Having a protectionist stance in 2017 seems to be the equivalent of the “tough on crime” rhetoric that ushered so many American politicians into power in the 1990s. And, just as the United States had to learn that crime was better rectified through education and economic opportunity, America’s economy is better served through trade and innovation than it is through closed borders and costly relocation of manufacturing.
C.H. Robinson is doubling down on global trade. The Minnesota-based 3PL recently opened new offices in Asia and Canada and acquired APC Logistics, expanding its global footprint in key strategic global markets, including freight forwarding and customs brokerage services in the Oceania region. On the technology side, the logistics company has created an internal innovation division that is now central to its growth strategy, one that bets on technology, but also promotes the human element. The entire global forwarding and warehousing operating is now folded into the company’s proprietary technology platform, Navisphere, which we recently talked about, among other topics, with Mike Short, C.H. Robinson’s president of global forwarding.
Q: Regarding the forwarding community, which is more important, pure economics or personal relationships?
Mike Short: Relationships are changing. There are online freight platforms that can completely remove the human element, while there are forwarders who maintain that the human element is still crucial. In our area of expertise, we feel that communication is the most effective way for shippers and forwarders to come together as the situation changes and factors arise.
That said, technology is, and will continue to be, a large component of what we do as a 3PL. We do not feel that automation will ever completely replace the human element. A lot of discussions now revolve around how all the different layers of a supply chain interact, and there needs to be more involvement. It just doesn’t feel like the human element will ever completely go away.
Q: Could you talk a little about Navisphere?’
Short: We try to meet our customers and suppliers where and how they want us to do business. We know that the use of the web and mobile technology is becoming increasingly preferred, so we’ve made it a priority in the development of technology and digital tools. C.H. Robinson has iPhone- and Android-based systems today that are easy to use. Whether they are a forwarder or shipper, or combination thereof, all of our customers’ shipments are live within Navisphere. It’s one global system. All of our global regions are integrated, we see it as a competitive advantage.
Navisphere is all about being accurate, having the information be timely, and our ability to crunch this data into workable analytics. That allows us to deliver supply chain customization. Our customers not only want and need to know where the products in their supply chain are, they also want to be able to make better freight decisions, which has a material effect on their freight expenses.
Q: What areas of the global market are priorities for C.H. Robinson?
Short: There are many important trends that we are watching, such as e-commerce, the speed to market, the ability to ship smaller, faster shipments and reverse logistics. Shippers should study their internal and external relationships. Both are fundamental. The more global and complex companies and supply chains become, the more important it is to have great internal and external relationships to ensure consistency and efficiency across the board. The alignment between supply chains and IT, and between executive management teams is crucial. We are looking at Vietnam, and other emerging markets as well, but ultimately, we want to be where our customers need us.
Q: How are your customers preparing/hedging against potential disruption?
Short: The current anti-trade atmosphere could slow the growth and disrupt supply chains, but people will continue to trade globally. Trade is necessary. Over 300 C.H. Robinson employees are primarily employed on our cross-border operations within the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and we don’t see that going away. That business has been growing consistently over the last few years, and we are one of the largest customs brokers in the U.S. Over 50 percent of the freight that we’ve cleared has utilized a provision within NAFTA.
C.H. Robinson currently works with businesses of all sizes to increase sales by connecting markets and suppliers across Mexico, Canada and the U.S., but it’s ever-changing, and we are adapting. We have people that focus on trade and compliance, and they are keeping us abreast, but our outlook is still positive. We had a great fourth quarter, and the best January ever, and we foresee that growth continuing.