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Transportation company uses unique assets to get back in growth lane

Tim and Gloria Higham founded Interstate Transport in 2002. Their first job, hauling plants and small trees from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, netted a profit of $1.16. And the company has stayed in the black ever since. Today, they contract with thousands of third-party, independent truck drivers to haul refrigerated goods for companies such as Publix, Home Depot and Sysco Foods.

The comeback: As with other trucking companies, Interstate saw business fall off in 2008 and early 2009. Nationally, trucking industry revenues fell 40 percent. But while other haulers went out of business, Interstate could leverage some huge advantages: no debt, minimal overhead because it relied on outsourcing for its truck drivers, and a sophisticated software system to track truckers. Soon, "companies were coming to us as a third party and saying, 'Find us trucks,' " Tim Higham said. As a result, Interstate picked up business from failing truckers and revenue grew roughly 50 percent in 2010.

Growth projections: Interstate projects revenue will double this year. Within three years, it aims to surpass $100 million in revenue through a combination of in-house growth and acquisitions. The company has 65 employees, most of them in a remodeled downtown St. Petersburg headquarters where it's running out of room. It's on the hunt for new office space but prefers to stay downtown.

The future: With as much as 25 percent of the nation's trucking capacity wiped out by the recession, the Highams struggled to find enough independent drivers. So this spring, they launched their own asset fleet, starting with 10 trucks, 10 in-house drivers and a terminal in Lakeland. They envision the fleet growing to as many as 200 trucks within two years. A private equity firm called Palm Beach Capital has bought a 40 percent stake in the company, providing funding for acquisitions.

Why business improved:

"At the time a lot of competitors were going out of business, there were all different kinds of freight available out there. We decided we were going to stick to what we do well, which is primarily refrigerated food and horticultural products. It's been the most profitable with loyal customers throughout." — Gloria Higham

"We could have been three times the size two or three years ago with a boatload of debt, but that could have been our demise." — Tim Higham

About the series: The vestiges of the Great Recession still mark Tampa Bay — from a battered housing market to a beaten-down work force still struggling with near-record unemployment. But there are also tales of resilience among small businesses that see 2011 not just as a year of rebuilding, but one of growth. This is part of an occasional series profiling some of those companies on the comeback trail and how they're doing it. Have a story to tell about a company on the rebound? Contact reporter Jeff Harrington at (727) 893-8242 or harrington@sptimes.com.

Previously reported: Largo manufacturer among small businesses enjoying a rebound

Transportation company uses unique assets to get back in growth lane 04/17/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2011 4:40pm]
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