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Report indicates C.H. Robinson may be closing in on hiring new CEO

A Reuters report published today indicated that Jim Barber, former chief operating officer for Atlanta-based global freight transportation and logistics services provider UPS, is next in line to become CEO of Minneapolis, Minn.-based global logistics services provider and freight forwarder C.H. Robinson (CHR).

Barber would replace former CHR president and CEO Bob Biesterfeld, who was released from his executive roles, as well as his CHR board of directors’ position, after a 3.5-year tenure, effective December 31, 2022. While CHR said at the time that Biesterfeld stepped down, the report said that a regulatory filing issued by the company described his exit as “an involuntary termination by the company.” The Reuters report said that Barber is in “advanced talks” with CHR, citing two sources familiar with the matter. Barber currently is on CHR’s board of directors, a role he assumed in 2022 and was at UPS for almost 35 years, retiring from the company in 2020.

"We believe the CEO role at C.H. Robinson is a great job with enormous potential," a company official told LM. "The Board is committed to conducting, and is under way on, an open and inclusive search to find our next CEO. We have no update at this time."

As previously reported by LM, following Biesterfeld’s exit, CHR Chair of the Board of Directors Scott Anderson was tabbed as Interim Chief Executive Officer, effective January 1, 2023.

What’s more, CHR said, at the time, that its Board has formally kicked off a search for a new permanent CEO and retained national executive search firm Russell Reynolds, in assisting in identifying both internal and external candidates.

And with Anderson named interim CEO, the company said Jodee Kozlak, founder and CEO of Kozlak Capital Partners, whom joined the company at Director in 2013, is now independent Chair of the C.H. Robinson Board, with Kermit Crawford, former president and CEO of Rite Aid Corporation and CHR Director since 2020, named chair of the CHR Board’s Governance Committee.

Anderson has been on the CHR Board going back to January 2012, serving as Chair since 2020. Other positions he has held over the years include: President and Chief Executive Officer of Patterson Companies from 2010 to 2017 and was elected as Chairman of the Board of Patterson Companies in April 2013; and as a director on the Board of Duke Realty Corporation prior to its acquisition by Prologis in October 2022.

In February 2019, then CHR Chief Operating Officer Biesterfeld was named CHR CEO, which took effect in May 2019. He replaced C.H. Robinson Chairman and CEO John Wiehoff. Before being named COO in March 2018, Biesterfeld served as President, North America Surface Transportation and prior to that he served as Vice President, Truckload and Vice President, Robinson Fresh, where he started his logistics career path in 1999. 

At the time of his hiring as CEO, Biesterfeld told LM in an interview that one of the company’s key objectives was turning the page to a more digital future, where CHR is very focused on the three core components of people, process, and technology, with technology continuing to be a more important piece of that overall puzzle.

“That is how I am thinking about it directionally, and our senior leadership team is focused on that strategy,” he said at the time.

In September 2019, CHR said it planned to make a $1 billion investment to be allocated in technology over the next five years, which the company said is twice as much as it previous $1 billion in investment into technology over the last ten years. In terms of personnel, C.H. Robinson has more than 1,000 data scientist, engineers, and developers.

Evan Armstrong, president of Milwaukee-based supply chain consultancy Armstrong & Associates, told LM that Biesterfeld did a very good job as the leader of CHRW and helped it expand into a more integrated 3PL with sizable international transportation management and value-added warehousing and distribution operations.

He also noted that Barber has a true international experience, which signals a continuing focus for C.H. on its growth globally and not to retrench into a North America only 3PL.

"It probably means that the freight forwarding operations are no longer up for sale," he said. "Beyond that, he has the type of leadership background and board activity which Wall Street should like."

And Ben Gordon, Managing Partner of Cambridge Capital, an investor in niche supply chain leaders, and also Managing Partner of BGSA Holdings, a leading mergers and acquisitions advisory firm focused on the transportation, logistics, and supply chain technology sector, observed that it is noteworthy that Biesterfeld resigned without a permanent replacement in mind.

“Typically when a company’s chairman becomes ‘interim CEO,’ it means the company hasn’t lined up a complete transition,” he said. “This has been a challenging year for the entire freight industry, and CH Robinson hasn’t been immune, as evidenced by the announced layoff of 650 people in November. It’s also worth noting that CH Robinson has captured the attention of activist hedge funds like Ancora that are calling on the company to make shareholder friendly moves. Could this be a catalyst for CH Robinson to make more aggressive changes, potentially including cost cuts, personnel transitions, or deals?"

This development was viewed as not unexpected but still likely a surprise, wrote Morgan Stanley analyst Ravi Shanker in a research note.

“The change was driven by the Board’s belief that the time was right to accelerate the digital transformation strategy,” observed Shanker. Some investors have considered whether deeper management changes at CHRW were a possibility after the poor earnings trajectory at NAST [North American Surface Transportation] through the biggest upcycle in history but the street will likely still be surprised by the nature of the transition with the Chairman of the Board taking over on an interim basis on the first day of a new year, without a transition period for the outgoing CEO and no replacement readily identified.”

And he added that the executive leadership changes may have been a reflection of what Shanker called the idiosyncratic earnings challenges at CHRW in the last several years. 

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About the Author

Jeff Berman's avatar
Jeff Berman
Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review and is a contributor to Robotics 24/7. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis.
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