C.H. Robinson angling hard for Barber to run company

Freight broker C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc. is closing in on naming Jim Barber as its new CEO, according to two industry sources and published reports.

Barber, who joined Robinson’s board in December 2022, would succeed Bob Biesterfeld, who was fired on Jan. 3. The Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based company, the nation’s largest freight broker, immediately began a search for a CEO successor. Biesterfeld also served as president, but the search hasn’t been focusing on filling that role.

It is unclear if Barber will also be named president if he is tapped as CEO. Reports of Barber’s possible hiring began circulating Thursday. Robinson executives did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Barber, who has long been one of the most respected executives in transportation, was always front and center on the short list. So too was Andrew Clarke, who served as Robinson’s CFO (NASDAQ: CHRW) until 2019, when he lost a power struggle with Biesterfeld and left the company. 

Clarke was believed to be very interested in returning as Robinson’s CEO. However, he was thriving in his post-Robinson role as a high-level global entrepreneur and any offer would need to have been very sweet for him to return.

Barber, who joined Robinson’s board in January 2022, had retired two years earlier as chief operating officer at UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) after spending 37 years there. Prior to his appointment as COO, Barber spent five years running UPS International, with responsibility for distribution, freight forwarding, small-package delivery, customs brokerage and compliance, and UPS’ other service offerings in more than 220 countries and territories outside the U.S. 

Barber announced his retirement at the end of 2019 after it became clear he would not succeed David P. Abney for the CEO job. That position eventually went to Carol B. Tomé, who became CEO in June 2020.

One source said that Barber, for all his experience and qualifications built up over many years at UPS, may not be the “tech-forward” CEO that Robinson needs at this time. Robinson needs a top executive who can blend technology and transportation capabilities, the source said. 

The person does “not need to come from Silicon Valley. But they must be tech forward,” the source said. “I don’t consider UPS particularly tech forward.”

However, Brittain Ladd, a longtime supply chain consultant, said the move would be a “great choice” for Robinson. The fact that Barber is not involved in day-to-day operations means that he would be less reluctant to make major needed IT and operational changes, Ladd said in an email Friday. 

Ladd said that he never listed Barber as a CEO candidate because he didn’t think that Barber would be interested in another full-time job after UPS. 

Ladd had hoped that Robinson would have merged with the likes of freight forwarder Flexport and hired Dave Clark, who now runs Flexport after years at the top logistics position at Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), to run the combined company. However, Ladd said Friday that he didn’t think such a scenario would be realistic in the eyes of Robinson’s board and search committee.

An industry source said that Barber has the depth and breadth of knowledge gained at UPS to apply them successfully at Robinson. “There isn’t anything about CHR’s business that the man does not know,” the source said.

Robinson has struggled in recent months amid concerns about increased competition from the likes of new broker RXO Inc. (NYSE: RXO). However, it has lost market share in general in what has been a historically strong environment for contract brokerage, from which Robinson generates most of its revenue.

Robinson also overspent significantly on personnel to support load-matching technology that executives thought would disrupt traditional brokerage but has failed to generate the expected returns on investment. One of the sources in January criticized Robinson for investing $1 billion in IT projects, including the much publicized Navisphere load-matching platform that never lived up to expectations.

Biesterfeld “bought into the digital disruption” theory that would eventually cost him his job, a source said in January.

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