Trucking M&A Market Shows Signs of Rebound
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The trucking merger and acquisition market is showing early signs of a rebound after a slowdown this year caused by uncertain freight and financial conditions.
“The deal activity has certainly increased,” said Spencer Tenney, president of advisory firm The Tenney Group. “There are a few reasons for that. The market has normalized, and it’s clear that both buyers and sellers feel more comfortable transacting in today’s environment than they did even three, six or nine months ago.”
J.B. Hunt Transport Services on Sept. 14 announced one of the more notable recent deals. Its transport subsidiary had entered into a definitive agreement to purchase the brokerage operations of BNSF Logistics, a supply chain services subsidiary of Burlington Northern Santa Fe. J.B. Hunt views the acquisition as a way to bolster efficiencies across its transportation network.
“We recognized a unique opportunity to combine the companies’ efforts to serve the transportation market with 3PL services and leverage the investments J.B. Hunt has made in our technology platform,” J.B. Hunt CEO John Roberts said. “This acquisition is another step forward in our mission to create the most efficient transportation network in North America.”
J.B. Hunt ranks No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America and No. 5 on the TT Top 100 list of the largest logistics companies.
“We’re still not back to where we were last year or the year before, but things are picking up for sure,” said Jonathan Britva, principal at Republic Partners. “From a buyer perspective, you’re seeing a little bit more predictability with interest rates, and you’re seeing the debt markets loosen up a little bit. Financing is still expensive compared to historical rates, or what we’ve seen the last couple of years, but it’s more available.”
Britva noted it’s been difficult to forecast company cash flows to this point, partly because freight rates seem to have reached bottom after dropping earlier in the year.
“As we get into the fourth quarter here, I think we’re hopeful that things are going to continue to pick up,” Britva said. “I think there’s more optimism that we will [see a pickup] than there was earlier in the year. So, hopefully some of what we’re seeing continues as we get closer into the end of the year.”
Estes Express Lines announced Sept. 14 that its international freight forwarding and logistics subsidiary plans to acquire Superior Brokerage Services. GXO Logistics announced the same day it had agreed acquire e-commerce fulfillment platform PFSweb. TFI International announced Sept. 5 the acquisition of tank truck carrier Vedder Transportation Group.
“SBS has built a tremendous reputation in our industry,” Estes Forwarding Worldwide CEO Scott Fisher said. “We complement each other’s business very well with very little overlap, and together we’ll prove to be more agile in servicing our customers, both internationally and domestically.”
Estes ranks No. 14 on the for-hire TT100.
“The credit markets have been closed,” said Lee Clair, a managing partner at Transportation and Logistics Advisors. “That is changing now, and the markets are starting to open. What that means is you can borrow money. They’re willing to lend. But it’s very cautious, and the willingness to lend money has been more in nontransportation-related businesses.”
Clair added that the problem with transportation was the significant year-over-year volume declines across many of the sectors. This made those deals less desirable for lenders because it became more difficult to price in risk, but he noted that has started to change as the financial and freight markets stabilize.
“You’re seeing a disproportionate amount of the M&A activity from strategic buyers, people who are in the business and either buying other businesses in their business or adjacent business lines,” Clair said. “It’s back, again, to how transparent or how opaque are the future expectations of the company. Few people know better what it’s going to look like than a strategic buyer who’s already in the business.”
Clair noted there has also been a lot of pent-up money on the sidelines waiting to be invested when the market became more predictable. Tenney suspects that there also are deals that were pushed back until now because of uncertainty earlier in the year.
“What we’ve experienced is a brief interruption to a much broader trend of industry consolidation,” Tenney said. “You have the largest demographic of retiring business owners with no successors. It’s an inevitable transfer of ownership. The last six months have just been a brief interruption of that, and now all of the activity that would have taken place six to 12 months in the past is now being pushed forward into this upcoming period.”
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