BlueGrace Logistics CEO Bobby Harris: 'When you're in a dominating position, dominate'

Founded in 2009 with eight employees, the third-party logistics provider now has 600 and is looking to move to downtown Tampa starting later this year.
Published February 21
Updated February 21

RIVERVIEW — BlueGrace Logistics owns no trucks, but every day from its headquarters on Falkenburg Road the company books deliveries for thousands of shippers nationwide.

A third-party logistics provider, BlueGrace connects companies moving goods with freight carriers. Recently, it updated its digital platform to help supply-chain executives track quotes, orders and products as everything from weather to driver shortages affects their increasingly tight delivery schedules.

The privately held company did $338 million in revenue last year and budgeted for $504 million this year. It has 600 employees, 380 of them in Hillsborough County. It's a company with a big focus on culture and experience. The work space is huge, with few walls or private offices. High-energy music plays throughout. Employees bang gongs to announce goals met and deals closed. Every Friday at 4 p.m., they tap three kegs to signal the end of the week. For its 10th anniversary party last week, BlueGrace brought rapper Flo Rida to the Cuban Club in Ybor City.

By 2022, BlueGrace aims to be a multi-billion-dollar a year company with as many as 3,000 employees. Recently, 44-year-old founder and CEO Bobby Harris talked with the Tampa Bay Times about the company's rapid growth, biggest challenges and the road ahead. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity:

What did you do before you founded BlueGrace?

I used to own franchises that were centered around shipping. I had 23 locations around the U.S., largely centered around a contract I had with DHL, and in 2008 DHL stopped performing intra-U.S. services, so I had to do something new.

In 2016, BlueGrace announced a $255 million investment from New York private equity firm Warburg Pincus, along with plans to hire up to 700 new employees and to look for a new, larger headquarters, possibly in downtown Tampa. What's the status of those plans?

We still have plans to move some or all of BlueGrace into the downtown/South Tampa area. As we speak, I'm searching for that space and developing the actual blueprint for us as to how many people and when they actually arrive into that space.

We've done some pretty deep studies on how it will affect our current employees, how it will affect our recruiting and ultimately how it will assist BlueGrace in reaching our goals.

From a recruiting angle, it's phenomenal. The type of people we want typically like that environment to work in. So we're very bullish on getting parts or all of the company into downtown Tampa. We're planning out until 2022 (but) you'll see us moving into space later this year somewhere, somehow, even if it's temporary. We're popping at the seams here. We're hiring 120 people in June. That will put us over our ability to contain them all here.

Are you looking at Water Street Tampa?

We love Water Street. We love what they're doing there. We would love to find a way to work that out. We've been talking with them. It fits our people. It fits our culture. We just haven't gotten into the details. We have to be responsible enough to look at all the opportunities that Tampa has to offer.

What has been the path and strategy that have taken BlueGrace from eight employees when you founded it 10 years ago to 600 today?

BlueGrace was, ironically, started in 2009, which was in the jaws of a recession. The shipping industry was way, way down, so a lot of people believe that's really a tough time to open something, but we found it as an opportunity.

At the core of our business, our why is we can help every business be better. And if you look at a lot of companies, right after labor, their No. 2 line item many times is shipping. So during a recession people look for help. We're very effective at reducing the costs of getting their products back and forth, making them a little bit sharper of a business.

We were able to put our investments to work right out of the gate. We had a good first year and as our technology continued advancing, it allowed us to get into bigger accounts, get broader and our brand started getting noticed throughout the industry. Year after year we've reinvested in the businesses to get those returns, and then we had Warburg Pincus come along and assist us in looking at a much bigger, longer term vision.

Talk about how you created the culture here.

It just goes back to what every company should do. Listen to what your people want. Let them know that you care. Assist them in hitting their goals, personal and professional. Stay true to your core values. Post them. People will come to your company for those core values, but you've got to live them. That's how we hire, and that's how we fire.

It's different for everybody, but for us, a lot of people notice we're very philanthropic; our No. 1 core value is be caring of all others and it goes down to No. 5: Be happy, humble and have fun. This isn't a great place if you don't like noise and fun and chasing big things.

What has surprised you along the way?

As amazing as our people are, they're hard to find, too. I always figured if you would create tremendous opportunity, people would come from wherever they were on this planet to make sure they got in the door. While we are very selective on who we have, we would like to see more talent: IT, sales, customer service.

There is more and more conversation about a growing shortage of truck drivers nationwide. How does that affect your business, and how do you expect over-the-road shipping to evolve in the next five to 10 years?

The shortage of drivers presents a problem for shippers, and that's what we're here to do is help them with their problems. So it inures to our benefit because we're actually really good at finding capacity, being resourceful and solving those problems.

As the U.S. goes, it's a concern. The average age of a U.S. driver, depending on who you ask, is well into the 50s now, and there's no surplus of young people that are graduating high school that want to go become a driver. You go to any high school in the Tampa Bay area and ask any of them who wants to be a truck driver and you will not find a single hand. You talk to any parent and ask them what do you want your child to grow up and become, they will not tell you a truck driver.

The reality is we need them, and we need quality truck drivers, too. There's a shortage of quality truck drivers — people with clean (commercial drivers licenses) who are safe drivers and can operate an 80,000-pound vehicle and can navigate around all the souls that are on the road.

What has to happen, in my opinion, is driver pay needs to increase. As I say, the market always wins. Last year was the best year in the last decade for trucking companies, and a lot of them were able to help their drivers by giving them increased wages. It was also one of the lower years you'll ever see for turnover. As the drivers did better, you saw the turnover ease. You also start seeing just the beginnings of some people getting attracted into the market.

There's a lot of remedies discussed. Everybody's favorite thing is to talk about autonomous trucks. We're too far away from that being a reality, to that passing any kind of regulation or any test of society where they're comfortable with it, to the point where it can make a meaningful impact on moving tonnage around on U.S. roads. The answer for right now is not as sexy as some people want to hear, but it's qualified, quality drivers being attracted to the market (by) pay, benefits and lifestyle.

Is BlueGrace in a position to change conditions in a way that would bring more drivers into the industry?

Our job is to make it so the least amount of drivers are needed. We optimize. The technology that we've built is (focused on) reducing miles, reducing carbon footprint, reducing the need for more drivers, less handling of freight, quicker delivery of shipments and cost control.

Looking ahead, what's your biggest challenge?

Our biggest challenge, keeping in mind that our goal is to be a multi-billion-dollar company, and it's a very realistic goal, is finding the people in the numbers needed that possess our five core values to help us get there. So it's a talent question.

You compete in amateur mixed martial arts. (Harris, by the way, is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds.) Anything from the sport that you apply to the business?

I have to quote Rob Kahn — he's kind of like the godfather of (Mixed Martial Arts) in Tampa — when you're in a dominating position, dominate. In business, it's a critical thing to remember: When you're in a position to do something great, don't let it pass you by. Do it. We feel we're in a real interesting time when we can make a lot of impact, and we mean to do that.

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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