Sunday, December 24, 2017

Thoughts on Retailers Buying XPO Logistics and What The Right Strategy Should Be

I generally do not like to comment on something so speculative however Friday ended with a huge bang in the supply chain industry with Amazon and a major retailer apparently thinking of buying XPO logistics.  I was asked by many what I thought of this so let me give you some pre-holiday thoughts:

First, this is a very normal activity as companies go upstream and downstream in the value chain to try to capture as much as they can in that chain.  Remember your business classes:  The value chain starts essentially at the extraction of raw materials and ends with the consumer (some say it goes through post consumption disposal and return of unconsumed raw materials to Mother Earth.  I agree with that however let's leave that alone for now.).  In between extraction and consumer you have activities such as transport of raw materials, conversion of raw materials to something of value, transportation to distribution, merchandising (either on line or in store) and final mile delivery (whether completed by the consumer or completed by the seller) to the point of use (the home).

Three things you will notice in that scenario:

  1. Conversion is very specific to a good.  Meaning, it is not fungible and if you wanted to capture that portion of the value chain you would have to buy a lot of companies.  You may want to vertically integrate a very high margin company but not all of it.
  2. Transportation is pervasive across the value chain all the way back to the raw materials movements to the final mile.
  3. Delivery Final mile (v. customer pick up) is growing rapidly and it touches the consumer.  This makes Final Mile transportation part of the merchandising and consumer touch point process - and this is why retailers want to vertically integrate. The impact of final mile on the consumer experience and consumer loyalty is huge.  
There is one other dynamic happening right now and that is the current capacity crunch.  Rather than get into an "arms race" of ever increasing rates, the retailer may decide to just buy their own capacity and this is another reason to get the "Elephant Gun" out and look for carriers to buy.  

If the retailer is thinking they want to capture the final mile and protect themselves against the capacity crunch, they could do a number of things:
  1. Buy technology to facilitate the final mile but not buy the assets.  Think Target's acquisition of Grand Junction.  Or their more recent acquisition of Shipt for grocery shipping.  Even Wal-Mart's acquisition of would be part of facilitating this process.  (The biggest issue with the Wal-Mart acquisition was one of culture - Wal-Mart eliminated Jet's long standing practicing of having drinks and happy hours in the office.  That since has been reinstated).
  2. Buy transportation assets and make them "in house" assets.  This is where the discussion of buying XPO comes in.
  3. Build the transportation assets yourself - i.e., Amazon's acquisition of planes and doing "power only" where Amazon owns the trailers, are examples of this.  Many retailers follow this power only model.  The benefit of this is you can swap carriers pretty quickly and you can leverage small carriers since the retailer owns the trailer.  The problem with this strategy is the "crunch" is with the power not with the trailer.
  4. Develop "Vested" relationships which give the specific retailer "most favored nation" status with one or more asset providers.  While this idea is championed by Kate Vitasek at University of Tennessee (read about this concept at The Vested Way) it really was "founded" in the logistics industry by the infamous J.B. Hunt agreement with the BNSF.  This gave J.B. Hunt a preferred status with BNSF which, to this day, makes it impossible for other carriers to really compete with JBH.  For the most part, the rest of the industry fights over what JBH does not want.  If JBH wants it, they win. 
  5. Work within financial risk mitigation constructs. An interesting new development is to protect capacity (does not really help with final mile) by participating in the new futures exchange developed by Craig Fuller called TransRisk.  This will definitely assist with the stabilization of rates and capacity however it is at least one year away from implementation  and, while I absolutely think it will work, it is unproven.  
There are hybrids of all of these however these are the major actions a retailer could take to capture more of the value in the value chain and mitigate capacity risk.  Number 2 above, Buy Assets, has garnished all the excitement going into Christmas weekend.  My quick thoughts:
  1. No one is buying XPO and if they did the Government would stop it.  XPO, as it currently is constructed, is too big and would have too big of an impact on industry assets to allow one retailer or on-line provider to buy it.
  2. They could split XPO up and buy pieces of it.  While this would probably make it easier to get through government regulators, I believe this action would be value destroying not value creating.  For example, the final mile portion of XPO was created by XPO acquiring a company called 3PD.  3PD are executives who came out of retail and therefore just "putting it back" could be possible.  Combine 3PD with the final mile technology of Optima (which is a final mile technology company XPO purchased back in 2013) and you may have a platform for a good final mile service.

    However, don't forget, neither XPO, 3PD or Optima own the transportation assets. They merely find, qualify and route.  The "work" is still outsourced to smaller delivery companies and therefore this would be more of an example of buy technology  (along with getting very good people) versus buying transportation assets.

    The big question this would leave is what happens to the rest of XPO?  Is it just a carcass laying out there to be pecked at by private equity investors? Does Brad Jacobs still run it?  Are the pieces as valuable as the whole?  I think not.  I think the value of each piece of XPO diminishes significantly as other pieces get sold off. This is why I believe splitting XPO up would be value destroying not value creating (unless, of course, the buyer of a piece is willing to either pay a huge premium for the portion they buy or be willing to immediately divest of certain portions of the "carcass")
I think the logical action for retailers is to concentrate heavily on #1 (Buy Technology) along with #4
 (Develop Vested Relationships).  I would also heavily participate in #5 (Work within financial risk mitigation constructs) once it becomes available. 

Interestingly, and somewhat off the radar, this is what Target appears to be doing (after hiring Preston Mosier and Arthur Valdez from Amazon).  Perhaps everyone, including Amazon, should be focused more on what is happening in Minnesota.

Have a very happy holiday season!