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Published: Sunday, 12/13/2009

Delivering the holidays: FedEx, UPS step up business

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Jim McConkey loads boxes into his truck at the FedEx hub in Perrysburg Township. The hub expects Thursday to be its busiest day. Jim McConkey loads boxes into his truck at the FedEx hub in Perrysburg Township. The hub expects Thursday to be its busiest day.
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Just before rumbling out of the FedEx Ground delivery hub in Perrysburg Township, driver Dan Peake scribbles a message on a sticky note instructing a customer who is away from home about how to arrange for a package delivery.

The 26-year-old knows that before the morning is over the note will be needed. And he wants to be prepared.

"I over-prepare," he said. "My first Christmas here was really bad. I was out really late. I got stuck in snow. So, every year, I've prepared for the worst."

For package delivery services, the coming days are their busiest - and most profitable.


Driver Dan Peake jogs up a driveway of a Rossford home to deliver a package. While the holidays can be hectic and mean long hours, Mr. Peake says he ‘enjoy[s] the spirit of it.' Driver Dan Peake jogs up a driveway of a Rossford home to deliver a package. While the holidays can be hectic and mean long hours, Mr. Peake says he ‘enjoy[s] the spirit of it.'
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FedEx Corp.'s rival UPS Inc. says it will deliver 400 million packages in the four weeks before Christmas. On Dec. 21, which the company expects to be its busiest day of the year, UPS will deliver 22 million packages or 40 percent more than on an average day.

FedEx predicts that tomorrow will be its busiest day nationwide. And executives expect shipments to rise 8 percent over last year. The haul: 13 million packages - many of them Christmas gifts purchased from Internet retailers.

Both UPS and Memphis-based FedEx report that package deliveries to homes and businesses have begun to recover after slumping after the nation's banking and financial crisis last year.

Handling the heavy work in this massive movement of merchandise are people like Dan Peake and his boss Joe Robinson, a 32-year-old transplant from the real estate industry who got out of that business just as the walls began to cave.

Daniel Campos scans packages before they are loaded into trucks at the FedEx hub in Perrysburg Township. FedEx and UPS say the demand for shipping has picked up this holiday season. Daniel Campos scans packages before they are loaded into trucks at the FedEx hub in Perrysburg Township. FedEx and UPS say the demand for shipping has picked up this holiday season.
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He works out of FedEx's $90-million metro Toledo hub, opened in July, which acts as a sorting and distribution point for packages headed to places such as Kalamazoo, Mich., and Fort Wayne, Ind., as well as communities of northwest Ohio. Packages sailing along the hub's 15-mile conveyer system include well known names like Dell Computer, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and Fisher-Price. Also seen, however, are lesser known brands such as a golf-equipment manufacturer in Cleveland and a distributor of gift baskets.

Flat-screen televisions are among popular items this Christmas, said Ben Langenderfer, a senior manager at the hub.

"The economy is down, but we're doing pretty good," he said.

He tries not to get frazzled by the Christmas rush. "I just look at it as business," he added. "It's money."

Unlike FedEx overall, local managers say the Perrysburg hub's busiest day likely will be Thursday.

Mr. Robinson had worked past Christmases as a seasonal hire at the hub, formerly on Reynolds Road in Toledo, and was familiar with its system of using independent contractors for deliveries.

So when the real estate market tanked, he went there. Since acquiring his first FedEx route from another contractor in late 2007, Mr. Robinson bought a dozen more. His firm, Obsidian Expedited Services Ltd., employs 20 people and operates 19 trucks. All are marked with Fed Ex's logo.

Drivers make $32,000 to $37,000 annually after one or two years, and FedEx estimates that independent contractors earn between $60,000 and $1 million - depending on the number of routes they control and customers along each route.

This is Mr. Peake's first Christmas not driving as an independent contractor. Contemplating a career change, he sold his route last year to Mr. Robinson and now works for him.

On a damp, cool morning last week, he made his way through a tidy Rossford subdivision dropping off packages at homes dressed up in lights and wreaths.

From his standpoint, the holiday season likely will be a decent one for retailers. "I don't remember things being this heavy this early," he said.

The holiday season can get hectic, and often means long hours.

"You enjoy the spirit of it," the West Toledo resident said.

"But you still have to put a smile on your face when you're delivering to people because they don't know how long you have been out or how many stops you have made."

It is not long before he needs the sticky note prepared earlier. As he heads up to the house whose owner is at work, the engine of his van idles loudly.

This day began at 7:30 a.m. and won't end until 7:30 p.m.

The greatest enemy of delivery drivers during winter is the weather, Mr. Peake said.

"You're not done until everything is delivered," he added. "You don't quit."

One morning four years ago, he was driving 55 mph on a rural road between Fremont and Clyde. He reached the crest of the hill and the pavement suddenly turned to a dirt road drifted over with a foot of snow.

"It was a field of white," he recalled. "I tried to make my way through but got stuck halfway." He spent the rest of the day waiting for a tow truck. "I just sat there in the truck and listened to the radio," he added. "I got home, at like, 1 o'clock that night."

It was the only time in four years he failed to complete his deliveries.

On icy days when the weather slows deliveries, crews use Saturdays as a catch-up day. In bad weather and good weather, deliveries are often complicated by residences that lack house numbers or are poorly marked.

At one stop last week, Mr. Peake bounded out of his truck and up to a house. The homeowner opened the door a crack, signed for the package, and he took it inside.

He is on a nodding basis with some customers, but - unlike drivers who deliver to businesses - never sees many customers because they work during the day. In many instances, he is able to place the package behind a mailbox or on a back porch, and leave a note advising the homeowner of the delivery and location.

He is friendlier with customers who are at home and who receive regular deliveries. One customer, who receives a different type of wine each month through a club-like program, gives him a card with $20 each Christmas. Apparently forgetting the gesture last year, she handed him the card in March, saying: "This is your Christmas card."

"You run into good people on this job," he said. Yet tips are uncommon. He has received only three in five years on the job.

His most unusual delivery was a container of bull semen to a farm that planned to use it for breeding purposes.

Earlier in his career at FedEx, he was more curious about the content of packages. "After four years, it just becomes a package," he said.

Mr. Peake is affable, has an easy smile, and likes to be helpful.

Making deliveries in Perrysburg this fall, he spotted an elderly woman who had collapsed on the ground near the road. He brought his van to a quick stop, and rushed out to provide assistance.

Mr. Robinson's crew delivers to homes in most areas between Perrysburg and Ada, Ohio, and to businesses in Maumee, Findlay, and Bluffton, Ohio.

He also operates three tractor-trailers that service the Perrysburg hub and other distribution hubs.

He predicts that deliveries this Christmas will be well ahead of last year. "The first week in November we started noticing an increase in volume," he said.

Still, he said, times continue to be tough in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Many friends have lost their jobs. Some come to him looking for work. "Not everybody is cut out for this, though, unfortunately," he said.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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