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Outlook 2013: Small community home to big-time transport company

Saturday, February 16, 2013
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Mark Schmidt is the director of operations for Trans-Border Global Freight Systems, Inc. “All the projections are [that shipping] is going to be a booming industry the next 10 years or so,” said Schmidt.
Mark Schmidt is the director of operations for Trans-Border Global Freight Systems, Inc. “All the projections are [that shipping] is going to be a booming industry the next 10 years or so,” said Schmidt.

— Sydney, Los Angeles, Round Lake, London, Beijing.

Yes, you saw this tiny Saratoga County village listed alongside four of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, cities at least 500 times its size.

But at Trans-Border Global Freight Systems, a clock with Round Lake time is displayed between clocks showing the times in the other four world cities. The same conference room has a full-wall relief map of the seven continents, with a monster video monitor facing the table.

At Trans-Border Global, employees need to know the major global time zones at a glance, because the company arranges commercial shipments around the globe — as well as domestically — of everything from trade show display booths to massive pieces of industrial equipment.

“In simple terminology, we’re a travel agent for cargo,” said Jeffrey M. Millens, co-founder and executive vice president.

Trans-Border Global was founded in Latham in 1997 by partners Millens, Martin Hellwig and Art Spiegel. Today, Art Spiegel’s son Josh holds that family’s share. The company started with six employees sharing four computers but has been growing nearly constantly since.

It has survived and thrived in the freight forwarding business — an industry whose biggest players are household names like United Parcel Service and Federal Express. Today, Trans-Border has 59 employees, and each has two computer monitors on their desk, so they can work from two screens at once.

“With technology, we don’t need a physical presence anywhere else in the U.S.,” Millens said, though it works with affiliates in other countries.

Last summer, Trans-Border moved from its 6,300-square-foot Latham location into a 15,000-square-foot former warehouse on Route 9 in Clifton Park, just across the town line from Round Lake. Company officials attribute its growth in a competitive industry over the last 16 years to its customer service.

“We started with a sales mentality, that we looked at everything from the customer’s perspective, and we keep that mentality to this day,” said Millens.

The move from Latham brings the company close to the high-tech cluster expected to develop at the GlobalFoundries computer chip plant in Malta, but Millens said that wasn’t the main reason for the move to Saratoga County.

“We moved up here because we outgrew our last building in Latham,” Millens said.

The space has been converted into open-floor offices, where employees negotiate the details of deals involving shipping both domestically and to and from more than 200 countries around the world. There’s still a small warehouse component, but most business involves only phone and computer, and a knowledge of how to move things across vast distances and legally through international borders.

Millens estimated the company handles about $35 million to $40 million in business annually, with about 70 percent involving overseas transport by either ship or airplane. Customers generally pay based on a shipment’s weight or volume.

Millens said about 40 percent of the business is done with companies in the Northeast, but the company also does business on the West Coast, in the Carolinas and in states like Ohio and Illinois. He said most of the business is done with manufacturers, with a specialty in what the company calls “project cargo” — items that are unique in their size, weight or other characteristics, like pieces of manufacturing equipment.

Pharmaceuticals, machine parts, turbines and other industrial equipment are some of the sectors Trans-Border does business in. The company won’t identify specific customers for confidentiality reasons.

Millens said it’s Trans-Border Global’s job to know import and export rules in all countries where it does business, telling customers about overseas licensing and customs requirements they may not be aware of — while also helping them with U.S. customs review of any items being imported from overseas.

“There’s nothing typical. Every day is different and unique,” Millens said. “We have no size or weight restrictions on what we ship.”

In one part of the building, there are two employees devoted full-time to import and export regulatory compliance, following the changing laws in countries around the world and making sure customer shipments comply.

In the open sales room, others work out the details of how to get a particular delivery from pickup point to final destination, offering options for speed versus price and explaining international issues a customer may not be aware of. There are also employees devoted to ocean freight, air freight, export and import, with import representing the largest single segment. A separate area has employees who deal with international banking issues.

Last year, Mark Schmidt was hired as the first director of operations, to handle day-to-day management and help the company transition from being a small to a medium-sized company. In addition to the move to Round Lake, the company is investing in a major software upgrade and other modernization.

“All the projections are this is going to be a booming industry the next 10 years or so,” said Schmidt, who worked for international ocean shipper Maersk Line and Fed Ex before joining Trans-Border.

“One fun thing about this industry is that the learning never stops,” Schmidt said. “The world is always changing.”

But there’s one modernization the company has resisted and plans to continue resisting: automated phone answering systems.

“We don’t have voice mail. You call, you get a live person every single time,” Millens said. “The goal is to answer within two rings.”

Employees pool money to make a monthly donation to a different charity each month, supporting such organizations as Equinox and the Saratoga County Animal Shelter.

 
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