C.H. Robinson CEO John Wiehoff Takes Work And Play Seriously

C.H. Robinson CEO John Wiehoff’s belief in the motto “work hard, play hard” dates all the way back to his teenage years. And it has helped Wiehoff take the road less traveled in his family to where he is today.

Wiehoff is the longtime CEO and chairman of C.H. Robinson Worldwide (CHRW), a Fortune 500 company that connects shippers and carriers to provide a portfolio of logistics services that helps shippers manage their global supply chains.

Growing up he enjoyed working with his brothers in his father’s small St. Cloud, Minn., glass shop. Young John was also consumed with playing basketball.

Nobody in his family up to that time had gone to college. John became the first.

“The decision to go to college was somewhat fueled by wanting to play basketball in school but was also driven around a career,” Wiehoff, 57, told IBD. “I look back and think, ‘Boy, it seemed like just an interesting thing to do at the moment, but it really set a path where I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I hadn’t done that.’ “

Bob Biesterfeld, C.H. Robinson’s chief operating officer has known Wiehoff for 20 years. “If it were not for John’s passion and love for continuing to play competitive basketball, he likely wouldn’t have attended a university,” Biesterfeld said.

As an executive, Wiehoff says he’s “always been fond of the work hard/play hard motto.” He feels it “ties strongly into how you build a successful company culture.” Wiehoff is a firm believer in being “engaged and focused with the things that you’re doing. When you’re at work, work hard, be committed, do what you can. But also be an interesting person and have hobbies. Be engaged in other things outside of work too.”

Delivering Results

During Wiehoff’s 17 years as CEO of C.H. Robinson, which began in May of 2002, the company’s stock price has increased almost sixfold, from $16.52 when he took over to around $90 as of March. Annual revenue for the company, which was $3.3 billion in 2002, was $16.6 billion at the end of 2018. Wiehoff will be retiring in May from the CEO role while continuing as Robinson’s chairman.

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“John has adeptly managed and led the company through times of rapid change in the economy, the competitive landscape and the acceleration of technology,” Biesterfeld said. “(C.H. Robinson) was an industry leader at the onset of his CEO tenure and we have emerged even stronger — and almost $14 billion larger — as he transitions out of that role.”

As one of the world’s largest third-party logistics providers, C.H. Robinson serves 124,000 customers and 76,000 active contract carriers through an integrated network of offices and more than 15,000 employees.

“John is a student of the customer and industry,” said Scott Anderson, lead independent director with C.H. Robinson. “John vets strategy in an intense and thoughtful manner. This skill has been a large part of Robinson’s continued transformation during his tenure as CEO.”

It’s a skill Wiehoff admires in Bill Gates, who he’s interacted with and heard speak due to C.H. Robinson’s significant business relationship with Microsoft (MSFT). “Gates is thoughtful and analytical. He’s an incredibly deep and thoughtful thinker and very big-picture oriented.”

Wiehoff says while he’s proud of the results during the 17 years he’s been Robinson’s CEO, “I’m probably more proud of the culture of the company. Being a people-driven business, it’s a lot about how we interact with each other and how we challenge each other professionally to be better. So the leadership of the company is a lot about driving that, making sure we have the right caliber of people, the right culture and continuing to push ourselves to do what’s right for our customers and our team.

“What we achieve matters, but how we achieve it probably matters more.”

Opening Tip-Off

Born in St. Cloud, Wiehoff’s first mentor was his father.

“My dad was very consistent and very fundamental around how you show up to work every day, how you think about your work ethic, how you interact with people and treat them with respect.”

“For as long as I have known John, he’s demonstrated a strong moral compass and has operated with nothing but integrity,” Biesterfeld said. “He shows genuine care and concern for his employees and stakeholders. As a leader, John is approachable and open to engaging with anyone, at any level, in the organization.”

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Wiehoff says what defines C.H. Robinson’s culture is the character of the people in the company. “We have pretty clearly defined values that we try to aspire to, which starts with integrity.”

Wiehoff attended St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn. He graduated in 1984 with degrees in accounting and political science. He also played on the basketball team and found another lifelong mentor in his coach, Jim Smith.

“I’m a big believer in the competitive nature of sports,” Wiehoff said. “Learning how to compete the right way, all those things that sports can do for you that provide perspective for a career in a competitive world. I definitely got a lot of that at St. Johns and from Coach Jim Smith

Wiehoff has found that sports provide a good learning environment for people going into business. “How do you respond to losses and when you don’t succeed? You can either pout or figure out why you lost and make yourself better rather than blaming someone else or just giving up,” he said.

“I would have loved to see John play college basketball at St. John’s as I am sure his on-court demeanor matched his management style; calm, efficient, with an intense drive to win,” Director Anderson said.

After obtaining his Certified Public Accountant license in 1986, Wiehoff went to work for Arthur Andersen LLP. He was there for nine years before joining C.H. Robinson in 1992 as corporate controller. From there Wiehoff became the company’s treasurer, CFO, senior vice president and president before becoming CEO in 2002.

Taking The Reins

“I’ve tried to live more of that servant leadership approach where the higher up you are in the company, the more obligation you have to try to make sure everyone else is successful,” Wiehoff said.

“Throughout his career, and all of his success, John has shown an incredible humility and has stayed close to his small town roots,” Biesterfeld said. “This humility develops followership and trust with those around him. People do (trust him) and will follow John because of that sense of trust.”

Anderson: “John is a true, authentic leader. His entire career has been a hallmark to his consistent ability to instill trust and inspire performance throughout the company.”

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When Wiehoff has spoken to groups of Robinson employees over the years, he has encouraged everyone to have a broad network of people and mentors they can learn from. “I’ve tried to live that as well,” he said.

When Wiehoff first joined Robinson, the company took in around $1 billion annually in revenue. Today it’s $16.6 billion, and Wiehoff says the company has hopes of becoming a $30 billion or $40 billion company.

Wiehoff says to grow C.H. Robinson “we often talk about people, processes and technology. Those are our core competencies, and that phrase is in our mission statement.”

As he reflects on what’s worked at Robinson, he said, “What I’ve tried to do to help lead is about having clear goals and a long-term vision for the company. But also then having a sustainable culture, something that will get you through the ups and downs. If you’re pushing your people so hard that people are burning out and turning over too fast, you’re not going to have good continuity or good commitment.”

He notes that leaders such as Gates, Amazon‘s (AMZN) Jeff Bezos and others who have grown larger companies reference their long-term vision of what they wanted their companies to be.

“In today’s world there is so much pressure for short-term results,” Wiehoff said. “It’s easy to lose sight of the idea of having long-term goals and staying with those.”

Wiehoff’s Keys

CEO of Fortune 500 company C.H. Robinson Worldwide. Has overseen a stock price increase of nearly sixfold and annual revenue growth increase from $3.3 billion in 2002 to $16.6 billion for 2018.

Overcame: Challenge to keep an industry leader growing.

Lesson: Don’t be complacent or coast on past success, always look to improve.

“It’s more about listening than anything you’re going to say; listening, learning and treating people with respect is the key.”


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