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Business Observer Thursday, May 14, 2009 10 years ago

Entrepreneur of the Year 2009: A Package Deal

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Eric Baird has constantly pushed himself to do better at what is now his $26 million packaging and shipping company.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Eric Baird has constantly pushed himself to do better at what is now his $26 million packaging and shipping company. The next push: $100 million in annual revenues by 2012.


Eric Baird wanted to go over the top on a gift for his mom a few years ago.

After all, she was the person who, over Christmas dinner in 1996, came up with the idea that led to what is now his fast-growing $26 million shipping and packaging business.

So the younger Baird asked his mom, Gail Baird, to join him and his wife on a quick trip to the east coast of Florida. She could go shopping with his wife while he went to some work meetings.

Instead of a girls shopping day, however, it was Gail Baird's thank-you present that awaited her on the east coast: A brand new Lexus.

It was Eric Baird's oversized way of saying 'thanks.' And while he might not have said it at the time, he could have been thanking his mom for more than a business idea.

He also could have thanked her for simply having him last. Gail Baird gave birth to Eric's older brother Scott six years prior to Eric, and to his older sister Deirdre four years after Scott.

And to many in Baird's life, being the fight-for-attention baby goes a long way toward explaining just how he has taken a ridiculously simple idea — selling post office boxes to Americans overseas — and turned it into a thriving economic engine with 156% revenue growth since 2006, 50 employees and thousands of customers, from ex-pats in Japan to Arabian princesses. Profits are up too, rising 65% in 2008 over 2007 and 30% in the first quarter of 2009 as compared to the same time in 2008.

“He always wanted to be independent and separate himself from his brother and sister,” says Gail Baird, whose older son is a Wall Street executive and whose daughter runs her own e-mail marketing firm. “And now he is the most successful of them all.”

It's that type of competitive spirit and burning desire to do better than everyone else that has led the Review to name Baird its Entrepreneur of the Year for 2009. The company he runs, Bradenton-based MyUS.com, ships packages to more than 30,000 customers in all corners of the world, including hundreds of items that his clients can't get directly from American-based companies, including computer processors, vacuums and the occasional 10-foot fiberglass shark.

“We are just like a Mail Boxes Etc.,” Baird says about his company, which utilizes 40,000 square feet of warehouse space spread over two buildings in a Bradenton industrial park. “But we ship it to you.”

Three recent modifications to the simple business model have put the company on an ever faster-growth track, to the point where Baird is projecting the company will hit $100 million in annual revenues by 2012.

One change is that the company, which was known as Access USA until last year, is morphing from being a mail forwarding operation to one that primarily ships stuff. On that end, the bigger the better, since the company's fees are weight-based.

To facilitate that shift, Baird, 39, is in the process of moving away from some day-to-day parts of th e operation. He recently hired a marketing executive and a technology chief, for instance.

The third modification is more market-based, that of the U.S. dollar. The continued weakness and fluctuation of the dollar is driving more international consumers to buy American, which has boosted MyUS.com's market share.

Entrepreneurial genes
Baird hasn't needed much of an outside boost when it comes to his entrepreneurial aspirations or his global business sense, as most of that comes from his family, too. For one, Gail Baird has owned and sold several multimillion-dollar companies, including a furniture business for U.S. Army housewives in Germany.

“We are a family full of entrepreneurs,” Eric Baird says. “Early on we learned the value of creating your own business and controlling your own destiny.”

And Baird's ability to improvise in tough times — say, a recession — likely also comes from his family: Eric Baird is the quintessential military brat, having been born in California before moving with his family to Germany, Iran, North Carolina, New York and Arizona. He went to high school in North Carolina and college in Arizona.

Baird's choice of college was a prime example of his do-it-my way attitude. His sister had followed his brother to Syracuse University and as a high school senior, Baird's family expected young Eric to do the same.

But after one winter visit to the school, Baird came home and instead announced he was going to the University of Arizona — traveling 3,000 miles to prove he could do it his way.

It was at college where Baird continued to hone his independent, and later, his competitive streak. After college, in the early 1990s, Baird took a job in the ultimate competitive business arena: Wall Street.

But he only stayed in New York a few years, working on the options trading desk of the American Stock Exchange. He moved to the Bradenton-area in the mid-1990s, where his mother had relocated.

Baird's circle of friends in the area immediately noticed his friendly yet fierce competitive side.

At five feet eight inches tall, for instance, Baird joined a notoriously feisty basketball league at a Sarasota YMCA. But players in the league say Baird played much bigger than his body and rarely backed down from taller or stronger opponents.

“He is a tough little guy,” says Dave Fraser, a Bradenton Realtor who used to play in the league. “In terms of ego and desire, he's like a pit bull.”

Baird brings the same won't-lose approach elsewhere, friends say, from a recreational flag-football league where his team recently won the championship to poker games with employees and friends.

In addition to going all out in play and work, Baird goes for the gold in rewards, too. That list includes his Ferrari.

But there is a soft side to Baird. It comes out just about anytime he is around Mackenzie, his six-year-old daughter. Baird is divorced from Mackenzie's mother and by most accounts he dotes on the young girl.

On many Wednesdays for instance, Mackenzie can be seen in the MyUS.com offices, hovering around Baird. She types away on a computer or mimics her dad on the phone. Sometimes she grabs a broom and playfully sweeps up an area.

Christmas dinner
The move from Wall Street to Bradenton not only brought Baird closer to his family, but it also unleashed his inner entrepreneur.

At the time of the move in the fall of 1996, Gail Baird was running a company called Shop the World by Mail, which was essentially a catalog of catalogs that she mailed to international customers. She discovered a cult-like following of people willing to pay for her catalog because they couldn't get the specific catalogs she listed anywhere else.

Still, at a family Christmas dinner that year, Gail Baird wondered if there were other opportunities in this bustling marketplace. And what if Eric Baird could create a system where he could be the middleman to capitalize on it?

Soon after that dinner, Eric Baird had a $30,000 loan from his mom, a free ad in her company's 1997 catalog and a head full of ideas.
Baird rented space in a cramped 700-square-foot office on U.S. 41 in Sarasota, in the middle of a rundown strip mall. He began writing a marketing plan and coming up with long-term revenue and profit projections, although admittedly most of it was guesswork.

Says Baird: “I didn't really know what I was doing.”

What Baird was doing, however, was working literally day and night to get things going. He would sleep in the office many nights, with his bulldog serving as his only companion.

Baird's mission was to basically bring America to the global masses. He would use his credit card to pay for an item a customer ordered. When it got to Sarasota, he would repackage it and put it in the customer's queue, which was then shipped overseas every month. The fees came in the shipping charges.

Baird's operation grew by word of mouth. By 2004 the company had moved to a warehouse full of mailboxes and customer queues. The company surpassed $5 million in sales by 2004 and $15.5 million by 2007. That increase landed MyUS.com on the Inc. 5,000 nationwide list of fast-growing companies last year.

'Embracing technology'
With the kind of growth Baird has overseen and now projects at MyUS.com, it makes sense that he's in the early stages of what can be one of a successful entrepreneur's toughest tasks: Giving up day-to-day control.

Enter John Godshall and Robert Chodock. The company's new chief technology officer and chief marketing officer, respectively, were both hired by Baird over the past six months.

“I used to have my hands in a lot of things,” says Baird. “But now I try to keep my hands out of things.”

Godshall and Chodock weren't hired solely to be Baird clones. Indeed, both executives are on missions to improve the company's internal technology and its external marketing.

On the technology front, Godshall is revamping the company's database of orders, which serves as a clearinghouse of customers, delays, prices and purchases. “For a company that only moves boxes around,” says Baird, “we actually embrace technology pretty heavily.”

Meanwhile, Chodock, a onetime branding and sales executive for American Express, is attempting to broaden the company's presence past word-of-mouth. “There is so much more we can do,” says Chodock. “There is a lot of upside.”

One such expansion was a partnership the company announced last month with Bradenton-based retailer Beall's. Now MyUS.com is the official international shipper for the Florida-focused department store chain.

Both Godshall and Chodock say the aspect of Baird that stood out the most in their initial meetings with him was his passion for getting both bigger and better.

“He could comfortably coast at this point,” says Godshall. “But he has a genuine sense of entrepreneurial spirit. He never wants to stop.”

Bonus Baby
The only thing Baird seemingly wants to put a stop to at MyUS.com is mistakes. “That's the one thing I despise,” Baird says of the rare times an employee blotches an order. “In our business it's so critical to build up trust.”

To accomplish an impenetrable level of trust between company and customer, Baird has set up a costly employee bonus program that rewards mistake-free consistency, in addition to potential bonuses for sales growth and performance reviews. “The more you ship without mistakes,” says Baird, “the more you make.”

Baird says he quadrupled the bonus per week potential for the company's shippers late last year, in his obsession to eradicate all errors. So now a MyUS.com shipper, with a base salary of about $520 to $600 per week, can earn up to $650 in weekly bonuses. The average payout, Baird says, is about $400 per week.

The mistake-free has program has worked, bringing errors down to a fraction of one percent of all shipments. But it comes at a high cost. “Hundreds of thousands,” says Baird.

The company's expensive bonus program, in one sense, can be traced back to Baird's youthful yearning to surpass his accomplished siblings: The program is just another way of improving his company.

In addition to the Review and Inc., others have recognized MyUS.com's rise, both in prominence and revenues. Recent awards for shipping success, growth and innovation have come from a variety of sources, including the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and the national magazine of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

Gail Baird has noticed as well, and not because of her Lexus.

“You always want your child to do better than you did,” Gail Baird says. “And I think he has far surpassed me by now.”

TRUE FREE LUNCH

From a simple business model to the declining value of the U.S. dollar, Eric Baird can point to a lot of reasons for his company's success the last five years. The business, Bradenton-based MyUS.com, has grown revenues 156% since 2006, from $10.147 million to $25.99 million last year.

One other possible source of the success: Free lunch.

Baird unveiled his lunch-stimulus program a few years ago, in an effort to build employee morale and camaraderie and limit downtime away from the building.

It has worked. From fajita Fridays to pulled pork Tuesdays, the move has been a big success. The company's employees now eat together in large row tables nearly every day and banter with each other. Baird joins them most days he's in the office.

The lunches, which cost the company about $1,000 a week, have provided Baird with a personal perk as well. Baird used to skip lunch and sustain himself all day and coffee and cigarettes.

Now Baird eats the healthy fare and drinks V8. He also quit smoking and switched to decaf.

Here's a sample of a weekly menu MyUs.com serves its employees:
• Monday: Chicken breast with rice and a garden salad.
• Tuesday: Pulled pork sandwiches, baked chips and a garden salad.
• Wednesday: Italian pasta salad, fresh fruit salad and a garden salad.
• Thursday: Assorted sandwiches, baked chips and a garden salad.
• Friday: Chicken fajitas and a garden salad.

Soup to Nuts

On the surface, a shipping and packaging business has the potential to be profitable, yet boring.

But Bradenton-based MyUS.com is anything but boring. Run by Eric Baird, the company's warehouse is constantly filled with an eclectic — and many times expensive — list of goods. The only items it won't send are ones that are illegal for shipping, such as certain weapons and drugs.

The five most frequent retailers handled by the company are Amazon.com, Apple, the Gap, Victoria's Secret and Nordstorm's. At one time or another the company's packages, shipped out to a list of a 200 countries, has included the following:
• Jewelry going to an Arabian princess;
• Gold-plated pages of the Koran;
• A 10-foot fiberglass shark on its way to Italy;
• High performance motorcycle parts;
• Star Wars Lego sets;
• Roomba vacuums;
• Boxes of iPhones and iPods;
• Michelin tires;
• Computer processors; and
• A $1,500 handmade sword.

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