Eyes On The Road

May 19, 2006
Print
Text Size:
A A
GRAND RAPIDS — Of all the boxes, bags and envelopes delivered by American Courier Service, nearly three-quarters contain health care materials. Every day, the Grand Rapids courier company’s drivers pick up and drop off lab samples and reports, surgical kits, home infusion supplies and pharmaceuticals, and many more medical goods. X-rays make up a large portion of those deliveries — for now.

Advances in medical technology are phasing out the use of photographic X-rays, just as digital cameras have begun to make photographic film obsolete. And when digital X-rays are the norm, Tom Eardley and his couriers will need to find a way to adjust their business.

“It’s not altogether different than with any other business,” said Eardley, president of American Courier and two related delivery companies. “Technology will constantly change and shape the business that you’re in. The idea of X-rays — yes, I fully expect that eventually we won’t be doing X-ray pick-ups. However, we’re doing more X-ray pick-ups today than we were doing a year ago or two years ago.”

Likewise, he said that much of the work his company does for banks will probably go away as more transactions are able to be completed electronically.

“But for now we’re still passing physical dollar bills and writing checks. As long as that goes on, there will be bank pick-ups.”

Eardley bought the courier company in 2004 after spending most of his career in financial services. In searching for a business to run, he had a few specific requirements. He wanted something that wouldn’t be made obsolete by changing technology, and he wanted something that could not be replaced by cheaper foreign competition. Although technology is “shaping” the mix of products that his drivers deliver, it is not threatening the overall business model. Eardley believes that there will always be a need for short-notice, regional delivery services.

“We fall into those timeframes and unusual things that the Fed-Exes and UPSs can’t do — because on a volume basis, they’ll kill us. But, by the same token, if you have a vial of medicine that needs to be in Niles, Michigan, this afternoon, I’m going to do it, and I’m going to do it cheaper than what a Fed-Ex or a UPS is. If, on the other hand, you need it tomorrow or in two days, they’re going to kill me. So we fall into a narrow band, but it’s one that I don’t see going away.”

Although advances in technology will threaten certain portions of American Courier Service’s business, other advances present new opportunities. For example, the company is a partner in the Gift of Life and Gift of Sight organ donation programs. As doctors improve organ transplant procedures, the need for timely pick-up and delivery of donor tissue grows. American Courier does both inbound and outbound deliveries for the program. In some cases that means transporting locally harvested organs to the airport so they can be delivered to hospitals throughout the country. In other cases, the patient in need of an organ transplant is here in West Michigan

“We’ll get a call that says there’s a flight in the air right now, there’s a kidney on board and we need to get it directly to a hospital,” Eardley said. “A while back, a courier went over to Grand Rapids Ophthalmology and there were two nurses in scrubs waiting for him. The patient was on the operating table and ready for surgery.”

Obviously, timing is critical in these situations. American Courier’s clients need to know exactly when their parcels will arrive. Today, thanks to advancements in transportation industry technology, clients can access that information more easily than ever.

Eardley recently installed global positioning satellite tracking modules in three of his 60 vehicles. The units allow Eardley or his clients to access real-time vehicle data via the Internet. Now a doctor waiting for delivery of a donor organ can log on to a Web site, see on a map the specific location of the vehicle carrying the parcel, and receive a constantly updated estimated time of arrival.

Providing that up-to-the-second tracking capability has become a valuable marketing tool. But it is also valuable to Eardley for administrative reasons.

Data collected from the GPS tracking software and each vehicle’s “black box” data recorder allow Eardley to monitor his drivers’ behavior and correct undesirable activities.

“If the software says that the driver should be there at and we see on the GPS that they’re not, why? Is there road construction unanticipated, or is it that the driver just isn’t doing the job?”

In addition to tracking schedules and routes, the GPS system can send alerts to Eardley’s e-mail in-box if a driver breaks predetermined rules. For example, if drivers exceed the system’s maximum speed limit, Eardley receives an alert. He can also program virtual fences that ensure drivers stay within the route they have been assigned.

The black boxes can also warn against dangerous or undesirable behaviors. For example, hard braking and speeding both set off warning tones, encouraging the driver to ease up on the pedals. By comparing this data to maintenance records, Eardley can see which drivers are particularly hard on vehicles and then work to correct their driving habits.

Eardley admits that the GPS and black box systems have a certain Big Brother-ish quality about them, though that is not his intent in using them.

“It’s behavior modification. That’s really the intent. It’s like your mom saying ‘Hey, you shouldn’t do that.’ It’s not to try to catch somebody. The intent is to encourage safe driving,” he said.

The systems also encourage efficient business. For a company that burns 8,000 gallons of gasoline and 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel each month, efficiency matters. Minor corrections in driver behavior can lead to improved fuel economy or reduced wear and tear on vehicles. That all goes to the bottom line.

At this point, Eardley is not sure whether he’ll expand the use of the tracking devices. He said that he’ll base that decision on his customers’ interest and utilization of the system. He has also seen his customers invest in their own high-tech tracking systems, only to fall back on low-tech solutions when things get dicey. A recent job for electronics retailer Best Buy provides a clear example.

“Despite their best efforts at inventory control, the store up on Alpine Avenue has 23 iPods and the one on LakeEastbrook has none,” he said. “It’s Christmas. They call a courier.”    

Recent Articles by Kevin Murphy

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus