J.B. Hunt’s earnings beat estimates thanks to better brokerage, truckload businesses

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Arkansas-based motor carrier sees driver wages up 18%, but it aims to recoup those costs through new shipper contracts.

J.B. Hunt (Nasdaq: JBHT) reported third-quarter earnings that were ahead of analysts estimates, despite last week’s announcement of $39 million in one-time charges for the quarter.

One of the largest intermodal carriers in the U.S., J.B. Hunt saw income gains in its freight brokerage and truckload business offset higher costs in its dedicated fleet units.

The Arkansas-based company reported net income of $131.1 million for the third quarter, a 31% rise from a year earlier, with revenue up 21% from a year earlier to $2.04 billion.

Earnings per share were $1.19 versus $0.91 a year earlier. Excluding one-time items of $0.26 per share, earnings of $1.45 came in ahead of the consensus earnings forecast of $1.40 per share.

J.B. Hunt’s intermodal business saw revenue grow 16% from a year ago to $1.2 billion. The gains came as J.B. Hunt was able to increase customer rates and saw a better freight mix for the quarter. Revenue per load was up 15% from a year earlier to $2,343.

But intermodal’s operating income was up only 10% to $120.3 million as driver costs rose faster than rate increases and rail congestion resulted in higher expenses.

The intermodal segment also took a hit from a $18.3 million reserve to settle an ongoing arbitration case between J.B. Hunt and BNSF over their revenue sharing agreement. Company executives declined to say if the size of the award would increase from the amount already reserved.

The intermodal segment saw overall volume was flat at 1% with 519,974 loads carried during the quarter. Train derailments during the quarter and Hurricane Florence impacted about 4,000 loads during the quarter.

Terence Matthews, president of intermodal at J.B. Hunt, says volumes out of the west coast were “not quite as robust in August and the first half of September, but we’ve seen the west coast pick up in the last week of September.”

He says the company is seeing “very normal” levels of volume during the peak shipping season. While the company declined to give guidance on the fourth quarter, Matthews said that shippers may look to fill warehouses even in December just ahead of the January 1 start of 25% tariffs on $200 billion of goods coming from China.

“With additional tariffs in December, the implication is that December should be quite strong,” Matthews said.

Dedicated fleet services saw revenue rise 24% to $543 million as its average fleet size rose 15% from a year earlier and revenue per truck per week rose 7.3% to $4,504.

But operating income was down 18% to $34.9 million. In addition to $8.4 million in one-time charges for insurance and claims expenses, higher costs for implementing new contracts and increases in driver wages and recruiting costs also drove down operating income.

Nick Hobbs, the president of dedicated contract services at J.B. Hunt, says driver wages have increased 10% with the company aiming to incorporate those costs into its upcoming contract renewals.

“We’ve been able to attract drivers with those wage increases,” Hobbs said.

Brokerage and non-asset based businesses saw revenue up 28% to $345.8 million. Volumes increased 41%, but revenue per load decreased due to a higher volume of contractual less-than-truckload volume during the quarter. Contractual volume was 72% of total loads, up from 65% a year earlier, as high spot rates prompted customers to shift loads to dedicated carriers.

Operating income was up 40% thanks to a strong improvement in gross margin, which increased to 15.5% in the quarter compared to 12.8% last year. The J.B.Hunt 360 freight booking platform accounted for $151 million in revenue, up from 10% from a year ago.

The Truckload segment saw revenue increase to $105.7 million, up 14%, thanks to a 19% increase in rates per loaded mile offset by a shorter length of haul for the segment. Operating income for the segment was up 61% to $9.2 million as the higher rate for loads offset increased driver wages and independent contractor costs.

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Michael Angell, Bulk and Intermodal Editor

Michael Angell covers maritime, intermodal and related topics for FreightWaves. His interest in transportation stretches back several generations. One great-grandfather was a dray horseman along the New York waterfront and another was a railway engineer in Texas. More recently, Michael has written about the shipping industry for TradeWinds, energy markets for Oil Price Information Service, and general business topics for FactSet Mergerstat and Investor's Business Daily. When he is not stuck in the office, he enjoys tours of ports, terminals, and railyards.