Craig Columbus of TR Group: Shifting industries and powering growth through big data

An interview with the chief information officer of New Zealand’s largest heavy vehicle rental and lease company

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Divina Paredes / IDG

“Each one of our vehicles is its own business,” says Craig Columbus, CIO at TR Group.

“It is there to make money by moving freight. If it is not moving, it is an expensive asset sitting around, not generating return.”

These trucks generate a tremendous amount of data on telemetry around how they operate, he explains.

“When we understand [the data] really well, because we provide management maintenance services, we reduce the operational costs of the truck. We can keep it on the road.”

There is a real thirst among the leadership team and shareholders on how technology can transform our business, and differentiate it from other players in the market

“This means, we need to know when something is going to break,” says Columbus, as he strides the massive yard at the head office of TR Group in Penrose, Auckland. 

TR Group, founded in 1992, is New Zealand’s largest heavy vehicle rental and lease company.

“If we can pre-empt that by a scheduled maintenance, we can schedule a trip to the shop,” he explains. “We can have it done in a day because we can already order the spare parts.” 

Otherwise, the process, which includes ordering the spare parts, could take over a week.

Now, when one considers that TR Group has 6500 vehicles on its fleet, it is no surprise Columbus is looking at processes that can reduce the time and even cost to ensure the fitness of each and every one of their vehicles on the road.

Shifting industries

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At the TR Group head office in Penrose

Columbus is seven months into his current role. Prior to this, he was CIO at law firm Russell McVeagh for 11 years.

At the TR Group, he sees the wide and myriad possibilities of applying emerging and disruptive digital technologies to the 28-year-old company. 

He says the CIO role for a company like TR Group is both strategic and transformative.

“Absolutely, it is a big shift in terms of industry and challenge for me,” says Columbus. 

“Everything I will be doing is around ensuring we are scalable and ensuring that we are leveraging as much modern technology as we can to help us grow in a sustainable way, and to take advantage of some of the technologies we already have.”

“We are taking an NZ-based company and scaling that out to enable global operations, and taking advantage of a lot of information that we have today.

“Ultimately, the more efficiently we can operate our fleets and help our clients operate our fleets, the more profitable our clients can be, and the more reason they will come back to us.”

We are looking at ways to introduce AI and machine learning in some of our large data sets to help extract insights we might not otherwise see

Columbus shares how data-related technologies are helping the company achieve these goals.

“We are investigating ways to help reduce the operational cost of the trucks and increase their safety.” 

“These trucks generate tremendous amounts of telemetry data,” he adds. And in raw form, we are getting data for every 250 metres they roll. We scale that across thousands of trucks. That is a lot of data.”

“It is important to understand how many kilometres they are travelling for on road user charges, and making sure that is kept up to date,” he explains. “How are they being operated? Are the drivers accelerating, braking too hard?”

He says they use the data to help understand, for example, why a truck is “not operating within certain parameters”.

“We can then go on in and proactively fix issues.”

“It was not long ago when we were paper-driven and there was no visibility to what the truck was doing, or when a truck may arrive at a depot.”

“Now, if someone needs to know when the truck will arrive at a depot, we can query the telematics unit to know where it is and when it is going to show up and schedule staff around the arrival.”

According to Columbus, big data is also a critical component of the company’s strong focus on the environment.

“One of the things that is important to our transformation as a whole is sustainability,” he says. “We have a sustainability council to ensure we are doing what is right for the environment.”

“We have got a world where people are much more aware of emission standards, of fuel consumption,” he points out. 

“When we know how to operate a vehicle efficiently, it means we have less emissions, we are spending less unnecessary time on the route.

“We can’t get away from moving freight but what we can do is move freight in a smart way.”

“Ultimately, I believe TR Group helps drive economic prosperity because we are helping companies to move their goods, get them to the right places, at the right time, in good condition, and in a sustainable way.”

Our employees are passionate about trucks...They know these trucks inside and out, backwards and forwards 

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A desktop at the TR Group head office 

A compelling proposition

Columbus is currently building a data science team that will report to the CIO.

“The advantage in having that here is we work as an interdisciplinary team,” he says on this reporting line.

“I have the benefit of understanding what is going on in the business units because we work closely together. I know the data side, they know the business side, so when we come together, it is very powerful."

He is cognisant of the challenges of finding data science professionals. 

However Columbus has a compelling story for them: “We have the data, these trucks produce a mountain of data, our customers produce a mountain of data. How are we going to turn the data from numbers on the screen into actionable material? Data science is key to that.”

He also stresses how they differ from a traditional leasing company in the transport space.

“Anyone with deep pockets can offer you the equipment.” 

“Our employees are passionate about trucks,” he states. “They know these trucks inside and out, backwards and forwards. 

“We provide the maintenance services around that so we help people get the best out of their trucks. It is not just giving them a truck; it is also helping them operate the truck in an optimum way.”

TR Group does not have drivers, but offers adjacent services for them - a driver and technical training division for all types of vehicles.

“That’s an interesting part of the business,” says Columbus. “Because we are in the transport industry, we want to make sure that we are doing our part to make sure our people are safe, our vehicles are safe, so that is a big part of our business as well.”

TR Group also sells their vehicles in the secondary used market.

“People want our trucks because they know we maintain them; they know we have taken a lot of good care of these trucks and as a result they have secondary value.”

Columbus reports directly to TR Group managing director Andrew Carpenter, who started the company in 1992.

Columbus says the managing director has a lofty goal, which is shared by the employees - to be the world’s best truck and trailer rental and leasing company. 

“That is a big challenge... but it is attainable," he says

“There is a real thirst among the leadership team and shareholders on how technology can transform our business, drive it forward, and differentiate it from other players in the market.” 

He notes that his predecessor, Andrew Crabb, who was with TR Group for over four years, “did a great job” in showing the leadership team “what was possible”.

One of the things Crabb instituted was Power BI capability in the business, which showed “there was value in their data”.

“I am pushing it a bit further, and looking at ways to introduce AI and machine learning in some of our large data sets to help extract insights we might not otherwise see.”

The other thing is that as TR continues to grow, they cannot just add people in the back-office functions as they add trucks on the road, says Columbus.

“That is not a really sustainable model.”

Thus, automation is a focus for him and his team.

“We have live projects on now running on both AI and RPA (robotic process automation)” he says.

“When the invoices and statements come in, they will use an extraction software that will get all the lines of information. Robotic process automation will pick these up and check whether the invoices are correct and post these in the right system.”

He cites, for instance, that TR Group gets thousands of statements and invoices that require a whole team of people to go through them, check if these are correct, and also manually enter data in their systems.

“We are removing all that,” he states.

“Because we have a lot of suppliers out there, it is not practical or feasible to build templates for the invoice,” he explains. 

Thus, they need software that in any format, whether statement or invoice, will be smart enough to extract out the right piece of information - no matter where they sit on the page. 

“Only AI can do that for us. It simply takes away the mundane data entry type of work that is very necessary, but not very exciting,” he says.

He points out that because these processes are new, they still have a team doing the manual work, but are also training the affected staff for other areas of the business.

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These model trucks are given to employees as they reach certai milestones in the company

Data and the customer experience

Columbus sees the use of AI for improving customer experience.

“When a truck leaves our depot, and when it comes back, I want it to be as painless as possible for the truck drivers,” he says. 

“I want it to be as easy as renting a car from one of our top companies,” he explains. “You book in advance, come in and take it.”

He notes that because their vehicles require special licenses, and are used for different purposes, it takes a lot of time to check these in and out of the depot.

“One of the ideas we are exploring is using some AI vision capability to be able to scan a truck, taking a truck in three dimensions in key areas to do automatic assessments as to whether it is in good condition or where it needs some attention.”

He explains there will always be manual checks for health and safety reasons. 

“We are talking about basic checks around cosmetic damage, and we can do that automatically, and dramatically reduce the time the truck drives in. It automatically takes photos in real-time and by the time the driver walks into the office, the assessment is done in many ways.”

Columbus explains it usually takes one of their employees at least 40 minutes to inspect a truck. Using the system, he envisioned, the process is expected to be cut down to around 10 minutes.

“Now, when you are talking about thousands and thousands of trucks, that is a big plus.”

He says they are also looking at putting automatic number plate recognition in all of their depots so they can get reports on the vehicles going in or out, and flag vehicles that need attention.

The staff will not only get a report, but also the location of the trucks.

“That is not a small thing,” says Columbus. “We have a yard with potentially hundreds of trucks so it can take a lot of time to find where the trucks are parked.”

“There are some quick wins we can do to help our business and when we say help our business, it is certainly to help our customers,” he says.

“Customers come back to us time and time again because we make their life easy.”

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Craig Columbus

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