Shifting Gears: Chattanooga’s Logistics Scene Looks Ahead

Like many cities, Chattanooga has no shortage of nicknames.

“The Scenic City.”

“Gig City.”

“The Dynamo of Dixie.”

Use any of those when speaking to a local, and they’ll know you’re referencing this town. But some new alternatives have cropped up of late: “Silicon Valley of Trucking,” and “Freight Alley.”

Both of the new labels point directly to Chattanooga’s emergence as a hotbed of logistics innovation and business development, a wide-sweeping industry that touches the lives of every single American and employs thousands of people, directly and indirectly, in this area.

As is the case with every industry over the past couple of years, trucking and trucking-adjacent verticals continue to adjust to the shifting economic landscape brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. And while it’s easy to view business news related to some industries as far off, distant developments, when considering the substantial role logistics plays in the lives of so many workers and their families across the Chattanooga region, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the well-being of the trucking industry is intimately tied to the well-being of this community.

With that in mind, I recently visited with Dan Martin, CEO at Xpress Global Systems (XGS), a Chattanooga-based trucking company that specializes in moving freight for the flooring industry, to talk about pressing issues facing businesses like the one he leads. New to the area — his tenure at XGS began in April 2021 — Martin was immediately struck by how well-suited Chattanooga is for logistics successes.

Dan Martin, CEO, Xpress Global Systems

“Chattanooga is uniquely positioned to be a great logistics hub,” Martin told me. Supplementing its long history in freight, he notes that Chattanooga’s geographic location serves as a “catch basin” for fresh talent coming out of colleges across the region who are lured here by a relatively low cost of living. Martin also points to the richness of industry knowledge that permeates through the business ecosystem here. Legacy employers like U.S. Xpress, Kenco, and Covenant Logistics have trained up countless professionals who’ve gone on to start and help propel a new wave of logistics-oriented businesses stemming from the entrepreneurial diaspora following Coyote Logistics’ 2014 acquisition of Access America.

As much of the U.S. economy works to shake off the pandemic-related impacts of the past few years, Martin says the trucking businesses that are thriving now are the ones that adopted a proactive approach to meeting Covid-era problems head-on. “We throttled down on the expansion of our footprint, committed to paying higher wages and providing best-in-class benefits, and we invested $7 million in new technologies that gave us more precise data flow and lane routing capabilities,” he said. Martin also noted that while many trucking companies began “trying to be all things to all customers” in recent years, the specialty nature of XGS’ business, honing in on flooring, gave them the ability to offer highly refined industry-specific services that “moonlighters” could not match.

Looking toward the future, Martin sees the logistics industry as a potential key driver in diversifying the region’s middle class workforce. As Chattanooga’s transportation sector grows by size and segment, there is an anticipated need for more professionals to fill emerging job opportunities. The diversity of XGS’ current workforce, according to internal surveying, is something that employees are happy about. An intentional effort to recruit from “all walks of life,” he says, combined with harnessing technology to provide workplace flexibility, are two factors contributing to XGS being recently named as one of Chattanooga’s “Best Places to Work” by Edge Magazine (a publication of the Times Free Press).

Martin told me that younger workers, in addition to expecting diversity to be a core pillar of an employer’s business model, tend to want to be a part of a larger commitment to a sustainable future. A business that wants to onboard the best and brightest up-and-coming talent will not only find ways to be more environmentally sustainable, but they’ll also find ways to promote that commitment publicly.

Sustainability is a very visible part of the XGS mission and vision statement, and Martin enjoys talking about their reduction in greenhouse gas emissions via load consolidation. What that means for his team is consolidating multiple brand shipments onto their trucks, a practice that is yet to gain widespread adoption among XGS’ industry peers. Hauling 20 rolls of carpet from various brands as opposed to one roll per truck from a single brand saves “millions of unnecessary miles being driven annually,” thus minimizing unnecessary emissions being pushed into air. By the end of 2022, Martin says XGS will formalize an emissions reduction goal that will require the efforts of the entire company to meet.

Chattanooga’s ties to the logistics world run deep, and an optimist would tell you that the best days for this long-standing relationship lie ahead. Yet, for such a possibility to become a reality, it will take the combined commitment of industry leaders here to make the most of their collective opportunities to turn this city’s reputation into a beacon for others to follow.

“I’ve only been here for a year,” says Martin. “But I’m already familiar with what people call ‘The Chattanooga Way,’ how this city has rallied together to better itself over and over again. I think this is a perfect opportunity for my peers and me to do our part to create something so special that people from across the country will study the steps we’ve taken to become the healthiest, most equitable, and most forward-thinking logistics market in the country.”

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