The first quarter earnings reporting season for trucking kicked off on Monday morning when multi-modal freight transportation provider J.B. Hunt Transportation Services Inc. released numbers showing slight improvements from the same time a year ago.
Net earnings increased 2.6% to $102.7 million, while revenue improved 7%, totaling $1.63 billion. Earnings per share of 92 cents were better than 88 cents a year earlier, and beat a consensus estimate from analysts of 87 cents.
In contrast, operating income fell $149 million from $168 million a year earlier. Freight volume growth and new customer contracts were offset by lower customer rates from competitive pricing, increased purchased transportation costs, higher driver wages, continuing branch network expansion, increased equipment ownership costs, and increased insurance and claims costs, according to the company.
Helping to push earings higher was the company's effective tax rate moving lower to 28% in the quarter compared to 38% a year earlier. That resulted in a one-time savings of $13.6 million, 12 cents per share.
The company’s largest division by revenue, intermodal, saw revenue increase 5% to $937 million, but operating income fell 8% to $95 million. The increase in revenue reflected 2% volume growth and a 3% increase in revenue per load. However, the company said competitive truckload pricing in the shorter-length-of-haul Eastern network from the 2016 bid season carried over into 2017 and continued to pressure intermodal rates. The first quarter ended with approximately 85,200 units of trailing capacity and 5,170 power units assigned to its intermodal fleet.
J.B. Hunt’s dedicated trucking operation saw revenue increase 14% to $209 million but operating income plunged 59% to $4.5 million. Lower operating income was blamed on higher driver wages, increased insurance and claims cost )primarily from weather-related accidents), higher health insurance costs, and increased start up expenditures for new customer contracts compared to the same period a year ago. A net additional 392 revenue-producing trucks were in the dedicated fleet by the end of the quarter compared to prior year, according to the company. That's 181 more than the fourth quarter 2016.
What J.B. Hunt calls its integrated capacity solutions business, its brokerage operation, also saw operating income drop 59%, totaling $4.5 million as segment revenue moved 14% higher to $209 million. It said volumes increased 36% while revenue per load decreased 16%, primarily due to freight mix changes driven by customer demand. Spot volumes increased 22%, primarily in the fledgling flatbed and temperature-controlled services, and contractual business load counts increased 42% from a year ago. Lower operating income was due to a lower gross profit margin, increased claims costs and an increased number of branches less than two years old, which the company said typically produce less revenue than older branches.
Finally, the company’s truck operation saw revenue fell 2% to $94 million as operating income fell 46% to $4.9 million. Revenue excluding fuel surcharge decreased 6%, primarily from a 7% decrease in revenue per load, which was partially offset by a 1% increase in load count. The decrease in revenue per load compared to the prior year is due to a 6% decrease in length of haul and a 1% decrease in rates per loaded mile, according to the company. Customer contract rates were down 1.5% compared to the same period in 2016. At the end of the first quarter, J.B. Hunt’s trucking segment operated 2,144 tractors compared to 2,270 in 2016.