Rose's Studied Silence

Where in the world is Peter Rose?

The chairman and CEO of Expeditors International of Washington gained something of a cult following in the world of trade, shipping and logistics — and in investing — for his blunt-spoken, keenly intelligent and even more sharply cutting quarterly responses to investor questions on the company’s Web site.

But those very lively, deeply educational and highly entertaining statements on “selected inquiries received” haven’t appeared for a year now.

Not since May 26, 2010, have we had the chance to read Rose parrying questions from equities analysts and private investors alike with droll asides — “We’ll answer that question as if it made sense.”

For some, that leaves a void in information on business at one of the world’s largest freight forwarders. But for many of us, that’s also closed a window on the movement of the larger world of trade and silenced what may be the most entertaining voice in the business.

Simply posting his responses was Rose’s way of thumbing his nose at convention: while most publicly traded companies meet demands for open and available disclosure of information to investors and shareholders through conference calls with investment analysts, Rose turned his back on the quarterly dance with Wall Street with his written statements.

And what statements they are. In a decade of written responses, Rose has provided a remarkable education on logistics and trade, a road map for freight forwarding that’s clear enough for a Logistics 101 course but deep enough for an advanced degree.

Now, at no point in that 10 years do those responses spell out the words are those of Peter Rose. But anyone who has met the chairman of Expeditors will certainly recognize the voice and his, let’s say, large personality. Look, this is a man who started his career following his father in working for a railroad, only he went to work for the railroad that competed with his dad’s employer.

He knows what he is talking about, and he’s not shy about telling you he knows. “That isn’t the way we run this business and we think that our record shows we’ve been pretty successful at how we’ve done it,” Rose snaps at one questioner he believes is on the wrong path.

And he’s dismissed others who try to root out different parts of the company’s business by dividing head count, yield, gross revenue and other measures in seemingly countless ways.

“We hate to repeat ourselves — that’s the job of the questioners, after all,” he writes to one.

“We’ll answer that question as if it was relevant,” he wrote on Aug. 21, 2007.

In another posting, asked to compare Expeditors' commodity mix over time, he deadpanned, “We don’t ‘juxtapose’ much around here — it’s bad for the back.” He went on to “answer the part of your question that is a good question.”

Along the way, he's taken time for observations comparing himself to the baseball player Pete Rose and responding to questions about his skills and approach as a hockey player: “It would be more interesting to see what happens with the hockey stick than with the puck,” he said of a potential faceoff with one reader. He's taken on queries on shipping economics by quoting Alexander Dumas, Winston Churchill, Descartes (the philosopher, not the software provider) and Paul Valery (“the French polymath”).

But he also heads for the deep water in the precise economics of his business, taking aim at “denominator engineering” and “aggregate visibility” while plainly describing his company’s unyielding focus on its core business model: “It has always been our contention that the non-asset model provides greater motivation to focus on a customized solution given the right mix of freight. … Our advantage comes from being able to use our intellectual capital, both human and systems, to choose from among a host of different providers and pick the best match of assets available to meet customer logistics demands as they arise.”

The movement of markets is another matter: “You can’t stop the waves,” he wrote in 2004, “you just have to decide which wave to ride and then use your balance.”

And if that means competing on price? “While we’re willing to tender aggressive responses to pricing situations that strengthen our brand, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to dive off a 10-foot high diving board into a 12-foot deep pool filled with only two feet of water just for the privilege of coming in first in a diving competition where no one actually survives for the long term.”

But that last posting a little more than a year ago had a note of melancholy to it.

“As for communication, the Greek Stoic Epictetus once said: ‘First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak,’” Rose wrote. “We’re not sure our communication with investors is diminishing as much as we’ve spent a lot more time trying to really understand what is actually going on around us.

“These are unprecedented times and in the absence of understanding exactly what is happening, we think that studied silence is superior to rampant speculation.”

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