In Logistics, Somebody Has to Own the Assets

In most aspects of life, an asset is an asset, “a useful and desirable thing or quality,” as defines it. But not in the logistics world, at least not to private equity investors and venture capitalists who view a 3PL with assets like an overweight runner, wearing a lead track suit and cement sneakers, in a field of sprinters.

Non-asset is non-fat, it’s sexy and desirable, it’s what every start-up 3PL tattoos on its forehead in case you missed it in its business plan, press release, and website.

But somebody has to own the trucks, warehouses, pallets, forklifts, IT, and other assets that make logistics — and the whole non-asset 3PL industry — possible.

It’s time for asset-owning 3PLs to take off that scarlet letter and embrace a better definition of an asset: “something useful in an effort to foil or defeat an enemy.”

In the retail industry, you can view as a non-asset retailer because it doesn’t own any stores, giving it a financial advantage over brick-and-mortar retailers that are “burdened” with real estate on their balance sheets. But if you look closely, Amazon’s real advantage comes from its logistics assets — the 89 distribution centers it has, including 20 opened last year, with more scheduled to open in the months ahead. And its technology assets too, like the Kiva robots Amazon purchased last year and the data centers that power its cloud computing services. What’s even more interesting, in my opinion, is that Amazon is leveraging these assets to provide fulfillment services for other companies.

Yes, is an asset-owning 3PL and proud of it.

And so is Sears, which is also positioning itself as an asset-owning 3PL. According to a recent article in Internet Retailer, Sears is rolling out a new service called Fulfilled by Sears that “enables other retailers to fulfill online and offline orders in the United States through Sears’ warehouses and stores.” The article provides some details about the service, including pricing. “We have the ability to ship orders much faster and more cost-effectively than other sellers do based on our national footprint of stores and warehouses,” says Imran Jooma, Sears’ corporate executive vice president and president of online, marketing, pricing and financial services.

Simply put, the headlines you see in fashion magazines also apply to 3PLs: highlight and accentuate your assets — especially when retailers and other emerging competitors are encroaching on your turf by doing the same.

And investors also need to rethink their definition of what is an attractive investment in the logistics industry. Just like investors are becoming less enamored with consumer-centric websites and are falling in love again with business-to-business software, they also need to take a second look at the opportunities offered by asset-based logistics service providers.

Yes, somebody has to own the assets in logistics. But owning them is not enough — you also need the vision, talent, and will to leverage them creatively to foil and defeat the competition and provide differentiated value to customers.