Chicago’s Project44 grows by fighting supply chain blockages
On a fast track for expansion, the company has started a free online tracker that offers information about shipping’s worst chokepoints.
Much of the world’s attention is fixed on Ukraine. A few days ago, a Canadian truckers’ protest led the news. And for weeks, businesses and federal policymakers have worried about conditions at the California ports.
Each situation differs in gravity. All, however, touch on the supply chain, something we’ve come to appreciate when furniture or new cars must be back-ordered, or favorite brands are missing from grocery store shelves. Tracking supply chain performance has become a competitive sport, with stock brokerages and logistics companies among those compiling reports. Even the White House is involved, issuing a twice-monthly data dashboard.
A Chicago-based company believes it can outdo them all and has a basis for boasting. The company is called Project44. Founded in 2014 and headquartered in the Merchandise Mart, Project44 said it has more than 1,100 employees globally, including 287 in Chicago, and plans to add more. It provides information to the vast market of more than 1,000 companies needing to move things, such as Amazon, Mondelez and General Mills.
“The modern consumer is expecting more transparency and more real-time information nowadays,” said Adam Compain, senior vice president at Project 44. Its secret sauce is broad access to data on all shipping modes and software that helps companies anticipate delays. Project44 claims to have the largest customer network in logistics.
The information commands a price, but Project44 has begun posting a free supply chain tracker that concentrates on trouble spots. Last week, its topics included the Ukraine crisis and the protests over COVID-19 restrictions in France and on the U.S.-Canadian border. People interested in the subject also might check out the company’s webpage devoted to “supply chain insights.” It most recently reported a week-over-week rebound in trucking shipments.
The information will continue as a free service, Compain said. “At the same time, we are building out a software product that continues to add more analytics for our paying customers,” he said.
A tour through the tracker can yield surprises. For example, Project44’s data indicated that while the truckers’ shutdown of the Ambassador Bridge connecting Canada and the U.S. delayed some shipments, the impact was limited. Many trucks were rerouted to a crossing at Sarnia, Ontario, adding perhaps an hour or two to their trip, the company said. Compain said the net impact of the bridge closure on shipping was less than that of the Midwest’s snowstorm in late January.
For the Black Sea port in Odessa, Ukraine, the tracker has shown sharply higher delays compared with recent weeks, including a 52% increase in the times export containers are idle.
Disruptive events making the news can slow down shipping, but supply chain hitches are common. “Every day, about a quarter of all freight shipments incur some type of delay,” Compain said.
Project 44 — named for one of the first interstate highways to bypass the old Route 66 — became a Chicago “unicorn” in 2021. The term refers to young companies that have reached a billion-dollar valuation based on equity stakes they’ve raised. In January, it announced a new $420 million stake from a syndicate that included private-equity firm Thoma Bravo and Goldman Sachs. The deal puts the company’s valuation at about $2.6 billion. It plans to hire around 400 people this year worldwide.
Consulting firms that cover the logistics business have given Project44 top ratings, including a No. 1 ranking by FreightWaves, which provides Bloomberg-like data terminals to shippers. It’s not your old-style business of paper invoices and phone calls anymore.
There are many players with a piece of the logistics pie. Some, such as Chicago’s Coyote Logistics, act as freight brokers but with tech capabilities to modernize the process. Consolidation would seem in order. But Compain said with the new funding, “Our plans are to continue investing in the breadth of our network, the depth of the functionality and the data quality.”
Compain said he projects overall supply chain conditions will improve later this year. Will that put the brakes on inflation? Experts say it’s too soon to make that logical leap. Morningstar analyst Michael Field said frontline shippers such as Maersk are locking customers into long-term contracts at higher rates, building in cost pressures for the time being.
Americans have been complaining about inflation, but companies in their latest earnings reports cite little resistance to higher prices. “To the contrary, our customer demand continues to grow,” Starbucks’ chief operating officer, John Culver, told analysts.
The supply chain stops with consumers, who so far want those trucks, trains and ships to keep right on coming.