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The risk that paid off

Jun 13, 2017
Steve Jordan talks to Ed Wickman of Wickman Worldwide Services in Fishers, Indiana, as the company celebrates its 20th anniversary.

I am always impressed by people who take a risk. To some extent, everyone who runs a business has had to stick their neck out at some time; running a business is not a safe place to be. It requires bravery, determination and an unswerving belief that the plan will work. That said, and even by the comparative standards of an elite group of opportunists and entrepreneurs, Ed Wickman’s story is unusual.

It was back in April 1997 when Ed learned that his employer, Atlas Van Lines International, was preparing to move from Indiana to Seattle. For family reasons, Ed didn’t want to make the move. He didn’t want to change industry either having had over 15 years’ experience and exposure at two major van line headquarters working with agents and attending conventions. He didn’t want to throw all that away. But Evansville, Indiana, wasn’t awash with forwarding and moving companies. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. “So I saw the opportunity,” said Ed. “I decided to go it alone and submitted my resignation to Atlas.”

But a new venture needs money, especially a forwarding company that has freight charges to pay. “Nobody trusts the new guy, so I had to pay all freight in advance,” said Ed. Two banks rejected his business plan but the third agreed to a loan against collateral. “My wife and I signed away our home, cars, savings and everything we had of any value. Basically, we rode down the lift that day completely bankrupt.” Scary stuff.

I asked how making such a commitment made him feel. “It was terrifying. I was scared to death. I’d go to church at lunchtime and light a candle and pray. I never doubted that it would work eventually but I didn’t know to what degree, how long it would take or if the finances would hold up long enough.”

Ed found a small office to rent and opened for business. “I had a few things in my favour,” he explained. “My son, Matt, was working in Texas in a temporary job. He was very adept with computers so came home to help me get things going. He later left to pursue a Masters Degree, get married and jump into corporate America. Christy (Kozloski), my daughter, was in college and came to the office every afternoon to help us organise things and to start learning what we were doing. It was very frugal. We had no furniture. My desk was an old computer box.”

But after a few sleepless nights, things started to come good pretty quickly. The decision of Atlas to move had an unsettling effect on their agency family creating an opportunity for a familiar face and name. Soon the fax machine started ringing more consistently with enquiries (the Internet was still developing globally). The first was a major agent with multiple operations and massive volume. Others followed one after another. The risk had paid off. “My concept was to become more boutique and highly personal,” said Ed. “A dedicated following was more important than a high volume. Sometimes companies will do anything they can to get a job, then worry about it after. I didn’t think that way. I just wanted everything to be straight: what you see is what you get.”

Today, as the company celebrates 20 years in business, there is a solid balance of opportunity from both US and overseas agents. Five years ago, Wickman Worldwide moved to new premises in Indiana where the team, even Ed, still looks after clients. Matt remains involved on the periphery with marketing and IT support. WWS also has a sales office in San Diego run by Frank Reinsch. Between them they generate around several million dollars turnover a year. “It has been an exciting twenty years from that beautiful, sunny May morning in southern Indiana when we first unlocked the office. Now, we look to continue to move forward, and with Christy making critical decisions and running operations we have every reason to be optimistic that WWS will grow and thrive. I never lose sight of the fact we had some luck, timing and support of my understanding wife and bright children to help pull it all together."

I also asked Ed if he had any advice for anyone else planning to take the plunge and risk everything on such a business venture. “Don’t do it,” was his immediate response. He didn’t really mean it, but he did say that it’s a very different world now than it was when he started. Today the third-party relocation companies have taken a strong foothold with the global accounts. He explained that they consider payment in 90 days to be very quick. That has resulted in a ripple effect with the worldwide service providers. “Now, the same guys we might have shared beers and laughs with years ago, will request advance payment. Someone starting out now needs to be mentally and financially prepared to be half forwarder and half banker for their accounts.”

Congratulations Ed and team for achieving your 20-year anniversary. Any student of economics knows that wealth is only created when someone does something extraordinary. Looks like WWS passed the test.

Photos: Top (Left to right): Christy Kozloski, Ed Wickman and Shannon North; middle right: Ed’s office in the very early days; bottom left: Ed and Christy celebrating the company’s fifth anniversary.

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