basic but necessary services: One is supporting an 87-year-old shipment rating system that determines less-than-truckload prices based on how the system classifies a shipment. The other is administering a four-digit Standard Carrier Alpha Code (SCAT) code that is unique to each user. Though code compliance is voluntary, many companies insist that their transport partners have one. It must be renewed annually.
NMFTA never ventured much beyond its comfort zones, however. It had no marketing or social media presence. Its operations were not in the cloud. It spearheaded research into cybersecurity with the Technology Management Council of the American Trucking Associations (ATA). Yet few people knew about NMFTA’s work in the field because it never promoted itself on a broad scale.
Enter Debbie Sparks.
Nearly a year ago, Sparks was tapped to become NMFTA’s executive director. Her appointment came with a steep learning curve. Most of Sparks’ career was spent in the truckload industry. That included a 13-year stint as vice president of business development of the Truckload Carriers Association and before that five years as ATA’s marketing director.
Accustomed to the relatively simple and straightforward world of truckload, Sparks suddenly found herself in the deep water of the highly complex LTL industry. “I knew nothing about LTL when I joined,” she said in an interview with FreightWaves.
Nor did Sparks know all that much about digitalization and cybersecurity, which became top priorities since NMFTA’s board was determined to be more proactive in both disciplines and would use its budget to do so.
Sparks proved a quick study on all things LTL. Leveraging her marketing chops, along with a solid financial commitment from the board and its backers, Sparks set about transforming the sleepy trade group. She added staff, especially on the IT side, expanded NMFTA’s reach into different areas and embarked on alliances with constituencies such as the ATA.
Sparks was helped in no small part by Paul Dugent, a former NMFTA chairman who served as interim executive director for one year as the group searched for a permanent head. Dugent was instrumental last January in convincing the Digital LTL Council, the group which had been working for four years to standardize an electronic bill of lading for LTL, to let NMFTA run the program rather than the council funding and incorporating its own association.
On the march
Today, NMFTA is on the march. It has begun a multiyear effort called the Classification Reimagination Project to overhaul the ancient classification system by eliminating reams of irrelevant subclassifications that often make LTL transport a nightmare for shippers, carriers and intermediaries.
Last October, NMFTA launched a second version of the standard application programming interface (API) format for electronically transmitting BOLs. The objective of the standard is to exchange clean and accurate BOL data hours before a shipment’s pickup, thus reducing errors and downtime and replacing the volume of paperwork traditionally associated with LTL transportation.
About 75 providers, including carriers, third-party logistics providers and technology firms, have already pledged to be fully operational under the e-BOL standard by July. The next phase is for the participating carriers to reach out to large shippers and 3PLs to begin using the e-BOL API, according to Sparks.
In addition, a workshop has been launched to build a second electronic module that will support pickup visibility efforts, according to Sparks. A third module is being considered that would automate the invoicing process, she said.
The multiphase adoption program is just the beginning of NMFTA’s digitization efforts, Sparks said. The endgame, she said, is to fully digitize all the documents that must be exchanged in order for an LTL transaction, from quote to cash, to be seamlessly executed.
With an uptake in digitalization comes an increased focus on cybersecurity, according to Sparks. The two disciplines “fit hand in glove,” she said, explaining that the more a company’s operations are digitized, the more vulnerable they are to having their systems hacked into. The risk is more pronounced when one or more parties to a transaction do not have robust cybersecurity protocols, she added.
Sparks is positioning NMFTA as the go-to player in both areas for LTL, starting with sharing best practices that carriers can use to combat cyberthreats. “We are working towards digitizing and safeguarding the industry,” she said.
Sparks’ ambitions don’t stop there. She wants NMFTA to become the cybersecurity support mechanism for “all of trucking.” For example, NMFTA has been talking with ATA about, at some point, formalizing NMFTA’s research and expertise in cybersecurity and how the two groups could collaborate, Sparks said.
Sparks’ work has not gone unnoticed. Sparks and Dugent “have reenergized the NMFTA to focus on emerging issues and ongoing problems,” said Geoffrey Muessig, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Pittsburgh-based LTL carrier Pitt Ohio. Their combined leadership and guidance “have been critical to executing this remarkable turnaround” at the trade group,” he said.
Debbie is both a very welcomed and refreshing breath of fresh energy at NMFTA. That organization has been rather stale for quite sometime and Debbie seems to be in a streamlined position to foster useful and significant new life into the fabric of the organization, while having the vision of reaching out to ATA to partner in her efforts to benefit the LTL industry.
Congratulations to Debbie, and best of luck to NMFTA.