Rubin Delivers

Len Rubin uses the power of his franchisor's corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City to negotiate discounts for his customers.

by Jason Koornick

In what he calls "a moment of insanity," Len Rubin, the owner of Unishippers of Burlington, decided to open the franchise after interviewing some of the company's 300 owners across the country. He's seen here at the airport warehouse of Airborne Express.

When Len Rubin graduated from Northeastern University in 1974, he quoted Mark Twain in the college yearbook: "I never let my schooling get in the way of my education." The future owner of Unishippers of Burlington didn't realize how accurately Twain's words would describe his life almost 30 years later.

Rubin graduated with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, but after a winding career path in the construction industry, the 51-year-old is now a franchise owner who provides shipping services to small and medium-size businesses. Rubin decided to go into business for himself because he "wasn't having fun anymore" as an estimator and project manager for a large construction firm in Burlington.

"I started looking for something new in the fall of 1991," Rubin says. At a franchise show in Boston, he spoke with the representative of a company called Unishippers, whose mission seemed unclear. "I couldn't figure out what they did at first," he says. After speaking to some of the 300 owners across the country, Rubin made the decision to open his own franchise of the shipping company in what he calls "a moment of
insanity."

"Something like this was out of my character. I was scared of making a change, so I was looking for something wrong, but I couldn't find anything. People were so enthusiastic it was scary," he says about his initial conversations with franchise owners. Soon after his 40th birthday, Rubin opened Unishippers of Burlington because "it was the time to do it," he says. "In retrospect, my only regret is that I didn't start the business 10 years earlier when I was 30."

He says it was difficult to come to terms with giving up what he learned in school. Upon hearing of Rubin's career decision, his father asked, "You are giving up your education to become a salesman?"

Rubin claims there is a connection between the thought processes of an engineer and those of a franchise owner. "My analytical mind is helpful when it comes to running a franchise," he says. "I like following instructions, and with a good franchise, if you follow the pattern you are practically guaranteed success, and it has worked out that way."

As a representative of Unishippers, Rubin works with his customers to reduce shipping costs while providing a higher level of customer service than if the client went directly to a carrier. Although he never touches the goods, Rubin determines the best rates from various carriers, arranges the pickup and deals with billing. Since Unishippers provides shipping services for 60,000 customers nationally, the corporate headquarters in Salt Lake City is able to negotiate discounts from the large shipping companies, which the owners pass on to their customers.

"The concept is very simple," Rubin says. "Like anything, you buy in bulk then resell to people who can't get those discounts on their own." Even with the margin Rubin figures into the cost, he says, shipping costs are considerably lower than what a single company would pay on its own, especially for heavy freight. "Small and medium-sized businesses don't have personnel with time to research rates and get discounts," he says. There are no exclusive relationships, contracts or minimum purchase requirements to use his service.

Rubin works with approximately a hundred regional customers from a range of industries each month. His client list includes Chittenden Bank, Advantage Sport, Lang Associates, the state of Vermont, Edlund, Vermont Student Assistance Corp. and Jiffy Lube.

"Some of the strange things we have shipped over the years include Christmas trees to Florida, lots of antiques and artwork and what my kids call 'icky stuff' like HIV viruses and infectious diseases for the state," he says.

Unishippers uses Airborne Express for smaller packages; DHL, Emery Worldwide and BAX Global for international shipping; and Pilot Air Freight for larger, heavier items. It does not use the U.S. Postal Service because the quasi-government organization is not allowed to give discounts.

Tammy Deal of Airborne Express, which provides 50 percent of Rubin's business, helps Rubin coordinate his clients' pickups.

Robin Beane, office manager at the law firm of Bergeron, Paradis & Fitzpatrick in Essex, has used Rubin's company for four years to ship legal documents. She appreciates the customer service that a local representative can provide. "He can arrange another pickup later in the day and makes sure that we have enough supplies," she says. "Len is very responsive and easy to get hold of. With just one call, he takes care of everything we need."

Rubin runs the business out of his South Burlington home, but he calls his gold Mercedes with the "UNISHIP" license plate his "second office." His pager, PDA and cell phone are invaluable in allowing him to quickly provide quotes and arrange pickups.

Rubin is Unishippers of Burlington's only staff. He uses an answering service "because I like having a live person answering the phone," and a third-party telemarketing service from Virginia to locate new business and set up appointments. "I give her lists and she calls them up and tries to set up appointments," he says. "When I know that I will be in a certain area, I will work the area business around the appointment. Our primary way of doing business is by knocking on doors."

Rubin grew up in Connecticut. He moved to Boston to attend Northeastern University where he met his future wife, Cheryl Cohen. They were married in 1976.

After working various construction jobs around Boston, Rubin brought the family to Vermont in 1982. He worked for five years as project manager and estimator for Pizzagalli Construction.

A decision to pursue other career options led him to the franchise show in Boston where he connected with Unishippers.

He and Cheryl, who he says provided moral support when he decided to leave construction, looked for an opportunity that fulfilled five criteria: the ability to work out of the home to save overhead; no employees; low start-up costs; no inventory; and no sales. "That was our dream," Rubin says. "We got four out of five."

Rubin prepared by saving enough money to work for a full year without any income, a move he calls "the most important rule of small business." It took 60 days before the first check arrived. "By eight months, I was making my previous salary," he says, adding, "Fear is a great motivator."

Since then, the business has grown along the lines of Rubin's five criteria. Being a middle man allows Rubin to keep overhead expenses low. He says the biggest expense in running the franchise is for communication services such as cellular phone, pager and Internet access. Other expenses include a franchise fee that is calculated based on his profit margins.

Running a business has challenges, according to Rubin. "One of the hardest parts of running my own business is paying health insurance for my family with costs rising 10 to 20 percent each year. Also, collecting my own receivables is always a challenge, although fortunately there have been very few deadbeats," he says.

Rubin explains that the Unishippers franchise arrangement is unusual because of the "synergy with other owners. If we are collectively doing a good job, we will all get better rates."

In a strange twist, Unishippers' biggest competitors are the sales forces of the companies whose services they use. "I compete against UPS, Federal Express and Airborne Express," he says, "but since my market niche is the smaller shipper, the sales guys won't go through their doors, because they are looking for the big fish. Unfortunately, since overnight shipping is declining, the sales guys are lowering their threshold."

While Rubin officially operates out of his home, he calls his gold Mercedes Benz with the "UNISHIP" plates his "second office."

The role of shipping goods for business continues to change. "E-mail is replacing small overnight shipping," he says, pointing out that the Internet revolution has also created more opportunities for shipping since local products are available in a global marketplace. He singles out online auction service eBay as a source of shipping activity, particularly for artwork and antiques. Despite the reduction in small overnight shipping business, Rubin says,

"The freight part of the business is growing." He expects freight shipping, which has more value to the franchiser, will grow to be a larger piece of his business.

In his free time, Rubin likes to ski and camp with his wife and two daughters. Cellular technology makes it possible for him to do business from the ski slopes or the beach. He is a member of the Burlington Rotary Club and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and is a founding member of the Vermont Leads Group. "I am active in local groups in order to meet other business owners," he says. He is also an active member of the Temple Sinai congregation in South Burlington and a volunteer tour guide at Shelburne Farms.

"The potential to grow and expand the business is there," he says, when asked about the future of his franchise, "but that would be a hard step. Right now the business fits all my goals."

Originally published in November 2002 Business People-Vermont