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Business Observer Thursday, Oct. 2, 2008 10 years ago

Deliverance

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A Gulf Coast-based shipping company nearly doubled itsrevenues this year, from $15 million to a projected $28 million.Saudi princesses with nearly $500,000 worth of accounts helps.

Deliverance

A Gulf Coast-based shipping company nearly doubled its

revenues this year, from $15 million to a projected $28 million.

Saudi princesses with nearly $500,000 worth of accounts helps.

ENTREPRENEURS by Mark Gordon | Managing Editor

Some of the core products behind the rise of one of the fastest-growing companies on the Gulf Coast could make a shopaholic drool.

Enough high-end shoes and boots to fill three closets. Jewelry that's literally fit for an Arabian princess. A $1,500 handmade sword. A stuffed bear rug. An electric guitar. Ten high-end computer processers that go for $10,000 a piece. High performance motorcycle parts. Jars upon jars full of jellybeans.

Don't forget the Star Wars Lego sets, the six Roomba vacuums and, in what has to be the one most bizarre items ever shipped, gold-plated pages of the Koran. The list doesn't include Barbie dolls, at least not in Brazil, which bans the toys.

And that's just one month inside Access USA Shipping, a Bradenton-based packaging and shipping company that stores and then ships all sorts of goods all over the world. Customers, who are essentially buying a U.S. mailing address which they can use overseas, range from ex-patriots in Japan to soldiers in Afghanistan to a few Saudi Arabian princes and princesses.

"We are just like a Mailboxes Etc.," says Access USA President and chief executive Eric Baird. "But we ship it to you."

The business, however, isn't only good for a voyeuristic trip into international buying habits. Turns out there is a lot of money to be made in international shipping, proven by Access USA's rocket-like growth line of the past four years.

In 2004, the company, which Baird founded in 1997 after a career on Wall Street as an options trader, was hovering just short of $5 million in annual revenues.

By the end of 2008, Baird projects the company will have surpassed $28 million in annual revenues, thanks mostly to a combination of three factors: A slight strategy shift in the company' business model; a fanatical devotion to minimizing and eliminating employee mistakes; and an international customer base that is capitalizing on the weakness of the U.S. dollar. The last factor is only enhanced by the fact that most U.S. retailers don't ship overseas and the ones that do make it a costly undertaking by tacking on high sipping fees.

All of this works out to a potential 4,714% four-year growth rate. It's a stellar growth line in any economy, but becomes out of this world in the current economy. That's even more true for a mature, 11-year-old company such as Access USA, which had nearly surpassed the $5 million sales mark when the growth track started.

Nonetheless, Baird is seeking more. "I want to maintain 100% growth," he says. "I'm tired of 50% annual growth."

Global delivery

Baird is counting on several components to fuel that kind of growth. The first is continuing to lead the company's shift from being primarily a mail forwarding operation to a company that focuses on shipping packages; since prices and fees are weight-based, the heavier the better.

The company, which is changing its name to myus.com, uses a shipping system marked by its simple efficiency. The company receives up to 2,000 packages a day at its 30,000-square-foot warehouse in a Bradenton industrial park off U.S. 301 near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

The packages come from all points, from obscure small businesses to giant retailers. The five most frequent retailers handled by Access USA are Amazon.com, Apple, the Gap, Victoria's Secret and Nordstrom's.

An Access USA employee goes through every package upon arrival. That's to make sure the order is accurate and international shipping regulations are met. An employee also works on the customs paperwork for each shipment before repackaging the products.

Access USA logs all its packages into an online database and then sends an "arrival" e-mail to the customer, who can check the status of any shipment through a personalized Web page set up by the company. The customer can then decide on a shipping date.

The company sends packages to more than 200 countries, spanning several continents. The top five destinations in terms of total shipments per month are England, Australia, France, Italy and Norway.

Sales 'hand off'

Other destinations that aren't on the top five list, however, are no less lucrative. For instance, Access USA counts two Arabian princesses - one in Dubai and one in Saudi Arabia - as top clients. Both customers have at least a package a day shipped their way, which translates to big bucks. The Dubai princess had a $181,000 account with the company in 2007, while the Saudi Arabian princess has spent $240,000 since June 2006.

The packages heading to the Arabian palaces are made up mostly of jewelry and clothes. And as Baird recently began analyzing the contents of each package on a large-scale basis, not only the ones going to a palace, he realized there was another opportunity: Personal shopping.

So the company set up a service for international customers who either don't have time to shop or want to use an American Web site that doesn't ship overseas. That business lines goes well with what Baird calls the "cart hand off," which is an agreement Access USA has reached with several American Web sites to take over the sales of international shipments once a customer makes a purchase.

The company's current packaging system is similar to what Access USA had been doing for most of the past decade, only now it wants to focus on packages, not just mail. The mail service is used mostly by U.S. citizens living overseas who want to maintain an American mailing address.

Be it one piece of mail or a big package of computers, Baird preaches a mistake-free approach to the company's 50 employees. Mistakes can be anything from entering one wrong digit on a zip code to not following weight guidelines.

To be sure, no business owner likes mistakes, but the costs of errors on a returned shipment, in lost revenue and customer disappointment, are especially high for Access USA, Baird laments. He says the company's internal software tracks all mistakes, which he counts as about one-fifth of 1% this year. Good, says Baird, "but it's still to high."

'Catalog of catalogs'

Baird's attention to details like that comes partially from his military-trained father, who also owned several companies after retiring from the U.S. Army. After growing up in places from upstate New York to Germany, Baird took his degree in finance from the University of Arizona to Wall Street, where he worked on the options trading desk for the American Stock Exchange.

But working on Wall Street, says Baird, wasn't much fun. "Most of the guys I saw there were 45 years old," recalls Baird, "and all they knew was beta and alpha."

In 1996, Baird found his ticket off of Wall Street when he visited his mother in Sarasota for Christmas. His mom was running a small catalog company that catered to foreign customers, selling hard to find American catalogs and shipping them overseas. Says Baird: "She made a catalog of catalogs."

Baird thought there was potential to do much more with that business, and his mom gave him some space in the office to prove it. He started off small, with just a few customers. But the mail forwarding business grew quickly and by the next year he had enough clients to rent his own office space, on Tamiami Trail in Sarasota.

The next five years or so were marked by small growth periods buttressed by big periods of hard work. Baird says for the first few years, he sometimes worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. "I'm no smarter than anyone else," says Baird. "I just work real hard."

REVIEW SUMMARY

Businesses. Access USA Shipping, Bradenton

Industry. Shipping, packaging, logistics

Key. A key to sustained growth at the company has been its ability to minimize mistakes.

BY THE NUMBERS

Access USA

Year Employees Revenues growth

2003 13 $3.6 million

2004 18 $4.9 million 36%

2005 25 $7.5 million 53%

2006 30 $10.3 million 37%

2007 45 $15.6 million 51%

2008* 55 $28.0 million

*projected

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