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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 1 year ago

Get busy: Venerable courier service, amid pandemic, sees surge in demand

Area businesswoman has survived a gauntlet of challenges in 25 years, mostly with a full-throttle focus on providing the best customer service. The pandemic has pushed her resiliency to new levels.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Fax machines. Email. Broadband Internet. The cloud. Busy Beaver Express, a Dade City-based courier company, has seen — and survived — it all during its two and a half decades in business. Founded in 1995 by Ricki South, who continues to own and operate the business today, the firm has weathered massive shifts in the way business documents and products are transmitted. 

Then came the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly, Busy Beaver, which offers same-day delivery service up and down the Gulf Coast, as well as to Lakeland and Orlando — for as little as $14 — is busier than ever. In a normal year, says South, the company’s client mix would be about 80% commercial and 20% residential, but the COVID-19 crisis has upended that ratio.

“Some companies had to reduce their staff, so they do business a little differently,” South says, “yet we are still seeing some increase in the at-home market.” 

‘We're very hands-on, very customer service-driven. Are we a dinosaur? I don't know, but I don't want us to ever lose that human touch.’ Ricki South, founder of Busy Beaver Express

South, 65, is a former insurance marketing professional who worked for a subsidiary of Travelers Indemnity Co. from 1987 to 1995. While in that role, she often used Crosstown Couriers, a Tampa-based courier service, to transport advertising layouts to and from the printer that handled production of the firm’s marketing materials. In those pre-Internet days, she says, competition was fierce among courier companies in the Tampa Bay region. 

“I loved our courier service,” South says. “The man who owned it was nice enough to meet with me and tell me all the ins and outs of courier services. But he did proceed to tell me, ‘I don't know how you'd start one up. I bought this one.’”

That didn’t deter South. She quit her job, cashed in her 401K and, with the help of her husband, Mark, launched Busy Beaver Express, headquartered in Brandon at the time. Mark stepped down from the business in 2003 and died in 2006. But Ricki soldiered on.

The intervening years saw national carriers like UPS, FedEx and DHL come to dominate the industry, followed by app-based, third-party services like PostMates. That puts Busy Beaver, with seven drivers/independent contractors, in a tough spot to outdo, and outlast, competitors. 

A big differentiator, South says, is customer service. Busy Beaver offers same-day delivery if requests are made before 10 a.m., and unlike its big rivals, the firm makes sure all packages are placed into someone’s hands — not just left at a doorstep. 

“We're very hands-on, very customer service-driven,” South says. “Are we a dinosaur? I don't know, but I don't want us to ever lose that human touch.”

Also, putting Busy Beaver’s business model up against that of, say, UPS is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Her company’s strategy is built around direct, point-to-point deliveries that usually have a set estimated time of arrival. “It's not like FedEx or UPS where you're just part of a big chain, a big loop [of deliveries],” South says. 

If a business or individual is not at the address listed on the delivery order, drivers will give the customer time to figure out the correct destination. But in a clever move, the firm has monetized that service. “We wait 10 minutes for free,” South says. “After 10 minutes, it’s $5 per 10 minutes. People are grateful for that little extra, because they want same-day delivery.” 

In addition to competition, a significant obstacle for Busy Beaver is adapting to technology advancements. The business, at its high-water mark in the late 2000s, was in the mid-six figures in annual revenue. Over the last decade, as customers relied more on digital transfer of documents, that figure has dipped, then rebounded. 

South, undaunted, has invested in her own technology advancements. She replaced drivers’ two-way radios with smartphones equipped with GPS functionality, enabling them to optimize the efficiency of their routes. GPS, she says, has been nothing short of revolutionary for her business as it aims to claw back some of the revenue lost this year. 

Busy Beaver’s next technological leap, South says, is automation — giving customers the ability to place delivery orders via their computer or mobile device and have the request sent directly to drivers. But it will be more of a hybrid system. “You will always be able to pick up the phone and talk to human beings,” she says.  

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