Business / Delivery / Small businesses / Transportation

How a local bike courier company cleverly switched gears to avoid extinction

How visas and flowers kept Washington Express cruising into the 21st century.

Founded in 1981, Washington Express is the oldest bike courier company in town. And that’s probably because it managed to keep rolling with the times.
In the 1980s — before fax and email took over the city’s offices — the company had about 100 bike messengers, plus couriers on other vehicles. “The velocity and the volume of the work was just incredible,” said owner Mike Miller.
But technology soon caught up with the courier industry.
“Starting in the late ’90s, things started to change,” said Miller. All across the country, similar companies were struggling to stay afloat.
First, Washington Express wriggled its way out of extinction through a series of boardroom deals.
After “an industry rollup,” recalled Miller, Washington Express went public within a merged entity called DMS (Dispatch Management Services) in 1998.
In 2001, Washington Express bought back its shares — “successfully, which was not easy to do,” said Miller.
Facing a “a shrinking pie situation” that decade, the company proceeded to acquire several of its competitors in the D.C. market.
Still, pedaling paper did not look like it was going to last as a business model.
“We knew that things were going to change and the demand for envelope delivery would dry up,” said Miller. “We had to find a way to remain viable.”
So Washington Express diversified — smartly.
“We looked just inward,” said Miller. “When you start something new, you want to have synergy with what you actually do.”
As it turns out, a big driver of the courier business in the nation’s capital is visa paperwork.
Unfortunately for frequent travelers, getting documents to the embassy on time is only half the battle.
“If the T’s aren’t crossed, the I’s aren’t dotted the way the country wants,” Miller said, “they reject it.”
In January 2011, Washington Express opened up a visa processing business South of Dupont Circle.
Miller had a good nose for new opportunities, and soon found another way to branch out.
“A big part of the flower business is getting the flowers where they need to go,” he noted. That’s something courier businesses deal with on a daily basis.
In April 2013, Washington Express acquired Nosegay, a 70-year-old legacy flower shop also South of Dupont Circle.
“What we wanted to do, is we wanted to create a hybrid operation model which would marry a traditional florist shop with a 21st-century logistics business,” explained Miller.
It wasn’t a cake walk, entirely, he said. “There’s a learning curve, understanding retail versus a B2B environment and culture.”
But now, the flower shop has turned into a flower dispatching business.
Once an order comes in, the company’s operation center in Beltsville, Md., runs it through a dispatch software that determines the most efficient routes for delivery.
Inside the shop, “They’re all looking at a large monitor right at the production table,” said Miller.
The company also offers a service that can move furniture and boxes on short notice for time-strapped offices.
Among its clients are small businesses like Localist, the event marketing startup that recently moved from Baltimore to Silver Spring.
“It seems so simple pick up a package and take it from point A to point B,” said Miller. “To make money at it, you have to do a high volume and deal in short time windows.”
Miller is still optimistic about the prospects of the courier business. (Today, his company’s fleet of bike messengers has reduced to a modest 23 to 30 contractors.)
“Because it’s Washington, D.C., there will always be some need for bicycle messengers,” he said.
But, just in case there isn’t, Washington Express has its bases covered.


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