In a career at UPS spanning more than 30 years, George Willis has worked his way up from package handler to managing director of the logistics firm’s UK, Ireland and Nordics operation. Here he explains his mission to help British SMEs thrive…
How do you put a killer whale in the post? That’s the conundrum United Parcel Service (UPS) faced in 1996 when tasked with transporting orca Keiko (star of the Free Willy film) from Mexico to north-west America.
An unusual problem, maybe. But not one that would deter the global courier company. Within days, Keiko’s 3,500kg blubbery frame was winging its way on a C-130 cargo plane taking him from a cramped Mexico City amusement park to his new home in a custom-built tank in an Oregon aquarium.
“We delivered a whale and I was actually part of that,” remembers George Willis, UPS managing director for UK, Ireland and the Nordics. “We also once delivered pandas from China to Atlanta Zoo – I don’t know whether it’s an animal thing with me or not!”
The cetacean consignment lies at the crux of what UPS does best: solving problems. Since 1907, the company has driven, flown, biked, shipped and tractored products (not to mention ferrying goods by a German cargo cruiser) to 220 countries, and now delivers 18 million packages every day.
And for the past 31 years, Willis has been at the heart of solving many of those problems – working his way up from an 18-year-old package-handler in 1984 to his current role overseeing 9,500 employees and a 2,800-strong fleet.
Now, UPS and Willis are putting their decades of logistical expertise to good use: helping British SMEs tackle the daunting issue of exporting.
Indeed, a recent UPS study, European SME Exporting Insights, revealed many British firms have an “island mentality” when it comes to exporting – almost half of the directors surveyed admitted regulations and admin cost worries kept them up at night when they first started exporting.
Fortunately, UPS can help small businesses reach their export potential, collaborating with them on logistical challenges, ranging from concerns over lost/damaged items to dealing with high shipping/freight costs.
Willis is perfectly qualified to dispense such advice. That first job loading UPS trailers in his native Atlanta kick-started a meritocratic rise through the ranks (“a different job every year”, reckons Willis) that has seen him serve in roles such as a UPS driver, in human resources, and helping the 1996 Atlanta Olympics run smoothly (UPS handled the logistics of London 2012 too).
“My experiences as a package handler come back all the time,” he says, sitting in UPS’s HQ in Feltham, west London. “I’ve had many opportunities to look at parts of the company through different lenses. When problems occur, I understand how they can be resolved. It helps with staff too – they’re like ‘you’ve lived through my struggles – you understand what I do day-to-day’.”
Having been in London for two years, Willis is a big fan of British businesses, which he believes have plenty to offer the global marketplace. “The level of detail British companies invest in their products is very impressive,” he notes. “In America, speed – how fast you can get goods to market – is king. But the Brits are much more, ‘When I launch this product, it must be correct’. I admire that tremendously.”
However, Willis also notes that many British companies approach exporting with some trepidation (only six per cent of UK SMEs that have never exported will do so for the first time this year). As he says: “Business changes so much. Today, you’re not growing unless you’re growing internationally.
“Customs are extremely difficult to navigate, whether it’s tariffs or knowing exactly who to pay. What we can do, is advise customers, large and small. For example, if you’re a £100m customer, I can link you with an insurance premium company. And if you’re a small firm sending out envelopes, I can talk to you about the best paperless solution because when declaring your products, it’ll ease your way through customs… We have years of experience in this.”
UPS has been working with a number of SMEs such as chocolate company Montezuma’s (montezumas.co.uk), Sugru, a mouldable glue-maker (sugru.com) and designer Emma Shipley (emmajshipley.com) to develop their supply chains.
UPS’s guidance and expertise helps SMEs such as these adjust quickly to the challenges and opportunities that arise in a fast-paced marketplace.
“We can help simplify regulations and provide expert market knowledge allowing SMEs to ship confidently, widen their customer base, and drive more sales. That’s how the UPS partnership translates,” says Willis.
For any SME owner, the first port of call for free exporting advice should be to visit the ups.com website and then discuss options with an adviser. There is a UPS sales team dedicated to helping SMEs, which, as Willis points out, “can start the whole process whether you want to shift one package or 50 packages”.
SMEs working with UPS find the Export Toolkit(exporttoolkit.ups.com) particularly useful. It’s an online service which helps first-time exporters choose the right type of transportation, as well as offering international market guides, customer invoice templates and an exporting check list.
It’s all part of UPS’ recent brand re-positioning, with leaders making the decision to go from “moving packages, which is a billion-dollar industry, to ‘moving commerce’ which is a trillion-dollar industry”. Indeed, UPS has long been a company that has openly embraced change.
In 1948 founder James E Casey said: “We must be ready to move quickly in any direction to meet new conditions of a progressive world.”
Casey’s words have never been more pertinent. Having anticipated online shopping, UPS launched its Access Point network, which solves the age-old problem of not being indoors when a delivery person calls, by allowing you to retrieve your package at a location convenient for you – whether it’s a nearby high-street store, petrol stations, the newsagents, wherever.
As Willis says: “Larger retailers can ship from Access Point to Access Point and get special rates for doing that. It saves us going to your house when you’re not there. More importantly, it gives us a first-time delivery – you’re able to get your package the first time.”
Customers can also track their packages via UPS’s My Choice alerts. The company is embracing innovation in sustainability too. In the UK, UPS has 21 electric and 19 biomethane vehicles whizzing around large cities, biomethane fuel pumps and delivery ‘walkers’ who “never touch a wheel”, dropping goods by foot in central London. It comes as no surprise to learn UPS even has its own in-house meteorological team to predict changes in the weather.
“At UPS, we’re also United Problem Solvers,” says Willis. “We want consumers/companies to understand we’re not just a delivery company. We deliver solutions and solve problems too. If customers have problems exporting goods, we’ll solve it.” Even if it is a hulking big whale.
Watch a video about how UPS can help your business at solvers.ups.com/gb
Case Study: Gilo Industries
The flying car has existed in the imagination of sci-fi creators for decades. But the vehicle does exist, in the form of the road-legal ‘SkyRunner’ currently being manufactured in Dorset by innovative engineering firm Gilo Industries, whose product range such as paramotors (powered paragliders) and jet-packs, is coveted across the globe.
With international demand soaring, the company faced one problem: being a start-up, Gilo Industries had no legacy systems in logistics, meaning it needed to build its supply chain processes from scratch.
Gilo’s logistic needs are specific too. The company needs to send components across the world within a short time-frame, some of which are aviation applications that require proper handling and secure packaging. Dispatching SkyRunner to overseas trade shows posed a logistical freight nightmare.
In 2010, Gilo selected UPS as a partner, after teaming up with a web-based reseller resulted in inconsistent service due to the multiple courier companies used. Five years on, the relationship is still going strong, with UPS ferrying Gilo’s components and vehicles across the globe, while simultaneously providing tools such as track-and-traceability.
Gilo’s shipments are organised via UPS WorldShip – a software solution that automates shipping tasks to reduce errors while saving time and money. Gilo’s customers can keep abreast of shipments with on-screen visibility and notification messaging. Meanwhile, the UPS Billing Centre allows customers to manage their UPS invoices, speeding up payment.
For its urgent small components, Gilo uses UPS Express Saver, which provides next-day service to most of Europe, while larger shipments are handled by UPS Ocean Freight. UPS also advises Gilo on customs and exports.
“The whole experience a customer has when they receive one of our products is really important to us,’ says founder Gilo Cardozo. “By using UPS to run our delivery operations smoothly, and by relying on the confidence the UPS brand instils, we are making sure the customer feels the same excitement receiving their package as they do when using the product itself.”