Inside Track: A head for business and a heart of gold
Growing up with Teddy’s Transport, Helen Zeerip often has learned lessons from the school of hard knocks.
“I would be directionally challenged if I didn’t have my Garmin,” Zeerip said of her GPS. “My dad knew where he was all the time. He knew where every ice cream shop was located in all the states of the union.”
Teddy’s Transport started as a local pickup and delivery service for industrial manufacturers and got the job done with two pickup trucks and an answering service. Larger trucks would be rented as needed.
Over the years, the family relied on family and one of Zeerip’s friends to work as drivers. That changed in 1988 when the company bought its first 24-foot straight truck and hired its first full-time employee, adding additional staff and trucks as the business grew. All its growth at the time was by word-of-mouth.
Zeerip learned the family business from the ground up, accompanying her friend who worked as a driver, starting when she was 15. Zeerip’s task — believe it or not — was to act as navigator with maps in hand. On Sundays, she sent out invoices to customers, initially on a monthly basis in the days of hardcopy ledger.
“I had to go to a tech center to learn how to turn on a computer,” she said.
In 1997, Zeerip’s mother and father sold the business to her and her husband, Craig, which is also the year they bought the company’s first tractor/trailer. They relocated the business to its current location in June 1994.
1994 also is when its largest client, the former Prince Corp.,decided to go with one of Teddy’s Transport’s competitors, costing the company 80 percent of its business and teaching the Zeerips a lesson in diversification.
“Cash flow was bad,” said Zeerip. “We had to diversify quickly. I had a driver who had a business degree and I asked him if he was interested in doing sales. We landed other accounts, but we had six to eight months of absolute misery. We learned so much from the school of hard knocks.”
A dip in sales is not the only valley Zeerip has walked through. The other was when her father died of cancer in 2002. She remembers him as a go-getter entrepreneur who worked jobs in sales, law enforcement and missionary work.
“He had so many goals and ideas for businesses,” said Zeerip. “If he ever had the capital, he would have been a millionaire. Craig and I had more of a vision of growth (for Teddy’s Transport) but we were a lot younger.”
Her father’s death remains poignant, particularly at 5 p.m., when she and her father often would hash out the details of a day’s work. His presence is felt in an office where some 200 toy tractor-trailers he collected through the years are on display.
She wishes her father could see how well Teddy’s Transport is doing today. Zeerip recently learned the company made the 2012 Inc. 5000 list (coming in at No. 4,387), a first for the business. Revenue in 2011 reached $7.2 million; in 2008, it was $5.8 million. In the last three years, 23 employees have been added.
“If he could see what it is today, I think he would be pretty geeked,” she said.
Today, Teddy’s Transport employs 70 and owns and operates a fleet of 50 trucks, including tractor-trailers, straight trucks and cargo vans.
The company is on call 24/7 with services that include nationwide expediting, local pick-up and delivery, less than truckload, full truck load, dedicated fleet services to outsourcing a private fleet or switcher work for clients, refrigerated expediting, unique shipments such as pick-up and delivery to trade shows, and fragile freight.
The business is a Women’s Business Enterprise, and is certified for TSA, hazardous material, Partners in Protection and Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, and is FAST- and CSA-approved for Canadian shipments.
A 1987 graduate of Davenport University with dual majors in sales and marketing and in business management, Zeerip had a pretty good idea Teddy’s Transport would be her career.
“I knew all the growing pains and ups and downs. My mom always said I cut my teeth on this business. I’ve seen some really, really bad days and seen it when it has been really, really good. I’ve seen mistakes made and good decisions made.”
Zeerip said her business is not immune to times when business slows down, and thus maintains a monetary reserve to support cash flow.
She remembers 2008-2009 as a rocky time.
“That was when sales plummeted by 50 percent,” she said. “We were weeding out people, wise with our cash flow and deciding which equipment purchases to hold off on and which repairs to make.”
She acknowledges that, in the transportation business, it’s knowing how to wisely respond to problems that’s key to keeping a business afloat.
“In this business, if you don’t have employee problems, you have equipment or customer problems going on, depending on the day,” said Zeerip. “That’s one challenge where you just roll with the punches.”
Then there are other challenges out of Zeerip’s grasp.
“The big challenges are when the economy tanks and you lose 50 percent of sales — and that’s where survival skills kick in and you get lean real quick.”
Zeerip is a curious blend of no-nonsense, practical business acumen and a soft heart to those deserving. Her arm is not short when it comes to helping others. Zeerip and her husband support International Needs Network, a Christian ministry whose international headquarters is based in Collingwood, Ontario, with the mission of evangelism, discipleship and community development.
In November, the couple went on a 10-day “discovery tour” to the Volta region of Ghana, specifically to the Adidome Vocational Training Center, whose executive director is Walter Pimpong.
Zeerip speaks highly of Pimpong because of his Christ-like character. Pimpong, she said, has had success with convincing some fetish priests, known as Trokosi priests, to relinquish their demands on villagers to give up their daughters to them to work as slaves and have sexual relations with them.
At Pimpong’s vocational school, the girls learn a trade so eventually they can support themselves. Knowing she plays a part in this mission is an integral part of Zeerip’s big-picture goal in life.
“I’m very compassionate and passionate about people,” said Zeerip. “My whole life is dedicated to helping people who are unfortunate. I can’t stand the fact these girls are enslaved and don’t have any rights.”
Zeerip learned altruism from her parents, who modeled Christian philanthropy in their lives.
“My dad had such a heart for missions,” said Zeerip. “My mom would cook all day and bring meals to the elderly and sick. There were years I would deliver meals to eight to 14 people every Tuesday night.”