In normal times, UPS Inc. wouldn’t hesitate to capitalize on turmoil at its chief rival, FedEx Corp., to pursue business from anxious FedEx shippers. But the ongoing set-to involving FedEx Ground’s driver contractor network does not represent a normal time.
Those following UPS (NYSE: UPS) said it has shown little interest up to now in chasing FedEx Ground business. This comes as Spencer Patton, a former FedEx Ground contractor engaged in a very public spat with FedEx Ground (NYSE: FDX) over the financial condition of the contractor network, has warned that more than one-third of the 6,000 contractors are in such deep financial trouble that they could go out of business before the end of the year.
This, in turn, could wreak havoc on FedEx Ground’s peak season delivery schedules, Patton, through his newly formed Trade Association for Logistics Professionals, has said.
Ravi Shanker, transport analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co., (NYSE: MS) has come the closest to implying that UPS might step into the fray. In a note published Wednesday, Shanker surmised that FedEx Ground’s issues “may provide a volume opportunity” for UPS, and that the company “may already be in touch with some [FedEx] customers preparing for peak contingencies.”
Shanker, who published his note the day after an analyst meeting with UPS, said senior management would not offer detailed comments on their intentions, if any.
Josh Taylor, senior director of professional services at Shipware LLC, a consultancy, and a longtime UPS executive, said that UPS, facing potentially contentious contract talks with the Teamsters union, wants no part of a battle that pits a rival carrier against its drivers. UPS’ leadership believes that getting enmeshed in such a fight is something that “should be avoided,” Taylor said.
UPS and the Teamsters, which represents about 380,000 UPS employees, expect to begin negotiations during the first half of 2023 on a new collective bargaining agreement. Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien, who battled UPS for years while running Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, has said his members will walk off the job if a tentative agreement is not reached by Aug. 1, 2023, the day after the current five-year contract expires.
Shanker said in his note that UPS CEO Carol B. Tomé expects the negotiations to start late and get noisy once they are underway. According to the note, Tomé expressed confidence that an agreement will be reached, noting the long and shared history of UPS and the Teamsters and the company’s belief that its starting point for wages and benefits is typically very competitive.
Drivers in different worlds
Drivers at the two companies operate in different worlds. FedEx Ground’s model is nonunion and is based on independent businesses acquiring territories, or routes, and then hiring drivers to pick up and deliver parcels and to provide line-haul service between its hubs. Contractors are paid on a per-stop or per-mile basis.
UPS’ full- and part-time drivers are unionized except for those who use personal delivery vehicles to haul parcels. UPS’ unionized drivers are salaried and are entitled to benefits, the latter of which is uncommon among FedEx Ground’s contractors and drivers.
Despite the contrast, from a functional perspective the bottom line is the same, said Taylor: If the carriers cannot keep their drivers happy, packages don’t get delivered. UPS’ senior management, Taylor said, is mindful of how the Teamsters might react to the company trying to take market share from FedEx Ground under the current circumstances.
“Any UPS rep who wins business today because of Spencer Patton will have a hard time keeping that business next year because of Sean O’Brien,” he said.
Satish Jindel, founder and president of Ship Matrix Inc, a consultancy, agreed that the timing and optics relating to labor issues would augur for UPS to effectively remain on the sidelines. However, there are other issues that would also incent UPS to stand down, he said.
UPS, which like FedEx focuses on high-margin small to midsize businesses (SMB), would have little interest in courting FedEx Ground’s large-volume or “enterprise” shippers that might be most affected by any service disruptions, Jindel said.
FedEx Ground’s SMB customer base would see no reason to shift to UPS unless FedEx Ground’s on-time delivery performance deteriorated markedly, he said. Based on ShipMatrix data, FedEx Ground’s on-time delivery rate is around 93%, a level it’s been at for several months. That represents a significant improvement from the 89% on-time performance rate recorded late last year, according to the data.
UPS’ on-time delivery rate is currently in the 95% to 96% range, Jindel said. The differential, Jindel said, is not wide enough to send FedEx Ground’s SMB customers fleeing, he said. “If those customers were happy with its service several months ago, they should be happy about it now,” he said.
If UPS wanted FedEx Ground’s peak business, it has the capacity to manage it. Seasonal tightness in labor, equipment and infrastructure, which were major issues for shippers and carriers during the pandemic-fueled 2020 and 2021 peaks, is not expected to be a significant factor in the upcoming cycle, Jindel said. Residential delivery volumes will level off considerably as consumers continue to return to in-store shopping and do less online buying, he said. High inflation will curb consumer buying power, which means fewer online orders, Jindel said.
In addition, parcel delivery carriers of all types expanded their network and infrastructure over the past two years, creating a level of slack that didn’t exist during the past two years, Jindel said.