Just when the world’s third-party logistics (3PL) providers thought they had seen the worst of the supply chain chaos, Russia invaded Ukraine and China implemented lockdown measures in Shanghai.
“The year 2021 was an interesting for both ocean and air,” reflects Tim Scharwath, CEO of DHL Global Forwarding. “But within the first two-and-half months of 2022, things became worse. We are, in a way, back to square one—back to the year 2021.”
Just like last year, 3PLs continue to face a host of critical and pressing issues that challenge their skills at managing a client’s supply chain.
“The biggest challenges facing us right now are very much like those facing shippers,” says Sri Laxmana, vice president of global forwarding for C.H. Robinson. “The include ongoing capacity constraints, shipping delays, port congestion, labor and equipment shortages, and continued disruption due to myriad factors, and most recently, the Russia-Ukraine war, COVID-19 outbreaks and local travel restrictions.”
Reuters recently cited a study by the Royal Bank of Canada that neatly encapsulates the problem. It states that one-fifth of the global container fleet is currently stuck due to congestion at various major ports. In early May, ships awaiting berth at the Port of Shanghai tallied 344—a 34% increase over April total.
(Largest U.S. 3PLs Ranked by 2021 Logistics Gross Revenue/Turnover)
2021 Gross Logistics
|3||UPS Supply Chain Solutions||14,639|
|4||Kuehne + Nagel (Americas)||12,980|
|7||DSV (North America)||7,957|
|9||Total Quality Logistics||7,857|
|11||Transportation Insight Holding Company||5,800|
|12||DHL Supply Chain (North America)||5,010|
|13||Ryder Supply Chain Solutions||4,612|
|20||DB Schenker (North America)||3,750|
|21||Echo Global Logistics||3,745|
|23||CEVA Logistics (North America)||3,650|
|26||GEODIS (North America)||2,760|
|28||AIT Worldwide Logistics||2,292|
|32||Kerry Logistics (Americas)||1,860|
|37||Maersk Logistics (Americas)||1,700|
|38||TFI International (North America)||1,662|
|40||Crane Worldwide Logistics||1,600|
|42||Universal Logistics Holdings||1,502|
|43||Pilot Freight Services||1,350|
|44||Kintetsu World Express (North America)||1,327|
|49||Odyssey Logistics & Technology||1,167|
“It will take a very long to dig out of this,” says Lars Jensen, CEO of Vespucci Maritime. “There’s no buffer capacity in the system, and it will take very little to go to an even worse situation.” As an analogy, he compares vessels delays in February being akin to sinking the entire fleet of CMA CGM to the bottom of the ocean. “That is the real situation we’re still in.”
Adding fuel to the fire are rising rates and costs. “Shipping costs have been rising sharply across the supply chain, and have reached historically high rates globally,” says Nia Hudson, research analyst at London-based Transport Intelligence (Ti). “This is the case particularly on shipping routes from Asia to North America and Europe.”
Ti’s ocean freight tracker shows that in February 2022, rates on lanes from China/East Asia to the U.S. West Coast were up 175.6% year-on-year, while rates on the backhaul were up 30.2% year-on-year. Industry experts predict that shippers won’t see much rate relief until at least the third quarter of 2022. “Both DSV and Maersk have warned that freight costs are likely to remain high well into the year,” remarks Hudson.
Other affecting factors are rising oil prices, continued consumer demand, container shortages, and limited ocean and airfreight capacity, not to mention workforce shortages that have left 3PL providers facing high labor costs and fewer people to address volumes.
Nearly everyone in the industry concurs that these issues are unlikely to be resolved in the near term. However, 3PLs and shippers are continuing to work together to find creative ways to overcome challenges and keep goods moving. In fact, all parties involved in supply chain logistics are finding creative solutions to work together.
“We feel everyone, especially the ocean carrier community, is trying hard to help support our customers to find the right solutions to make everything that can be available, available,” says Scharwath. “Everything that can swim is on the waters these days.”
Laxmana points out how C.H. Robinson is helping shippers manage ocean shipping delays by shifting some of their freight from full-container-load (FCL) to less-than-container load (LCL) shipping, including expedited LCL. “This provides cost and time savings, and more ability to make last-minute changes amid longer wait times at the ports,” he says.
At the same time, J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and BNSF are launching a joint effort to substantially improve capacity in the inland intermodal marketplace, while also meeting the expanding needs of current customers.
(Largest U.S. 3PLs Ranked by 2021 Logistics Gross Revenue/Turnover)
2021 Gross Logistics
|1||Kuehne + Nagel||40,838|
|2||DHL Supply Chain & Global Forwarding||37,707|
|9||UPS Supply Chain Solutions||14,639|
|18||Total Quality Logistics||7,857|
|23||Hitachi Transport System||5,995|
|24||Transportation Insight Holding Company||5,800|
|26||Kintetsu World Express||5,501|
|29||Ryder Supply Chain Solutions||4,612|
|33||SAIC Anji Logistics**||4,183|
|34||AWOT Global Logistics Group||4,058|
|39||Echo Global Logistics||3,745|
|41||Savino Del Bene||3,538|
|45||Hellmann Worldwide Logistics||2,972|
|46||C&D Logistics Group||2,967|
Taking on a wider role, some of the biggest 3PLs are now dealing in end-to-end logistics, with companies increasingly trying to expand value-added services, achieve geographic expansion and accelerate company valuation.
As a result, mergers and acquisitions in the industry continue to take place. In fact, analysts say that mergers and acquisition activity is keeping pace with 2021.
In the airfreight and air transport sector, Kuwait’s Agility and its subsidiary National Aviation Service have made an offer for the UK based aircraft handling company John Menzies. GXO, the contract logistics spin-off of XPO, has bid for the UK 3PL Clipper Logistics, and MSC has just reached an agreement to acquire Bollore Africa Logistics.
C.H. Robinson is expanding its global and Asian reach by opening a new office in Beijing that will also serve as its North China airfreight logistics hub. It joins C.H. Robinson’s existing airfreight hubs in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. “Organizations with scale are likely to remain ahead of the market, especially during times of intense market disruption,” comments Hudson.
Steamship lines are increasingly purchasing positions to marry their operations with those of 3PLs. This was particularly the case with Maersk in 2021.
“Maersk made no fewer than seven deals during the year, including several acquisitions that expanded its presence in the e-commerce market,” says Nia Hudson, research analysts with Transport Intelligence Ltd (Ti).
One deal occurred in August with Visible Supply Chain Management, a U.S.-based B2C and B2B e-commerce fulfillment provider followed in December by Maersk acquiring LF Logistics, a Hong Kong-based contract logistics provider specializing in omnichannel and e-commerce logistics. The LF deal adds some 223 warehouses across Asia Pacific to Maersk’s network that now covers 9.5 million square meters globally.
And just recently, on May 2, Maersk completed its $1.68 billion acquisition of Pilot Freight Services, a move the carrier sees as offering customized international, domestic, and cross-border logistics to its North America landside logistics capabilities for B2B and B2C distribution models.
If approved, Maersk will also expand its trans-Atlantic airfreight cargo capacity this year by acquiring Senator International in the second quarter of 2022.
For some shippers, using 3PLs with economies of scale offers wider benefits such as access to a larger network. “This is especially important for those shippers looking to expand into new territories,” remarks Hudson. “Working with providers of scale is also likely to benefit shippers through lower costs as production becomes more efficient.”
Consolidation within the market may also influence the visibility of shippers’ supply chains as 3PLs gain access to new capabilities and new technology. Some 3PLs have been taking action to reduce order fulfillment expenses and offset the high costs of freight and rent. “Several companies have increased investment in automation to alleviate labor shortage pressures and optimize warehouse space,” Hudson says.
DHL Supply Chain, for example, reported at the beginning of the year that it was investing $15 million in robotics solutions from Boston Dynamics to further automate warehouses in North America that would be designed specifically to remedy challenges within the warehouse space. “Many European companies—such as GEODIS, SEGRO, and DSV—are purchasing warehousing space nearer to the end customers in an attempt to keep costs as low as they can
3PLs are also introducing services with the intent of cutting costs. GXO’s Direct distribution network in North America, for example, places stock in strategically located distribution centers to provide shippers with a cost-effective, flexible distribution solution. “It’s these providers that are attempting to introduce cost-effective services that will be able to create additional value for consumers,” Hudson says.
The challenges have created vast opportunities for 3PLs—and their financials reflect this. Armstrong & Associates, Inc. (A&A) estimates that U.S. 3PL market gross revenues grew a whopping 50.3% in 2021, bringing the total to $347.9 billion.
A&A ranked C.H. Robinson No. 1 and estimated that the 3PL brought in $22.3 billion in gross revenues compared to $15.5 billion in 2020. For 2021, A&A ranked C.H. Robinson No. 5 globally, stating that C.H. Robinson’s Global Forwarding division more than doubled in 2021, with gross revenue growth of 117.1% to $6.7 billion. Its net revenue increased 70.7% to $1.1 billion.
“C.H. Robinson is now a top freight forwarder in the Asia to U.S. trade lane and with 1.5 million in total ocean export TEUs managed,” says Evan Armstrong, president of A&A. “It has surpassed long-time U.S.-headquartered competitor Expeditors International.”
Expeditors ranked No. 2 in A&A’s Top 50 U.S. 3PLs, outpacing XPO Logistics (No. 6 in 2021; No. 2 in 2020) and UPS Supply Chain Solutions (No. 3 in both 2021 and 2020). Its 2021 estimated gross revenues were $16.5 billion and $10.1 billion in 2020.
“Expeditors International is the largest U.S.-based international transportation management 3PL revenue-wise,” Armstrong says. A&A finds that Expeditors’ 2021 gross revenue increased 67.7% to $16.5 billion and net revenue grew 39.7% to $4.5 billion. Growth primarily came from ocean freight where gross revenue grew 137% to $5.5 billion from $2.3 billion in 2020.
Expeditor’s ocean freight consolidation business grew 194%, primarily on exports from Asia. Airfreight gross revenue was up 58% to $6.8 billion. Net revenue grew at a lesser rate due to increased costs of purchased transportation in both air and ocean, driving overall gross profit margin from 32.4% to 27% for 2021.
A&A finds that global player Kuehne + Nagel swapped places with DHL Supply Chain & Global Forwarding, by ranking No. 1 in 2021 as the largest global 3PL based on gross revenues. K+N grossed a whopping $40.8 billion in 2021 up from $25.8 billion in gross revenues in 2020 compared to DHL Supply Chain & Global Forwarding, which grossed an estimated $37.7 billion in 2021, up from $28.4 billion in 2020.
DSV rose to third place with 2021 gross revenues of $28.9 billion compared to $18.3 billion in 2020 when the company was DSV Panalpina.
While company financials for 2021 were staggering, the state of the market in 2022 depends on the pace of global recovery, which currently seems to be slowing.
“The global economy has entered 2022 in a weaker position than expected,” adds Hudson. “It’s perhaps too early to fully understand the impact of these factors on the market. It has, however, been predicted that supply chain disruptions will level out by mid-2022 as inventory levels begin to normalize to pre-COVID levels and shipping capacities begin to increase, although this remains to be seen.”
Ti’s forecasts show that growth will therefore slow slightly in the coming years, growing by 7.0% year over year in 2022 and a CAGR of 4.7% by 2026.