With plenty of money and lots of runway, Flexport hands the reins to Clark

Ex-Amazon executive is seen as the more experienced operator that Flexport now needs.

Flexport may not have needed a new hand at the tiller to take its business to the next level. Come Sept. 1, however, it’s getting one.

The hiring of Dave Clark, who departs his remarkable 23-year gig at Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) on July 1 to become the San Francisco-based freight forwarder’s new CEO, marks the end of an era, though a relatively brief one. For nine years, Flexport reflected the flamboyant persona of its founder, Ryan Petersen. It is now expected to settle into a more mature phase with an experienced operator focused on scaling the business. 

Clark, 49, is taking the reins of a company that has clearly passed the show-me test. According to published reports, the privately held company, which was founded in 2013, generated $3.3 billion in revenue in 2021 and posted its first-ever profit with net income of $37 million. It is estimated that Flexport generates approximately $200 million in annual net revenue, the amount that’s left after the costs of transportation and services. Flexport declined to comment on the net revenue estimate. 

Flexport “has a solid foundation in place,” said Brittain Ladd, a former top Amazon executive who as a practitioner and in his current consultant’s role has seen startups come and go. “What it needs is a CEO who can design a corporate strategy for growth and markets.”

At this point, there are only guesses as to what direction Clark, who will share CEO duties with Petersen for the first six months, after which Petersen will become executive chairman, will steer Flexport. Clark said in his departure note that he was looking to help build a company, and there is every indication that Flexport has a lot of runway for him to do it.

Though he created Amazon’s transportation and logistics business, Clark had little exposure to the company’s still-fledgling ocean freight business, perhaps in part because it wasn’t as much of a focus. Flexport, meanwhile, holds itself out as a multimodal provider but is almost exclusively an ocean freight provider with involvement in the inland movements of the containers that it brokers. Flexport, which has a massive war chest after raising $2.35 billion since its founding, may be on the acquisition hunt under Clark.

There may be questions as to whether Clark and Petersen can work well together. If nothing else, Clark is accustomed to operating in the long shadow of a company founder. He joined Amazon in 1999, just five years after Jeff Bezos quit his investment banking job in New York, drove to Seattle and started an online book and music retailer. More than a decade into his tenure, Clark was asked to assemble a shipping and logistics business as part of Bezos’ grand design to wean his company off other delivery providers. Amazon is today a multimodal distribution and shipping behemoth with 96 aircraft, a $1.5 billion air hub in Cincinnati, and thousands of trucks, trailers and vans. 

The perception some may hold is that Clark represents the seasoned executive that Flexport requires at this stage of its life cycle. An albeit imperfect analogy may be when Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG) co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin agreed to select Eric Schmitt as the company’s first CEO just three years after Google’s 1998 founding. To Google’s investors, Schmitt represented the experienced day-to-day operator that Page and Brin were not.

Petersen, in part, reinforces that perception with his entrepreneurial charisma and accessibility, which has helped Flexport become one of the logistics industry’s largest startups.  Never short of provocative opinions, Petersen, 41, emerged as one of the media’s main go-to persons during the global supply chain’s two-year crucible. Earlier this year, he made the cover of Forbes magazine — replete with a portraitlike photo on the story page — with the cover headline that read “Can This Guy Fix the Supply Chain Mess?”

Few will doubt that Petersen was one of the first to articulate the role of process digitization in bringing global supply chains out of the 20th century and enabling their complex networks to run more efficiently. But his critics have maintained that Flexport’s rapid-fire growth has been due as much to adroit marketing as to sturdy operational efficacy. 

“They have marketed themselves as a digital freight forwarder, but what they are in reality is a freight forwarder” that operates in the traditional sense, said an individual closely involved in the industry who sought anonymity to speak candidly. The individual said that Expeditors, (NASDAQ: EXPD) the Seattle-based air and ocean forwarding giant that has been in business for 43 years, currently has better technology than Flexport.

The source speculated that Flexport’s board and its investors, recognizing the massive investment they’ve made, felt the urgency to bring in someone with a different skill set. No one knows, nor will speculate, on whether a change was in the offering before Clark publicly announced his resignation, which came as a surprise to many, including Amazon. Clark had been named less than two years earlier to run Amazon’s Worldwide Consumer unit, which includes the ubiquitous website and the transport and logistics systems that support it. 

Inna Kuznetsova, CEO of supply chain technology firm ToolsGroup and a long-time IT executive in ocean freight, said in a LinkedIn message that Flexport stands out among “digital-first” forwarders because of its size and brand power. However, Kuznetsova said Flexport is not the only such provider, citing, for example, a U.K.-based company called ZenCargo that is playing in the segment.

Kuznetsova said Petersen and Flexport deserve praise for elevating the importance of technology to improve the performance of global supply chains. “I respect Flexport for advancing the industry discussion over the need to optimize logistics chains and to improve the effectiveness of shipping based on software technology,” she said.