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C.H. Robinson celebrates 100 years

Minneapolis-based C.H. Robinson Worldwide, which started modestly as a produce company in 1905, has evolved over the past 100 years into one of North America?s larger third-party logistics companies.

C.H. Robinson has operations in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia. Most of its revenues come from providing truck, rail, ocean and air transportation throughout the world.

However, sourcing and information services also are important components of the company?s overall business.

In 1905, Charles Robinson partnered with the Nash brothers, and C.H. Robinson Co. became incorporated as a produce brokerage firm in Grand Forks, ND. The company?s main business was sourcing fresh produce, and today, the company still procures produce for retailers, wholesalers and foodservice operators nationwide.

In 1909, Mr. Robinson died and left 25 shares of company stock " worth $500 " to his widow, Ida Robinson. In 1913, the Nash brothers gained full control over the company by purchasing Ida Robinson?s stock, and in 1919, C.H. Robinson Co. and the Nash brothers moved the headquarters to Minneapolis.

In the 1940s, C.H. Robinson took on produce transportation " primarily by rail " to complement its brokerage operations. In 1945, the Federal Aid Highway Act was enacted to develop an interstate highway system, which led to C.H. Robinson?s move into truck brokerage for exempt commodities out of its Omaha, NE, office in the 1950s.

Some important strategic moves that led C.H. Robinson on its current path began in the late 1960s. In 1968, the firm entered the regulated truck business as a contract carrier named Meat Packers Express in Omaha, NE. Three years later, Robco Transportation Inc. " C.H. Robinson?s irregular-route carrier " was formed by consolidating Meat Packers Express with two acquired carriers. C.H. Robinson sold Robco in 1986.

By 1976 " when C.H. Robinson became 100 percent employee owned " the company was a produce and transport company. In 1977, the "Fresh1? label was first used to pack green onions and greens for C.H. Robinson packing subsidiary Davis Packing Co. in Phoenix.

In 1979, C.H. Robinson adopted IBM mainframe technology, opening a new era of centrally supported technology, electronic communication and information sharing.

But it was passage of the Motor Carrier Act in 1980 that paved the way for the company?s growth as a third-party logistics firm, said Jim Lemke, the company?s vice president of produce. The act deregulated transportation and allowed C.H. Robinson to act as a freight contractor for virtually any type of product. In 1984, C.H. Robinson initiated its contract carrier program.

?From field to fork, there is no one company that does what we do," Mr. Lemke said. "We have multiple services in the supply chain. We can give a single-source presentation to a customer. We can send in an expert for each component of the supply chain."

Mr. Lemke said that C.H. Robinson?s operations are so diverse that a casual observer might suspect the company is not a master of any one area. To the contrary, the company does master every component of its business, Mr. Lemke said.

?We can be everything or [the customers] can take a part of it, similar to a cafeteria plan," Mr. Lemke said. In 1988, C.H. Robinson entered the intermodal business. Today, Robinson is a top-10 intermodal marketing company in the United States, and has rail-container access in all major markets. In 1989, the company launched the "Fresh1? quality brand program, enabling it to fully control product sold from packaging to distribution. Also in 1989, C.H. Robinson International Inc. was formed, expanding the firm?s services as a freight forwarder, non-vessel-operating common carrier (NVOCC) in the United States and customs broker. As a licensed ocean transportation intermediary and a NVOCC, the company handles full container loads, less-than-carrier loads or break-bulk movements anywhere in the world. In 1990, the company began providing air cargo services.

Numerous acquisitions and office openings in the past dozen years or so have added to the breadth of C.H. Robinson?s business both domestically and overseas. About three weeks ago, C.H. Robinson acquired Monterey, CA-based FoodSource, FoodSource Procurement and Epic Roots. The FoodSource entities provide a variety of produce sourcing and distribution services, and Epic Roots provides produce sales and product development services and is a key partner of FoodSource.

Key people involved in C.H. Robinson?s growth include Looe Baker II, company president from 1963 to 1977; John Ross in the company?s Omaha branch in the 1950s; Sid Verdoorn, president and CEO from 1977 to 1999 and chairman of the board from 1999 to the present; Mike Rempe, vice president of produce from 1994 to 2004; and John Wiehoff, president beginning in 1999 and CEO from 2002 to the present.

Mr. Verdoorn made his mark on the company in many ways. Under his leadership, the company focused more on transportation and made the change from being a transportation and produce broker " or middleman " to being a true participant in the process with full responsibility for both sides of the transaction. This positioned C.H. Robinson to take advantage of a rapidly changing transportation industry.

Mr. Rempe?s leadership was instrumental in further developing the firm?s produce business, especially in the area of branded produce. His vision drove the development and growth of "Fresh1? into the strong brand it is today, taking it from a trade brand to a recognized retail leader. Along with Bud Floyd " C.H. Robinson?s vice president of produce marketing " he also added the national produce brands of "Motts," "Welch?s? and "Tropicana? to C.H. Robinson?s suite of branded produce products.

Under Mr. Wiehoff?s leadership, the company has expanded its role and presence globally, going from $2.3 billion in gross revenues to $4.3 billion in 2004, and also growing from 3,100 employees to 4,800 worldwide.

The company has been named Supplier of the Year and Supplier of the Quarter twice each by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and has won national awards for transportation, products, branding, marketing and customer service. C.H. Robinson has also been rated a top-five company in international logistics.

A Fortune 500 company, C.H. Robinson has since 2000 made Fortune?s list of America?s most admired companies every year except 2001. The company made the 2005 list and received the highest ranking in the transportation category. C.H. Robinson also made Forbes? list of best-managed companies in 2004.