Lorron James Navigates Detroit's Future

Logistics is an ancient profession, as old as human civilization. For three million years, we were hunters and gatherers, and foot travel was our only way to get life’s necessities from one place to another. With the invention of the wheel, around 3500 B.C., land transportation became more sophisticated, and we moved goods around with even greater ease, enabling us to build settlements, and ultimately cities, because suddenly life’s necessities could be imported from afar.

Around 200 A.D., sea travel came into play, and goods could be moved not just to cities, but other countries and even other continents. Moving goods by air came much later – the 20th century – completing the three basic forms of transportation still used today: land, water, and air.

While logistics has seen seismic shifts over millions of years, the greatest shifts have occurred over the last 45 years. That means if the last three million years were one hour, the greatest change in logistics has occurred in the last second, or .00001 of a second to be exact.

“There’s been a sea change in our industry. There’s a new focus on technology like we’ve never seen before,” explained Lorron James, vice-president and co-owner of James Group International (JGI) located in Detroit.

JGI is a family owned, privately held portfolio of companies where Lorron, his brother, John E. James , and his father, John A. James, offer international supply chain services. They transport goods for clients across the country and the world. So, Lorron knows logistics — and long before him, his father, a pioneer and mentor, saw the timely, efficient, and robust flow of goods as fundamental to Detroit’s success, just as Henry Ford saw his own future pinned to the perfection of the assembly line.

One of the many great changes in the logistics industry came as the result of Lorron’s father, a man who made history — because he had to.

“Without my father, there’d be little for us all to build upon,” Lorron said with great respect. “He was the first African American granted the authority by the Interstate Commerce Commission to operate in interstate and foreign commerce since they began regulating trucking in 1935. To be awarded this right, my father had to take the transportation authority all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. And he won.”

It goes without saying Lorron’s father embodies a can-and-will-do spirit to be celebrated – his move was the opening punctuation mark to the sea change, technology being the second.

“Supply chain management has become more of a planning function than it was in the past, because we continue to successfully automate what was previously administrative work,” said Lorron. “Today, a logistics ‘maestro’ conducts, enabling the movement and connection of goods in the physical world. A maestro and the orchestra lead us to the discovery and refinement of improved methods of movement.”

With more complex data and visualization tools, the modern logistical orchestra can see and do more with a lot less effort. And, it’s Detroit that’s learning how to do this better than almost anywhere in the world.

“Once upon a time, paper transactions were king, a lot of paper was generated, and a lot of people spent their days processing it,” Lorron said. “Today, the paper that moves with goods is not the primary transaction flow. It’s only documentation of a digital transaction.”

Because of this, administrative and clerical jobs have given way to planning positions. And those planners benefit from new technology.

“Today software is available to handle network design and analysis,” said Lorron. “Sophisticated forecasting and supply chain management software helps us optimize the supply chains. Once, logistics analysts used manual calculators and industrial engineering to look at different supply chain scenarios – they completed analytical work based on basic cost modeling.”

Today, analysts identify better solutions and determine which of several alternatives is best using software optimization tools they run hourly, daily, and weekly.

Lorron played college football, where reading plays and calling audibles were mission critical. This is not just an interesting fact, but a backdrop to why Lorron sees firsthand Detroit’s capacity to dominate logistics. He stressed three mission-critical projects that need to be completed to make Detroit a once-again dominant player in logistics in the world: the Gordie Howe bridge, the Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal, and the Continental Rail Gateway.

The latter two projects involve some uncertainty, while the Gordie Howe bridge is considered by most to be a sure thing — construction of the new bridge is expected to be finished by 2020. But Lorron, along with other prominent visionaries, want state officials and politicians to place an Elon-Musk-SpaceX level of push behind completing these needed infrastructure projects. Once realized, they would go a long way toward ensuring Detroit’s firm position in the evolutionary supply chain that not only connects Detroit to the rest of the country, but to the world.

To that end, Lorron believes there is a fourth mission-critical project that needs to come to fruition: allowing exports by water in Detroit.

“Detroit’s most precious natural resource isn’t gold or silver or even minerals … it’s water,” explained Lorron.

Given there are three basic forms of transportation – air, land, and water – Detroit is a uniquely situated city for logistics.

“For starers, we’re in the Midwest, the middle of the country, not to mention we’re surrounded by the Great Lakes, which literally places us in the middle of the world. The Great Lakes are special: You can take a freighter from Lake Huron, across Erie, up Ontario, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, to the Atlantic, and send goods to almost anywhere in the world.”

The Great Lakes connect us to the world; they’re a centerpiece of our globalization. Yet, as Lorron explained, we cannot export goods out of Detroit using freighters because of the ballast laws in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act. Logistics companies can only accept imports.

In fact, out of their logistics facility in southwest Detroit, most of JGI’s exports are by land, some by air, and almost nothing by water. The reasons for this are complex — beyond the scope of this article — but they involve challenges of bureaucracy, infrastructure, and yes, logistics.

“It breaks my heart to see under-utilized infrastructure in Detroit when Detroit is poised to start leveraging it globally,” said Lorron.

No one needs to construct a Great Lake that connects Detroit to the rest of the world. The lakes are already here. Detroit’s untapped commerce is tied to what’s right in front of us, and that’s the flow of goods and information to anywhere they need to go. How we increase our city’s bandwidth depends not on moving mountains, or digging a mile-long hole, but merely calling on innovators, collaborators, and of course, politicians, to use what’s already here:  our people, our place, our ports, a few unfinished projects, and our waterways.

The challenge to rebuild and reinvigorate logistics and the transportation of goods in Detroit should be much simpler and it only demands the innovation and collaboration of what’s here waiting to be finished, used, or opened. These choices are not our unrealized future, but our destiny that beckons us to make the next best move, and if all is achieved, Detroit could realize its man-on-the-moon moment – it could become one of the country’s premier inland ports, not to mention the Midwest’s gateway to the world.

“Detroit is small enough to navigate, but large enough to matter,” Lorron explained. “Seattle and New York may be sexier cities, but they don’t need me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. And to effectuate great sea change, we need to forge ahead with our eyes open, awake to all the possibilities.”