The early years
Consolidated Freightways, also known as CF, was founded in 1929 by Leland James in Portland, Oregon. James combined four short-haul companies located in Portland into one trucking firm. Once these companies were combined, James focused on expanding their reach. At the time, trucking in the West was a fledgling industry. The lack of industrial expansion to the West at this point made any sort of progress difficult to achieve. Because of this, James focused primarily on establishing CF as a force in Portland and surrounding areas. Only after he achieved considerable success did he consider broadening the company’s horizons.
Soon after the company was founded, the Great Depression devastated many of the industries and people of the United States. Competition was fierce, and rates were low as a result. While many companies went under, unable to stay afloat in such desperate conditions, companies like CF were large enough to wait out the lean times. Occasionally, CF even benefited by picking up customers that had been dropped by other carriers that could not withstand the Depression. CF’s biggest competitor at the time was the railroad, which was often slow and unpredictable. In 1935, the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which had regulated the railroads since the late 1880s, began to regulate the growing trucking industry as well.
ICC regulation, World War II and acquisitions
Following regulation of the trucking industry by the ICC, Consolidated proved itself a force to be reckoned with. Its routes encompassed Washington, Oregon and California, no small feat considering the challenges presented by the lack of infrastructure in the West.
More opportunities for growth arrived during World War II. The railroads that had previously been responsible for much of the nation’s interstate transportation were carrying war supplies and troops. Trucking companies were able to step up and fill the gaps left by the railroads, and CF seized the chance. By the end of the war, Consolidated Freightways had added dozens of new terminals throughout the western United States and had extended its service as far east as Chicago.
By 1950, CF’s revenues stood at $24 million, and the company was operating 1,600 pieces of freight equipment. Because the ICC regulated the routes that trucking companies could run (as well as the rates they could charge), the easiest way for companies to grow was through acquisition. Consolidated Freightways began an aggressive acquisition strategy, and by the end of the 1950s, it had acquired 53 former competitors.
Becoming a manufacturer
The 1950s also saw CF’s expansion into manufacturing. Immediately following World War II, James founded Freightliner Corporation in order to supply Consolidated Freightways with lighter, larger and more sophisticated trucks and trailers to ensure that it remained on the cutting edge of the competitive industry. Initially, Freightliner only built trucks for Consolidated, but in 1951, it signed an agreement with White Motor Corporation in Ohio, allowing the equipment to be sold in dealerships. The partnership continued for 25 years. After Freightliner’s business was solidly established, James’ successor, Jack Snead, added other manufacturing interests to the family of companies. Transicold Corporation manufactured railway components, and Technic-Glas Corporation manufactured glass fiber products. These manufacturing endeavors, coupled with the expanded truck lines, doubled Consolidated’s sales while Snead was at the helm. In 1959 Consolidated hit $146 million in revenue, making it the largest common carrier in the United States. At the time, the company had grown to employ nearly 11,000 people and operated 13,800 pieces of equipment in 34 states as well as Canada. This success was misleading, however, as the company learned in the 1960s.
Trials and successes during the 1960s
While the family of companies had grown, leadership had failed to integrate them effectively. This, combined with an economic recession, led to a $2.7 million loss at the end of 1960. Snead, previously considered to be immensely successful, was asked to step down, and William G. White was named president and chairman of Consolidated Freight.
White learned quickly that integration of Consolidated’s acquisitions had not been a priority. He immediately set out to integrate the companies, focusing on coordinated control from headquarters, as well as service. Traffic routes were defined, and terminals were consolidated. White also decided on a concerted effort to make Consolidated a leader in the less than truckload (LTL) segment of freight movement; before it had only been a participant.
White also sold off several of the company’s subsidiaries that were more trouble than they were worth, including a small parcel company that was meant to compete directly with UPS. As a result of these actions, Consolidated’s revenues increased at an average of 15% per year, and in 1969, its sales had reached $451 million.
Challenges define the 1970s
The company faced more challenges in the 1970s, especially when the Middle East oil embargo threatened trucking companies as gasoline and diesel prices soared. Consolidated’s Freightliner endeavor was also challenged, as the industry began to emphasize fuel-efficient equipment. There was also a new federal mandate regarding braking systems that disrupted normal sales cycles. In 1977, Freightliner severed its ties with White Motor Corporation and began looking to build relationships with dealers and agents. Unfortunately, Freightliner could not compete with the likes of Mack and International Harvester, which manufactured more affordable equipment. CF sold Freightliner to Daimler-Benz in 1981.
Trucking deregulation brings many changes
After several years of mounting pressure, the trucking industry was deregulated by Congressional legislation that was signed by President Carter. This ended 45 years of ICC regulation of the trucking industry. Particularly in the years just after deregulation, some trucking company executives saw freedom from onerous ICC regulatory oversight; others saw the potential of heightened competition and declining margins.
Rather than cling to the manufacturing companies under CF’s umbrella, the company elected to abandon those companies altogether. Consolidated then created four regional trucking companies to specialize in overnight delivery.
These companies were founded as unaffiliated spin-off companies and eventually became Con-Way Freight. The four companies were collectively generating $600 million in sales by the early 1990s, and CF MotorFreight, the company’s long-haul business, was also doing well. While over 50% of trucking companies went out of business in the eight years following deregulation, Consolidated’s renewed focus and efforts to reshape its trucking endeavors allowed it to not only survive, but thrive, just as it had done during the Great Depression.
Air freight causes major issues
However, in 1989, Consolidated made a misstep that proved to be quite costly. It had been operating CF AirFreight, its own air freight forwarding company for some time. Company management thought that purchasing another strong air freight forwarder could bolster the performance of CF AirFreight. The company purchased Emery Air Freight Corporation, an industry leader at the time. Unfortunately, Emery’s own subsidiary, Purolator Courier Corporation, was deeply troubled by debt. At the time of the acquisition, the companies together were losing nearly $1 million per day, leaving Consolidated with a $41 million loss in 1990 and $614 million in debt. The CEO responsible for the acquisition, Larry Scott, was removed and replaced by Donald Moffitt. Moffitt and Roger Curry, Emery’s CEO, set out to undo the damage that had been done by revamping Emery’s overnight service and removing it from competition with other parcel companies. By 1995, Emery had quite a comeback and was the air freight industry’s most profitable firm, to the relief of Consolidated Freightways.
More issues in the 1990s
The 1990s also generated challenges. The price wars that started with deregulation continued to decrease margins, until CF was operating on profit margins of only 1.5%. A strike by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union in 1994 lasted 24 days and drastically affected the company’s annual revenues.
Freight analysts began to question if the LTL industry could survive, calling the price wars suicidal and expressing concern about competition from smaller, non-union regional carriers. Rate discounting took a heavy toll on CF’s long-haul business, which achieved profitability only once between 1992 and 1996.
The company’s management decided to spin-off CF Motorfreight and four other long-haul subsidiaries in 1996, renaming the grouping Consolidated Freightways Corporation. The remaining companies, Con-way Transportation, Emery Worldwide and Menlo Logistics, were rebranded CNF Transportation.
The “new” Consolidated Freightways emerged from the rebranding with very little debt, and once again, could focus on its LTL offerings and expertise. In 1997, the company innovated further by adding a third-party logistics company, Redwood Logistics, to its family of companies. The company remained profitable until 1999, when poor decisions relating to customers and in technology resulted in profit of only $2.7 million (compared to the previous year’s $26.8 million).
The end of the line
Restructuring attempts helped a bit in 2000, but by 2001, the company was struggling again and reported a loss of $104.3 million. Try as it might, the company could not regain the ground that it had lost. Consolidated Freightways Corporation filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and closed its doors. The spin-off company, CNF Transportation, rebranded itself under the name Con-way, and remained in business until 2015, when it was acquired by XPO Logistics.