Most of us assume we can get fresh blueberries in February, buy brightly colored flowers for Mother’s Day or find fully stocked shelves at department stores in the midst of a snowstorm.
C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. helps make it happen.
The Eden Prairie-based global logistics firm matches manufacturers, retailers, grocers and a host of other companies with cargo carriers to find the best way to move goods from point A to point B — whether by land, air or sea.
By combining its proprietary online tracking system with old school person-to-person sales skills, the $13.5 billion company has become one of the world’s top-five third-party freight-moving companies, working with nearly every Fortune 500 company in America and most of Minnesota’s best-known brands.
Since going public in 1997, the 110-year-old company has plodded along with mostly measured and organic growth. But Robinson has sunk more than $1 billion into acquisitions since 2010, with two of its largest deals coming in the past three years.
The broader freight-moving industry has been on a buying jag as well, taking advantage of low capital costs and interest rates. Longtime CEO John Wiehoff said Robinson is more interested in making strategic plays for companies that will beef up its international footprint or enhance its technology.
“A number of companies in our industry have been way more aggressive with acquisitions, buying anything you can,” Wiehoff said. “We’ve been much more deliberate and thoughtful, with great sensitivity to cultural fit and a successful integration.”
C.H. Robinson already is reaping benefits from its most recent deals. Its $635 million purchase of Chicago-based Phoenix International in 2013 doubled the company’s global ocean-and-air freight forwarding business, expanding its toehold onto the world’s largest and most coveted trade lane between China and North America.
Last year’s acquisition of Freightquote.com, an e-commerce company based in St. Louis, further fortified Robinson’s dominance as North America’s largest manager of truckload shipments. Freightquote.com, with a healthy client roster of small companies, helped boost Robinson’s less-than-truckload orders by nearly a third in 2015, according to Morningstar analyst Matt Young.
“Their execution has been top-notch,” Young said. “They historically have not been a very acquisitive company. Those they’ve done have been very targeted and smart, often to get them more scale in market that’s growing.”
Charles Henry Robinson founded the company in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1905, transporting and distributing perishable fruits and vegetables by horse and buggy. Although he died four years later, his namesake company survived and began a period of rapid growth in the 1980s after federal deregulation of the trucking industry.
To accommodate its expanding workforce, the company built a four-building campus seven years ago near the Flying Cloud Airport, where eagles soar over the Minnesota River and Valleyfair roller coasters loom over the horizon.
The company doesn’t own fleets of trucks or a lot of other assets. It makes money by brokering deals between manufacturers and transit companies, an industry that remains highly fragmented. Robinson considers this strategy a competitive advantage that keeps costs low and provides more flexibility.
Scale is key, because it gives companies like Robinson a stronger negotiating position. Eighty-three percent of Robinson’s trucking shipments last year involved companies with fewer than 100 trucks. But having multiple shipping options along similar routes is just as essential, providing its sales force more alternatives if cargo gets stymied over such uncontrollable events as weather, political strife or a labor strike at a key shipping port.
While the company operates in 38 countries, 80 percent of Robinson’s business comes from moving freight around the U.S. and Canada, where it is the market leader by a long shot.
“The organic growth story is still there for market share in the truck brokerage business,” Young said. “The industry is highly fragmented, so there’s a lot of opportunities for a company like Robinson, which has benefits of a network effect, where the more carriers and more shippers in your network, the more valuable it becomes.”
While globalization isn’t new, it is expanding and shifting. Sourcing is shifting from China to Vietnam or other regions of Asia, where goods are more affordable. With 280 offices worldwide, C.H. Robinson aims to simplify complicated supply-chain decisions by using better technology and having deep expertise at the local level.
“It’s a big, messy marketplace,” said Chris O’Brien, C.H. Robinson’s chief commercial officer. “Ultimately, our job for our customers is to make the complex simple. You don’t have to have feet on the ground everywhere in the world, because we’re already there. We speak the language, we know the regulations, we know the tariffs, we know what it means to import from these new markets.”
It isn’t hard to conceive how things can get complicated when dealing with 150,000 companies, ranging from Wal-Mart and Toshiba to small, family-owned businesses.
C.H. Robinson has invested $1 billion in technology since 1997, most significantly with the 2012 launch of its proprietary Navisphere platform. It is the linchpin of its business, allowing customers to track their orders and the sales force to manage the best shipping course.
Wiehoff, a Minnesota native and former St. John’s college basketball standout, rose to president when he was 38 and became Robinson’s top executive less than three years later.
The company, he says, is in the “middle innings” of an industrywide transformation fueled by mobile technology, e-commerce and continued globalization. The goal in the coming years will be to maintain an IT edge while expanding Robinson’s global network and domestic market share. Growth will come by way of organic growth or targeted acquisitions.
“There’s a lot of good things that come from size,” Wiehoff said. “But if you become a big nameless company, that’s not good either. You need those local relationships, you need to understand what’s happening in these markets to do the best job you can.”