The FreightCaviar Podcast: Building C.H. Robinson into an Intermodal Powerhouse

Join us as we chat with Phil Shook, who managed the intermodal division at C.H. Robinson for almost a decade, about the future of transport, industry insights, and key acquisitions.

The FreightCaviar Podcast: Building C.H. Robinson into an Intermodal Powerhouse

In this week’s episode, we sat down with Phil Shook, who managed the intermodal division at C.H. Robinson for almost a decade. Here's what you'll learn:

  • Insights into how C.H. Robinson became one of the largest intermodal providers in the United States.
  • Details about C.H. Robinson's acquisition of American Backhaulers.
  • An exploration of the future of intermodal transport.If you're interested in learning about intermodal and its future prospects, you'll greatly enjoy this episode.

Early Career and Industry Changes

We started off with talking about Phil’s early days in the industry and the evolution of C.H. Robinson. “Up until the early 2000s, they were far and away the biggest brand name on the block. And at the time, “broker” was kind of a dirty word. It just wasn't viewed as positively as it was today; you had these images of people scamming each other and screwing each other out of payment.” But, Phil says, there was some truth to it. Today our biggest problem has become double brokering and identity fraud; in the past there were no tools- all you needed was a card table, a phone, and a computer to start.

Legacy and Acquisition Insights

Phil also shed some light on the acquisition of American Backhaulers and the people that took over and continue the legacy of the company. Paul Loeb, Jeff Silver, and John Thompson– “Those three were really the idea and money guys behind it. Then they brought in a bunch of really good people behind them, guys like Eddie Leshin, that have been around for a long time and continue to do a great job and build it out and create the legacy.” 

Railroad Industry Evolution

He also spoke about the changes that he’s seen taking place in the last two or so decades regarding railroads. “There were a lot more railroads; there was a lot more competition. It was very much relationship-driven back then. Railroads are certainly more sophisticated, and I enjoy great relationships to this day with all the class ones. But back then, the local people had a lot more control, so it was less corporate back then; all the railroads had local salespeople. Now the sales force is significantly smaller than it was back then. It was a more complex business to manage in some ways”

Intermodal Industry Challenges

While Phil wasn’t able to disclose plans for his company yet, he was able to share his thoughts on the changes he’s seen in the intermodal industry. “It's really hard for a new entrant to make a material impact on intermodal. Right now, the barrier to entry is fairly high. There is a bias toward asset ownership. The railroads, I'm not going to say they're de-fleeting, but they're not investing in the rail asset like they once were.” 

The Future of the Industry

He also answered the million-dollar question– where is the industry headed? In Phil’s opinion, with the digital evolution happening all around us, at the end of the day, it all comes back to relationships. “If you want to go to a company that makes millions of dollars of razor blades in a trailer, they want to know who they're doing business with. And so that's where the salesmanship comes in”. He also thinks that the tech evolution is going to keep pushing tasks to be automated and free up time for those skilled relationship managers to manage more complex customer and carrier relationships.

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