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July 2004
FIlling a Need by Filling Mailboxes
By Heather Head

      Working for a company that profits from filling your mailbox may not make United Mailing Service (UMS) employees the heroes of everyday folks, but getting the message out does make them heroes to their clients.

      Twenty years ago, Frank Hovis walked away from a secure, high-level management job with a Charlotte-based mailing services company, bringing along employees Ed Stirewalt and Bob Smith, to begin his own company out of little more than a phone booth. Now headed up by Stirewalt, the same company operates in a 50,000-square-foot custom-built warehouse off Boyer Street, employs over 40 people, and generates seven times the amount of business it did in its first year.

      Stirewalt attributes the company’s early survival and growth to good timing and outstanding leadership: “I knew the day we started that we would be successful, because Hovis was a genius.”

      But that’s not to say the company didn’t face its share of challenges. “Our biggest challenge then was money,” says Stirewalt. “We realized right quick it takes a lot of money to run a business; we had backing but it was tough.” Add to that the need for a location and a lack of equipment, and it would seem like the obstacles were insurmountable.

      From sales calls in a phone booth, the company moved fairly quickly into an older building off of Westinghouse Boulevard with no air conditioning, minimal heating, dim lighting, and a single inserting and addressing machine. Three employees and a handful of temporaries, worked in stifling heat and uncomfortable chill to meet deadlines and please ever-increasing numbers of clients.

      Fortunately, in 1984, Charlotte was entering a phase of rapid expansion that would fuel growth for the fledgling company. And with a combination of good business sense and a commitment to service, UMS was able to move into a better facility off of Woodlawn Road. They added new equipment, employees, and clients over the years, and finally were able to move into their current custom space in 1997. They now have more than 40 full-time employees, in addition to seasonal temporary workers.


Packaging Options

      United Mailing Service clients include Carowinds, Belk and the Panthers, as well as colleges, banks, and nonprofits, among others. Clients appreciate the comprehensive array of direct mail services offered by the company. The company sells mailing lists gleaned from national databases and then sorted so that clients can target consumers based on a limitless array of criteria – age, income, type of automobiles, number of children, geographic area, and so on. For clients who bring their own mailing lists, UMS can merge sources and remove duplicate addresses to produce a final list. Other data services offered include standardizing addresses, zip+4 encoding, address correction, and bar coding, all of which streamline the mailing process, saving time and money for the client.

      In addition, management and sales staff invest in educating each client to best take advantage of the postal system. For instance, an extremely creative piece may contain elements that make it difficult and expensive to mail. Donnie Funderud, a sales representative for the company, asks clients to send samples before they commit to a mailing, so that he can check for this and recommend minor changes to significantly reduce costs both in processing and postage.

      Once the mailing list is finalized and the piece is printed, a variety of lettershop and laser printing services prepare the item for mailing, including printing addresses and bar codes, folding, collating, tabbing, metering, stamping, and shipping. Then the mailing can be fulfilled immediately, or items can be held until a specified mail date.

      And never is the client left in the dark. UMS customer Nancy Truesdale, director of advertising for Meineke Car Care says that, “They communicate before, during and after the mailing is completed. I never have to call and check on the status of a mailing. I give them a schedule and they take care of the rest.” Says Jim Heintz, vice president of operations, clients can benefit from their services with jobs as small as 200 or as large as in the millions.


Delivering Service

      Although services are similar among direct mail companies and pricing is competitive, United Mailing Service has set itself apart from the competition through a combination of experience, customer service, and efficiency. “Most of the customers are pretty loyal,” says Stirewalt. “We’ve had customers from day one that we’ve still got.” Mark Ingram, vice president of sales, says he’s seen customers leave, “testing the waters on price,” and come right back in relatively short time because of their exceptional customer service.

      Many printing companies have added direct mail to their list of services, expanding the already large pool of competition in the field. But Heintz isn’t worried: “Offset our twenty years’ experience against their one year, and it’s clear who the winner is.”

      And because it’s purely a service industry, experience counts for a lot. Knowledge of post office regulations and industry techniques can sometimes save companies thousands of dollars per mailing or expedite unusual mailings that other direct mailers might turn down or botch. Additionally, their location near the Bulk Mail Facility means that mailings get into the postal system faster.

      UMS also boasts an impressive array of efficiently arranged equipment, up-to-date technology, and consistent, long-term management. These things combine to ensure outstanding quality control, fewer hold-ups in the process, great customer service, and substantial savings for the client.


Procuring Commitment

      It is no coincidence that both Stirewalt and Heintz have been with United Mailing Service from the beginning. Turnover in the company is extremely low, thanks to a caring attitude from management, good benefits, and a stable environment.

      Stirewalt started his career in a literally more explosive arena. He worked for Martin Marietta, in their explosives department. “I loved playing with dynamite!” he says, grinning. But the company wanted him to move to Georgia, and he wanted to stay home in Concord. He began working for Frank Hovis at another direct mail company in 1972, loading delivery trucks. “It was just a summer job for me,” he says, but he was so impressed with his boss that he stayed on and in 1984 when Hovis asked him to walk away from that job and join him in makings sales calls from a telephone booth, Stirewalt agreed. While that leap of faith didn’t scare him, he says the day Hovis died in 1998 sure did. But six years later, UMS is still going strong and he plans some day to pass the legacy on to up and coming talent.

      Heintz came to Charlotte from Buffalo, New York, just “looking for a job.” He took one in shipping with UMS and says about Charlotte that he “liked the sunshine better than the snow,” and so he stayed. He liked that he could learn and grow with the company, and the excellent management made it easy for him to do.


Addressing Challenges

      Shortly after the World Trade Towers fell, the anthrax mail scare slowed everything in the mailing industry down. But Heintz says that the slowdown was short-lived and that ordinarily, they operate at a fairly steady rate. Large jobs balance out smaller ones, and one industry’s busy season is offset by another. Holidays tend to slow down a little bit, as most companies get their mailings out ahead of major holidays, but otherwise it all evens out.

      A larger challenge for United Mailing Service is keeping up with changing technology and postal regulations. In 1984 it was still possible to do business with a single inserting machine and lots of hands-on temporary workers. But by the time the post office switched from five-digit zip codes to bar coding, a larger portion of the work had to be automated, meaning a larger investment of equipment. Of course, in the long term bar coding (which requires specialized equipment) has been a boon to business, as the discounts offered by the post office for bar coded materials often offset the client’s cost in having UMS handle their mail.

      Still, it is a challenge to constantly predict which new equipment will be a sound investment, and it has only gotten more difficult with rapidly changing computer technology. In the data processing room at the back of the UMS warehouse stands a symbol of this rapid change: a rack of film reels sits above a stack of magnetic tape cassettes, next to a computer that accepts both 5-1/4” and 3-1/2” disks, across the room from another computer with a CD-Rom drive. Today, most clients e-mail their data or transmit it via an FTP site.

      Changes in laws and government regulations also affect the business, positively as often as negatively. Recent “no-call list” requirements have put a damper on traditional telemarketing industries, and driven that business straight to the direct mailers.                                 

Stamping Ahead

      Stirewalt hedges a bit when asked about growth in the next few years, but it’s clear that they expect it. “The past couple of years have been flat,” says Stirewalt, “and this last year we have had the worst month since we’ve been in business and the best month, and they were back to back!”

            But while showing off their state-of-the-art facility, Heintz points out the many ways in which the space can accommodate significant growth. Currently, they are in the process of hiring new full-time staff members. With their experience and commitment of handling over 150 million pieces yearly, growth seems inevitable.
Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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