Rockin' Around the Clock

Nine years ago, Abbott and Kristin Abbott found a niche in the delivery business and leaped in.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Kristin Abbott and her husband, Abbott D. Abbott II, perceived a market niche nine years ago and founded Vermont Courier. Their Williston company offers on-demand, same-day delivery service around the clock and around the world. Kristin is chief financial officer; Abbott is the company president.

To the romantic among us, the word "courier" evokes images of briefcases shackled to diplomats' wrists or, more mundanely, guys on bicycles carrying legal papers for signature across town.For Abbott and Kristin Abbott, owning a company called Vermont Courier means greeting that preconceived notion every day. It doesn't take much surface-scratching to find the truth. The Abbotts' Williston business owns neither a pair of handcuffs nor a bicycle.

What the 9-year-old company does own is a market niche for on-demand, same-day, specialized delivery and freight forwarding, orchestrated from an office and warehouse facility on Shunpike Road that is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week an office where a live voice answers the phone anytime it rings.

"We consider ourselves a logistics company," says Kristin. "We pride ourselves on being able to solve our customers' problems. Our customers can call us up with their problems. We have regular customers who call every day and say, 'I want to go from here to here;' or some who call and say, 'Oh, this is a big package; I don't know how to get it there; what can you do for me?' We can give them various options at various prices, depending on how strong their need is: options that might involve driving or flying or even renting a jet.

"Our motto is, 'We can't' is never the answer. We have to instill in our dispatchers, 'Don't assume they won't want to do this or that. It's your job to find the answer, and then the customer has a choice.'"

This ability to ferret out choices is something the Abbotts have nurtured in both their personal and professional lives.

Abbott and Kristin met in Boston. Kristin, a Middlebury native, had gone to the city to study retail management and interior design at the Chamberlain School of Retailing. Abbott, who grew up in Longmeadow, Mass., had recently earned his bachelor of arts in economics from Boston College. Friends introduced them.

"I was a courier for a national same-day service when I was at BC," says Abbott. "For a short time after I graduated, I worked for what was then Burlington Northern Air Freight at Logan Airport, in charge of their express department on nights and weekends. That was around the time Kristin and I first met."

Abbott had hoped to work as a sales rep for Burlington Northern, but when the company decided to keep him in operations, he opted to go work for a company in the window and door industry called Newpro Inc.

Kristin, in the meantime, had joined the executive training program at the Harvard Cooperative Society and, for five years, worked her way up through the ranks. "I ended my career there as a book buyer for the Medical Center Co-op, where I bought medical and text books for Harvard Medical and a lot of other colleges in the area," she says.

When their daughter, Rheanna, was born in 1986, Kristin quit working for a while. The family moved to Duxbury, Mass., where Abbott had decided to open a company with a partner in the window and door business. A year later, he decided to sell his partner his share of the business and move the family to Vermont, Kristin's home state, where Abbott had been offered a job for a millwork company named Rivco. "This time, I was selling windows and doors to contractors," he says.

The decision to move to Vermont was an easy one, says Kristin. "We had one young child; I had grown up in Vermont; and we had decided to get out of our own business, so it just seemed like a good time to do it. I wanted to bring my children up in the same kind of atmosphere I had grown up in, to be around my family."

The Abbotts lived with Kristin's family in Middlebury for a short time until they found a house in Hinesburg, where they've lived for 14 years.

Dana Brizendine, the first employee hired by the Abbotts, is now general manager. Vermont Courier has grown to nine employees and is looking for a larger space.

After the move, Kristin worked at administrative jobs "part-time and in between children." Their son, Jeffrey, was born a year after they arrived in Vermont.

Abbott stayed with Rivco until 1993, when he found himself "selling windows and doors during a recession. Obviously, times were kind of lean right then."

By then, Kristin had been working in human resources at Burton Snowboards for a couple of years. "It was the main job that got me back into the work force," she says.

The Abbotts started talking about founding a business of their own. Abbott's thoughts naturally gravitated to the freight forwarding and courier business.

"We looked sideways at the way most local couriers were set up and saw a need for on-demand, specialized delivery and freight forwarding," Abbott says.

He reconnected with a college roommate who had opened a courier company, Same Day Delivery Services, and jumped at the opportunity to visit the operation and see how it was set up. "Our niche is same-day, and that's a real specialized market," says Abbott. "He helped me quite a bit in reconnecting with old friends in the industry."

The couple decided to take the plunge, and in October 1994, Abbott quit his job at Rivco and they launched Vermont Courier. Kristin had left Burton to help Abbott get the business going and give him the flexibility to be out doing sales. With a Small Business Administration loan, they opened an office on Pine Street in the former Burlington News building.

"We were 24 hours right from day 1," says Abbott, "because we saw the need with healthcare facilities and some major players in the state, where they could call day or night and have a driver there within 15 to 60 minutes, which is our promise to the Vermont customer, 24/7." They worked the office during the day and forwarded the phones to home. "I would take calls right through the night," he says.

As the customer base grew, the types of service the company provided grew, "and the way we provided our service changed," says Kristin. "We would get more creative, using a Lear jet if we needed, or private charters. Sometimes a customer would request to have a courier on the plane to make sure it wouldn't get bumped off. Abbott just went to Germany, because it required that somebody physically carry it on a plane, so he went to Hamburg and back in a three-day stint."

"There have been gaps when we've had to cover," Kristin says, "but about three years ago, we achieved staffing to cover 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so there's always someone here in the office." The company has nine employees who cover dispatch and customer service, parts inventory, receiving and accounting. Gary Robair, an independent sales rep, has just come aboard to work with Abbott on the road.

The Abbotts have stories to tell about interesting deliveries they've made. "When Tara Lipinski was at Lake Placid for the ice show, she had a favorite ice sharpener, a person who did her skates who was located in Phoenix, Arizona," says Abbott, "so she would have her skates picked up in Lake Placid between performances and flown back to Phoenix for sharpening, then flown back again before the next performance."

Marty Connelly, in operations, is one of the employees who make sure Vermont Courier's phones are answered by a live voice 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When actor Danny DeVito was vacationing in Woodstock, Vermont Courier delivered a movie script to him in the middle of a snow storm.

While these stories are the fun ones to tell, they are not the bread-and-butter parts of the business. Through membership in two national organizations, Messenger Courier Association of the Americas (MCAA) and Air Courier Conference of America (ACCA), "we are able to network all over the country and the world with other businesses such as ours, so if we have a pickup in Michigan, we go to our association listing, call companies we have made relationships with, and they pick it up there, and we pick it up here. We provide door-to-door delivery for our customers."

Vermont Courier does nightly pickups at the American Red Cross. "We put them on a charter serving as agent for another national charter service," says Abbott.

"We do a tremendous amount of emergency work, not only in the healthcare field, but also in the manufacturing field," says Kristin. "If you have a manufacturing facility and a machine goes down because a $20 part broke, it may cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars to get it to you, but if it's holding up a third shift of employees standing around 40 people making $15 an hour they're losing money by the minute."

When most people think of the need to get something fast, they first think UPS or FedEx, Kristin says. "That's fine. They have their place, but that's the difference between next day and same day. Same day is that much sooner. I think that's what people don't always understand about us."

"The UPSes and the FedExes, all the overnight services, are frankly some of our biggest customers," says Abbott. "All the major players in and around the state of Vermont. All the major companies."

One major company Vermont Courier serves is connected to IBM. Hot Shot Services Inc., in Albuquerque, N.M., manages spare parts for the semiconductor industry. "Anyplace that makes chips, we have parts there," says Kim Householder, president of Hot Shot.

Hot Shot ships parts to Vermont Courier, where they're warehoused, and if a machine goes down, "they can have the part and get the machine up within one hour. Vermont Courier not only makes deliveries, but they also maintain the inventory accuracy and then deliver parts to the technician."

Vermont Courier is Hot Shot's "benchmark depot," says Householder. "Their inventory accuracy is always above 99 percent; the service rates are always above 99 percent. We're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars for every hour these parts are down for IBM, etc."

Vermont Courier's offices and warehouse are at the same site, but things are tight in the 3,200-square-foot space. "We have access to another area on Harvest Lane," says Abbott. "It's about 5,000 square feet."

Vermont Courier uses dispatch software created for the industry to streamline its operations, including warehouse inventory, which can be a nightmare without adequate tracking. Employees Mike Beaulieu, operations, and Lee Ann E.M. Place, accounts administrator, are among those trained to use the software.

Moving a warehouse that has to keep its parts on demand at an hour's notice is not a dream experience, but the company is seeking a new home that will provide 10,000 square feet for its operations. "If there's a product out there that would offer another size, even as high as 15,000 to 20,000 square feet, we would find a business we could rent the additional space out to," Abbott says.

While things have obviously eased up for the Abbotts since the days of overnight phone calls at home, they still divide their work in a similar manner. Kristin still handles the inside jobs, although there's now a staff to back her up. Abbott spends much of his time on the road making sales calls, these days working with Robair.

Being staffed means the couple have more time for family. They enjoy camping in the summer at Kingsland Bay State Park, and Abbott and Jeffrey a soccer player are sports fans who enjoy Vermont Expos and Red Sox games. Abbott plays golf and the entire family does "all of the typical Vermont things," such as skiing and snowboarding," Kristin says.

Regarding Kristin's involvement at Champlain Valley Union High School, where Rheanna is a junior, Abbott says, "Kristin has an active role in the children's social lives," countered immediately by Kristin, who adds with a laugh, "Meaning I'm the driver!"

Of the business and its challenges, the Abbotts are proud of their place in the industry. "I think what's been our success is we haven't tried to go nose-to-nose with anyone" says Kristin. "We've tried to create the market. Over the years, we have had conversations asking do we want to get into different types of work, and every time, we sit down and say, 'On-demand, same-day delivery: it's worked for us.'"

Originally published in November 2002 Business People-Vermont