The Future of Logistics: What to Expect

Key findings based on the 250 CEOs and leaders at the BGSA Supply Chain Conference

Benjamin Gordon
Aug 21, 2019 · 10 min read
Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash

The BGSA Supply Chain Conference gathers over 250 of the top CEOs and industry leaders in transportation, logistics, and the supply chain sector. That means we get to learn from the best and brightest in this market. What did we learn?

Several key challenges and opportunities stood out.

The Challenges

We see three major challenges facing the supply chain market today.

Trade: War and Peace

The first challenge is the choppy political climate.

On the one hand, we averted a trade war with Canada and Mexico, when the Trump Administration canceled the NAFTA agreement but then replaced it with a similar deal in September.

On the other hand, we may be entering a bigger battle with China. President Trump and Chinese Core Leader Xin Jinping agreed to postpone retaliatory tariffs on December 1. But if they fail to reach agreement, the US will impose 25% tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods, and China will reimpose 40% tariffs on US cars.

The US supply chain is already feeling the consequences. West Coast shipping data shows a drop in exports to China. In November, over 186,000 containers in Long Beach were shipped empty back to Asia, reflecting an 11% increase. It appears that China is finding non-US sources for products wherever possible.

In the short term, the data is mixed. In fact, the US imported record levels of products last quarter. In addition, Long Beach volumes are at all-time highs, and exceeded 7.5 million containers handled. Many analysts believe US retailers pursued a surge in Chinese purchases in late 2018, to beat the 2019 tariffs. If true, this pre-buy could lead to a 2019 slowdown.

An unintended consequence of the Trump trade policy is the trend toward reshoring. Tariffs are intended to encourage American consumers to buy American. In turn, Trump has sought to bring manufacturing jobs to the US. Some companies, like Carrier, announced plans to expand manufacturing in the US. However, others have announced plans to increase manufacturing in China, in order to avoid US-China tariffs for products aimed for non-US consumers. BMW, for instance, began building the X3 SUV in China, and announced plans to make China an export hub for the electrified X3.

For supply chain companies, one silver lining is volatility. More uncertainty typically means more margin opportunities for freight forwarding and other asset-light companies.

Labor: The $100,000 Truck Driver

The second challenge is the tight labor market.

Consider the truck driver.

At Walmart, entry-level drivers are now earning record salaries of $86,000. Fully-loaded to reflect the cost of benefits, this costs Walmart over $100,000 per year. Meanwhile, at YRC, the Teamsters are beginning steps toward a new collective bargaining agreement, replacing a 5-year extension that expires on March 31. The contracts cover 20,000 Teamsters. In the words of the Teamsters’ Ernie Soehl, “we are not interested in concessions in these negotiations!”

Is it a coincidence that trucking stocks have plummeted, and companies like Knight, Werner, ArcBest and YRC are trading at 6x, 5x, 4x, and 3x EBITDA, respectively?

Yet these cost spikes also carry unintended consequences. As labor becomes more expensive, technology becomes more competitive. Will 2019 be the year when autonomous trucks gain traction?

McKinsey estimates that full automation of trucks could slash operating costs by as much as 45% in the next decade, saving the industry over $100 billion. Benefits include:

  • Two-truck platooning — yielding 1% savings due to fuel improvement
  • Driverless platooning — enabling “follower trucks” to drive unmanned, producing an additional 10% savings
  • Constrained autonomy — allowing unmanned trucks to operate in geofenced areas, garnering 20% savings
  • Fully-autonomous trucks — eliminating drivers for all functions including loading, driving, and delivery, and achieving a full 45% saving

Are these Panglossian projections, or are they realistic? In Australian mines, Komatsu has been operating driverless construction vehicles for years. And on the passenger side, Intel is launching a fleet of 100 self-driving cars.

In sum, to quote William Gibson, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed!”

Technology: The Many Arms of the Octopus

This brings us to the third challenge: technology disruption. 2018 was a year of rapid change and investment in technology. The chart below illustrates 16 new technologies that are powered by 6 major trends. Each of these factors represents a threat to the established order of supply chain companies today.

Source: McKinsey

For example, the intersection of ecommerce, cloud technology, and “supply chain 4.0” has led to a surge in digital freight brokers. Convoy became a unicorn. Transfix is rumored to be not far behind. Uber invested aggressively into its Uber Freight initiative. In total, more than 20 companies in this sector raised capital in 2018. Meanwhile, hundreds of enterprises are investing in “Digital Transformation,” as they seek to keep up.

The Biggest Disruptor: Amazon

Many companies are using technology to pursue disruption. None is doing so in a more powerful manner than Amazon. With $740 billion of enterprise value as a war chest, Amazon is deploying its resources to pursue logistics.

Amazon views its logistics business as a differentiator. Last quarter, Amazon delivered over 1 billion holiday packages “for free,” to members of Amazon Prime. It spent over $9 billion on shipping charges last quarter, representing close to a 30% increase over the prior year. And Amazon already delivers about 10% of its own packages.

In 2018, Amazon bought transportation and logistics assets. On the warehousing front, Amazon began to deploy its Whole Foods acquisition in order to turn its stores into distribution centers. On the transportation front, Amazon has doubled down on its aviation assets, announcing that it would add 33% more planes to its lease agreement with ATSG, while extending the duration of the prior leases by 2 to 10 years. ATSG and Atlas air now operate 40 767 planes. In addition, Amazon negotiated warrants that could boost Amazon’s ownership to 39.9% of ATSG and 20% of Atlas. Could the purchase of transportation companies be next?

Meanwhile, Amazon has continued to invest in innovation. For a good leading indicator into Amazon’s plans, we can look at its patents. Amazon’s 2018 patents included a “robotic pitcher.” The Amazon arm intends to identify, grab, and throw objects into bins. Another patent provides ultrasonic pulses on wristbands to guide employees’ hands. Crazy or scary? We will see in 2019.

The Opportunities

Against these challenges of political volatility, labor shortages, and technology disruption, where are the opportunities?

Technology: The Empire Strikes Back

One major opportunity is for incumbents to use technology to fight back.

For example, in retail logistics, Amazon’s strategic initiatives are driving competitors to act. Target is seeking to replicate Amazon Prime capabilities with its own supply chain investments. After buying Shipt and Grand Junction, Target is now seeking to expand its capabilities. Shipt will soon reach 50 million households. And Target will offer free 2-day delivery for “Redcard” holders and purchases of over $35, including drive-up service.

Walgreens saw Amazon’s purchase of Pillpack and decided to respond too. They forged a partnership with Fedex to pursue next-day prescription delivery nationwide.

On the intellectual property front, Walmart is investing in patents too. A recent patent seeks to provide a “Fresh Online Experience.” Consumers will be able to see individual fresh items remotely before making a purchase.

Lastly, other transportation and retail companies are forging partnerships to innovate together. For instance, Pizza Hut and Toyota joined forces to create a “pie-making truck.” In the truck bed, robots are going to produce pizza pies on demand.

Incumbents Create Corporate Venture Groups

A second major opportunity is for incumbents to create corporate venture groups.

Ford Motor Company is a case in point.

The automotive industry has been beset by technological disruption. In 2017, we saw the advent of ACES, the acronym for key trends including Autonomous, Connected, Electrification, and Sharing.

Ford and GM enjoyed nearly a century as established U.S. market leaders. Despite their entrenched leadership positions and 100-year head start, today, the combined market value of these two incumbents is now less than the combined market value of Uber and Tesla — two startups that didn’t exist only 15 years prior.

In many ways, what is happening to carmakers is a prelude to what is happening in trucking. As Tesla rolls out its electric trucks, and as driverless technology begins to take root, the entire transportation industry is likely to go through the same transformation. For instance, in the logistics sector, stocks like XPO, CH Robinson, Echo and Hub Group dropped as much as 50% from peak to trough in 2018, based in part on fears of technology disruption.

So how did Ford respond?

Ford characterized these changes as “the fastest transformation in 100 years.” As Ford watched these trends, they decided to respond with key investments and acquisitions. Ford formed a strategic venture arm in Silicon Valley, called the Ford Research and Innovation Center. Ford then invested in several autonomous vehicle pioneers, including Velodyne LiDAR, Civil Maps, SAIPS, ARGO AI, and Nirenberg Neuroscience.

Today, Ford sees its future as not just a carmaker, but also a “mobility manager.” These kinds of changes would have been unthinkable as little as 2 years ago. Will other transportation sectors and companies follow suit?

We expect to see more transportation and logistics companies choose to make a portfolio of strategic investments in 2019.

Consolidation: The Party Continues

This brings us to the third major opportunity: deal activity. Amidst all of these positive catalysts, we are continuing to witness record M&A activity across all industry sectors.

Major deals in 2018 included several themes:

  • Niche consolidation: MNX acquired Network Global Logistics, creating a market leader in time-critical logistics. Penske bought Old Dominion Truck Leasing, expanding its core leasing business. RoadOne bought First Coast Logistics, bolstering its drayage network. Transportation Insight bought Nolan Transportation Group, doubling down in truck brokerage and freight management. And Lineage bought a string of cold storage companies including Service Cold Storage, bidding to challenge Americold.
  • Geographic expansion: DSC Logistics sold to South Korea’s CJ Logistics. CFI (formerly Con-Way Freight and now a part of Transforce) acquired Optimal Freight, resulting in a truckload and asset-based 3PL expansion on a NAFTA-wide basis. FedEx teamed up with Wirecard, providing payment processing and retail outlets in India, Germany, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, AIT bought ConneXion World Cargo, bringing the UK-based forwarder into their fold. Panalpina added Skyservices in South Africa, with a focus on perishables. Kerry Logistics went to Italy to buy Saga Italia in oil/gas freight forwarding. And Kuehne + Nagel purchased Panatlantic Logistics in Ecuador.
  • Service synergies: BNSF bought Unlimited Freight, adding flatbed capabilities. Pilot purchased Manna, gaining a last-mile foothold in furniture. Ryder bought MXD, becoming #2 in “big and bulky eCommerce.” And Hub bought CaseStack, combining intermodal logistics with asset-light warehousing.
  • Global technology: Project44 bought GateHouse, adding a Denmark-based business with a breadth of European visibility data. Meanwhile, Australia-based WiseTech bought a string of US-based customs brokerage technology companies.
  • Logistics plus technology: Yusen Logistics added ILG, gaining an ecommerce warehousing platform with more than 700 clients worldwide. Ryder bought MXD, adding ecommerce fulfillment. FedEx bought UK-based P2P Mailing, providing ecommerce transportation solutions, and expanding FedEx’s cross-border capabilities.
  • China: In a busy year, China deserves its own category. Alibaba and its logistics subsidiary, Cainiao Network, invested $1.4 billion in last-mile logistics company ZTO Express. As large as this deal was, it was Alibaba’s third such deal, after YTO Express and Best. Meanwhile, made a $115 million investment in China’s second largest logistics real estate supplier, China Logistics Property Holdings.

All these plotlines will continue to develop over the course of 2019.

What it Means for Us at the BGSA Supply Chain 2019 Conference

Amidst these challenges and opportunities, what does it mean for us today?

We believe these pressures highlight the value of connectivity. At the BGSA Supply Chain 2019 Conference, you were surrounded by more than 250 of the best and brightest leaders across all areas of the supply chain. One source of value was the opportunity to learn from your peers. The panels represent a formal way to do so. Another source of value was the chance to sit down one-on-one and discuss specific ideas.

Over the history of this conference, we believe more than 50 deals have been done at this event. This includes mergers, acquisitions, investments, and customer contracts.

One case in point is Grand Junction. When Rob Howard started his ecommerce and last-mile logistics technology company, he came here. He pitched us on an investment in the company. He then met with over a dozen potential customers. When Home Depot signed on, it validated that Grand Junction had a compelling solution and was gaining traction. The business took off. Less than 2 years later, Target came in and made Rob an offer he couldn’t refuse. At this conference, Rob met investors, customers, and partners. The result was terrific for everyone.

Perspective at BGSA and Cambridge

In this context, 2018 was an exciting year for BG Strategic Advisors and its clients. Amidst all the change in the marketplace, BGSA has fortunate to be called upon to work with many outstanding supply chain firms on strategic and M&A initiatives. We have been pleased to work on deals in truck brokerage, freight forwarding, warehousing, reverse logistics, supply chain technology, e-commerce, and other segments. For example, BGSA completed the sale of Clover Telecom, a reverse logistics and aftermarket services company, to Linx Partners.

In addition, we had an exciting 2018 with our affiliated private equity firm, Cambridge Capital. Cambridge pursues a specialized strategy, dedicated to investing in outstanding companies in all areas of the supply chain. We seek to build partnerships with management teams like Grand Junction, where our team can help create value above and beyond just money. Cambridge brings unique capabilities, including:

  • Proprietary insights: unparalleled domain expertise in the supply chain sector
  • Top team: two decades of operating, investing, and transactional experience
  • Track record of value creation: including five deals with IRRs in excess of 50%

One highlight of 2018 for Cambridge Capital was a follow-on investment in Bringg. Another highlight was the investment in DeliveryCircle. Both companies represent complementary technology-based approaches to the all-important last-mile logistics market.

Cambridge Capital is currently seeking new investment opportunities, so please let us know if you would like to discuss how Cambridge may be a fit for your business.

In sum, we thank you for joining us, and for your role in making this an educational, rewarding, and enjoyable event for all.

Please save the date for next year’s BGSA Supply Chain: January 22–24, 2020. Meanwhile, we look forward to a successful 2019 for our friends in logistics and supply chain.

by Benjamin Gordon, CEO of Cambridge Capital and BGSA

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity

Benjamin Gordon

Written by

Ben Gordon, CEO of Cambridge Capital and BGSA. Investor in logistics and supply chain technology. Published at Fortune and CNBC.

Data Driven Investor

from confusion to clarity, not insanity

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