J.B. Hunt adds capacity, builds volume, increases profit

JB hunt 2J.B. Hunt Transport Services beat both Wall Street and Main Street in the fourth quarter, winning more business and hauling more freight when overall U.S. shipment volumes were dropping.

Rate hikes, higher volumes and reduced interest and operating costs all gave a boost to J.B. Hunt profits, but a more than 40 percent drop in fuel surcharges stunted revenue growth.

J.B. Hunt, the largest U.S. trucking operator after UPS and FedEx, increased fourth-quarter net profit 5.8 percent year-over-year to $116.7 million on $1.62 billion in total operating revenue.

That total revenue figure climbed 1 percent from the fourth quarter of 2014, the first year-over-year increase in quarterly revenue for J.B. Hunt since the first quarter of 2015.

Overall, J.B. Hunt handled more than 1.3 million loads in the fourth quarter, including 1,141,343 hauled using its own network and equipment. All told, that represents a 9.2 percent increase in shipments year-over-year and a 4.6 percent gain from the third quarter of 2015.

During the third and fourth quarters, the Cass Freight Shipment Index, a broad measure of truck and intermodal volume, dropped 2.4 and 4.7 percent, year-over-year. The index was down 10.5 percent in December from a 2015 peak in June.

At J.B. Hunt, intermodal loads jumped 6 percent in the fourth quarter, twice the rate of expansion in the third quarter, with eastern rail network loads rising 8 percent after growing 1 percent the previous quarter.

Loads handled by the Dedicated division rose 5.8 percent, and truckload shipment volume rose 5.9 percent in the quarter. Integerated Capacity Solutions, J.B. Hunt’s truck brokerage division, increased the loads it handled by 38.5 percent, as shippers took advantage of lower spot rates.

For the full year, the Lowell, Arkansas-based company increased net profit 14 percent to $472.2 million on $6.2 billion in total revenue, an increase of only $22.2 million from 2014.

Since the 2009 recession, J.B. Hunt has increased its annual revenue by double digits each year, including two 10.4 percent increases in 2014 and 2013, starting from $3.8 billion in 2010.

That revenue growth spurt literally ran out of gas in 2015, as diesel fuel prices dropped more than 30 percent, pulling down fuel surcharges at J.B. Hunt 38 percent, by $411.3 million.

Excluding fuel surcharges, J.B. Hunt revenue rose 8.5 percent to $5.5 billion. The carrier’s revenue sans fuel surcharges rose 12.3 percent in 2014 and 11.6 percent in 2013.

In the fourth quarter, fuel surcharges were down 43.8 percent, to $148.7 million at J.B. Hunt, while fuel expenses and taxes fell 31.4 percent to $69.6 million, company earnings data show.

The average U.S. retail diesel price dropped 32 percent year-over-year in the fourth quarter, with per gallon prices over the 13-week period falling 25 cents. They’ve dropped further since.

Those lower surcharges depressed revenue per load and revenue per truck, but J.B. Hunt’s bottomline was more resilient. While net profit rose 5.8 percent, operating profit was up 5 percent.

The higher profits reflect higher intermodal, dedicated and truck revenue, improved fuel economy and lower maintenance costs, less reliance on third-party carriers in intermodal and dedicated, expanding gross margins in brokerage and lower truckload safety and insurance costs.

Still, the increases were smaller than year-ago gains, reflecting the slower economic pace as well as increased rail purchase transportation costs, increased wages paid to drivers, increased costs of recruiting drivers and independent contractors and higher costs of equipment ownership.

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