Eden Prairie-based C.H. Robinson last week announced that its chief operating officer, Bob Biesterfeld, would assume the role of president and chief executive on May 9. Biesterfeld — who came up through the ranks of the only company he has worked for — will succeed John Wiehoff, who will remain board chairman after a 17-year tenure as CEO. C.H. Robinson connects shippers and carriers and provides a broad portfolio of logistics services. Biesterfeld, a Winona State University graduate, faces a number of challenges brought about by technological changes in the trucking and shipping industry, including increased digital competition.
Q: You have been credited with leading some of the company’s digital transformation efforts. What role does technology play in the company’s future?
A: Technology plays a huge part in our transformation, but our focus is not just on developing tech. We think that our secret sauce is how we bring together innovation to improve process and fuel our people so that they can focus on the meaningful work that they want to do to add value to our clients and carriers.
Q: How are increases in technology and competition changing customer expectations?
A: E-commerce and omnichannel distribution has had broad impacts on the supply chain. This has made technology even more important, and our own personal experience as consumers has shifted the expectation of businesses. I would say the three things that customers are looking for most are around the areas of visibility, cost management and velocity of inventory.
Q: What is your view of digital startups flooding the industry?
A: Over the last several years, there has been an outsize interest in logistics, including a flood of private-equity investments and an increase in digital-only startups. What ride-sharing apps did to disrupt the taxi industry is very different from what can be done within global logistics. Digital startups, for the most part, are using algorithms to match truckload freight with motor carriers much like what has been done in ride sharing. We’ve got smart algorithms, too, but we are using them at a much bigger scale. Freight is different than people. There are complexities in supply chain that are far different. Our experience and scale working with over 200,000 shippers and carriers delivers an information advantage, resulting in better outcomes and improved planning, optimization and execution. Plus, we are different from digital startups because we work across multiple continents and integrate multiple modes of transportation.
Q: How soon will driverless trucking initiatives become reality?
A: I believe we are 10 to 15 years away from any real mainstream adoption of driverless trucking. The technology will likely be available before we get the right steps in place around infrastructure and regulation to ensure mass adoption of full level-five autonomy, where class 8 trucks are “steering wheel optional.” You will also see an increase of autonomous technology in other areas such as within the confines of ports or distribution centers prior to broad usage on the highways. A natural evolution would be to have these autonomous trucks running from city to city on major highways [think Phoenix to Dallas] and then have a driver take over for local, in-city delivery. There have been some advances in autonomous trucking ideas that are closer to realization such as platooning. That is where two or more trucks using connective technology can ride in a convoy, increasing efficiencies and potentially improving safety and fuel efficiency.
Q: What have you learned in the last year that has prepared you for your new roles?
A: Up until my transition to COO, most of my career has been focused on the Americas. I have had the opportunity to spend a lot of time overseas meeting with and learning from our global employees and our customers. I’ve also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with our information technology group. I’ve learned that regardless of which continent I have been on or which city our office has been in, the Robinson culture runs really deep through our organization.
Q: What’s on the schedule between now and when you officially assume your new roles?
A: I don’t see a lot changing. We have all of our global leaders coming together for our annual meeting later this month. From there, it’s back to work meeting customers, spending time with investors and being in the field with our teams.
Q: What can the 15,000 employees of C.H. Robinson expect from you regarding your leadership style?
A: From me personally, they should expect a passion for helping our customers and delivering quality. They should expect that I’ll be committed to our culture and to ensure that C.H. Robinson is the best place to build a career in the logistics industry. They should expect a drive toward innovation. They should expect a servant leadership style from me and the entire senior leadership team; we work for the 15,000 people that pursue our mission and live our values every day.