In March, former WeWork CFO Christian Lee joined the team at Transfix, a logistics technology suite with tools for shippers and carriers to help manage their transportation needs.
FreightWaves interviewed Lee about what attracted him to the logistics industry and what he hopes to achieve with his new team.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
FREIGHTWAVES: Coming from the commercial real estate and technology space, what attracted you to transportation and Transfix?
LEE: “There’s this huge part of the economy that no one really sees. You see the trucks going by, but everyone just sees their phone and they see where they’re ordering from, but what is interesting is how it gets moved around.
“Truthfully, I didn’t know a ton about it before I met [co-founder and Chairman] Drew [McElroy] and [CEO and President] Lily [Shen]. The more I started diving in, the more I was just fascinated. It ticks all those boxes for me … how things get connected to each other and the way things move around.
“It also has a lot of inefficiency and a lot of room for bringing data, automation and tools into it to create a better ecosystem for shippers and carriers that reduces waste. … I thought there was a huge amount that can be done.
“If we do it right, there’s benefits for literally everyone involved. There’s benefits for shippers, carriers and the environment. It’s less waste and more money for the people involved, including a better experience for consumers.”
FREIGHTWAVES: How have you enjoyed working with the executive team at Transfix?
LEE: “I was blown away by how [Drew and Lily] have taken this big vision and this massive market, but really started to operationalize it correctly. [They have considered] what has to get done today, what has to get done this month, this quarter or this year.
“There has been very tight alignment among the entire executive team. Everyone shares the vision and sees where this can go, and everyone understands that we’re only going to get there by making sure that each step of the way works and that it works for everyone. It must work for employees, it must work for carriers, it must work for shippers, and it must work for the end consumers. If you can do that through the data and the automation and all the other tools we are building, there is a potential to become a hugely successful model.
“Transfix also has maybe the best culture I’ve ever been a part of from a workplace perspective. There’s an incredible tone from the top of both accountability, but also ability to drive, process drive decisions and go get things done. That’s a really great combination; it’s hard to do.
“[They] give people the freedom to experiment and try new things to see if it works but still having incredibly high accountability and standards to achieve. So it’s like, if you experiment that is totally fine and it is totally fine to fail, but we also have certain things we need to get done, we need to operate with a certain level of excellence and rigor and accountability as well.
“That collaboration made it a super exciting opportunity. I am happy to report that I’m more excited about [this opportunity] now than I was even when I started talking to them in December of last year. It has been everything that I thought and more.”
FREIGHTWAVES: This industry can be like quicksand; the more you learn about it the more it sucks you in.
LEE: “It’s like quicksand, but like cotton candy quicksand. It’s really delicious and wonderful.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Has there been anything surprising to you about the transportation industry since joining the Transfix team?
LEE: “The combination of all of the crazy weather in February, the Suez Canal and disruption in LA, it’s sort of an amazing miracle that all this stuff gets delivered as well as it does all the time.
“The big takeaway from there is what Drew and [co-founder and Chief Technology Officer] Jonathan [Salama] thought when they first started, is this idea that technology is super important to this but you also need people who deeply understand this industry. That is what differentiates us. Weather still happens, the Suez Canal can still get blocked, so you still need people in the company who know how to deal with those situations and who can deal with carriers and shippers with real-world practical experience.”
FREIGHTWAVES: Since joining the team, have you noticed any changes in the logistics industry when it comes to technology?
LEE: “I think the most important thing coming out of 2020 and the beginning part of 2021 is that everyone is finally picking their heads up and saying, ‘Oh, it’s not just about what is the cheapest cost per mile.’ Instead, it’s ’Do I have resilience? Do I understand my supply chain? Do I know where things are? Do I have multiple options.’ That is exactly the platform that we have been building and continue to build here.
“We have done very tactical work in building out carriers and shippers on a lane-by-lane basis to allow the machine learning models to do what they do. You can’t do that unless you have huge amounts of real-world experience with all these shippers and carriers that gives you visibility into the entire country. In the long term, that same technology and same thought process can be applied across multiple modes in different places around the world.
“I think for us the biggest tailwind is the fact that people are more and more focused on that supply chain resilience, and how can we use technology and use a partner like Transfix to ensure that we have your quality, reliability, transparency, efficiency across the entire ecosystem.”
FREIGHTWAVES: What skills are you hoping to bring to the executive table at Transfix?
LEE: “I think one of the things that I bring is that ability to help bring the company to the next stage, including thinking about partnerships, thinking about other ventures and M&A. Also, thinking about new markets we might be entering into and how do we allocate people and capital appropriately. What capital is best used where and how do we accelerate our growth? How do we leverage that into other areas to continue achieving that vision that had been laid out seven or eight years ago?
“I think that is where I can add real value just from experiences I’ve had in different industries and different places.”
FREIGHTWAVES: What’s next for Transfix?
LEE: “We feel like Transfix is not even at the end of the first inning. We’re in the first pitch of the first inning. Everything up to this point was just about building the marketplace, getting the data and building the machine learning systems. Now everything is working really well there.
“Now we are at the really fun part of adding everything else on top and growing the core platform. We just launched our TMS and fleet planner, and those will develop into big products and will add huge value to shippers and carriers. We will continue to add new services on top of it which all build off of that core operational and data platform that was put in place. So there is a lot to come during this super exciting time.”