On a Mission for Prodigious Growth
Integrity Express Logistics uses military focus to meet goals
A lot of things about James Steger scream “military man.”
He answers questions directly and speaks with a confident tone. He feels at home while functioning as part of a team. And, perhaps most importantly when it comes to a post-service career, he’s still just as disciplined, focused and goal-oriented when it comes to his new line of work.
“The military changed my life for the better, no doubt about it,” said Steger, who’s now president of Integrity Express Logistics, an asset-based, third-party freight brokerage in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash, Ohio. “I’m extremely competitive. I like to put goals on myself and it has to go back to that.
“I was always very competitive in sports, but the military kind of gave you a focus and a disciplined approach about how to do it. And once I deployed, that was a game-changer for me mentally.”
Steger took that approach to Iraq, Afghanistan and across the Horn of Africa as part of the Air Force’s Global Hawk program, a high-altitude platform for surveillance and security that allows personnel to collect intelligence for more precise weapons targeting and better protection of friendly forces.
He led a group of 40 men and women as part of the operation, an endeavor which provided a confidence level he’d not have attained elsewhere while simultaneously allowing him to establish the logistics street cred that he ultimately decided to put to use upon returning home in late 2006.
As it turned out, a would-be job at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton didn’t pan out and subsequent research into opportunities with other companies didn’t exactly inspire him, so he decided instead to take the knowledge he’d assembled in the military into an operation of his own.
“I feel like I could be a corporate guy, but I just didn’t want to be a corporate guy,” he said. “I started doing a bunch of research and I knew I could do it, so I went ahead and I just started up.”
Integrity Express Logistics was officially born on Feb. 14, 2007, and its arrival hastened a rapid-fire familiarization process with nuts and bolts like licensing and insurance. Steger brought in a partner, Matt Ventura, five months later to firm up the sales side and get things running at full speed.
“We were doing a few sales, nothing really to write home about, and that’s when I brought Matt in and I told him ‘I think I’ve got something going here,’” Steger said.
“The timing was right for him as well. We just started winging stuff and figuring out stuff on the go. There was a lot of trial by error and a lot of lessons learned the hard way, but we knew after 2007 that we had something here and what we ultimately wanted to do was grow it.”
To say the least, the subsequent years have been accomplished that mission.
The company swelled from two employees in 2007 to more than 100 this year, and the aim is for the workforce to grow past 130 employees by the end of 2015. Another stated goal is to maintain a revenue growth rate between 75 and 100 percent for each of the next five years.
Inc. Magazine recognized Integrity Express Logistics as one of the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the United States in both 2012 and 2013 – with the latter award also bringing recognition in the top 100 among logistics and transportation companies nationwide, as well as among all companies in Ohio. It was also listed fourth among all companies in the Cincinnati metropolitan area.
“My initial mission was growth, growth, growth,” Steger said. “I didn’t want to sit here and say ‘Give me a certain number of employees and a certain amount of sales and I’d be happy.’ I still am that way now, but I never thought we could get to 50 employees in the timeframe we did. And last year we did $50 million in sales, and I didn’t think we’d hit $50 million in sales in our first 10-15 years.
“You hire somebody and you have personal expectations and they exceed it, and then you push them further and then they exceed those goals and you keep pushing them. My focus wasn’t necessarily a number as much as it was continued growth, month after month and year after year.”
The company maintains its headquarters in Blue Ash while other employees are scattered within the state of Ohio in Canton, as well as outside it in Tampa, Fla., Gainesville, Ga. and Salinas, Calif., with imminent growth planned into both the Chicago and Nashville metropolitan areas. It owns 25 trailers and hires owner/operators to haul the equipment across the country. It also leases a service yard with a garage in Canton, and its service range encompasses the continental 48 states as well as Canada and Mexico.
No one customer makes up more than 3 percent of the business, but it does have large entities in the food service industries like Kroger and Harris Teeter for whom it moves product – whether with its own assets or a third-party vendor – that needs to be kept freshly stocked in the stores.
Other frequent customers include produce brokers who buy product from a wholesaler and need it delivered to a specific retail customer in a given time period. In those cases, Integrity Express Logistics bids on the project and handles all elements of the delivery process from pick-up to delivery.
And while it’s not the only company out there doing that kind of work, Steger insists he’s been successful primarily because of the quality of the people who’ve joined his team.
Toward that end, the company has been listed among Cincinnati’s top 100 places to work by the Enquirer newspaper in each of the last two years.
“You can’t do it all yourself. You’ve got to find people with the right mindset,” he said. “Kids out of college, not necessarily the right mindset at that point. You almost want to see them go into a job for some work experience and then look for something else, and we want to be that something else.
“Of our top five salesmen, there’s only one college degree. So it’s not about the college degree. We want highly motivated and highly aggressive people that want to grow and continue to grow. You’ve got to have integrity, brains and motivation, and if we get those three we can teach you how to the job. I even say, if you get two out of those three, I can make it work. But you’ve got to have integrity.”
And not surprisingly, when Steger looks ahead he sees more growth.
The company is looking at pursuing cold storage facilities of its own in response to customer inquiries. The fleet side of the business is in the process of branching out to its own separate entity – IEL Trucking – and more trailers will be added. And a new office building is being eyed as a potential recruiting tool to lure more high-end employees from Cincinnati and surrounding areas.
As for revenue and other bottom-line elements, it remains a full-speed-ahead mindset, too.
“I would like to be in the $400-500 million revenue range (within five years),” Steger said.
“And I want to make sure we don’t get too corporate. I think that’s one of the things that attracts people to us. I learned in the Air Force when we had the colonels and the generals on the base with us, they were just so personable and they were invested in making sure you met your goals.
“They motivated you to want to work for them and want to be there. I want to make sure that stays intact. You have to balance that with putting processes and procedures in place that protect the business. That’s the line we walk.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Integrity Express Logistics
WHAT: Asset-based third-party freight brokerage offering regional and nationwide shipping and management logistics resources
WHERE: Headquarters in Blue Ash, Ohio; satellite facilities in Florida, Georgia and California