Excess capacity and weak demand led to price adjustments in the trucking industry last year, especially in the fourth quarter.
As a result, C.H. Robinson saw steep drops in revenue and earnings as it dealt with the change.
The Eden Prairie-based company earned 73 cents per share in the fourth quarter, down 45.5% from the fourth quarter last year, and $4.19 per share for the year, down 11.4%.
Total revenue was $3.8 billion for the quarter, down 8.3%, and $15.3 billion for the year, down 7.9%.
"Our net revenue, our operating margins and our earnings per share all finished well below our long-term targets," CEO Bob Biesterfeld told analysts on a conference call after the company released its earnings. "We've been facing some rather extreme, if not unprecedented, cyclical changes in our North American trucking market."
A year ago, the company was experiencing close to record net revenue dollars per shipment, so some softening in pricing was expected.
However, C.H. Robinson's fourth-quarter earnings fell 23 cents per share short of the 96 cents analysts tracked by Thomson Reuters expected.
Pricing adjustments helped C.H. Robinson maintain its shipping volumes through the fourth quarter, particularly in the trucking business, and Biesterfeld told analysts that truckload volume trends in January were increasing by about 6%.
Net revenue for the company's North American Surface Transportation segment fell 23.2% in the quarter, but volumes were flat in the Truckload portion and up 4.5% in Less Than Truckload.
Biesterfeld is betting on technology investments of $1 billion over a five-year period will help the company better manage freight cycles.
Last week, the company introduced C.H. Robinson Labs, an innovation incubator that will leverage data science teams the company has in Minneapolis, Chicago, Silicon Valley and Warsaw.
Working with customers, the lab can create personalized shipping solutions that might then be rolled out across C.H. Robinson's network.
The increased technology spend did affect C.H. Robinson's margins for the quarter, but it didn't deter Biesterfeld.
"We are committed to our investments in technology, even during more challenging periods in the freight side," Biesterfeld told analysts.
Net revenue in C.H. Robinson's Global Forwarding business didn't decline as drastically as it did in its North American Surface Transportation business.
Global Forwarding net revenue fell 9.6% in the quarter, as it also dealt with pricing adjustments, plus volume declines.
C.H. Robinson released its financial results after the market closed on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, shares closed at $73.41 per share, down 5.7%.
Over the past 52 weeks, shares have traded between $71.76 and $92.72 per share.
Patrick Kennedy • 612-673-7926