How two friends turned their love of transportation into a successful business enterprise

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Artur Wagrodzki and Tomasz Tokarczyk were surprised at what they found upon arriving in the United States from their native Poland. They were just teenagers, but they still had an image of what America was like, and Brooklyn wasn’t really matching up with what they had envisioned it to be.

“I thought it was going to be palm trees everywhere,” Tokarczyk says. “In Brooklyn, you have concrete going all over. That was my first impression.”

The childhood friends and future presidents of Artur Express Inc. grew up as neighbors and eventually went to work for a limousine company in the New York City borough. It was there that they found their love for the transportation industry.

“It was a black car service and they took bankers and people like that around the city,” Wagrodzki says. “We worked in different departments, but we basically were dispatching drivers, picking up phone calls and doing customer service. In some respects, it was a little bit similar to what we do now. We just move freight instead of people.”

The numbers show Artur Express Inc. does a very good job moving that freight. The transportation and logistics company was founded in 1998 and grew to $28.1 million in 2008 revenue. Revenue reached $54.9 million in 2011.

“When we started this business, we were really young,” says Tokarczyk, who serves as president along with Wagrodzki of the 50-employee company. “So maybe that gave us a big advantage. We took it upon ourselves to build the business, and we just did what we felt was right. We ran with it and did everything in our power to make it work and help the company grow.”

The business partners have led with a mix of instinct and collaboration. They don’t worry so much about what the leadership textbooks say you’re supposed to do. But they understand the importance of building a strong culture where employees are committed to doing their job to the best of their ability in order to satisfy the customer.

“A lot of the loads that we haul are for very important customers and it’s very time-sensitive,” Wagrodzki says. “You can give a driver the wrong ZIP code and he’s going to end up in a different state. It’s that crucial. So we need very accurate data and we need everybody to do their job.”

Here’s a look at how Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk work together to lead Artur Express and make sure their employees know exactly what needs to be done to keep the company on top of its game.

Share your responsibilities

One of the biggest changes at Artur Express in recent years has been the influx of technology into every aspect of the company’s business. Whether it’s tracking loads or the drivers who deliver them, technology has led to a different way of doing things in the company and throughout the entire transportation industry.

“The main key for our operation is to develop and use all the different technology that is out there to be able to perform and control the different problems that we have and give that information to the customer,” Wagrodzki says.

Everybody can benefit from technology, of course, but you’ve got to know how it can help you. To just implement something because everybody else is doing it or because it’s shiny and new is asking for trouble.

Wagrodzki says they are careful to incorporate technology that helps them and helps their customers. They have the advantage of having been with the company since the beginning.

“We’ve worked hands-on in the business from day one and we know the ins and outs of it,” Wagrodzki says. “We know exactly what we do on paper and then we just convert all those different ideas to our computer system. It’s not just bells and whistles. It’s something we can really use.”

That conversion process is handled by an IT department that is usually pretty tuned into what Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk are looking for. That type of connection is obviously important.

“All they need is an idea of what we want,” Wagrodzki says. “It takes a while to put it together, but once it’s in place, it becomes a very easy process that you can access any time, which helps gets us get the information to the people it needs to go to.”

It’s those connections that you have with your IT team and with your employees that make or break the integration of things such as technological tools to help you track volume and the status of deliveries.

If you’re not speaking the same language, you’re not going to get what you want or what your company needs.

So Wagrodzki and Tokarczyk make sure they are accessible.

“Employees know if they have an idea, they don’t have to put it out to us or management in some fancy form,” Tokarczyk says. “They can just shoot us a quick email and we react instantly. Every idea they send to us, we try to make it better. Some of the good things we’ve done, that’s how they have been developed.”

It’s that partnership that makes the difference between a business that can grow and one that is limited by the capacity of the entrepreneur. Wagrodzki says he and his partner knew enough to hand off some of their work as they grew to allow the company to gain more customers and take on more work.

“When we started the company, we did it all from accounting to billing to dispatching,” Wagrodzki says. “You name it, we did it. It’s helping us now to be able to meet up with the managers, meet up with the staff and give good pointers on how we used to do it. Maybe it was on a smaller scale, but the factors are still the same.

“If you have 50 trucks or 500 trucks, you have to apply those same rules. We try to treat our employees and our independent contractors on a very personal level. That definitely helps.”

Keep looking for talent

Hiring is always a challenge for any business because you just never know exactly what you’re going to get, Wagrodzki says.

“You’re going to take a gamble when you hire somebody,” Wagrodzki says. “They try to be perfect in the interview and you follow the rules and follow your steps of having them interview with multiple people. I would say 85 percent of the people we hire turn out pretty good.”

But it’s that other 15 percent that can cause a problem. It’s why Artur Express is always in recruiting mode to some degree. With the growth that the company has been experiencing, Tokarczyk says they can afford to bring in talent that has untapped potential.

“We try to find people who can grow with us and are motivated,” Tokarczyk says. “They do have management potential, but maybe that potential needs to be discovered a year or two years from now.”

If you’re looking for more experience in your new hires, it pays to keep tabs on others in your industry. In these difficult economic times, there are often companies that don’t make it or have to let people go whom they otherwise would prefer to keep.

“Sometimes we’re able to get those good people from different companies that were bought out or are no longer in business, “Tokarczyk says. “These people have been there for 15 or 20 years and they’re looking for another strong company where they can set their roots for a while. That’s how we were able to get a lot of the good people that we have.”

Whatever way you go, when you do bring someone in, give strong consideration to having more than one person interview the candidate if you don’t already do that. It will give you a variety of perspective that can help guide your decision.

“We try to have them interview with at least three or four different people,” Tokarczyk says. “This way, we have an idea where they would best fit in the company.”

One thing that Tokarczyk always asks candidates when he interviews them is why they like transportation.

“You can get all kinds of answers,” Tokarczyk says. “Sometimes, you get an answer like, ‘Hey, my father used to drive and he took me on a trip.’ Some of the customer service girls that we hire, those were the answers we got. So there’s always an aspect of transportation in our employees’ lives, one way or the other. That’s always good to hear. You have to be in it to love it.”

Manage your relationships

Artur Express relies on about 400 independent contractors to deliver freight for clients rather than its own employees.

“They are our partners in this business,” Wagrodzki says. “It’s a 50/50 responsibility. If they don’t make the delivery or if they don’t deliver on time, we’re not going to be able to use them again with this customer. They know it’s a one-time shot.”

One of the things Wagrodzki looks at to determine whether the company is doing well or trending in the wrong direction is the fleet of independent contractors.

“There are always guys who come and leave,” he says. “That’s normal. But once you see that nobody has left for a month or two, you can feel good that the company is doing well. We are providing the service that our customers need.

“You might have other times where something is not working and all of those independent contractors are leaving. Now there is something you need to react to.”

In an attempt to be proactive about relations with the contractors, Artur Express has created a team of people who check in regularly to address questions and concerns before they become a big problem.

“They are constantly on the phone with those contractors asking questions,” Wagrodzki says. “What are we doing wrong? What can we do better for you? That’s a key in this business. We match up contractors and customers, and we manage the process of them picking up the load on time and delivering it on time. Once we have those two parties happy, we’re happy.”

The recession has provided a bit of a challenge in this area as Artur Express has worked hard to help both parties understand what the other is dealing with.

“In some cases, customers don’t want to pay too much and drivers want a lot,” Wagrodzki says. “You have to talk to drivers. ‘Hey, this is the industry right now, this is the market.’ And if the market goes up, you have to go to customers and say, ‘We bid this business for the last two years, but we need an increase now.’ Most of the time they do understand because we move a lot of freight and we know from one customer to another there’s not that big of a difference.”

The key is approaching all relationships with a good attitude and not being afraid of a little conflict that is always going to come up from time to time.

“We never look for a perfect project or for a bulletproof opportunity,” Tokarczyk says. “We’re always looking to take some type of risk. But we’ve learned over the years that you can sit on the sidelines and play it safe or you can play the game. If you play it right, you usually end up on the good side.” <<

How to reach: Artur Express Inc., (800) 487-4339 or

www.arturexpress.com

 

The Tokarczyk and Wagrodzki Files

Tomasz Tokarczyk, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Kamienna Góra, Poland

Artur Wagrodzki, president, Artur Express Inc.

Born: Zielona Góra, Poland

Wagrodzki on managing through the recession: If we had to give customers little breaks on the business, we did it. We were able to convince our drivers that we will have the business, and it will be steady. We were lucky enough to make sure our business was diversified. We were working with retail, home goods and a lot of food companies.

Wagrodzki on word-of-mouth recruiting: We were able to hire more independent contractors because the contractors that we had, they talk a lot out on the road. Word-of-mouth is a big deal for transportation. The drivers drive and they talk and if you have good customers and you pay the drivers on time, they can’t ask for more. They just want to join your team and haul your freight.

Wagrodzki on bonuses: We have all different bonus programs set up for our employees and they are revenue-driven bonuses. Retention is a big factor in our business, so we have customized bonus programs for dispatchers and for load planners and all different types of tiers in our operation. Our employees feel that they own a piece of this company. If the company succeeds, we’re going to succeed as well.

Takeaways:

Let your people help you run your business.

Don’t ever stop looking for talent.

Make managing relationships a constant priority.