As an armchair investor, I usually analyze companies and their economic models through their annual reports and other published documents. This is a top down approach and does not involve any grass roots analysis or any kind of investigation at the ground level. At the end of the day, it has a virtual feel to it.

I recently met a distant relative, who is in the transportation business – mainly long distance trucking and started talking with him about the economics of his business. He mentioned a few key points of his business

          The pricing in the business is very volatile in nature. He was able to get good pricing (rate per tonne) during the 2004-2008 period. The rates collapsed during the 2008 -2009 period. Rates have recovered since then, but are still not anywhere near the peak levels.

          The current rates are slightly above break even. He is able to make good profits in a few months, but ends up giving back (looses money) part of it in the other months.

          He had contracted with large companies via fixed rate contracts and got killed by these contracts during the downturn due to low utilization (A truck under a fixed rate contract cannot be hired out). At present, he has inflation related pricing clauses, but is unable to enforce them due to severe competition.

          The trucking business is driven by vehicle finance from banks and NBFCs. Large companies like TCI are able to negotiate rates and payment terms with them. However as a small operator, he is unable to do so.

          The current ROC in the business is an anemic 10-13% of capital. At the same time there is a lot of stress. Due to these factors a lot of small operators are exiting the business and he is planning to do the same.

I started thinking about the economics of the business and did a mental exercise of applying the porter’s five factor model to the business to see how the facts fit the model

  1. Entry barriers: This business has low to nonexistent barriers to entry. A typical truck costs around 22-29 lacs (total cost) and one can easily get a loan of around 20 lacs. So anyone can enter this business with a starting capital of 7 lacs. In addition, one does not need any specialized skills in this business (beyond a driver’s license and a transport permit). Finally, there is an open market for trucking service (via brokers) and any operator can contract out his vehicle (if he accepts the offered price)
  2. Buyer power: Buyer power is quite high in this industry, especially with large companies. A large cement or steel companies drives a hard bargain with the transport operator as trucking, atleast at the small scale is a commodity product.
  3. Supplier power: Supplier power is quite high too. A small transport operator has to deal with large banks or NBFC for finance and with Tata motors or Ashok Leyland for the trucks. It is easy to see the lack of leverage in this unequal relationship. Fuel is the biggest variable cost, which also is priced by the government.
  4. Substitute product: Although there is not much substitution for road transport, multi-modal transport is now becoming a viable alternative. Large operators like GATI, concor or gateway distriparks now offer a combination of road and rail transport and thus provide a cheaper option. This has now started to hurt the smaller operators
  5. Competitive intensity: This is very high in the industry. As it is easy to add capacity (does not take much to buy trucks or divert it to a more profitable routes), pricing is driven by demand and supply. Due to the highly fragmented nature of the industry, most of the small operators are price takers and are not able to earn an attractive return on capital

It is also clear that the industry is now consolidating with the exit of the smaller players. In a commodity industry, the pricing is driven by the lowest cost operator. In the trucking industry the large operators (especially multi-modal transporters) have some leverage with the suppliers and are able to drive costs down (due to scale) and thus earn an attractive return on capital.

One added reason for doing this mental exercise is that I did a short project with Tata motors in their heavy vehicle business as a management student in the late 90s. The economics for the small operator had started deteriorating then and has now become worse due to the entry of multi-modal transport operators.

At the end of the conversation, I did not want to advise my relative that he should exit this business as it would seem presumptuous (what would an armchair investor know?). However, I am guessing that he has arrived at the same conclusion without using the fancy models and would be exiting it soon.

In the end, I think it was a good learning experience for me. The trucking business reminds me of the following quote by warren buffett

‘When a management team with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact’

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