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Tampa Bay businesses innovate to stay alive in the face of coronavirus

“We had to come up with something better,” one owner said.
Tampa-based Whitney Transport hauls bulk materials to construction sites.
Tampa-based Whitney Transport hauls bulk materials to construction sites. [ Courtesy of Whitney Transport. ]
Published Apr. 9, 2020

Chris Whitney knew he had to do something to keep his drivers and customers safe from coronavirus.

He runs Whitney Transport, a Tampa-based hauling company. His customers needed the asphalt, gravel and other bulk materials used to build everything from roads to skyscrapers. And his drivers still wanted to work.

Chris Whitney, founder and CEO of Whitney Transport in Tampa.
Chris Whitney, founder and CEO of Whitney Transport in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Whitney Transport ]

But delivering the goods required getting signatures, which meant drivers and customers coming into close contact, passing paperwork or an electronic device back and forth. The company was making about 7,000 deliveries a week, despite the economic slowdown. That’s a lot of human contact, when health officials were pleading for social distancing.

Whitney worked with his technology vendor to come up with a completely touchless delivery system. Within two weeks, he had it in place. Now, customers can use a smart device to see the dump trucks rolling to their sites. When the driver dumps the load, the customer gets a notice and signs off electronically. The driver and customer don’t even have to meet.

“We couldn’t keep doing it the old way,” he said. “We had to come up with something better.”

Related: Florida's unemployment system: We have answers to your questions.

Tough times often force companies to innovate. The status quo doesn’t work anymore, so they look for creative solutions. In boom times, it’s easy to have the mind-set of why mess with a good thing? A long economic expansion like we had before coronavirus can gloss over sloppy practices or bad protocols. It also provides more room for error, said John Johnson, an economist and co-founder of Edgeworth Analytics, a research and data firm.

“An economic crisis forces companies to think more closely about what they were ignoring,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to predict what form it will take, but it’s predictable that they will innovate.”

Often the technology is already available, it’s just a matter of applying it to a particular challenge or using it more. You can see it in our everyday lives: Pizza makers deliver pies without anyone touching them once they come out of the oven. Auto dealers sell more cars and trucks to people who never step foot on the lot. Banks improve their online platforms and set up better drive-through options.

Cary Putrino, Fifth Third Bank’s regional president for north Florida, expects banks to continue to spend significant amounts on technology to enhance the digital experience. The trend had already started, but the crisis makes it that much more important.

“It sped things up,” he said.

At the Ocala Drive-In theater, John Watzke persuaded a church to rent the property for services on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. The congregants can stay safely in their vehicles while listening to the sermon, which can also be streamed over the internet for people who cannot attend.

“I’ve been trying to do things like that for years,” he said. “I’m just trying to stay afloat."

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Whitney Tranport is based in Tampa and hauls bulk materials to construction sites.
Whitney Tranport is based in Tampa and hauls bulk materials to construction sites. [ Courtesy of Whitney Transport ]

Some of the changes businesses make are temporary. Others will remain after the crisis ends. Whitney, for instance, says his touchless delivery system is here to stay. For too long the hauling industry has relied on cumbersome paperwork, he said. It slows everything down and is difficult to track. The touchless system helps keep people safe from the virus, but another benefit is that it has shortened the time drivers spend at construction sites by about 10 to 15 percent, Whitney said.

Business has fallen about 25 percent since the start of the crisis, when the company made 9,000 deliveries a week. So far, Whitney hasn’t had to lay off any of his 20 employees, and the 150 contract drivers have stayed busy.

Soon after Whitney Transport activated the touchless system, a builder of a commercial distribution center blocked deliveries unless the hauling companies could prove they had a way of delivering materials without potentially spreading the virus. Whitney estimated they had 100 loads scheduled to the site that day.

“Our customer had probably 15 to 20 workers on the site counting on us to deliver,” he said. “We did and that meant they were able to work.”

The coronavirus crisis will destroy a lot of businesses, but many that survive will be more focused and resilient. The innovations that get them through the crisis will make them stronger when it finally ends.

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