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Mark Sell Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007
Mark Sell admits he didn’t always have the best approach for dealing with change in his industry. But the co-founder and principal of MD Logistics Inc. has learned the value of taking a more measured view of change. However, one thing that he hasn’t wavered from is his commitment to a personal relationship with each of his major customers. That dedication has led to $31 million in 2005 revenue and average annual growth of nearly 30 percent at the 72-employee provider of logistics and supply chain solutions. Smart Business spoke with Sell about the importance of building relationships in the business world and beyond.

Focus on the customer first. Take care of the customer, and the customer will always take care of you. I’m a pretty hands-on guy when it comes to customer relationships. It’s not a situation around here where our customer is going to struggle very long without speaking up.

If they are not talking, then we’ve got a problem. A quiet customer is a scary thing.

I’d rather have them call in with an open dialogue. At least then you know there is some issue and you have an opportunity to react. As companies get bigger, they tend to internalize. That is the worst thing you can do. You get more caught up in the inner workings of your organization, and you lose sight of the inner workings of your customer and your industry. You always have to focus externally. We’re a service business. We better stay on top of what the market wants us to accomplish. I’m not saying you don’t have to manage internally, but you cannot focus on that solely. Your most important focus is at your customer level.

Invest in your business. We move goods and commodities around the world and around the country and warehouse for our customers. But the big requirement today is the movement of technology and information. Customers demand visibility and information. That has been a huge challenge for us to get the right technology in the right place in the right hands for the right solution.

Building the proper quality in the organization, continuing to self-evaluate yourself, and improving your processes and the quality of the work you are doing for your customer, those are things that are demanded. It’s a cost of doing business today.

Any time we make an investment in those kinds of things, I’ve tried to boil it back to customer-specific requirements. I’ve tried to evaluate those investments based on return of investment and the customer need. If I’m doing the right thing for one customer, then I always try to turn around and look at the rest of the customers or new customers and see where I can leverage this technology to grow additional business.

You just don’t go out and build it and they will come. You’ve got to build it around a specific need and then market it to as many people as you can.

Watch for change in your customers’ businesses. Any time a customer or potential customer is looking to change a supply chain or looking to introduce a new product or looking to change the way they get that product to market, those are opportunities. I can look at the business that we have brought on board and the major developments and the growth we’ve had with our customers.

In each and every case, if there has been one common factor in every one of those opportunities, it was some major change that that customer was undertaking. Change in our customers’ realm always creates an opportunity for us. Are we always able to capitalize on it? Maybe or maybe not. But there’s always an opportunity that presents itself based on a change.

A change could be negative. In that case, in the short run, it could affect us negatively. But if you look at it, turn it around, and you have the right relationship with the customer where you have an open dialogue, it could create an opportunity elsewhere.

Our business changes all the time. We are a completely dynamic company. It changes because our customers’ needs change. We have to respond to that.

I’m probably a lot more relaxed around change anymore because I’ve seen it so much, it just doesn’t faze me the way it used to. If you overreact or if your employees see you sweat, they’re going to sweat. It’s extremely important for you to always project an air of cool.

Don’t be afraid to fail. I never fault people for making decisions. Sometimes when they make the wrong one, there is an opportunity to evaluate and train. But first and foremost, we don’t want to be a company that is afraid to make a decision.

We’ve had situations in areas where we went out and attempted to track some new pieces of business and failed. I try to see why did I fail, what was I missing, where did I miss the mark? Then I try to make sure that I build in that area so when the next time that particular opportunity rolls around, I’ll be better prepared.

If everything is a success, I don’t think you’re going to learn a lot. Manage your risks. If you’re taking risks, but you’ve got the right relationship, a lot of that is just going by your gut.

The thing that I’ve gotten better at is that I can take the downside of any risk that I take and say, ‘If we take this risk and fail, what is the worst-case scenario?’ If you can live with the worst-case scenario and the reward is worthwhile, then take the risk. You’ve got to look at both ends of the spectrum, then be prepared to land somewhere within that spectrum and know that you can move on.

Reward good work. Make your employees feel part of the organization. Reward people for doing a good job. One of the things that I really enjoy and really cherish about what I do is I like to watch people develop.

I’ve got some people that have been with us for 10 years, from the beginning of the company. I’ve watched them go from working on the floor to supervision to management and I’ve watched them grow.

I’ve watched their families grow and I’ve watched them develop as people, as employees and as citizens. To me, that’s very rewarding.

HOW TO REACH: MD Logistics Inc., (317) 838-8900 or www.mdlogistics.com