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Memphis: America’s Distribution Backbone

Memphis: America’s Distribution Backbone

How the unparalleled logistics infrastructure offered in Memphis is attracting America’s shippers

SURGICAL PRECISION Medtronic located its spinal division in Memphis so FedEx could deliver its surgery kits overnight to any O.R. in the country.
SURGICAL PRECISION Medtronic located its spinal division in Memphis so FedEx could deliver its surgery kits overnight to any O.R. in the country.

Once home to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and King Cotton, these days it’s Memphis’ logistics infrastructure that has taken center stage in Tennessee. Standing on a bluff rising from the Mississippi River, the city was chosen in 1973 as the site for an upstart company looking to use Memphis International Airport (MEM) as its distribution hub. That company? None other than Federal Express. The firm that virtually invented the air/ground express industry is today a transportation, ecommerce and business-services behemoth operated by 300,000 workers worldwide. Not only is FedEx a big draw for companies to locate in Memphis, it also helped make MEM the world’s second-busiest cargo airport, after Hong Kong. Add the city’s railroads, highways, Port of Memphis and Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) No. 77 to the lineup, and you’ve got a quadramodal logistics rock star.

Logistics expertise attracts big-money companies. Richard Smith, director of Life Sciences and Special Services at FedEx Express, explains how FedEx and Memphis draw healthcare and bioscience heavyweights like Medtronic, Advanced Technology, Pfizer, Baxter and GlaxoSmithKline. Smith is responsible for FedEx’s life sciences and specialty services, which have grown dramatically recently and now employs 175 specialized personnel. “Our central location in the country facilitates midnight drop off and 8 a.m. delivery so that medical professionals can depend on our 24/7 mission critical service,” explains Smith.

Robert Carson, vice president of Medtronic, Inc.’s spinal business, says the Minneapolis-based firm began operating in Memphis in the 1980s to be near a “young company named FedEx.” The biomedical engineering company, with more than $16 billion in annual revenues, manufactures and sells device-based medical therapies worldwide. Orthopedic surgeons rely on Medtronic to prepare spinal surgery kits customized for each patient. Carson cites the example of a surgeon in Austin, Texas, requesting a surgical kit in late afternoon to reconstruct a pediatric patient’s spine with nearly 40 implants.

“These are not small packages,” Carson says. “One complex case may require six TV-sized boxes to include all the necessary parts. This is a supply-chain challenge, but because of our central location in Memphis, we prepare the kit, have FedEx put it on a night flight, and it’s in the O.R. next morning.”

Medtronic sells more than 300,000 spinal kits worldwide every year. To enable its customers to have surgical kits at the ready, the company has distribution centers around the world that are restocked by FedEx Supply Chain. North American sites include Memphis, Tennessee; Mira Loma, California; Newark, New Jersey; Louisville, Kentucky; and Mississauga, Canada. The firm’s international sites include Mexico City; Bogota and Sao Paulo in Latin America; Singapore, Mumbai, Delhi, Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei in Asia; and Heerlen and Leipzig in Europe.

Other bioscience firms also rely on FedEx’s Memphis operation to get the job done. Westbrook, Maine-based Idexx Laboratories produces veterinary testing kits, including the popular SNAP test for diagnosing feline leukemia and AIDS. “Much of our lab work requires time-sensitive responses, so our proximity to FedEx’s hub airport is critical for our 35,000-plus a month shipments to both domestic and international providers,” says Adam Boccelli, Idexx’s senior manager of Worldwide Warehousing and Logistics.

RULES OF ATTRACTION The presence of FedEx’s global hub in Memphis has drawn many of America’s shippers looking for fast delivery.
RULES OF ATTRACTION The presence of FedEx’s global hub in Memphis has drawn many of America’s shippers looking for fast delivery.

With 30 percent of its shipments going overseas—Canada, China, Japan, Australia and the Netherlands are its top international destinations by volume—Idexx sends test samples and receives results at its Memphis office five days a week. Utilizing FedEx’s hub-extraction program, a veterinarian in California can send a lab sample until 6 p.m., get overnight delivery and test results by next morning. Boccelli anticipates 15 to 20 percent annual volume growth, noting that Idexx has twice expanded its distribution facilities since establishing Memphis roots in 2007.

All About Logistics

Memphis earned its moniker as “America’s distribution center” thanks to its mastery of logistics’ four Rs: Runway, Rail, Road, and River. Few global cities can compete with Memphis’ riches—air cargo and passenger hubs, four major interstate highways running north/south and east/west, five Class I railroads and America’s fourth-largest inland port. The Center for Transportation Analysis figures show that in 2011, freight originating in Memphis totaled $227 billion via truck, $28 billion by multiple modalities, $9.7 billion by air, $1.1 billion by rail and $368 million by water.

The bottom line? It’s one heck of a logistics center.

“You can get to more metropolitan markets from Memphis faster and cheaper than from any other city, plus it’s less congested,” says Dexter Muller, senior vice president of the Greater Memphis Chamber. Its temperate climate makes it one of the U.S.’ most weatherproof regions, untroubled by hurricanes or blizzards. Top multinational corporations (MNC) have been attracted to the city’s business-friendly environment, logistics strength and low cost of living—the lowest of any major metropolitan area, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research.

In 2007, sports giant Nike made Memphis its chief retail and wholesale distribution operation for North America by investing $107 million to build a one-million-square-foot distribution center on 125 acres of land, creating nearly 600 jobs in the process. In early 2013, Nike announced plans to expand its Memphis operations with a 200-acre, $2.2 million land purchase that will add yet another 250 jobs. The company plans to spend $301 million on the expansion of one facility and $25 million to upgrade another, adding 1.8 million square feet to its existing footprint. Mike Brewer, Nike’s vice president of North America Supply-Chain Operations, commented from his Twitter account on March 12: “Memphis is centrally located, with easy access to FedEx and the railroads. We came to Memphis because it’s a great logistics city.”

Memphis’ FTZ No. 77 offers reduced processing fees, quick movement of goods, duty-free exports and deferred-duty payments on imports sold domestically. The FTZ has attracted major companies including FedEx Supply Chain, Baxter Healthcare, Sharp Manufacturing, Brother Industries, Cummins, Inc. and Flextronics Logistics.

Flextronics Logistics, located in the FTZ, exemplifies what Memphis’ world-class transportation infrastructure can do. The firm repairs all of Apple, Inc.’s laptops, utilizing late drop off times and extended work days to provide same-day service. “This is the type of high-value service that Memphis is noted for, which other companies, including Hewlett Packard, also use,” says Muller from Greater Memphis Chamber.

Other firms have located or expanded in Memphis based on logistics. New Breed, a High Point, North Carolina-based 3PL, is investing $23 million to expand its warehouse and distribution facilities, adding 468 new jobs. Mitsubishi Electric put its largest U.S. investment—$207.7 million—into its Memphis factory, making 400-ton boxcar-sized electrical transformers.

Appliance maker Electrolux recently went big in Memphis. Lured by a $132 million incentive package of city, county and state money, the Sweden-based company opened a 700,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in late 2012, leading to 1,200 new manufacturing, engineering and supply-chain jobs. Another industrial powerhouse, Nucor Steel, put the U.S.’ largest domestic steel mill in Memphis because of access to raw materials, rivers, roads and rails. Last year, the company turned 750,000 tons of scrap metal into specialty bar products.

Cargill, a privately held MNC based in Minneapolis, was also lured to Memphis. The company produces food, agricultural and industrial products, and utilizes Memphis’ port and railroads to export approximately 50,000 metric tons of liquid sweeteners annually. The viscous sweet stuff is poured into 4,000-gallon bladders nestled in 20-foot containers, which are then shipped to Asia, Latin and South America, Africa and the Middle East. “Visualize a big bag in a big box,” explains John Thompson, Cargill’s logistics director and international business development manager.

Memphis is Cargill’s southeast distribution hub, with 300 workers filling about 10,000 containers a year with liquid fructose. “Because it’s home to five Class I railroads, Memphis is close enough to our Corn Belt facilities in Iowa and Nebraska to be a distribution hub. It’s also accessible to the ports of Los Angeles, Savannah and Charleston, which are departure points for our overseas markets,” adds Thompson. Although Dayton, Ohio, is Cargill’s other major U.S. hub, Thompson positions Memphis as his firm’s future: “Our long-term strategy is to keep investing in Memphis as we continue growing our exports.”

JUST SHIP IT Nike announced plans this year to expand its Memphis distribution operations with a 200-acre, $2.2 million land purchase.
JUST SHIP IT Nike announced plans this year to expand its Memphis distribution operations with a 200-acre, $2.2 million land purchase.

The Welcome Mat

Memphis provides substantial incentives for relocating or expanding companies. Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE), Memphis’ agency that tracks its incentive programs, estimates $1.2 billion in capital invested, 5,746 jobs created and $450 million in annual added tax revenues have flowed from the various incentives. The PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) program, which freezes property taxes in targeted business districts at a pre-development level for a specified time period, has proven popular. It is often combined with state incentives such as jobs tax credits, integrated supplier tax credits and industrial machinery tax credits.

A less quantifiable incentive for locating in Memphis is that it’s a pleasant place to work and live. “With 120 people in our lab and 50 in distribution, Memphis is an excellent place to attract and retain staff,” says Idexx’s Boccelli. “We have less than 2 percent annual turnover.” Medtronic’s Carson, a transplant from colder climes, is a board member of the Wolf River Conservancy, involved in implementing a 26-mile greenway to the Mississippi River. “Housing is reasonable and the climate is mild, allowing us to attract both scientific and supply-chain talent,” he says. Muller notes that Memphis doesn’t have the beach or the mountains, “but we’ve got plenty of hiking and fishing, plus good colleges—not to mention theater, ballet, six genres of music and the No. 1 rated zoo in the U.S.”

Despite its acumen in attracting and retaining business, Memphis won’t rest on its laurels. Leaders have rallied around the concept of an “aerotropolis,” an airport city. Funded by $2.2 million from federal and local sources, the Aerotropolis Master Plan is currently being drawn. When done, it will detail how the 50 square miles surrounding MEM will morph into a logistics, distribution and bioscience capital of commerce with urban redevelopment of residential and commercial property included. Dexter Muller sees his city’s future: “We’re building on our logistics strength. Access, agility and speed are the currencies, and we’ve got them all.”

Headquartered in the Heartland

The Port-to-Plains Region is Wide Open for Global Business

East and west coasters might pigeonhole the nine states of the Great Plains as flyover country, with John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath-type dust storms sweeping through desiccated ghost towns. If so, they would be out of step with the heartland’s reality. The area’s trade and manufacturing revival is anchored in agriculture, energy and high tech. Spanning more than 2,000 miles from north to south, the Plains region includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Nebraska.

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Full Speed Ahead

Riding the waves of a $573 million 2010 positive trade balance in U.S. recreational boats, the venerable Chris-Craft moniker now graces a line of redesigned luxury speed boats, perfect for jet setters in the U.S. and abroad. Like other heritage brands, those classic out-of-favor product lines that instill profound loyalties and deep resonance in consumers’ psyches, Chris-Craft has risen from the boneyard of broken brands, thanks to the business acumen of its current owners and the global appeal of its vessels. Of the roughly 600 boats it produces annually, approximately 25 percent grace sparkling lakes and seas outside the U.S.

Stephen Julius, chairman of Stellican Ltd, which acquired Chris-Craft in 2001.

According to Steve Callahan, Chris-Craft’s vice president of materials, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Turkey and Australia are the firm’s top export markets. The Balkans, Singapore, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Brazil are bright spots, with France, South Africa and Spain coming on strong. Reaching the high net worth yachtsman involves deft dealer leadership, word of mouth, reputation and the simple act of a potential buyer seeing a Chris-Craft boat aboard another ship. Resurrecting a fallen brand? That takes a measure of grit.

Following their practice of picking through legendary brands that suffered through forgettable years to find a gem or two, the owners of the risen boat maker, Stellican Ltd’s chairman Stephen Julius and chief executive officer Stephen Heese, have found a niche in an industry that evokes upscale leisure wrapped in the all-American red, white and blue spirit of innovation. Working their magic of capital infusion, high craftsmanship and premium prices, the duo court the ultra rich who can plunk down $225,000 on a tender—a small boat towed or carried by a yacht for short jaunts or going ashore when the yacht is anchored.

A Blast From The Past

Understanding how a speed boat like Chris-Craft’s Corsair 36 European edition belongs on a mega yacht requires a peek at the boat maker’s storied history and an appreciation of how two Harvard Business School grads, Julius and Heese, had the finesse to make it happen. Julius formed Stellican Ltd as a private equity firm in 1991, primarily to mind his family’s money but also to acquire and fix out-of-favor iconic brands. Heese joined his former classmate in 2001 to captain the Chris-Craft turnaround after selling his stake in a global construction products company. Through the partnership, Julius has provided working capital and an artist’s aesthetic; Heese adds an accountant’s analytical scrutiny and manufacturing muscle. Simply put, their partnership involves the ABCs of business turnarounds: Acquire an authentic brand, Burnish it, and Cadge a tidy profit, hopefully north of 35 percent.

Crafting a Legacy Early chris-craft in production.
(middle) Founder christopher columbus smith had established a reputation as a great boat maker by the 1890s.

The two partners tested their sea legs before the Christ-Craft adventure. Julius had acquired and successfully turned around Riva, the beleaguered, upscale Italian marine titan, in 1998. Heese, with global business experience, is a lifelong sailor who grew up a shell’s throw from Chris-Craft’s manufacturing facility near Sarasota, Florida.

The Riva saga was a template for the Chris-Craft deal. In it, la famiglia Riva ceded control of the business to outsiders in 1969, subsequently changing hands several times until Rolls-Royce took over. After losing boatloads of money on Riva, the British automaker unloaded it on Stellican in a quickie deal. Julius revived Riva with a redesigned line of boats that evoked in customers la dolce vita’s vibe of the 1960s Riva Aquarama runabout. The ABC formula worked. Ferretti Yachts, Italy’s largest yacht maker, acquired Riva from Stellican Ltd in 2000.

That transaction prepared Stellican for Chris-Craft’s complicated rescue from bankruptcy in 2001, which involved acquiring the trademark and an inventory of 130 finished and unfinished boats in separate transactions. Stellican Ltd reportedly paid $5 million each for the brand name and the assets. “Chris-Craft was a fantastic brand with decades of forgettable years, plus it met our skill sets,” Heese says.

Chris-Craft’s rise and fall follows the story line of a great brand gone south. In 1874, 13-year-old Christopher Columbus Smith built a fast and durable skiff for duck hunting on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair. Other Great Lakes boaters liked his swift, sturdy runabouts and his reputation was established by the 1890s, burnished later by five straight Gold Cup speedboat racing victories. For the next seven decades, Chris-Craft’s scrupulously detailed boats, with their mahogany and brass fixtures and racing heritage, drew celebrities, racers and pleasure boaters until the 1960s, when fiberglass boats and other innovations caught customers’ eyes and stole market share. Chris-Craft sales sank. Eleven straight years of losses put the company at low ebb in the late 1990s.

What the firm threw overboard during those lost decades is what made its boats great—the classic mahogany and brass that looked so good skimming turquoise lake waters. David Hutson, now 69 and a lifelong boater, recounts what made the vintage Chris-Craft speedboats special. “I was working in Chicago for the summer in 1962 when I was 19,” he says. “Someone asked me if I wanted to go waterskiing. He had a 26-foot mahogany hulled Chris-Craft that went flying through the water. The experience was so beautiful and I felt invincible.”

The Chris-Craft magic that made for a penultimate U.S. lake boat has now been extended to a brand with global reach. “Our sweet spot is a 24- to 26-foot boat for the owner here or overseas who will spend $225,000 on a Chris-Craft rather than $120,000 for an ordinary boat of the same size,” says Heese.

Chris-Craft Overseas

Chris-Craft’s global product line, exemplified by the Corsair 36 European edition, adds features that appeal to customers outside North America. They include extended teak or mahogany panels, large windshields, oversized sunbathing platforms, wet bars and customized color schemes. “Europeans prefer a larger sun pad and a smaller cockpit than Americans, who like large areas to entertain friends on their boats,” Heese explains.

There are other nice features. Any first mate who has struggled converting the dining table to a storage or sleeping area would give his yachtsman’s flag for the Corsair’s electric table that rises from the floor to cocktail or dining height at the push of a button. When boaters are finished using the table it lowers electronically into the floor. Other upscale boats may have this feature, but Chris-Craft’s combination of design, materials and performance takes aim at the cognoscenti’s hearts and wallets. Customizing a boat for exacting buyers requires a balancing act between not disrupting factory production in Florida, yet having the flexibility of adding a second refrigerator, fold-down windshield or making a silver-metallic finish for an overseas buyer.

Chris-Craft’s challenge of designing and producing great boats is coupled with finding a smart way to sell those vessels to affluent boaters who have a smorgasbord of spectacular boats from which to choose. To that end, the company’s top guns have built a nexus of 80 dealers worldwide by networking at major boat shows and knocking on doors of well-known dealers in prime boating locations. While each dealer adapts its sales approach to local tastes, common ingredients make a heady mix.

Stephen Heese, chief executive officer of Chris-Craft, and Julius’ Harvard Business School classmate

Dealerships at upscale locations such as South Africa’s Broderick Marine at the Riviera-on-Vaal Hotel, Australia’s Premier Marine on Rose Bay or France’s Proyachting at chic Evian les bains beckon the wealthy. Photos of sunbathing babes on deck, images of Chris-Craft boats skimming turquoise seas and the promise of exquisite service sure don’t hurt the sale. To seal the deal, potential buyers get to see and touch the boats. “We encourage dealers to buy three or four boats for display in their showrooms,” says Heese. The dealers’ desire for potential customers to be hands-on with Chris-Craft boats translates to locating nearby destinations where boaters spend the most time on the water, the better to service persnickety clients and their expensive toys. Additionally, Julius and Heese invite all dealers to Chris-Craft headquarters once a year for an intense three-day meeting. New models are introduced, new designs discussed, focus groups are held to discuss customer wants and exporting and marketing strategies are bandied about.

Once a boat is sold and ready to leave the factory, the materials team steps in to prepare it for travel to Chris-Craft’s far-flung dealers. “All loose items inside the boat such as mattresses, cushions and covers are either stowed in storage areas or packaged with strapping tape,” says Steve Callahan. “There’s also foam packing on the windshield and other protruding components. We then put a transhield, which is a transport cover that is heated and then fitted to the boat’s contours, to prevent ‘road rash’ caused by rocks and dirt hitting the boat.” Nestled in a cradle, the boat is then loaded on a transport trailer for delivery to one of four U.S. ports: Jacksonville or Miami, Florida, or Savannah or Brunswick, Georgia. The boat, strapped to its transport cradle, is then hoisted on the ocean freighter.

A Chris-Craft wrapped for its overseas journey.

Chris-Craft’s freight-forwarder, Peters & May, global boat transporters headquartered in the U.K., then handles the details of shipping the boat overseas. Through its Chicago office, the marine logistics experts prepare necessary documents including a dock receipt, booking confirmations, bill of lading and customs documentation. Vital pieces of data include the freight originator, U.S. port and terminal location and phone numbers, trucker information, ports of departure and discharge, dates of shipment and arrival, bill of lading reference numbers and the hull ID. Peters & May also ensures that the shipment adheres to the destination country’s regulations. For example, Australia requires that the transport cradle be fumigated.

On the Horizon

Like other exporters of big ticket items, Chris-Craft has experienced turbulence caused by 2008’s global financial meltdown. The company turned a profit in 2002 on revenues of $30 million, jumped to $50 million in 2006 and to $60 million in 2008. Buyers for the company came courting until the global economy “entered a death spiral,” as Heese puts it. Revenues dropped to $30 million in 2010 but rebounded to $40 million in 2011, still short of Stellican’s profit target. The partners continue to have high hopes for their aspirational brand, and that strong demand for U.S. marine products overseas (see sidebar) will help them eventually reach their ROI goal.

Unlike its two successful executions of the ABC strategy—Riva’s two-year turnaround and the resurgence of Indian Motorcycles in less than five years—Chris-Craft is a long-term labor of love. Part of that decision goes beyond professional to personal. Heese, who grew up and sailed the waters of his native Florida, is happy to have returned home with his family to co-pilot a line of boats with an extraordinary lineage.