On-Demand, One Package at a Time
From launching Silver Top Taxi service in the 1980s, which morphed into Silver Top Delivery, to running American Expediting today, Victor Finnegan puts his entrepreneurial spirit and business expertise to work to move thousands of packages a day, one delivery at a time.
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Victor Finnegan entered the delivery business in the 1980s while running a small taxi service in Philadelphia. He sometimes used his cabs to deliver packages, but his drivers didn't like that kind of work. "Packages don't tip," he explains.
Soon, Finnegan replaced his Silver Top Taxi service with Silver Top Delivery, using a squad of bicycle messengers to handle the shipments. Silver Top evolved into American Expediting, a time-critical, on-demand transportation service that now operates throughout the United States. Finnegan talked with us about his industry and business, future plans, and leadership style.
IL: You earned an undergraduate business degree at the Wharton School, but where did you gain the practical knowledge it takes to become an entrepreneur?
From the age of 14, when I started working, I was always interested in how businesses tick. I was a sponge for that kind of knowledge: What's the nature of the relationship between the customers and the business? It was common sense and learning by doing, making mistakes along the way and getting better at it. Business is about people—how you interact with customers, staff, and vendors.
IL: Was there an early experience that shaped you as a leader?
In jobs I held prior to starting my own business, the people I reported to were not good managers, or good people. Their decisions were arbitrary and self-serving. They had no desire to motivate employees or treat people fairly. I promised myself that in my business, we would never allow employees to be harassed, put upon, or treated unfairly. We would make decisions that were not arbitrary, but objective.
IL: Has your business gone through any growing pains?
In the late 1980s, American Expediting had three offices and I decided to open three more, in Princeton, New Jersey, Wilmington, Delaware, and New York City. I was thinking more with my ego than with my business mind, and things turned out badly.
For example, before opening the New York office, I had a manager on board who had worked for a competitor. But when I opened my doors, the manager failed to show up for work. He just decided he would continue to work for my competitor. The customers I had lined up didn't come on board either.
I realized I needed to think more carefully and be more vigilant in assessing who I dealt with. I ended up closing Wilmington and Princeton and selling the New York operation. Several years later, when I decided it was time to expand again, I benefitted from the lessons I had learned from some of my poor decisions.
IL: How has your business changed over the years?
When I started, this was largely a document delivery business. Our customers were typesetters, advertising agencies, law offices, and printers, including financial printers. With the advent of the fax machine, and then electronic communications, much of that business disappeared. At the same time, fax and email got people used to thinking, "I need this today." So those technologies sparked a different kind of demand for courier services.
Today, much of what we do is related to life sciences, serving the needs of hospitals, long-term care facilities, and pharmaceutical companies. Also, while we no longer transport too many documents, we move heavier items—manufactured goods, finished products, work-in-progress. About half of what we do serves the needs of other logistics providers, with services for expedited, customer-specific, detail-oriented moves.
IL: What's the difference between the service you provide and overnight service from package carriers?
We provide any kind of service a customer needs, whether it's an immediate pickup with immediate delivery and no stops in between, or a pickup at a certain time with delivery to a specific individual—not to the mail room, the loading dock, or a receiving area. This is way too much detail for carriers that consolidate packages. We handle one package at a time.
IL: Has American Expediting handled any unusual deliveries?
One customer had us drive a giant football helmet to different stadiums as part of an NFL promotion. The helmet was big enough to put on a trailer; we used a truck to pull it around the country.
IL: What's at the top of your agenda at American Expediting?
We want to continue to expand geographically. We currently have 40 of our own company locations, plus more than 300 delivery agents. This allows us to service the whole country, including Alaska and Hawaii. We're also investing a lot of time and money in our quality programs. When things don't go well, we need to understand the root cause and figure out how to prevent that from happening again. We became ISO 9001 certified in 2018 and recertified in 2019.
IL: What are your most important characteristics as a leader?
I appreciate that employees are different from one another. My team and I need to identify what's best for these employees. What are their skills? How can they be fulfilled in their jobs? How can we create more opportunities for them to grow in the company?
I am responsible to my employees. I have supplied health insurance from the time I hired my second employee. I started a profit-sharing plan in the 1990s, which has transitioned to a 401K, because I did not want a company where employees would spend 20 years or more of their lives with nothing to show for it.
IL: Describe the corporate culture at American Expediting.
We handle a lot of important items, especially in life sciences. We deal with people's lives and we take that very seriously. We're proud of running this business professionally and fairly. We value the customer, and our desire to serve the customer is paramount.
IL: Which aspect of your job is most fun?
It's organized chaos. A lot of balls are in the air at any time, and it never gets boring. We handle thousands of packages every day, and there are a lot of moving parts. Things can go wrong, but when things go well, it's always exciting.