Q&A: CH Robinson's CEO expounds on global plans

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John Wiehoff, chairman and CEO, C.H. Robinson

Few companies straddle the North American domestic truck and global ocean freight markets as does C.H. Robinson Worldwide, the largest US-based truck freight broker, in terms of revenue, and largest non-vessel-operating common carrier in the China-US trade. The 112-year-old company is at the fulcrum of change rippling through the US trucking market and across trade lanes from Asia to Europe, much of it driven by e-commerce and technology.

In July, C.H. Robinson extended its overseas reach, opening a gateway for containerized ocean freight in Antwerp, Belgium. The $13.1 billion company also reached out to small US trucking companies struggling with the upcoming electronic logging mandate, working with a partner to supply companies in its carrier base with a low-cost electronic logging device. 

Chairman and CEO John Wiehoff sat down with JOC editors Chris Brooks and William B. Cassidy last month at C.H. Robinson headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, to discuss the threats and promises of new technology, opportunities for growth in global forwarding, and a North American surface transportation market tilting toward tight capacity and higher costs.  

JOC: C.H. Robinson is celebrating a big anniversary, your 20th year as a public company. How is the company changing today, and where do you want to go?

Wiehoff: All of us in this space are aspiring to be more automated and more global. The last 20 years as a public company we’ve focused on global third-party logistics and trying to expand our footprint around the world. Probably the thing in the last five years that we’ve been the most proud of is our success in global forwarding. And we’ve continued to reach new milestones in volume, particularly between Asia and North America. So, we have this third-party heritage as a brokerage that was very focused on North America surface transportation. We’re leveraging that hundred years of history, and we’re aspiring to be more connected and more global. It’s been fun. In the last five years, we’ve reached a new level of relevance outside of North America. Our technology platform is a big part of that. It’s literally changing every couple of months as technology allows more visibility and connectivity. Every six months, it’s kind of a new chapter.

JOC: The speed with which you have to evolve and change today …

Wiehoff: It’s unbelievable. The lifecycles of computing power just go faster and faster. And you’re probably aware that in surface transportation, Dec. 18 is a big date. That’s the deadline for trucking companies to install electronic logging devices (ELDs). With that will come all sorts of telematic capabilities. So we’re investing in lots of real-time tracking and tracing tools that will bring us closer to global real-time supply chain visibility. That’s always been Utopia.

JOC: How do you see the marketplace as we move into the second half of 2017?

Wiehoff: Starting with global forwarding, we’ve seen a lot of positive momentum. There’s lots of uncertainty around (ocean) capacity consolidation, and pricing, and what’s going to happen. But we’re in the middle of integrating our Australia and New Zealand acquisition (APC Logistics), and have some sales momentum. 

On the (North American) truckload side, all of the discussion the last several months has been around volume increases and the market tightening up, and we’re certainly seeing that. There’s a lot of concern about shortage of supply, with this Dec. 18 (ELD) deadline out there. What’s the second half of the year going to look like, and is the US economy going to hang in there, or are we looking at a bubble? Will this tightening of truckload capacity that’s been happening the last several months continue? Some people have been talking about a “mother of all shortages” and warning this ELD mandate is going to be a really big problem. 

Over the next three or four months, it’s going to be really interesting to see if the tightening of the last couple months continues. If it’s a foreshadowing of Dec. 18, it’s going to be really messy. But we remind people that in the supply-demand relationship, the biggest variable is the demand. What happens to freight demand over the next six months is just so hard to predict; it’s easier to talk about ELDs.

We have a division that focuses on project-based logistics and freight management, and that’s the fastest-growing part of C.H. Robinson. That feeds the whole discussion around how you apply technology, how you use analytics, how you execute more effectively. We see shippers investing in the supply chain to gain a competitive advantage — that area is growing fast.

The pressure on our business today is investing in that technology and transforming our platform. The demand is there. Shippers want it. You’ve just got to be smart about what you’re investing in and what opportunities you’re pursuing, and how to commercialize them and how to get paid for them. The threats are real, but they’re real for everybody.

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