Taking the Driver's Seat

Edition: May 2002 - Vol 10 Number 05
Article#: 1231
Author: Laura Thill

There are no boundaries. Only those you set for yourself. This is the philosophy that has carried Dawn Capalbo through the last 18 years as president of ZoomFreight, a company that offers expedited transportation services for medical, pharmaceutical and electronics companies in the New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania tri-state area. It's a position she probably would not have sought out on her own has circumstances not intervened.

Her husband, Sam Capalbo, died suddenly from a heart attack in 1984. Dawn buried him on a Saturday and started work the next Monday. “I sat at his desk and looked at his notes left from his last day of work, and I was overwhelmed,” she says.

To make matters worse, Capalbo lost a valued employee to cancer 10 days later, on her 41st birthday. What followed were visits from competitors offering to purchase ZoomFreight. “At that point,” says Capalbo, “I didn't know if I'd succeed. But, I wanted to give it my best shot for myself, my customers and my employees.”

No Time to Worry
On those first days, seated at her late husband's desk, Capalbo found herself with 17 vehicles to run and an end-of-week payroll to meet. Adding to the difficulties was the fact that Sam Capalbo, a former high school principal-turned-entrepreneur, had neglected to set up a will prior to his death. “He never really thought he'd die and didn't plan for death,” notes Capalbo. Hence, he was the only person at ZoomFreight authorized to sign on the day-to-day running of the company. Essentially, Capalbo had to rely on the cash in her husband's jean pockets – less than $2,000 – to run the business until she could apply for temporary administration.

With precious little time to worry, Capalbo looked first to her operations manager and ascertained that he could keep the company running for the next couple of days. Next, she called her husband's attorney, whom she had never met, but who proved to be a big help. Two days following Sam's burial, Capalbo found herself before a judge, explaining that she had a $30,000 payroll to meet and required authority to sign checks. “I went from having my own checkbook to being responsible for a company and estate,” recalls Capalbo.

“In the beginning, there was uncertainty on both sides,” Capalbo says. In addition to her own grief, she had to understand that of her employees. “And men communicate differently with men than they do with women,” she adds. Whereas they once would gather in her husband's office and chat, Capalbo found her male employees tip-toeing around her. “I missed that [camaraderie] in the beginning,” she admits. “But, I was in a fragile state – very numb.” Which is why her employees probably felt a need to give her some space. “I hydroplaned through the first couple of months,” she remembers. “I kept waiting for my husband's car to pull up in front of the office. It was like a bad joke.”

Developing a Niche
Gradually, Capalbo grew ready to make some decisions about the business. “The courier service is an extremely competitive industry,” she says. “I knew that [to succeed] I had to separate myself from the pack.” So, while other services were providing high-volume, low-cost deliveries, Capalbo moved ZoomFreight in the direction of high-specialty delivery service.

“We provide a different level of service than other couriers,” Capalbo says. For instance, she explains, a pharmacy may be waiting for a refrigerated product worth over $30 million. “One of my employees might meet a flight, check the cargo, and re-ice it to keep it cold overnight for early morning delivery.”

“You need a knowledge of the different types of cargo you're carrying,” she continues. “When you're dealing in pharmaceuticals, every piece of material needs careful inspection. We must write up any damaged goods.” (Since Capalbo has taken charge of ZoomFreight, no products have been damaged while in her care, she is proud to say.) “It's time consuming, but ultimately this can save thousands of dollars,” Capalbo notes.

If anyone suspects that ZoomFreight couriers have routine days, they should think twice. “This business has its moments,” says Capalbo, referring to the high cost and bulkiness (50,000 pounds to 75,000 pounds) of products they move, and the high responsibility that goes with the territory. “There are many innovations in cancer, many new heart medications or types of birth control available today, she says. It's not unusual for ZoomFreight couriers to require an escort of armed guards a la James Bond when meeting such a delivery.

On top of that, speedy service is a must. “It used to be that next day service was valued,” Capalbo points out. “Then same-day service or Saturday and Sunday service were the thing. Now we're into expedited service.” And Capalbo is confident in, and proud of, ZoomFreight's ability to provide this. “If you need life-sustaining medication sent to a patient's home, we can deliver in 30 or 40 minutes,” she says.

Not All Business Is Good Business
“The most interesting thing I've learned is that not all business is good business,” notes Capalbo. “I used to take on all business, but it wasn't always profitable. I learned I had to be selective to make money and provide high-quality service. The key is to discover who your customers are, who wants premium service, and who will pay for that unique service.”

When she was approached two years ago by a manufacturer that did government work, Capalbo elected to accept the job, which involved moving the company's parts throughout the tri-state area. For this, Capalbo bought a helicopter hoist.

“It was something I had never done before,” says Capalbo. “But, it was a good way to expand my services. Before then, I was specifically in trucking, moving larger freights. Now I have this additional service,” she says.” “You must keep reinventing yourself when you have your own business.”

The opportunity to take on government business came about after Capalbo joined the Women President Organization (WPO) and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO). These organizations offer support and sponsors at the corporate level and provide women with the necessary tools to expand their businesses, says Capalbo. “I had little experience when I stepped into the business,” she says. “The groups provide networking and information and access to capital and clients.” But the perks of having a woman-owned company don't always offset the cons: “I have to prove myself 10 times more than any man,” says Capalbo. “The [male vs. female] mindset is still there.”

A Long Road to Success
No doubt, Capalbo has journeyed far since her first days as entrepreneur in 1984. While her husband was alive to run ZoomFreight, Capalbo worked in the airline industry. “I helped my husband a bit back then, but he was the driving force who got things going,” she recalls. Becoming the new owner of ZoomFreight definitely called for on-the-job, nuts and bolts training, she says.

The road has led to success for Capalbo. For one, she can boast that all of her employees have remained with her over the years – a testimony of their loyalty. “I've had to prove myself, earn respect and show I was in for the long haul,” says Capalbo. “I've learned that my internal customers are as important as my external customers. My drivers are my sales force. The customers see them and must feel confident in them,” she says. In fact, her drivers' good reputation is what grows her business.

The Best, Not the Biggest
As happy as she is to see business grow, Capalbo does not envision becoming one of the largest trucking companies in the tri-state area. “My goal is not to become the biggest, but the best specialty courier,” she says, adding that she does look forward to doing more government work.

“There always will be a market for good service,” says Capalbo. “People trust me and count on me, and I work very hard to maintain this.” To ensure her customers' satisfaction, Capalbo oversees all of her company's accounts. “If I were too big, I couldn't call on all my customers or [make a call] in the truck,” she says. “I couldn't be as involved.”

If there's one lesson Capalbo has learned over the years, it's to keep her employees aware of what's going on in the business. “I share a lot more with my employees than my husband did. After my experience of being in the dark (following my husband's death), I make sure my employees know what's going on.”

“I've never had regrets or questioned my decision to keep the business,” says Capalbo. “It's amazing how having your own business prioritizes everything else in life very quickly.” And another thing, she adds, “My success lets other women know there are no boundaries – only those you set for yourself.”