Bobby Harris talks about the beginnings of BlueGrace, finding talent & his love of rescue dogs
There’s a unique character trait that Bobby Harris, founder and CEO of BlueGrace Logistics in Tampa, looks for in new employees—an affinity, and love, for animals.
“It’s typically a person that has a tendency to be more compassionate than others,” Harris told Tampa Bay Business & Wealth magazine during an interview in his home on Davis Islands … fittingly, his two rescue dogs were just steps away.
Culture is a centerpiece to the success of BlueGrace, a third-party logistics company, in addition to savvy business decisions, and solid leadership, from Harris.
He established the company in 2009, with eight employees, and now has more than 600 on staff. The company had revenue of $385 million in 2019 and anticipates breaking the $500 million mark this year.
“We crushed it in the fourth quarter of 2018 and then nobody was able to ship in 2019. Most of the larger companies were down 15 percent to 20 percent, on average. We’re a growth equity company, so we do it by brute force,” Harris says.
And 2020 is looking good for the company.
“We believe we’re about to consummate a larger deal in the near future with another company,” he says.
By 2023, Harris wants BlueGrace to be a multibillion-a-year company, with more than 3,000 employees.
Born in England, Harris came to the United States when he was 5 years old. His father was Canadian and his mother was a Cuban immigrant who came to the United States when she was 17.
After living in Arizona a few years, the Harris family moved to Tampa when Bobby was 8. His father was in the U.S. Air Force, which brought them to MacDill Air Force Base.
The youngest of four children, and the only boy, Harris says he was basically raised by women, something he attributes his love of collecting shoes to, he says with a laugh.
Harris’ professional career started at a young age, but he piled up some college credits here and there, not following the “traditional” college path. About eight years ago, he finished his degree in psychology at the University of South Florida.
“I decided to finish my degree when I had put together my entire executive team and things were going really well at BlueGrace,” Harris says.
He reduced his hours at the company for a full semester and became a full-time student.
“After I’d earned a lot of credit hours, I decided I wanted to major in something I actually enjoyed and I wanted to learn more in that realm [psychology],” he says. “There’s a lot of business applications, especially in some of the testing environments, that come about in psychology, looking for the causation of things. And then there’s a whole element of interaction with people that is unique to the study of psychology.”
Being back in college provided another benefit to Harris and his leadership skills.
“I hire so many college students. It’s interesting to go into their world and see where they’re coming from,” he says. “Plus, it just keeps you fresh. Being in the academic world keeps you sharp.”
A Humane Approach
Harris comes from a philanthropic family, in addition to finding himself with a philanthropic team at BlueGrace.
The company is involved in 20 to 30 different causes in any given year, including Moffitt Cancer Center and Metropolitan Ministries.
A primary passion is working with the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
“We love the interaction. When you take care of someone’s animals, you take care of the person, too,” he says. “It’s ingrained in our culture. We have a lot of animals that come back and forth and we do a food drive every year. We’ve collected up to 70,000 pounds of food (at various locations of the company around the country). We give the donations to the Humane Society and they manage it from there. We get large donations from many areas of the U.S. and handle the transport into Tampa.”
The Humane Society of Tampa Bay is building a modern, new shelter that will save thousands of animals, Harris says. The shelter had raised $16 million of the $17 million that it will cost (at press time for this issue).
“BlueGrace, and I, are proud to have contributed as this is something that will greatly improve Tampa and is sorely needed,” Harris says.
Sherry Silk, CEO of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, says from the moment she met Harris, she knew he had a profound love of animals.
“The first time I met Bobby, he was very concerned about an animal cruelty case that we were working on at the time. It was obvious to me that he felt deeply for animals and really showed compassion for our four-legged friends. This is especially true for animals that have been abused and those that are homeless,” Silk says. “He has supported the Humane Society of Tampa Bay for the past 10 years.”
In addition, Harris serves on the Humane Society of Tampa Bay’s advisory council.
“His optimism, professionalism and integrity are contagious. You can also tell that Bobby really cares deeply about his staff,” Silk says. “He has enlisted his whole company to help us fund our shelter food programs and encouraged us to bring our homeless animals to his business and many of the staff have adopted them. His support has been very meaningful for our organization and to the animals that we serve.”
Adding hundreds of young professionals to your staff each year can create a hiring process nightmare, but BlueGrace has a set of specifics it uses to bring on new talent.
“The hardest thing about finding people is you don’t know that you found them until they’ve been with you for a little while,” Harris says. “There’s only so much you can gather from an interview. Certainly we use every methodology there is. But you just don’t know how much drive they have.”
Harris is hesitant to tout his company culture too much, as every company nowadays claims to have a “great” company culture. It’s in style, and often cited as major recruitment tool, for enticing young new talent.
“There’s not one company out there that’s not going to talk about culture. It’s a very easy thing to talk about, but a very tough thing to live every day,” Harris says.
Instead, Harris says BlueGrace puts a lot of thought into five core values and it hires and fires people based on those values.
“The first is being caring to all others … I said, ‘Let’s make everything mean something,’” he says. “And we don’t mean just be nice to your customers or nice to your seniors [in the office]. Be nice to each other, even when you’re having a bad day, or to someone when they’re a little bit imperfect. We try to measure someone’s empathy.”
Another value is to “simplify.” “We can be a very fast growing, chaotic company, so we believe we still have to stay calm, tackle complex problems and simplify everything we do,” Harris explains.
The values round out with pursuing outrageous goals, embracing chaos and being happy, humble, and, yes, have some fun.
“[If you’re at BlueGrace Logistics], you’re going to do something substantial. We do a lot of crazy stuff,” Harris says with a laugh.
Asked to give an example, Harris shares a recent major campaign BlueGrace had a hand in. But due to confidentiality agreements, he can’t discuss it deeply. But suffice it to say, it was all over social media in January, it involved one of the biggest stars in the world and it was a huge success.
The Phoenix Moment
In 2008, Harris owned shipping franchises throughout the country. The franchisor’s primary vendor was DHL, which did 81 percent of the systems business. Then DHL made the announcement that it was exiting the United States.
“It was a really dark time [in the industry],” Harris says. “I feel it was kind of like the phoenix rising out of the ashes. We had about one day to grieve and then I said, ‘I have to come up with a new plan.’ I had already been building technology under the name of BlueGrace, which is my two daughter’s middle names. I never meant for that to go to market. Everything happened really fast. On January 1, 2009, we hit the ground running and never looked back.”
In 2016, the company had another major growth moment when private-equity firm Warburg Pincus invested $225 million into BlueGrace to help fund growth.
“Everything presents a new stage,” he says.
Harris later discussed the marriage of something traditional, such as trucking, with something innovative, such as technology.
“Some of our competitors are Uber, another is funded by Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates along with Bono, from U2. … It’s a sexy industry right now. It’s all about your technology,” Harris says. “When it comes down to it, in the world of truckloads, which is a $700 billion market, is 90 percent of these companies are run by mom-and-pop companies and they don’t have the technology.”
That’s BlueGrace’s business. It marries the technology into the market that might not have it yet or is even ready for it. “We solve those problems for our clients,” he adds. “If you don’t have a solution, you create one.” ♦
A few of Bobby Harris’ favorite things
Aside from his family, and his beloved rescue dogs, TBBW asked Bobby Harris to share some of his favorite things.
• Travel: South Africa, Israel and Iceland are a few of his favorite destinations.
• The water: A Formula boat and his jet skis.
• Shoes: He’s a bit of a fashionista and says he has a massive collection. “Having a size-15 shoe is a challenge, but I love shoes, especially sneakers. I attribute this to being raised by five women,” Harris says.
• Mixed martial arts events: For them, he travels to places such as Las Vegas, New York and even Sweden to watch, when he can.