Freight Forwarding growth and the 2021 market

As the finance season begins to grind to a halt, financial and operational rankings emerge amongst the major players. With record levels of revenue being recorded by total groups (see figure 1), the logistics industry has expanded rapidly in 2021. Freight forwarding is a sector that is volatile and growing quickly, with the air and sea freight industries required for over half of the world’s cargo shipments. Growth is an essential component for these companies, but how growth occurs varies greatly; some grow through mergers and acquisitions, and some organically. The increased reliance on technologies and geographical expansions also remaining vital to high achievement.



2021 Total group revenue (bn of €)

2021 freight forwarding revenue (bn of €)

Year-on-year freight forwarding revenue growth





Kuehne + Nagel








DB Schenker








Figure 1 – Ti table of top five freight forwarders 2021. Source: Ti


In 2021, the top five performers by revenue in the freight forwarding sector were DSV, Kuehne + Nagel (K + N), DPDHL, DB Schenker and Expeditors. Of these, only Expeditors chooses to exclusively grow organically. DB Schenker does not make many acquisitions and is generally ‘asset light’, meaning it would be regarded as generally organic growth – the exception of technological companies to aid its digitalisation process.

For the remaining companies, the top three all have made flagship agreements and deals in 2021, consolidating their market share and place at the top of the list. DSV, the 2021 market lead in freight forwarding revenue, acquired Agility’s Global Integrated Logistics (GIL) branch, along with its network and subsidiaries. DSV has since stated that GIL contributed over 250,000 tonnes and 600,000 TEUs in air and sea freight respectively, showing a volume growth of 15.16% year-on-year. This number is impressive considering the lingering impacts of covid as well as other external factors plaguing the market such as bottlenecks and reduced capacity. The exposure to GIL’s market in the Middle East and Africa has been essential and invaluable to DSV, allowing it to overtake K + N as the financially largest forwarder in 2021. It saw 2021 revenue growth of 80.91%.

K + N acquired Apex International, a prestigious forwarder in Asia specialising in Transpacific and intra-Asia trade routes, opening these networks to K + N. Between 2019 and 2020, K + N experienced a volume contraction of -8% due to the impacts of covid and bottlenecks. Thanks to its new network and routes, 2021 saw a volume growth of 14.65%, fractionally lower than DSV’s volume growth. K + N 2021 revenues were 42.38% higher than 2020, standing at €16.34bn. Both DSV and K + N have experienced growth above the market, highlighting the importance of the acquisitions they have both made and showing the benefits of inorganic growth complementing organic growth.

DPDHL has for a long time been a market leader for air freight volumes and revenues, with 2021 seeing its expansion strategy focus on the sea freight industry. Its August acquisition of liquids specialist JF Hillebrand was an astute investment given JF Hillebrand’s sea freight network. The wine section of JF Hillebrand has been part of DHL Forwarding since 1998, allowing DHL to get a thorough understanding of the business as well as deep analysis of the network before making the €1.5bn acquisition. The end of 2022 will reflect the true extent of the success of the deal, though sea freight volumes are expected to almost double for DHL. This would put the company on a similar level as DSV and K + N, allowing these three companies to further distance themselves from the rest of the market, highlighting the success of inorganic growth through financial power in the market. Over the course of 2021, DHL saw an increase in volume of 14.92%, and revenue growth of 68%.

Of the top five companies, DSV saw the largest year-on-year revenue increase at 80.91%. The acquisition of GIL was the largest of the year, valued at €3.7bn. Its performance has been reflected in volume and revenue growth, proving to be a worthy investment for DSV with instant success and surely more to follow. DSV, K + N and DHL all saw a large growth in revenue as well as relative change in volume. Expeditors volume increased by over 20% in 2021, though its 2020 figures were very low, and any recovery was to be high year-on-year growth.

Mergers and acquisitions are a fast way of expanding networks as has been explained, however organic growth also has its benefits for companies such as Expeditors. Without a heavy focus on which companies to merge with or acquire, it is left to focus on how to improve the operating efficiency of the company within. The risks involved in mergers and acquisitions are non-existent if a company decides to grow organically, a strong positive regarding this method. The same can also be said on the contrary, with a high chance of missing out on first-mover advantage, with the rewards of the risk far higher than no risk at all.

One of Expeditors subsidiaries is Cargo Signal. Cargo Signal is a digital platform that offers Expeditors customers visibility on all shipments of cargo, providing a platform to react to changes in real-time. It has proved a major selling point for the company, allowing prospect shippers to visualise the services it has to offer whilst aiding the sorting of multiple requests for the company. Expeditors revenue grew in 2021 by 66.59%, with Cargo Signal a major selling point for the company. Not only this, but Cargo Signal highlights the importance of technology for these major LSPs, with cargo signal being an out-sourced subsidiary and proving highly effective.

The above evidence shows that the M&A strategies of the top three freight forwarders have proven highly effective. In 2021 in particular, with market uncertainty and volatility, inorganic growth has proved king. The power to flex financial muscles to expand to highly profitable geographical regions such as GIL in the Middle East or Apex in Asia has proved invaluable to these companies at the top of the list, reflected in their 2021 performances not just for finances but volumes as well.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 26th April 2022

Author: Alex Bullard