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Fast Track To Success

[ 0 ] Nov. 1, 2007 | SBO Editor

Twenty years ago when Cincinnati businesses needed a package delivered locally ASAP, oftentimes the only option was to call a taxi and cross your fingers. That was common!

Courier services represented The Great Unknown. But in 1986, three guys who had been childhood buddies and were now in their mid-20s started catching the eyes – and more importantly, the business – of local companies with their upstart courier service.

They wore white shirts, red ties and black pants and were professional, courteous and dependable – traits businesses had typically never associated with couriers.

That’s not all. They would even remember customers’ birthdays and anniversaries. Quite a coup!

Twenty-one years later, attention to detail and outstanding customer service remain the foundation behind courier service Relay Express, founded by Matt Seiter, Mike Bernecker and Bob Smith. Even today, Relay Express calls one regular customer every 19 minutes to report on the progress of a parcel until it is delivered.

Why 19 minutes? They realized the customer had been calling them every 20 minutes for updates.

“It can sometimes be time-consuming, but our customer service has always paid off, especially in the beginning when businesses weren’t familiar with courier services,” said Seiter, the company’s CEO. “We stressed dependability, hard work and professionalism.”

Bernecker, CSO of Relay Express, said clients would often try to lump the courier in with trucking companies. “We had to educate our customers on everything that we could do and that helped to separate us from our competition,” said Bernecker..

Now, Cincinnati-based Relay Express is poised to offer its smorgasbord of same-day, local and regional express package delivery services to businesses in metropolitan markets across the country. The company launched a franchising program in the summer of 2006 and its founders believe Relay Express has the potential to become the first nationally recognized brand name within the fragmented but competitive courier industry.

The first franchised Relay Express location opens in Atlanta in April 2007. Projections call for seven franchised offices to open by the end of 2007, with plans to add five to 10 franchises in each of the next five years. More than 230 markets across the United States have been identified as suitable for supporting a Relay Express franchise.

Customers can choose from efficient and cost-effective options that include on-demand service completed within 90 minutes; economical same-day delivery; exclusive driver and routed delivery programs; out-of-town, same-daydelivery within 500 miles; and large shipment, cross-dock and warehousing services.

“We provide services that other courier companies can’t or don’t offer. Our customers have always associated our services with those of a much larger company,” said Smith, COO of Relay Express. “Now we have taken the business model that we have perfected over the last 20 years and bottled it so we can grow nationally through franchisees who will share our same commitment to customer service.”

Seiter along with Bernecker and Smith, grew up in the same Cincinnati neighborhood. After graduating from high school they held various jobs and would get together for weekly lunches. A recurring topic was their desire to start a business together. But they had no idea what to do until a friend’s father told them of the success an upstart courier business was having that was located in a building he owned. That was inspiring.

It seemed the perfect business idea since Seiter and Bernecker already drove small pick-up trucks they could use for making deliveries and Smith had plans to buy one himself. The trio had no formal business plan when Relay Express opened its doors on Feb. 10, 1986. They made their first delivery – a reel-to-reel tape for a music advertising company – the next day. They we’re flying!

“We just formed a plan in our head,” Seiter said. “We didn’t do a lot of research because we were just three young kids who didn’t know any better.”

The first Relay Express office was 600 square feet in the rear of an office building with two small rooms and abathroom. The desk was actually a door and the founders sat on folding chairs they brought from home.

Communications consisted of two rotary phones; touch-tone phones were too expensive. When a customer was put on hold, they held the phone up to a radio. The extent of their cutting-edge technology was an off-premise extension line that went to Seiter’s house, said the trokia.

“There was no call forwarding or call waiting at the time,” Seiter recalled. “The extension line allowed us to answer the phone 24/7, but my wife and I didn’t leave the house for literally six months. One of us had to be there or at the office at all times,” Seiter said.

The three founders advertised by knocking on doors to distribute their brochures. Revenue that first year was $60,000 and it quadrupled to $240,000 the next year. Relay Express covered a 100-mile radius of Cincinnati, but its core business was deliveries made within 25 miles. The three founders were dogged in their determination to succeed.

“A lot of times we created the need for our service. We’d press the issue with our customers,” Bernecker said. “We could often get a package delivered the same day for less than what other well-known shipping companies were charging for two- and three-day delivery.”

Relay Express has prospered ever since and franchising has always been in the back of the founder’s minds. They learned a valuable lesson from a failed expansion into Lexington, Ky., in 1994 that had to be shut down after three years because of problems in finding dedicated, committed managers. They learned even more when JimBernecker – Mike’s cousin – was hired in 1998 to manage another Relay Express location in Dayton. It thrived.

“He had a great work ethic. It showed me that you almost had to have family involved in the business for someone to take ownership of their responsibilities,” said Seiter of Jim Bernecker, who now serves as general manager of Relay Express and oversees day-to-day operations. “I said there’s only one other way to create that same sense of ownership and that was through franchising.”

With an affordable initial investment range of $83,700 to $195,500, Relay Express expects to attract prospective franchisees from a variety of backgrounds with proven management and strong communication skills.

“We expect to attract many different individuals who want to be their own boss,” Smith said. “The one trait they will all share is a sense of drive and dedication and a desire to roll their skills into the business opportunity we’re offering them,” said Smith.

Aided by its world-class operating system and outstanding customer service, Relay Express has already built relationships with national companies such as Office Depot, Staples, UPS and DHL and envisions even more opportunities as it develops a national franchise network. While the courier industry has evolved from mom-and-pop businesses into an industry that has several strong regional players, no one has established a national identity.

“There are definite leaders in certain cities, but no courier can claim that distinction for multiple cities,” Seiter said. “The concept of a nationwide, franchised courier service appeals to our national clients because it’s a familiar name they trust backed by the dedication and knowledge of a local franchisee.”

And unlike many newly launched franchise concepts, Relay Express already possesses a distinct advantage – a 21-year tradition of delivering excellence.

“We’re not a start-up company like many other new franchise concepts,” Mike Bernecker said. “We already have credibility and our processes and systems are mature. We know how they work. It is a distinct advantage for us.”•

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Category: Magazine, Small Business Opportunities, Small Business Opportunities Nov 2007