FULL TRANSCRIPT – Delivering Value to Your Community with Steve Howard
Natasha Cary: Welcome to Over the Threshold Podcast, produced by Certification of Delivery Excellence, also known as CODE. I’m your host, Natasha Cary, owner and president of CODE, where we offer online education for last mile delivery personnel. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website: codetrained.com. The purpose of this podcast is to deliver the journey of individuals in the Final Mile/Last Mile white glove industry. As CODE is an educational company, we hope through these stories you can learn something new. Maybe we teach you something about an individual you know, or we introduce you to someone you’ve always wanted to learn more about. Above all, we hope we can leave you inspired. Let’s get started.
Natasha: Hello, everybody and today on the CODE podcast, we’ve got Steve Howard, who’s the owner of Esquire Express, Esquire Logistics and Special Service Freight out of Miami. I’m so excited to have Steve here on the show today. Hi, Steve. How are you?
Steve Howard: I’m fine, thank you. Great to be here.
Natasha: Awesome! Well, I’m very excited about you being here today and sharing your last mile, final mile journey with everyone. I think you have such a dynamic personality; everybody lights up when you’re around, and I love that you’re here with us today and looking forward to sharing your journey and talking a little bit about the industry as it is today. So we’re going to dive right into it.
I am very fascinated by the way you got started. You clearly have a hustler mentality which, as an entrepreneur, is very important to have. But tell us a little bit about how you got started. I think it was carrying some papers to a law firm, right?
Steve: Well, something similar to that. I graduated from Florida State back in late 1989, and I got a job working, selling lumber while I was going to grad school, and I had a girlfriend that graduated with me and got a job as a paralegal at a law firm. And her first assignment was driving from Miami up to Palm Beach every day to make copies of legal files of hers from big litigation that was going on up there. And she was spending half her day traveling and the other half of her day making copies, and she proposed to me that I perhaps approach her partners or the managing partners and offer my services for significantly less than they were billing her for. They could bill my services, keep her in-house. So I did. And they took me up on it so I’m sitting there contemplating my next step at my job selling lumber and I was talking with one of the old-timers there and told him what I was thinking about doing, and he said, “So you’ll be working for attorneys, huh?”
I said, “Yeah.” And he says, “You should call your company Esquire Express.” And that’s how Esquire Express was founded. I initially was doing nothing but going to courthouses all throughout South Florida making copies of legal documents, going to recording offices, making copies of documents there. And business was great. I brought down a friend of mine; we were in the army together. We went to college together, and then I had an opportunity to bring him down here and that was in February of 1990. And in June of 1990, my first year here in Miami, I came to realize that everybody in South Florida leaves Miami when school lets out and the heat sets in.
So I was sitting there looking at him for a couple days going “Man, we’re not doing anything. We have no money, we have no revenue, we have rent coming up, and what are we going to do?” And up until that point, business was just booming. So I went to the law firm that I was leasing space from, the same firm that hired me to do all those copies, and one of the secretaries said, “Well, I don’t have anything at the courthouse, but I have a delivery for you to make if you’re interested.” So I had nothing to lose. I wasn’t really familiar with driving around Miami, but I got in my car, pulled out the map, got to the destination. And the whole time I’m driving there I’m thinking, “Man, what a great idea.” I could sell this service to law firms, where they wouldn’t have to leave their office, and I could take the packages. I thought I was the smartest guy in the world. And I get to the delivery at a bank near the airport, and I walk up to the receptionist and she says to me, “Oh, the courier’s here.” And I had never heard the term courier in my life.
I know! I’m thinking that I’m the smartest guy in the world! So, I get home that night, and I open up the phonebook and there’s about 500 couriers listed for just South Florida alone.
Natasha: Here you thought you’d just come up with the brightest, best idea and lo and behold, it’s been around.
Steve: It’s been around, tried, true, tested, and yes. But then I started thinking. If there’s that many couriers around, there’s got to be a lot of business…
Steve: …and I basically decided to emulate, at that time the largest legal courier here in South Florida. I basically mimicked their rates. I mimicked their promotional materials, and I went out and I hustled. And I hustled, and I hustled, and I hustled. That was in middle of 1990. In the spring of 1992, I opened up another business doing process serving, and private investigations, and that business was going very well. And then in August 24th, 1992, hurricane Andrew hit here…
Steve: …and at that time, yep. I had probably 15 drivers, maybe an office staff of three. And for about a month, no. Not that long. About three weeks, the business delivery world came to a screeching halt. There were no street signs anywhere. There was no way to get around. All the streets were completely blocked. And then, one night I got a call from a hospital who I had done a legal delivery to and they said, “You’re the only one picking up the phone.” I had the foresight to forward the calls to my cellphone. Which, back in those days was not…
Natasha: It was not common practice.
Steve: No. Well, they were just coming into the…the towers weren’t very stable. But it just so happened that I got the call. And they said, “We need to deliver a 50-gallon drum of diesel oil from a supplier to the hospital. Is it possible you could get that done?” Well, I had just bought a van. Like, the week before the hurricane hit. It suffered some damage, but I said, why not? So I got up in the middle of the night, I drove, got this drum of oil loaded. Diesel fuel, actually. Not oil. Diesel fuel, not knowing anything back then about hazardous materials or anything.
And I drove to the hospital and they treated me like I was a god. And for about 2 weeks, all I did was ferry diesel fuel back and forth. But that opportunity propelled us to the next step because when the dust settled, and a month after the hurricane hit and we were back up and running, within a month we were at ten people in the office and 50 drivers. And we were just running like crazy. And it was a great opportunity. I saw not only the document delivery world, but the whole other side of it because of that one hospital and how we were able to take care of them, they introduced me to a second hospital, to a third hospital and by the time the year was out in 1992, we were doing about 11 or 12 hospitals here in South Florida. And by ’95, ’96, we were running over 100 courier positions every day, doing over 1,000 deliveries every day. The business world was just kicking. Things were doing really well.
Natasha: Amazing. And did you always consider yourself an entrepreneur back when you were selling lumber? Did you see yourself at some point being a business owner? Where did you see yourself at that time?
Steve: Well, I’m originally from Buffalo, New York. And when I was ten years old, I took a trip down here to Florida in March. Sorry, April. And I left Buffalo, and there was a foot of snow on the ground, I got to Florida and we were swimming in the pool, and it was great! We drove back once Spring Break was ending, and we got back to Buffalo and there was a foot of snow on the ground. Fast forward to when I was 12 years old, and I’m in middle school and my best friend at the time…I didn’t realize it for another ten years or so, he wrote in my yearbook that year: ‘You’re going to move to Florida and start your own business.’
Natasha: [laughter] Wow!
Steve: Yeah. And so even at the age of 12, all I ever talked about was getting the heck out of Buffalo, moving to Florida, and I always owned my own businesses. Ever since I was 6 or 7 years old and cutting grass; my 11th birthday, I had a paper route. Everything I’ve ever done other than my 4-year stint in the army, I’ve done for myself. So it really wasn’t an option. I don’t know that I’m even employable, to be quite frank.
Natasha: Most entrepreneurs are not employable.
Steve: Exactly! So it was funny when I started that process of the business, and I hired — I got my private investigators license. There was this attorney back in the old law firm that I started the business at; I was still there growing. And he came into my office one day, and he was like, “How’s the mogul doing?” and I’m like, “What are you talking about?” and he goes, “You’re just one of those people. You’re special. Anything you touch, you just push it, push it, push it.” And that always stuck with me because he was a guy I really respected, Mike Sione. He had that comment for me, and I’ve just always been that way. I mean, as an entrepreneur, you really can’t ever take a break. You’ve always got to be looking down the road at what’s coming. What are the challenges? What are the options? What do I have today that might not be here tomorrow because of technology? Or whatever. So yeah. It’s something I’ve always been passionate about.
Natasha: So how do you stay ahead of it? You just mentioned that you’re always thinking, you’re always looking forward. How do you try to stay cutting edge and not get lost in what could potentially be a saturated market? Back in the 90s, there were 500 couriers. I can only imagine how many there are now. What kind of business practices or philosophies do you employ in your business that helps you stay on top of things, whether it’s in the industry or it’s hiring people? What helps you keep moving?
Steve: Well, probably my biggest key to success is to look people that are a lot smarter than me and listen to them. In all honesty…
Steve: …you can sit here on your own little island and just work for yourself every day, and not really prepare for the future and not even contemplate and not know what’s coming. Like the courier business. I mean, there’s not 500 couriers anymore in South Florida, there’s probably less than 100 because those businesses have just died. Technology changed it. But then those other 400 had choices to make. Either they got into something else within the delivery realm, or they just basically went off and did something else. Delivery’s what I’ve known since college, really. And I’m in my 30th year now so I just always have surrounded myself with good people. I joined the board of the Florida Messenger Association a year after I started the business. And if you think about it, these guys are my direct competitors. I’m walking into their customer’s offices as the Johnny Come Lately every day and offering myself as quicker, better technology, and then I’ve got to go and meet these guys at dinner and talk to them about how we can do better for the industry. And I learned very early on that there are really smart people in this industry. As there are in every industry.
Steve: And so I made the decision back then to just surround myself with the folks that I considered to be cutting-edge. And then, when I joined the MCAA, which is now the Customized Logistics and Delivery Association, the CLDA, back in the mid-90s, that was more of a national scope. I was picking up some national clients and really wanted to see how smart people were doing it across the country. There are businesses there back then that were doing between $2-3 million a year, and I’m a little guy doing $5 million a year going, “How do I get to that stage?”
Steve: And then when the economy tanked in the mid-2000s, I had an opportunity or was convinced that the smartest people out there are people that are on the board of the CLDA. And I looked at these people, and I’m looking at the businesses they’ve started or sold, what they’re doing now, and I thought to myself, “Man, we’re all going through these same problems. There’s no revenue, there’s no business, the business world has just stopped.” But somehow these guys are working their way through it. And I decided to join the board back in 2009. And again, to be surrounded by people who are forward thinkers, that are always looking for the next opportunity? That’s really where you have to be in business. I mean, you can’t just sit there and think you’re the smartest guy out there, or gal, because you’re not…
Steve: …there are other people doing better things, so.
Natasha: Yeah. We learn from each other.
Natasha: And now with the CLDA, you are the incoming president, right? You took the helm, so to speak, back in February at the conference in Miami.
Steve: I did. The Final Mile Forum. Yup, I did. I’m President for the next two years. You know, one of the challenges with many associations today is that people want to join, they want to be able to feel like they’re a part of something. Associations have been on the decline for a while now, and membership has been on the decline for all associations just because people connect in a different manner today. So my goal for the next two years was to bolster our membership, be more inclusive with things that we can do to help each other out. And never in my wildest dreams did I think that a month later I’d be sitting here dealing with this pandemic and all the challenges that not only the transportation industry but every industry is facing right now. And it’s been an eye-opener. So my focus has gone less to what we’re doing for our members and more to what we’re doing as a global community in the transportation industry.
Natasha: I can only imagine. With contactless deliveries and with the final mile, you’re having to go into the homes and maybe assemble things, and right now all of that is not happening. So how has that affected your business, and what are some steps that you’re taking to react to it?
Steve: One of my biggest clients, a customer I’ve been working with for many years now, all they do is retail replenishment, so they’ve been out of business for a month. And when you’re talking out of business, I mean, they went from a very large, extremely large company to really having zero revenue other than some storage for position products. So I consider myself fortunate because we had a courier business that still had decent revenue, 25 or so drivers doing non-medical things, but then another 40 drivers that were really just doing medical work and the medical work has not slowed down at all. There’s definitely some challenges there. I mean, we weren’t given very good guidance by the CDC or local governments for a few weeks. We had to figure a lot of things out on our own, and unfortunately at some of the hospitals that we pick up lab specimens for, folks at those hospitals in the first line have passed away.
Natasha: Oh wow.
Steve: Yeah. The doctors, nurses, it’s horrific. And then we’ve had to quarantine a bunch of our drivers because of that, and fortunately none of them have tested positive, but none of them want to come back to work…
Steve: …so there’s a chance to keep everybody healthy and safe and continue to do the critical mission that we do for these hospitals. So that’s a challenge. And then on the trucking side, we run typically 25 trucks a day or so. Probably seven or eight of those are the retail drivers, and they’re just furloughed. I don’t have any work for them. And then the other side is going into people’s homes. So we mostly do white glove home delivery.
Steve: So that’s ended. If you’re willing to take it, I’m going to deliver it out of your house, I’m going to call you, I don’t want to see you. I’m going to take a picture of it in front of your house.
Steve: Yeah. And then we’re leaving it. So from a delivery perspective, we’re only down 20%. I’m not talking about the retail, but the home delivery business. But the revenue from a white glove to a basic, just drop it off at curb, is less than 50%. So even though my volume’s up, I’m still running the trucks. The trucks are making half the money that they used to make. So we’ve had to make some tough choices here. I mean, who stays, who goes…and it’s like a mission-critical thing. I mean, I had my second employee I ever hired. He does a lot of work for us. In normal times we deliver probably 150 mattresses a day. I’m down to maybe 10. If that…
Natasha: And that’s for the people that are willing to take it at the door.
Natasha: Right, right.
Steve: …yeah, exactly. When you think about that and you’re furloughing people like that with the hope that things get back to normal soon because this guy needs a paycheck and I don’t want him to have to go somewhere else. He’s been with me for 30 years. So it’s stories like that…I don’t know what the future brings but obviously the quicker that we can bring back people to work, we will. Other than that, we’re just figuring things out.
Natasha: Day by day. There’s no rule book on this; there’s not a timeline right now that tells us a little bit about where we’re going and where we’re headed. And that was one of the things that I was very impressed with you, is that you have a lot of employees that have been with you for a very long time in an industry that generally has a high turnover rate. You’ve maintained your employees for many years.
Steve: When I interview somebody, I walk them through, I introduce them to people before the interview, and I make a point to tell them, “She’s been with me 17 years, he’s been with me 25 years.” Because you know, we are a family here. This whole, and I’m not going to get into this topic because I don’t even know that I necessarily believe it, but this whole concept of millennials switching jobs every year or so? I haven’t seen that. I’ve had some good success with people of all ages that just look for more of a good place to work, opportunity to move up because we’re always looking to grow in good times and bad times, and we have been! So there’s always opportunities here to expand your skill set, things like that. You know, we’re here for the long run.
Steve: I made one critical mistake last time, which I swore I’d never make ever again. Last time when the economy slowed down and almost came to a halt back in 2008. I held onto a lot of people that really almost put me into bankruptcy. Where I spent literally a $1 million keeping people employed that was just stupid…
Steve: …and I told myself I’ll never make that mistake again. As much as I want to care for everybody, and I do, at the end of the day, if I’m not around, then nobody’s got a job.
Steve: So, for my vision, it’s like, okay. I learned that lesson.
Natasha: Yeah, it’s a tough one and you know, as a business owner, you have to sometimes take a step back and look at the big picture to see, “How do I keep the business going?” and unfortunately those are some hard decisions you have to make sometimes.
Steve: Yep. Well, I’m hoping that something happens relatively soon here. I don’t know what that is, but none of us could’ve predicted where we’re at today.
Natasha: That’s for sure. So tell me a little bit about…I know the CLDA has been doing some things to keep everybody connected, members and non-members. You’ve been hosting webinars and sharing tips and ways to stay connected and help each other. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Steve: Sure. Like most associations, our philosophy’s always been we’re going to do things for our members, right? And there are a couple of times a year where we’ll open up certain things that we do like our conferences and maybe our webinars to folks that aren’t members to attract them as members. But I made the decision early on that everything that we do for now which is gathering best practices, putting as many financial webinars together that make sense to the transportation industry, having moments where we can get together, whether it’s during a social hour or whether it’s more of a ‘where are we at’ scenario. I’m inviting everybody that’s in the transportation business. We have about 6,000 or more email addresses, and I’ve basically opened it up to everybody and said that for the next however many months, everything that we do is going to be transparent. And a little bit selfishly, obviously. I want to grow our membership. But really, the more important thing is we all need to come together as a community. We’re all feeling the pain everywhere. And if a guy in Washington can share some best practices with the guy staying in New Orleans who is a little bit behind them in what happened to them, and the guy in New Orleans can help somebody that’s in an area that may not be affected right this minute, it’s really good for all of us.
Steve: We had an event on a Saturday. I think you were very important in helping put that together, and I appreciate that.
Natasha: Oh, sure.
Steve: You know, where really, it was just five or six of us that got together and just talked about things that we’d learned over the previous couple of weeks. And again, best practices, opportunities, challenges, all that stuff. We had a 120 people or so sign up for it. Again, this is on Saturday. Midday Saturday. We had 110 show up, and almost half of those people were not members of our association.
Natasha: Oh wow, that’s great.
Steve: Yeah. So that just tells you that there’s a lot of people out there that…well, everybody’s hurting! But everybody’s got a feel for a sense of community, and I just think that from a CLDA standpoint, we are the default leaders in the industry. We do a lot of things for the industry. We just need to open it up and be that good partner for everybody right now.
Natasha: Yeah, I’ve been a part of a lot of associations, and I would say that from my first time attending the forum, I was very ‘open arms welcomed,’ very much felt like I was a part of the team. It was really nice to be with a group of people that really want to share information and really have that benefit of the more we grow, the more we share, we grow together, you know? And I could feel that from the first time that I attended a CLDA event. So I’ve enjoyed being a member.
Steve: I agree with that. I mean, some groups try to keep things very internalized you know. They don’t want to share their secret sauce, if you will. Our association, I’ve been a member for a long time, is exactly the opposite. There’s some business models where, if I refer your business, I expect something monetarily or in some other fashion in return. Our industry, and certainly not the CLDA, has never been that way. It’s always been: “I know somebody, he’s a personal friend of mine she’s a personal friend of mine in this area. This is what they do. Let me refer you to them”. And I look around my 65,000 ft2 warehouse, and I can tell you that 80% of my business comes from the associations that I belong to. It’s people that have said, I know this guy, he’s reliable, he’s going to do a good job for you and the business comes and then it’s my job to make it stick.
Natasha: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the more relationships you have, the more business you get. And I believe in good karma. I think it’s good karma, good business. Well, I’ve really enjoyed having you here with us today on this episode and wanted to end with a last question. As a business leader especially in these times, where there’s lots of things that you’re considering, but any ending thoughts about what would you say to a younger person trying to get into this industry, how would they? Either if they’re trying to get in or they’re just young in the industry and want to branch out. Move forward. What would your advice be?
Steve: the biggest advice that I could give to anybody as an entrepreneur, is: you think you’ve worked hard? Work harder.
It’s just one of those deals where you really can’t take a break and competition’s always nipping at the buds, and there’s always challenges. So you’ve got to just stay on your game at all times and when you think you’ve got it? There’s somebody right behind you who wants it. So just make sure you’re on your game all the time.
Natasha: That’s definitely some good advice. Well thank you again, Steve. Thanks so much for being on the show with us. I really appreciate your time and your insight and have enjoyed talking with you today.
Steve: All right, thank you, Natasha.
Natasha: Thank you so much for listening to the Over the Threshold Podcast. If you liked what you heard on this episode, I’d love it if you’d subscribe, leave a review or share with a friend you know who would like to hear it, too. To learn more about CODE certifications, visit our website codetrained.com