The third-party transportation logistics giant cited higher trucking and fuel costs.
C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. fell a penny short of expectations for its fourth quarter Tuesday as the global logistics company delivered 67 cents a share instead of the 68 cents analysts expected.
Fourth-quarter revenue was $2.57 billion, slightly less than Wall Street expectations of $2.63 billion.
For the year, however, earnings and revenue both increased 11.5 percent, and the company earned $431.6 million, or $2.62 per share, on revenue of $10.3 billion.
Robinson, based in Eden Prairie, is one of the world's largest third-party logistics companies. It provides worldwide freight transportation services to corporations, but does not own trucks, railroad cars, planes or ships. It leases transportation to meet customer needs. The company has about 37,000 corporate customers worldwide.
Because of its global reach, the company's performance is viewed as a harbinger of the general economy. While revenue from trucking expanded 5.5 percent in the fourth quarter, and the volume of truckloads shipped increased 7 percent, net margins were hurt by higher costs, including higher fuel costs, the company said.
"We're pleased with our double-digit growth in 2011, and our long-term track record of performance that demonstrates our ability to consistently execute, through all types of environments," CEO John Wiehoff said.
Some analysts agreed.
"Robinson's trucking revenue was in line with what I expected," said Matt Young, an analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago. "And their trucking volume was good, up 7 percent year-to-year, which is in line with the rest of the industry.
"Where Robinson fell short was on the gross margin," Young said. "That's mainly because they didn't increase prices to their customers as fast as the cost of leasing transportation went up."
Over time that will even out, he said.
Analysts had not expressed much hope of an upside surprise before the earnings were announced. A solid majority had a "hold" rating on the stock, and the consensus earnings expectation had held steady for the entire quarter.
In a conference call with analysts, Wiehoff said that Robinson should be able to grow more rapidly in the near future than it is now. At present, supply and demand in shipping are well-balanced, he said. Robinson's business model is designed to profit the most from periods when the transportation market is disrupted because supply and demand are out of balance.
Young agreed. Such disruptions between supply and demand are often caused by a rising economy, which suggests that Robinson will do better as the nation's economy improves, he said.
"Usually when the economy improves, demand for transportation improves because companies restock their inventories," Young said. "I expect Robinson to have decent volume growth in shipping in the next year, maybe more than the trucking industry as a whole, if they can grab more market share."
While FedEx and UPS both reported strong gains in holiday shipping -- something Robinson did not -- Young said they serve a different type of customer. Robinson is shipping all types of goods, while FedEx and UPS are shipping "express" packages that pay a premium for quick delivery, he said.
Wiehoff said Robinson today has only a fraction of the estimated $1 trillion spent annually on freight transportation in the United States.
"We feel like there's a lot of market share left to get," Wiehoff said, adding that the company, which was founded n 1905, considers surpassing $10 billion in annual sales a major milestone. When Robinson went public in 1997, its annual revenue was $1.8 billion.
"Our goal is a long-term average growth rate of 15 percent for net revenue, operating income, and diluted earnings per share," Wiehoff said.
Robinson shares closed at $68.84, down 91 cents, or 1.34 percent. It reported earnings after the markets closed.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553