Sept. 18, 2019 4:38 pm ET
C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc., the biggest freight broker in North America, will double its technology spending over the next five years as it fends off challenges from a growing field of digital startups.
The Eden Prairie, Minn.-based company plans to spend $1 billion to hire more data scientists, engineers and developers to expand its technology and develop new services in an estimated $86.5 billion U.S. domestic market for managing freight transportation.
The spending plan comes as digital freight-booking startups such as Uber Technologies Inc. ’s Freight unit, Seattle-based Convoy and New York-based Transfix Inc. are jockeying to take a bigger slice of the truck-brokerage market with technology that aims to connect truckers with shippers more efficiently.
Their push to automate the manual processes in booking freight shipments, including mobile apps and clear views of capacity and pricing, is helping reshape freight brokerage.
That could reduce profitability for the middlemen that arrange the transport of goods for manufacturers, retailers and other businesses, Stephens Inc. analyst Jack Atkins wrote in a recent research note.
Some of the newer digital brokers “appear to be offering aggressive market rates to both small carriers and shippers in an effort to build scale and take market share,” Mr. Atkins wrote. “These market players are now big enough to impact market pricing, and we believe this is causing established players to accelerate technology investments to drive higher productivity as they look to defend or expand market share.”
Established transportation and logistics companies including XPO Logistics Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. are also spending millions to automate and digitize their brokerage operations. XPO Logistics has increased its capital spending from $504 million in 2017 to a planned $650 million this year, the company said, much of it going toward technology.
C.H. Robinson Chief Executive Bob Biesterfeld downplayed the impact of the startups, noting the company is adding newly available technology at a rapid rate and that, after all, it handles far more business than its competitors, both tech-forward operators and traditional middlemen.
“We’ve been in the freight-matching business really since the deregulation of transportation in 1980,” Mr. Biesterfeld said in an interview. “We are around three times bigger than the next largest North American brokerage provider, and somewhere around 14 times larger than the combination of the two largest digital upstart brokerages.”
Founded in 1905 as a wholesale produce brokerage house, C.H. Robinson last year generated $16.6 billion in gross revenue from brokerage, global freight forwarding and other business lines.
The company is by far the largest player in a highly fragmented U.S. market. Research firm Armstrong & Associates estimates the domestic transportation management market, which includes brokerage and other logistics services, generated $86.5 billion in revenue last year. C.H. Robinson’s North American Surface Transportation segment, which provides trucking and other freight services, counted $11.2 billion in gross revenue last year.
C.H. Robinson has rolled out its own transportation management system that connects the company’s customers and carriers and allows tracking of shipments across all modes and geographies. That technology platform includes mobile apps for carriers and drivers and connects to the software programs that bigger trucking companies use to manage their fleets.
More than 60% of the broker’s interactions with carriers are fully digital, as are about three-quarters of “all of the customer load tenders and customer communication,” Mr. Biesterfeld said. “Put all that together and it sounds like that disrupter story line. We really believe that we have been the original company in this space, matching supply and demand.”
He sees the rise of digital operators such as Uber Freight, which last week announced plans to hire thousands of employees for a new headquarters in Chicago, a key logistics hub, as “somewhat of a validation of the model we’ve built,” he said. He believes the move signals that Uber Freight is on the lookout for workers with logistics experience.
“If you’re based in Silicon Valley, I don’t know that you move to Chicago to hire data scientists and engineers,” said Mr. Biesterfeld.
Acquisitions have helped fuel C.H. Robinson’s growth, including its 2015 purchase of Freightquote.com, then one of the largest internet-based freight brokers, for $365 million. But Mr. Biesterfeld dismisses the idea that C.H. Robinson could accelerate freight’s technology drive more directly by acquiring one of the digital startups.
“We don’t frankly think that they bring anything to market that we don’t have already in our tech, either what’s implemented or what’s in our tech road map,” he said. “And we believe that our service extends so far beyond where they are focused or where they are, it wouldn’t be additive to us.”
C.H. Robinson Worldwide to Double Spending on Freight Technology
Jeez...Such simple looking apps and so much money, yet not bug free.
However, outsourcing call centers to underdeveloped countries is not the right path...which I hope XPO, JBHunt, CHR are not going to take but do they even care?
Somehow, it makes me mad when I have to explain myself to someone from over there. Just to realize you talk to someone from places like Indochina about your problem with a pick up is surreal. You never get anything accomplished with those guys.