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J.B. Hunt Expects Strong Freight Demand to Extend Into 2022


Bellwether for transportation industry says labor shortages and congestion are constraining the sector

Freight bellwether J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. expects bottlenecks at West Coast ports to intensify heading into the holidays, with congestion continuing to snarl labor-strapped logistics networks and strong shipping demand extending into 2022.

“While peak season is upon us, we believe the bottlenecks on the West Coast are going to compact and even intensify further peak-season capacity needs into November and December,” Shelley Simpson, J.B. Hunt’s chief commercial officer, said on a conference call Friday to discuss the company’s third-quarter earnings.

Executives speaking on the call attributed much of the broader supply-chain upheaval to a shortage of truck drivers and rail workers, along with labor scarcity at customer warehouses.

The backlog of vessels waiting for berths at gridlocked West Coast ports is adding to the challenges, Ms. Simpson said, and is delaying the delivery of some of the company’s containers that are on ships waiting offshore for berth space at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Ms. Simpson said the company has been asking its retail customers if they believe some products will be missing from store shelves before Christmas. “I think that we’re leaning to a yes, which means there would be more shopping and more retail sales in January and obviously more need for us to replenish any of those goods,” she said.

The Lowell, Ark.-based company transports goods by truck and rail and its operations include last-mile delivery services.

“This year, we have reached all-time highs in the need for company drivers in all segments,” J.B. Hunt Chief Executive John Roberts said on the earnings call. The company sees “persistent irregularities in demand patterns substantially resulting from port, labor and inventory challenges with our customers,” he said.

The carrier reported net profit climbed 59% in the third quarter from a year earlier to nearly $200 million, while revenue rose 27% to $3.14 billion.

Revenue in J.B. Hunt’s truckload business moving full trailers of goods for shippers, where demand has been particularly strong as retailers rush to restock inventories, jumped 85% from a year earlier, excluding fuel surcharges. Operating income in the unit soared nearly 400% thanks to higher prices and a 12% increase in loads compared with the year-earlier quarter.

Shipment volumes slipped in J.B. Hunt’s core intermodal business, which involves moving cargo long distances by truck and rail. Overcrowded rail networks limited the flow of freight, while customers kept containers and other equipment tied up at their facilities longer than usual, the company said.

Write to Jennifer Smith