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You CAN Go Home Again....

As printed in the June 2001 edition of Marketing Newspaper

by Gary Brose, Owner of Fleetfoot Messenger Service

They say that you can't go home again. I've always accepted that, but recent events have proven me wrong.

I owned Fleetfoot Messenger Service for over 17 years before giving in to the inevitable and selling my company to a national conglomerate. I saw consolidation going on all over the industry and assumed that the days of the "Ma and Pa" operations in the delivery industry were well over.

So I took a look at the field and decided to align myself with the same people who had provided my operation with some of the most powerful software in the industry. When I switched to their new software and dispatch strategy, productivity went up almost 300%! The system empowered the couriers and improved service quality and on-time percentage. These folks really seemed to have it together. When they came to me and said they wanted to go public and buy my company along with many others using the same software, I figured it was a guaranteed win for everyone. So, in February 1998, I sold the company for a little cash and a lot of stock in the enterprise, Dispatch Management Services.

Well, looking back, this falls into the category of "It seemed like a good idea at the time." The stock jumped up, doubling in price to $28 shortly after the IPO. I felt like a business genius! Too bad I couldn't sell my stock for two years. That's when the wheels started to fall off this baby.

The original vision for this company was very cutting edge, somewhat radical and daring. The founder had a unique ability to see the marketplace for what it was going to be in this new economy and was steering us in the right direction. However, as with many large organizations, factions developed and committees formed. Eventually, all the good ideas got "committeed" to death and the suits on Wall Street started urging for better short term numbers. Within three years, the company had gotten itself into massive debt and had mismanaged the business at every opportunity. I watched the stock go from $28 down to 1 cent! By the time my 2-year hold was up, the stock was virtually worthless. To say I was chagrined is like saying the passengers on the Titanic were mildly upset. I watched as my life's work evaporated into nothing.

Finally, the company and the creditors came to the same conclusion. Time was running out, cash was scarce and they needed a rapid resolution. They decided to sell the individual delivery operations as fast as possible for as much as possible. Ultimately, they would come back to the original owners, most of whom had been managing the business for the Public Company during the three-year reign of terror, and try to sell to them. Since I already knew the business inside and out, due diligence was rapid and a sales price was agreed upon. With the help of Wells Fargo and the SBA, I purchased the business back on May 1st.

All those things I thought I hated about small business (you know, the liability, long hours, the risk) suddenly started looking like a Thanksgiving Dinner. I smacked my lips a few times and filled up my plate.

Fleetfoot is such a cool little company. The people who work there are so much sharper than your average Jack or Jill in the industry. The dispatchers know the city like urban planners. The couriers are so focused on making the deliveries on time that they have imposed new rules upon themselves (we use Bottom-up Management) which make their jobs more difficult — but more service-oriented. During the last three years, many of the employees have stuck around because they simply believed in what they were doing. Even when the parent company broke promise after promise, they displayed an inner compass that kept them true to their cause….Get those deliveries done on time! They made it easy for me to want back in.

I am busy now creating new personnel policies, bonus programs, products and services. I set up a new company called US Dispatch Corp. which will buy Fleetfoot and create a vehicle for providing dispatch services to other companies in various industries. I am forming new strategic alliances with other small businesses in the area and making decisions on the fly. This freedom from Corporate Bureaucracy and "death by committee" has reinvigorated me and given me a greater appreciation for the merits, nay, the strengths of small business. We are so flexible and capable of moving so quickly compared to these big public companies. They are mired in protocol and procedure while I can wheel and deal. They are focused on next quarter's profits while I can accept short term losses for long term success.

In the delivery industry, four different consolidators went public, raising cash so they could buy small local operations and create a national entity. Every one of those efforts has failed miserably. They are taking a square local product and trying to force it into a round national hole. They change the local names, institute national standards and micro-manage from afar. They rob the local operations of the very qualities which made them successful in the first place.

We all learn more from our mistakes than our victories. I have learned that less is more, bigger is not better, and a smaller, more mobile David always beats a slow, plodding Goliath. I have been given a rare second chance; one last gift from the business gods. I get to go back home again.

 


 

 

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