KEY POINTS
  • Most investors would say Softbank's big artificial intelligence bet is the chip company Arm Holdings, which just went public.
  • But another big AI bet is Symbotic, a company which offers AI-powered "warehouse as a service" to major retailers including Walmart, Target and Albertson's to improve their inventory and stocking operations.
  • Symbotic's stock is up near 190% this year, and Walmart owns 11% of its shares, as part of its deal to automate the retailer's 42 U.S. regional distribution centers for packaged consumer goods.
Symbotic technology in use at a Walmart facility.

Venture-capital giant Softbank notched a $15 billion-plus gain on its 2016 deal to buy Arm Holdings when the artificial intelligence-enabling semiconductor firm went public last month. But not as many investors know about Softbank's "other" big AI investment, Wilmington, Mass.-based software and robotics maker Symbotic, which Walmart has taken a big stake in itself.

That may soon change.

Symbotic, a company that has already generated market heat selling AI-powered robotic warehouse management systems to clients including Walmart, Target and Albertson's, is partnering with Softbank to play in a potentially giant and transformative market. The two are teaming up in a joint venture called GreenBox Systems which promises to deliver AI-powered logistics and warehousing to much smaller companies, delivering it as a service in facilities different companies share. They say it's a $500 billion market, and an example of the kind of change AI can bring to the economy at large.

If it works, GreenBox will reach companies that could never afford the multi-million dollar required investment, in the same way cloud computing puts high-end information tech within reach, said Dwight Klappich, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner.

"I've seen a lot of robotics tech and I've never seen anything like it in my life," TD Cowen analyst Joseph Giordano said. "Compared to what it replaces, it's like day and night." 

Erasing memories of a big WeWork real estate blunder

It might even mute the memory of Softbank's most disastrous commercial real estate management investment ever, the notorious office-sharing company WeWork. 

Like WeWork, GreenBox is a promise to fuse technology and real estate. Indeed, its  sales pitch of "warehouse as a service" recalls the "space as a service" slogan in WeWork's 2019 IPO prospectus almost exactly. The big difference: with WeWork, outside analysts struggled to identify what technological advantage WeWork ever offered clients over working at home or in traditional offices, let alone one that justified its peak valuation of $47 billion. WeWork today is worth under $150 million and is now under bankruptcy watch as it warned in August of its potential inability to remain "a going concern," and more recently stopped making interest payments on debt, asking lenders to negotiate.

At GreenBox, the technology is the whole point, Giordano said. And unlike WeWork, which wanted people to change the way they used offices, Symbotic and GreenBox are out to let companies that already run warehouses boost efficiency and profits, he said. 

"Contract warehousing exists today – but those operations are mostly manual," said Robert W. Baird analyst Rob Mason.

Softbank owns more than 8% of Symbotic, according to data from Robert W. Baird, and took it public through a special purpose acquisition company last year. Softbank also owns 65% of the GreenBox venture, which launched with $100 million in investment by the two companies. Walmart owns another 11% of Symbotic, according to a proxy statement from the robotics company, and is by far its biggest customer until the GreenBox venture ramps up, accounting for almost 90% of revenue.

"We share the same vision of going big and going fast," Symbotic CEO Rick Cohen said. "We believe this market is massive."

Symbotic has generated stock-market excitement even before the GreenBox deal. Its shares are up 190% this year. Sales in its most recent quarter climbed 77%, and orders for its existing warehouse-management systems jumped to $12 billion – a backlog it would take the company years to fulfill  Add in the $11 billion of Symbotic software and follow-on services GreenBox committed to buy over six years in July, and that backlog soars to $23 billion for a company that expects its first billion-dollar revenue year in fiscal 2023, and to break even on an EBITDA basis for the first time as a public company in the fourth quarter.

The best indication of the future may be from Walmart, which bought its Symbotic stake as part of the companies' deal to automate the retailer's 42 U.S. regional distribution centers for packaged consumer goods.

The product is the reason why, analysts say. 

At prices of $25 million to hundreds of millions, according to a conference call Symbotic held with analysts in July, a Symbotic system blends as many as dozens of autonomous robots that scoot around warehouses at speeds up to 25 mph, moving and unloading boxes from pallets and picking orders with AI software that optimizes where in a warehouse to put individual cases of goods, and lets boxes be packed to the warehouse's ceiling, Giordano said, wasting much less space in the building. 

The system works something like a disk drive that uses intelligence to store data efficiently and retrieve the right data on demand – but with boxes of stuff. And a large warehouse can use several different systems, piling up the required investment to get moving.

Because Symbotic's system can track inventory down to the case easily, where stuff is put can be matched much more easily to incoming orders, making it possible to more fully automate order picking. It can also match the design of outgoing pallets to the layout of the store the pallet is headed to, speeding up unloading and shelf stocking, Klappich said. 

But the biggest innovation the tech allows is in business models, rather than in technology itself. That hasn't spread outside of giant companies yet, but Giordano and Mason say they think it will.

The AI's precision will let multiple companies share the same warehouse, and even commingle their goods for efficient shipping without confusion, much as cloud computing lets multiple clients share the same computer servers, Mason said. 

"Through sharing infrastructure, you can get out of the infrastructure business and focus on what's important to you," Klappich said. "Larger-scale automation without the capital expense has been a challenge.''

Born out of stealth work with Walmart, minting a multi-billionaire

The idea grew out of a vision Cohen had when running his family's grocery distribution company, C&S Wholesale Grocery, which he has grown to $33 billion in annual revenue from $14 million since 1974.  Symbotic was founded in 2006, and worked in stealth mode for years while refining its prototypes with Walmart. 

"I've spent my whole life in the outsourcing and [logistics] business with C&S, so, this — the ability to run warehouses for people — has always been on the plate, Cohen said in the July analyst call. "We said we're going to take care of Walmart first. …We are now starting to say, I think we can do more."

Symbotic and C&S have made the 71-year old Cohen one of America's richest men, with a net worth hovering around $15.9 billion, according to Forbes. 

Symbotic teamed up with Softbank to build GreenBox in order to preserve its own capital, Cohen told analysts. The joint venture was initially capitalized 65% by Softbank and 35% by Symbotic, for a total of $100 million. Analysts say the venture will require much more capital, possibly raised by having GreenBox itself borrow money in the bond market. Symbotic said it will use its share of the profits from sales to GreenBox to keep its equity stake in the joint venture around 35%.

"The question has been, who has the capital to set it all up?" Klappich said. "Softbank could be the key because they have deep pockets."

The joint venture will buy software from Symbotic, then turn around and sell the warehouse space, equipment and related services as a package to tenants. 

Many questions remain, and potential threats from Amazon, private equity

Much else about the new company remains unknown, beginning with the identity of its not-yet-announced chief executive, Mason said. The venture could either develop warehouses or rent them, though Symbotic said it will probably mostly rent them. Pricing for the warehouse-as-a-service is undisclosed. 

But the rise of Greenbox more than doubles Symbotic's potential market, and nearly doubles its backlog. Symbotic has said that its total market is about $432 billion, a figure chief strategy officer Bill Boyd repeated on the conference call when the GreenBox alliance was announced.  Early adopters will be in businesses like grocery and packaged goods, with Symbotic expanding into pharmaceuticals and electronics over time, according to Symbotic's annual federal regulatory filing this year.

The GreenBox market for smaller companies shapes up as another $500 billion of possible demand, Gartner's Klappich said. The estimates are based on the number of warehouses in those industries, the likely percentage of warehouses in each whose owners can afford the technology, either independently or through GreenBox, and the average price of Symbotic-like systems. 

The third quarter of the company's fiscal year, which ends in October, illustrates how the company's profits might scale. Revenue jumped 77% to $312 million, and its loss before interest, taxes and non-cash depreciation and amortization expenses shrank to $3 million. Mason says the company will turn profitable on an EBITDA basis in the fiscal year that begins this fall, before orders from GreenBox begin, and EBITDA will be "in the mid-teens" as a percent of sales by the following year.

Clients stand to save money all the way through the warehouse, Klappich said.

Giordano estimated the savings at eight hours of labor per outgoing truck. The technology can also cut space rental costs by allowing goods to be packed closer together and stacked higher. 

Using the facility as a service will let seasonal companies cut back on the space and robot time they use during slow periods, rather than carry them all year. The warehouse should run with many fewer workers, Giordano said. And GreenBox will pay for upgrades to robots and software every few years, rather than making tenants invest more, he said.

Walmart led investors on a tour of its Brooksville, Fla. warehouse in April, and said technology investments like the Symbotic alliance will let profits grow faster than sales. More than half of distribution volume will move through automated centers within three years, improving unit costs by about 20% as two-thirds of stores are served by automated systems. The company has said little about the impact on jobs, but CEO Doug McMillon said overall employment should stay about the same size but shift toward delivery from warehouse roles. 

Competition will be arriving soon enough, analysts say. Building something like Symbotic, and especially moving it down into the realm where companies other than global giants can afford it, takes a combination of technology, money and vision, Klappich said. 

Amazon could expand into the space, using its warehousing expertise in a service that resembles its Web hosting business model, or private-equity firms awash in investable cash might acquire combinations of companies to produce competing products and business models, Klappich said.

For Softbank, the payoff if GreenBox works is potentially huge. Analysts on average project Symbotic shares to rise another 53% in the next year after pulling back amid recent recession fears, according to ratings aggregator TipRanks. With post-IPO estimates arguing that Arm shares will stagnate, and taking into account that Softbank paid a reported $36 billion for Arm in 2016, it's possible Symbotic will be the bigger win in the end, at least on a percentage basis, as the 65% share of GreenBox rises in value.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included a quote from an exchange with a Softbank representative that shouldn't have been included in the finished report.