LTL in Northeast struggles to right itself after body blow of NEMF bankruptcy

All dressed up and no place to go. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

All dressed up and no place to go. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

As the shock begins to wear off following Monday’s announcement of the impending demise of regional less-than-truckload (LTL) carrier New England Motor Freight, Inc., (NEMF), LTL carriers serving the country’s most densely populated regions have begun to adjust to life without it.

There is no shortage of carriers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic that NEMF called home for nearly 42 years. At this time, one would be hard-pressed to find a carrier not being inundated with phone calls and e-mails from NEMF customers blindsided by the stunning disclosure that the carrier and 10 related entities would file for bankruptcy and wind down the business. With about $400 million in annual revenue, NEMF and its companies will represent the largest U.S. trucking shutdown since Consolidated Freightways, Inc. went out of business in 2002.

For example, executives at A. Duie Pyle, an LTL staple in the Northeast, couldn’t respond yesterday to a reporter’s inquiries about the fallout because they were too busy fielding requests from NEMF customers, as well as its own, according to a spokeswoman for the West Chester, Pennsylvania-based company.

Todd Polen, vice president of pricing for Thomasville, N.C.-based Old Dominion Freight Line, Inc. (NASDAQ:ODFL), said Old Dominion has seen a huge spike in inquiries from NEMF customers. All incumbent carriers are “scrambling” to keep up with requests, Polen added.

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The NEMF bankruptcy will lead to tightening capacity across the board, but that it will be especially scarce for businesses needing overnight deliveries within the region, according to John Luciani, Pyle’s COO of LTL Services, said in an e-mail today. “There is enough capacity to assimilate all of the Northeast volume [of NEMF], but service expectation will dictate mode and costs,” Luciani said.

XPO Logistics Inc., (NYSE:XPO), which operates one of the largest LTL carriers in the country, said the LTL business is seeing significant across-the-board cost increases. At the same time, current customers are interested in expanding their relationships with the company, and drivers and service center operators are beginning to inquire about job opportunities, the Greenwich, Conn-based company said. All these trends were in place well before the NEMF bankruptcy filing, XPO said.

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LTL carriers are a resilient bunch, and have rebounded from many hammer blows over the past 10 years. This, too, shall pass, said Polen, who added that Old Dominion has enough capacity to absorb diverted traffic. “Major shippers have already made routing changes to us and (to) our competitors, as you would expect,” Polen said.

Yet he acknowledged that the unexpected volumes cascading into an undersupplied market will make it “tight for a while for all of us due to this.”

UPS Freight, the LTL arm of Atlanta-based UPS Inc. (NYSE:UPS), also has sufficient capacity to handle diversions. However, a UPS spokesman said UPS Freight will be very selective about accepting new freight, and its top priority will be to serve its existing customer base.

The NEMF filing is considered a “Chapter 11 liquidation,” according to Brent Wm. Primus, a long-time transportation attorney. The path chosen by NEMF is different than a typical Chapter 11 filing which lays the groundwork for a reorganization. Primus added that NEMF is pursuing a more deliberate process than a “Chapter 7” liquidation, in which a trustee is immediately appointed, examines the entity’s books, and oversees an asset liquidation with the proceeds then distributed to creditors.

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In its February 11 filing, NEMF said it expects to deliver all remaining freight from its 35 terminals (previous reports pegged the terminal network at 40) within one to three weeks of the filing date. About 90 percent of the company’s 3,540 full and part-time employees – 1,900 of those being union workers – will be terminated within three weeks of the filing date, according to the filing document. The remaining workforce will oversee what will be left of the wind-down process, the company said.

Included in that employee roster are about 1,300 drivers. Jeff Tucker, CEO of broker and 3PL Tucker Co. Worldwide, said those drivers will be “coveted” by a marketplace in need of them. However, some may need to transition to driving for truckload operations or another form of delivery, Tucker said. It may be difficult for LTL carriers to assimilate so many drivers at one time, he said.

In the filing, NEMF painted a picture of a company that had struggled in recent years, but whose fortunes took a dramatic downward turn in late 2018 due to the loss of several unidentified key accounts, a shortage of qualified drivers, a new labor contract that contained “onerous” retroactive terms, an aging fleet that was costly to maintain, and tough competition from non-union carriers.

The final straws were the unwillingness of five NEMF lenders holding the company’s 13 letters of credit to renew or restructure the obligations on terms acceptable to NEMF and the related companies, and the corporation’s 2018 financial performance and 2019 outlook. The lenders’ decisions were based on the company’s ongoing losses and liquidity problems; efforts to consolidate the letters of credit also proved unsuccessful, NEMF said.

At around the same time, NEMF experienced an $8.4 million operating loss in the fourth quarter and a $20.9 million operating loss for 2018, while the entire organization had only $1.5 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). The pain was expected to get worse in 2019, according to the filing. The organization projected an operating loss of more than $24 million, and had more than $19 million in debt service obligations coming due.

With worsening fundamentals, shallow liquidity and no lender lifeline, Vincent Colistra, who NEMF hired in December to help with its debt consolidation and restructuring efforts, said he had no choice but to recommend a Chapter 11 filing followed by an “orderly” wind-down of the Elizabeth, New Jersey-based company’s operations. Until that point, the hopes were for either an out-of-court restructuring or a reorganization under the bankruptcy laws, Colistra said.

Colistra made his recommendation to the NEMF board on January 30. On February 11, NEMF and the companies agreed in principle with the International Association of Machinists, the union representing its workers, on a severance package for the terminated rank-and-file. Later that afternoon, the company went public with its plans to file for bankruptcy and close up shop.