Even in the devilishly complex world of investment banking, logistics and supply-chain technology can be a tough sector to comprehend.
The discipline actually consists of some 15 sub-sectors, according to Jason Russell, who heads up the Industrial, Technology and Software Group for PJ Solomon. “Part of the issue is finding folks who understand it,” he says.
Russell is no stranger to the industry. His background is in logistics services, and as an investment banker, he advised on the sale of a majority stake in transportation-management software vendor 3GTMS to Sumeru Equity Partners, as well as the acquisition of HighJump Software by Körber AG. In addition, he spent more than a decade at Citigroup covering large transportation companies.
These days, Russell spends most of his time on the convergence of technology with a number of traditional industry sectors, but logistics and supply chain — involving the movement of some $700 billion of freight across the U.S. — is an especially vibrant area of focus. It promises to inject new technology into traditional brick-and-mortar retailers and heavy industries, as well as upstarts built around omnichannel retailing.
Russell sees a huge transition of technology underway in the logistics sector today, one that extends well beyond warehouse and transportation management to embrace multiple applications in the cloud. “Shippers are looking for more holistic solutions and the ability to leverage data to do it better, cheaper and faster,” he says.
There are more than 100 companies offering supply chain and logistics software packages today, all of them geared toward “digitizing” traditional supply chains. Popular applications include warehouse, transportation, parcel and order management.
Within that universe of offerings, there’s an ongoing debate between application-centric and network approaches. The latter involves big enterprise vendors taking on multiple capabilities in the cloud, blurring the lines between individual apps.
Big software vendors such as Oracle and SAP have long offered complete packages of point solutions tied to a central enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and fueled by cloud capabilities. Now, says Russell, mid-sized players are beginning to deploy similar strategies. They’re capitalizing on the increasing tendency of shippers and carriers to view themselves as technology-driven.
As an example of industry consolidation, Russell cites E2open’s recent acquisitions of Amber Road, Cloud Logistics and INTTRA. At the same time, he sees room for startups, despite the challenges they face of standing out in an increasingly crowded field. “Absolutely there’s an opportunity,” he says. “I work with these guys every day. They’re coming up with a better way to solve customer problems.”
The biggest factor driving investment in logistics software today is e-commerce. Retailers and e-tailers alike are struggling to meet ever-increasing customer demands for speed and reliability. Technology has become an essential element in managing the complexities that arise from the need to service all channels with equal efficiency, while dealing with a massive influx of data about markets and consumer buying patterns.
The e-commerce wave “isn’t going away anytime soon,” says Russell. “There’s going to be continued long-term investment in that sector.”
Expect a continued rash of mergers and acquisitions, he adds, as software providers continue to “erase the lines between traditional swim lanes.”
Future investments will be boosted in part by the maturing of artificial intelligence, which is mostly in the prototyping stage at the moment, but is already attracting significant amounts of capital. In the more immediate term, Russell predicts continued heavy activity by logistics software vendors in three areas: the parcel market, valued at $300 billion and driven by the “very strong tailwinds” of e-commerce; supply-chain collaboration, enabled by the “marketplace” model of multiple applications offered by a single vendor; and warehousing, which is striving to meet the demands of last-mile delivery with the help of robotics and other types of automation.
All three areas offer “great opportunities to up the game in terms of technology,” Russell says. “That’s what I’m spending a lot of time on right now.”