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On the move

By Chris Atchison | December 20, 2013
On the move
Kelli Saunders

As one of the few female business owners in the largely male-dominated North American logistics industry, it would have been easy for Kelli Saunders to consider herself at a disadvantage when she founded Mississauga, Ont.-based Morai Logistics Inc. in 2010.

Indeed, Saunders surprised more than a few of her prospective clients—nearly all of whom were used to being pitched by men—when she stepped into meetings in those early days. But they quickly realized that the long-time logistics industry veteran was at the top of her game and ready to shake up the traditional logistics experience as her team helped them coordinate the shipment of goods, ranging from small packaged items to hazardous materials, by rail or truck across North America. Her insistence on nurturing an entrepreneurial culture focused on service innovation, then delivering on her every promise, quickly won clients’ attention and respect. So, too, did her ability to overcome ominous challenges. “This business is very competitive because some of our suppliers can also be competitors,” Saunders explains. “You dance on both sides of that line and strategically, it can be a challenge. It also seems weekly there’s another third-party logistics provider that pops up, so there’s a lot of change.” That’s not to mention a steadily shifting regulatory landscape—particularly in the wake of disasters such as this year’s train derailment in Lac Megantic, Que.—as well as growing demand for environmentally-friendly transportation solutions, all of which can put downward pressure on profit margins. 

As her firm’s bottom-line performance demonstrates, Saunders seems largely nonplussed by these obstacles to her success. Morai has experienced impressive annual growth for both revenue and margin gains. Perhaps just as impressive is Morai’s cross-border reach: roughly 70 per cent of the company’s business is done in the United States and Mexico. 

So, how has Saunders taken her firm successfully into an aggressive and competitive marketplace? It started by tapping cutting-edge technology. Morai licenses TRITAN, a third-party logistics management software through their Mode Transportation agency agreement that allows her staff to track and manage shipments, ensuring on-time delivery. With so many shoppers purchasing goods online, Saunders saw another tech-related opportunity: helping her clients sell via the Web. It’s the reason why Morai recently began expanding into the small package delivery e-commerce and web design—along with logistics management consulting—improving clients’ online revenue and helping them move products to market faster. 

Saunders has also been keen to continue exploring new opportunities in international markets such as Mexico. The reason: a growing number of North American companies across sectors ranging from food products to consumer goods have begun to repatriate some of their offshored manufacturing processes thanks to growing shipping costs and the push to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions. That shift has helped the firm bolster its international presence, while addressing another pressing supply chain concern—sustainability. 

With so many organizations insisting their suppliers and service providers incorporate sustainable practices into their business models, Saunders had to take action or risk being overtaken by a strengthening green wave. As such, the company has shifted much of its logistics strategy to focus on more environmentally-friendly and cost effective intermodal, or rail, transportation, while developing innovative solutions to some long-standing challenges. “We’re starting to work with companies who would normally move cargo in refrigerated units, but instead we’re encouraging them to ship those goods in trucks covered with cargo quilts, which are more environmentally friendly and just as efficient,” she says. 

That innovative streak extends into Morai’s customer service department, or as Saunders prefers, the ‘client success’ department. “A client is somebody you want to help make strategic business decisions, whereas a customer is someone who is more transactional,” she says of that key difference in cultural perception. Morai’s staffers are encouraged to identify and act on specific operational challenges by becoming as deeply entrenched in their clients’ businesses as possible. “People have the autonomy to make good decisions, and no one gets in trouble for making a mistake,” she explains. They’re also encouraged to learn by listening, a rule the president has herself begun to apply more fervently of late. “My business increased 30 per cent this year by talking to clients,” she says. “You don’t have to sell them anything, just go and listen.”  

Given her widespread success, it’s clear that being a female business leader in the North American logistics industry has done little to stifle Saunders’ ambitious growth plans. But the experience has taught her some key lessons about what it takes to run a successful business as a female entrepreneur. “I had a male client who said to me once: ‘You were cute walking through the door, but it wasn’t until you started to talk that I knew you understood the industry,’” she recalls. “My advice to other female CEOs is know your industry, your company, the client and their industry, and be able to sit down and talk. Having that credibility and professionalism goes a long way. Don’t go in cute. It can get you in the door, but cute doesn’t get you the next meeting.”

 

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