As Director, Michael provides optimal logistics solutions to his clients in healthcare, high tech and entertainment. From driving vans for deliveries to understanding the complexities of shipping dangerous goods, he enjoys the challenges and the satisfaction of taking the worry off clients' shoulders.
This week we're discussing how to position yourself in a crowed transportation market with Pacer Air Freight Director Michael Stopay and Marketing Manager Carolina Chanis. Specifically, we talk product/market specialization, building the right team, and how to establish the right culture at a growing logistics business.
Tell me a little bit about what Pacer Freight does.
We are an independent freight forwarder based in Mississauga. We specialize in time-critical and expedited shipping for healthcare, broadcasting and also the aerospace sectors.
That time-critical or time-sensitive nature. I think that's really interesting to me because a lot of carriers work on these very flexible time ranges.
Where they can deliver stuff maybe a day out sometimes a few hours of difference is not that bad if stuff gets delayed and they just send out a notice. It's not like that for you guys. Right?
There is a little bit of a buffer with some jobs, but on the most part, a lot of the customers are pretty time-sensitive, so when they reach out to us they've already worked with FedEx, Purolator and UPS.
They have already explored options utilizing their services and it just doesn't fit with what they're looking for, so a company like us they'd reach out to us and see if we can speed up that transit time and that's usually what we can do.
When you talk about speeding it up, how do you do it because I'm sure UPS and FedEx and all those guys would love to offer your time, but clearly something is stopping them. So what's your secret sauce?
I would say, the staff that we work with, they are all high-level guys that understand the industry and have a lot of experience in moving things fairly quickly.
They are assets to the company. They make the company what it is. It's a collaborative approach where we all help each other and the guys, comprehend and understand logistics very well.
They can also play a lot of different roles in helping provide solutions for customers. Whereas with some of these other companies, it's simple.
They say okay, what's your weight? What's your size? They put it into the system and say this is what we can do.
So we are more of an outside the box, we provide solutions.
We have a couple of assets in Toronto, but the fact that we are members of these global networks of other companies enables us to offer more options.
We can offer such flexibility because we do not only have one charter or one set of schedules for our trucks.
Being not asset-based lets us offer even more solutions.
The other thing is that we think outside the box by recommending solutions that the customer was not even looking for because if we know there's a better way, we'll offer it.
We will still do as we're asked and we will offer whatever the customer requested, but if there's another option, we will offer that as well.
Sometimes it's just a matter of looking at another airport that's nearby and combining that with the road and, then you get more or less the same time, maybe even faster, depending on the connections.
That also saves our customer money because we are landing at a secondary airport, not a big airport. So those are the things that I feel make us stand out in terms of the service that we offer.
From my perspective, I work with a lot of freight brokers, occasionally some forwarders.
What I tend to see with a lot of the smaller guys is that they always ask us as a technology provider, how we can get our systems to look exactly like FedEx or UPS.
Where you can get an employee to throw a bunch of stuff into a calculator essentially and it will spit out a rate or a route for you.
It's really interesting to me that you guys are scaling so well and providing this level of service by going the opposite way by going super manual and super consultative with expert advice.
You hit the nail on the head. They come, we provide them with the information they need.
At the same time, we are automated, but it's the information and the knowledge that my employees have that they want to hear.
They want to be able to speed up their process and get stuff delivered quickly and my guys are capable of doing that.
It's just feeding off our knowledge and then obviously using our technology to get it delivered whatever way they want it delivered.
That could mean multiple different things: they might want to visually watch the shipment move until it reaches the destination point so that they know it was delivered safely.
They might want to make sure that there is no light exposure to boxes or that they have never been tampered or opened. So we offer technology that could show them that all the way through.
It could be the humidity, they might, want to make sure they can control the humidity or temperature, throughout the whole transit.
There are a multitude of different areas that we can control or at least try to control, so we give them confidence that our technology is able to do that.
They can see what it was all the way through from when it was picked up to when it was delivered.
Here's your light exposure or here's your temperature that it was the whole time, and then that's kind of what we're able to do.
That example with the level of technology and the information that we can provide, it's definitely not for everyone.
So I understand that other companies might want to automate things because they're working based on volume.
But for us, we're going the opposite way, because a lot of the things that we handle are time-critical, but it's also because they're extremely high value.
For example, aeroplane parts, for a plane that's down and if that plane is not fixed within the day, that's millions of dollars lost or even radioactive isotopes that only have a shelf life of a couple of hours or a couple of days.
You can't afford for that to be held at customs because of paperwork mistakes. So there is a premium like the other services. That's why we're able to have that consulting approach with our customers.
I find that super interesting because over the last year like just in freight and the more you learn, especially with the changing legislation that's being pushed out right now in the US.
There's going to be a trend I think, where a lot of smaller companies are going to have to take up niches like you guys did, as opposed to trying to compete with the big box guys with generic freight.
I think that's where the money is at like you said in super-specialized unique services for high-value freight and that's where you guys are clearly providing a level surface that's beyond anything else, even what FedEx can provide.
That's where we see the opportunity is for us, where we can offer a combination of technology tracking, as well as working closely with customers.
That is what we enjoy doing the most like really understanding when we're working with a customer.
What is it that they need to accomplish? And, then we figure out a solution around that.
So like the examples I just gave, it's radioactive, it's airplane parts, and you understand the urgency just because of what they are.
But sometimes it's very simple things like we did this project, where we were approached by a premium office furniture company. They had a certain image and brand that they wanted to maintain, throughout their entire customer experience and we're a part of that.
We went as far as the signing procedures so when we're delivering things if something like a wheel is broken or something happens we can fix it right away.
Then our customer's customers happy because they now do not have to deal with a broken chair or like a missing wheel and get back to the furniture company saying, we need a replacement part.
We will replace it right away. So we also do some white-glove service like that.
That's an example of it might not seem like a big deal, but this is part of our customers' promise, and so we see ourselves that way. We help you fulfil whatever it is that you promised to your customers. We help you fulfil that.
It's weird because one of the earliest companies we worked with over at Freightpath, they worked in the mining industry.
So like you said, very specialized.
There's no margin for error there, something like a machine part gets misplaced or miss-delivered, and that's like millions of dollars coming in every hour that's just lost because machines can't run.
It was so weird because that's the assumption that we built everything on and then once we were talking to more and more of these new newer freight brokerages or newer carriers, there was a huge shift, where they almost didn't see the value in going super-specific.
They just wanted to push out something generic in large amounts of volume. So what was the insight that led you guys to start going down specialized instead of super generic?
I think it's just the fact that things have to be done very quickly and efficiently. That's something you just have to have inside you. You have to be the type of person who wants to make sure that everything gets done to perfection.
You can't have errors. They do take place, accidents and things do happen down the line. But you have to have that goal inside of you that says you know what, I got to make sure this gets there.
I will do whatever it takes. It just stems from there, and then you keep hiring the right type of people that want to help out the customer and make sure that the customer is getting what they need.
They're looking for service. That's what interests me, keeping the customer happy. I want to make sure that every customer that comes to give us a job, ultimately leaves with a good experience.
They must be happy with the service that we provided. Also, to create a good dynamic of employees that all work together and share the same values. That's what we try to do.
Yeah, so that idea of moving into these specialized services, I think it came out of the personality and the drive and the values and then finding out where we can succeed.
We know who we are, so now who would like something like this? That's how the company started, finding the spaces where services like these are required.
In Canada, we're moving more into cannabis, especially now that edibles are legalized, these are things that you can't ship at any type of condition because of the product, their oils, its food, you have to maintain certain temperatures.
So we see the opportunity there, and we're starting to grow in that space as well.
It was first, understanding our identity and what drives us and then the people in the office, they take this personally, they know that it's not just that the customer wants it now, there's a reason why it has to arrive at the time and the day that it has to arrive.
I see everyone in the office, they take it very personally, that's their mission, and they will go above and beyond to make it happen.
So I think it's really, just staying true to your identity and your values and the vision that you have and then finding the customers that want to pay for that service or need that service.
I think that's part of the worry that a lot of people have when they start specializing.
One of the things I talked about with people who are going into the industry or switching over or starting a freight brokerage, even they have a specialization.
As you said, Mike, you have your mindset, and that's how you want to run the company, and you knew that and most people do have that direction, but they look at the market, and then they panic. They're like, I don't know if I can make the sales. Maybe I need to expand who I'm targeting.
How do I make sure that I build trust with the right customers? I'll take the example that you gave.
Let's say you're shipping out plane parts. When you're first starting and you don't have the experience beforehand, how do you convince the people that you're working with to trust you on that side?
I think that a lot of it has to do with really understanding what their needs are.
Then build a relationship with them, and after that, I think it all comes down to, have you delivered before and who have you done it before, showing your experience and that's where Carolina comes in because she's good at that.
She's able to put together something that the customers can look at and say, so they do have experience moving these types of parts.
You build rapport, you build a relationship and from then on you sit on the fence until an opportunity arises where they say, can you do this. When that opportunity arises, you better be ready to execute because there is no room for failure.
They can call you at two o'clock or one o'clock in the morning, they can call you on a long weekend or Christmas Day, but you better be able to execute because if you don't execute, I can guarantee that you will not get another shot.
It's interesting that you say it's not instant because some people think you pick up the phone call and it is with one of these guys.
Maybe one in a hundred even answer then you get the deal and shipment immediately. But that's not what happens.
Oh no. I wish.
It takes a long time, three, four even, five years to get a job, it's not easy.
We've had sales cycles that lasted at least a year or two before we even got the chance to quote, not even to get the job.
So patience and understanding that is crucial, especially if you're doing niche types of jobs.
The sales cycle is longer because you have to nurture that relationship.
That's something you need, dedicated personnel for, I think that's one of the hardest things to do, especially if you're just a solo guy running out.
It's easy to make that first contact and to pick up the phone, but it's hard to keep consistent contact, figure out how to bring value but not be annoying at the same time.
What are your strategies for doing that?
I think you’ve got to keep a clear mind when you're dealing with people because you're dealing with someone that has a job, and their job could be very stressful.
So they might or might not want to hear from you, but there's no guarantee you're going to get the job.
You might get them on a bad day, your mind's got to be clear, and you got to understand that, they got a job just like you got a job and you might not like what you hear.
Your job is to get a sale and to bring in new business. So you have to be ready to take anything at any time.
I've taken my fair share of people blasting me on the phone.
A lot more than good, there's been a lot of blasts before on the phone where people told me to get your pitch, right or you don't know what you're saying.
These were in the early days when I first started, I was calling a lot of companies and trying to figure out how to bring in new customers, and it took a while.
Not in the last two years I just had brought on Carolina, which has helped us build our marketing campaign and still at this point, we're still trying to understand we're getting better at it.
Marketing is a work in progress, and I don't think it ever goes away.
I think you constantly have to work at it because it's always there and always changing. It takes constant work and, I think it's important to know that it's a work in progress, and it never stops.
For us, the keys, to reach out to prospects.
We're definitely using Linkedin, it's a good resource. Conferences are also a good place to start because face to face always helps. This year, we're not going to be doing any of that. Cold email and cold messaging also works well, but you need a strategy.
It can't just be a random message hoping that you're going to get the sale at the first point of contact.
One of the things when I started two years ago, that was the first thing that we tackled, just understanding and getting into our minds that you'll probably have somewhere between 10 to 25 interactions with someone before they even say yes.
So you have to space them out. You have to be very strategic.
Just don't go all in.
It's the same as a relationship. You don't meet someone on the first date and then ask them to marry you. You have to get to know each other to see if it's a good fit and, then you talk about signing a piece of paper.
That's how I see how the B2B sales process works because we're all humans, it's just people interacting with people.
The more you bring that mindset, then you come across differently.
It's not about the sales, the volumes or quoting, right away, it's more about how we can turn this into a partnership where I'm helping you maintain whatever you promised your customer and make you look good.
I'm sure you saw the case with those bikes, the Peloton bikes that a lot of customers were angry about because it wasn't anything about the product.
It was about the delivery, it's a $2,000 bike, and then the delivery was not great.
So then you pay $2,000 for something, and it arrives all broken. So we're aware of, our role in that, and making our customers look good. So that's why having that mindset it takes time.
You can't just blast people with emails asking for things when you haven't earned the right you have to earn the right to ask for things like asking for a quote or an opportunity to be a vendor.
So basically no love at first sight, which means no sale on the first call.
I'd say more than the first call.
The single most destructive thing I did when I first got into marketing a while ago was that I would get a little bit of a positive response from someone. Which led to me saying oh, they're interested in buying let me send over a proposal for a quote.
Are you interested in buying right now? Are you interested in a quote?
Every now and then I'll go back and read some of my old emails, just to get a clear idea of, how do you train people? What are your new employees thinking?
It's horrifying looking back on it because someone would say, this sounds fair and interesting, and immediately I blasted them being like, how would you like to sign on this week and get started right now?
They were like, Whoa, no, I don't even know what's going on here. I need to think more about this and looking back that's not how you want B2B sales to work.
No, it's like anything you do.
There's a training process in place. You don't start walking before you're crawling and that holds for everything. If you're trying to do something, so quickly it doesn't work, there's a slow process to get to where you need to be.
It takes time.
When I brought on one of my other sales reps, he first started, and he wanted sales right away. He said I want to get sales like you, I want to pick them up like, like the way you're grabbing them.
I said, Well, it takes time.
These people I've been hounding down for years and I'm just now starting to get a little bit of an opportunity to quote, their work, not even get their work I quote, and believe me, I quote a lot of business, and I don't see any of it.
They might be comfortable, there could be a ton of factors, why they are resisting change. Change is not easy for customers to make, especially when their job is on the line.
They go ahead and make a wholesale change by giving the business to you, and you stink it up.
What do you think is going to happen to them, they're probably going to be out of a job. So there's a lot at stake when they make these changes.
It's a little different than moving a regular skin that they put out for quotes with 50 different companies and going with whoever comes in the cheapest. It's all the same.
This is different, there's a little more at stake, with high-value stuff because you can't afford for it to be sitting on the ground.
You also brought up a really good point, when you hired your reps, you didn't expect them to bring in the volume that you brought in immediately.
That's something, a lot of people have, this weird misconception about, they see their company scaling.
They say I need to hire a sales rep or an agent and they think after I hire this guy. Within a couple of weeks, we'll start to see a sales boom. No, it's not like that.
They don't see the results immediately, so they say this isn't working. We need to fire this guy. We need to find somebody else.
Then you get this turnover cycle that never stops and starts bleeding your company out.
Big time, well, first of all, you got to hire the right people with the right qualities. I look for people that have the same qualities as me.
That's what I prefer for sales because I know what it takes to go out there to hound, get sales and what it requires to make sure that the customer's happy.
In my opinion, the guys have a lot of qualities that I have, and I don't even know what those attributes are, but that's what we look for when hiring.
Nobody always hires the right people all the time, but you learn. I might have hired the wrong people, but I've learned from that and that's what's important.
You have to learn from your mistakes and get better at it.
From the other side Carolina, what do you think helped you the most when you came on board at Pacer?
What do you think other companies can learn from that onboarding process because I think that's one of the hardest things to nail down.
Once you hire, what do you do next?
Well, I work closely with the sales team, Mike and Steve, as well as our other colleague Myron. What helped me was them being available whenever I had questions.
We had multiple meetings to understand our mission, our vision and to define our values.
They've shared all they know, everything they think about the industry and the challenges they've faced and so I took all of that information to understand, how we can approach prospects while also taking into account their individual strengths.
There's no point in me setting a strategy that is not aligned with how they like to work. So yeah, those two things.
The good thing for me was that there was nothing at the beginning, Pacer had a website, somewhat of a presentation deck and, that was pretty much it. We had a CRM, software, but we weren't using it as much.
So I had the opportunity to come in and reevaluate how we were doing everything, and design things from scratch so that it would make more sense.
That way, they could use a CRM that they were excited about using because the software that we had before was too complicated for what we needed.
Then I started looking at other options.
So, that's one example. I picked a CRM that I thought would work well with the way that we work because I didn't want anything too complicated.
You need to be able to keep the information and keep track, but it doesn't have to be an insane onboarding process.
Where you need to hire a third-party consultant, we have to be realistic about our level.
We're a small team, it's fine, and then when the needs change, and the company changes, and we grow, even more, then we'll reevaluate.
I think it's good that I had that opportunity to design things from the beginning, keeping in mind like this is where we're at, this is where we're going and always keeping a balance between those two things.
So yeah, my onboarding process was spending a lot of hours just talking to Mike and talking to Steve and Myron. What helped me was them being available whenever I had questions, understanding the business and what they had done so far.
Two years ago, the focus was getting more into health care, and that's what we've been focusing on, and we've done well, we've acquired more accounts in that industry.
There was nothing set in stone, there was, no manual, I had to step in, and work with them to design that vision for Pacer.
When I joined Gwen at Freightpath, it was very much the same thing since we were so early. I had a lot more responsibility than most people would have in that situation.
I think that's a better experience than being handed a manual and saying, follow this manual, do what it says, read it.
In my opinion, understanding the company makes a huge difference when you're talking to the customers, or even on the marketing side, just like broadcasting a message.
If you don't understand what the company or leadership is about, then there will be a divide between, what you're broadcasting out there, and what the prospects will see when they talk to Mike, for instance.
That's one of the things I've enjoyed, now that I've been doing marketing here for two years, and this is a career transition for me. So it was good to just come in without carrying prescribed ideas of how things needed to be.
I came in thinking, I have to understand the playing field, and then we build from there. I couldn't do whatever I did at my previous company because I never did freight forwarding marketing.
So I think that was an advantage because I came in willing to see things and make it work for Pacer and nothing else.
What you said about having that divide between sales and marketing, that's problematic.
I've talked to other peers working at, other companies and when I tell them, how we do things, what I do, they say that's amazing.
Most of the time, marketing is doing their thing, preparing promotional materials, and they're not communicating with sales. So sometimes you hand in decks that do nothing, they don't help the sales team.
We do things differently.
I am there at the meeting. So I pick up on things, and I go to the conferences, and the events and I'm always listening to conversations.
That's what helps me understand what the company is about and where they want to go. So that's one of the advantages for us being tight with marketing and sales.
I think she hit the nail on the head with that one. She understands quite a bit about what we do, and that's important. She's still learning.
That's okay because you can't learn everything right away. You're going to learn as you go, and she will market and continue to market and change whatever she needs to change as she moves along.
I think the best way is being interested in learning and if she's interested in learning then she's going to market us the right way, I can't hand over a manual and say, this is what we do.
She's got to learn what we do and be willing to do that.
I think that's really interesting.
All the best marketers that I know, I don't want to include myself, because I always think I could always do better, but everybody that I meet in marketing didn't do marketing at their prior role.
They were always doing something else because if you go into marketing as a career marketer, you tend to have these ideas that are like a form of prejudice almost where you have this idea of how things should be, and you're not as flexible.
You're not conforming to the industry's specific needs or what the company specifically needs.
So I think it's cool that you guys decided to hire from a completely different position for that.
I think it's hiring somebody that wants to take on the role and has the passion and motivation to do it because if somebody is interested in getting something done, as long as they have the right tools, they will get it done.
They will figure it out because they want to figure it out. Whenever you want to do something, and you want to do it bad enough, you will get it done no matter what.
I would say that applies to almost everybody in the company, I don't think except for maybe two people in operations.
Everybody comes from a different background.
We prioritize hiring for attitude, more than previous experience because a lot of things you can learn on the job in my case I did have some experience. I did get my MBA and everything.
So I wasn't coming in completely from zero, but this was my first, official marketing role.
Then when I think of the team and the operation side, we have people with architecture backgrounds that just wanted to switch and why not, they're excellent at what they do now.
So we hire based on attitude more than, having a checklist of, three to five years of experience, no, we don't do things that way.
Which is weird because you guys are so specialized, and put so much on the customer service.
That's why I find it amazing that you guys have been able to achieve that, while also paradoxically not focusing on you have to know this industry by heart before you get here.
You got to have the heart to work in the industry.
I have another guy who's an aeronautical engineer.
It just depends, if somebody has the interest to work with your company and you think they would be a good fit and you bring them on and they are interested, usually they become a good fit.
You need the right atmosphere and family for everyone to flow together. That's huge because as soon as you lose that you lose everything.
It's so important for everyone to be on the same page, willing to work hard and go above and beyond for the customer.
It's important to align everything together.
You've been running Pacer Freight for almost a decade now. Right?
Well, the company has existed and been around since 1981, but in the last 10 years, it's changed quite dramatically.
My father started in 81, and he was just a small courier that did the delivery for some specialized clients. He had a good rapport and did good work, and people appreciated that, and we just built on that.
Here we are today, helping out with PPE, delivering for customers that require stuff ASAP and we were able to execute.
Throughout these 30 years since you took the reigns of Pacer, have you regretted anything or do you see things differently?
There's no regret. Most importantly, I enjoy working with the staff I work with. That is what it is in a nutshell.
If I enjoy what I do, then I'm going to continue to do it, but as soon as that passion and enjoyment run dry, that's going to be an issue.
Right now, I enjoy what I do.
I like helping out my customers and working with my team, and I think it's likewise. It goes with everyone: all my brothers that I work with, I work with 3 brothers we all work together, and I enjoy it.
We work altogether as a team, with the rest of us and everyone else and I have no complaints.
So I'm happy where I am right now, and I'll continue to grow this and keep everybody that comes on with that same interest. If that stays, I think the company will stay for a long time.
That's an incredible viewpoint to have, and on your side, Carolina do you have any last words?
I think it's an interesting position for me to be in because we're definitely in a growth phase.
All the things you learn in a university will give you an idea, but it doesn't quite prepare you because every situation will be different, so you have to think about the context.
For me, it's a good fun challenge.
I think you guys echo it so well that all of this is one big learning opportunity that you go through every single day. There's no failures or wins.
You go through it, and then you get better over time. Right?
That's the goal.