Rodair’s Jeff Cullen has the charisma and flair of someone you’d expect to encounter in the world of advertising or investment banking. He doesn’t initially seem like the founder and CEO of a freight-forwarding business headquartered in a giant grey distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont. But he comes by his attitude honestly.
In recent years, Rodair has carved out a substantial and growing book of business in the high-end fashion industry, providing specialized shipping services to brands like Hugo Boss and Giorgio Armani. The 23-year-old firm, with 150 employees worldwide, also has clients in the auto parts sector, among others.
When Cullen—who worked as a teen at his father’s Toronto courier outfit—started Rodair in 1996, he had three partners and an audacious plan to create a Canadian-owned global logistics firm. Starting with just $200,000 in bootstrapped cash and another $1 million in credit, Cullen and his partners built Rodair into a US$170-million firm with operations around the world and no debt. But then the 2009 recession hit, and the company hit the skids. In 2012, Cullen sold off the international operations and refocused on the domestic business.
In a sector dominated by integrated logistics behemoths like DHL and FedEx, Cullen had to figure out how Rodair could compete for global contracts. “We had large global customers and we were losing international business.”
After canvassing Rodair’s most loyal customers, Cullen stumbled across what one might call a Wal-Mart insight: when going up against huge players, don’t try to compete on price. Rodair’s clients told him they liked the company’s “high-touch” approach to difficult jobs where the risk of failure was significant. In auto parts, for example, it’s one thing to ship mufflers from the manufacturer to dealers but quite another to ensure a delicate prototype vehicle arrives intact at an auto show. The company has done these specialized deliveries for manufacturers like Jaguar and Mercedes for many years.
Cullen notes another gig: shipping General Motors parts to car dealers in Puerto Rico and other Caribbean destinations. When GM put out the proposal call, Cullen and three of his staff hopped on a plane and flew down to visit dealerships. Cullen and his team soon learned the problem: the parts shipments, when they arrived, tended to be a hodgepodge. “It’s like Christmas,” one told Cullen—they never knew what they were getting. Cullen’s logistics team reverse-engineered the problem, which allowed them to devise a faster shipping route, as well as a solution to the muddled orders.
As for fashion, Cullen says Rodair had learned a thing or two about how to securely pack delicate auto parts, and parlayed that knowledge to create specialized shipping containers for expensive hanging garments. The firm knew the containers worked when one of their trucks got into an accident in B.C. Almost everything inside was wrecked—except the shipping container filled with clothes. “It has sort of set a new standard,” Cullen says.