But more surprising than what Erickson and his peers at a nondescript warehouse in Elizabethtown, Ky., accomplished that day is who they work for: United Parcel Service. Isn't UPS, universally known as Big Brown, a package-delivery company? Yes and no. Sure, the bulk of the Atlanta-based company's $33 billion in revenue still comes from moving boxes from one place to another. But the company is rapidly expanding into something called supply-chain management, helping hundreds of clients like Royal Canin not only move products from place to place but also store, assemble and repair goods, even interact with customers, all without the client company's having to get involved. Such insourcing of clients' operations work that traditionally was done in-house or was farmed out to dozens of different suppliers, shippers, customs clearers and technology experts is one of UPS's fastest-growing businesses.
Why is UPS plunging into its clients' business? Chief executive Mike Eskew saw an opportunity: "Customers wanted one throat to choke when the pressure was on to deliver. We offered them UPS's throat," he says. UPS already dominates small-package ground delivery in the U.S., handling 13.7 million packages daily and moving items worth 6% of the U.S. GDP every 24 hours. By leveraging its operational efficiency, UPS is attacking what Eskew estimates might become a $3 trillion market not only taking on smaller, European-based logistics firms like Exel and TNT but also fending off competitive pressure from Belgium-based DHL, which is making an aggressive push into the U.S. Over the past few years, UPS has spent more than $1 billion acquiring 25 companies (from a bank to freight forwarders) to become a logistics jack-of-all-trades. Just last month the company agreed to buy Menlo Worldwide Forwarding, which boasts more than $1 billion in annual revenue. "This is a big deal," says transportation analyst Brian Clancy of MergeGlobal. "It makes them a freight-forwarding powerhouse."
UPS is betting that companies like sports-apparel giant Nike will incorporate its service into their business. Already, every couple of hours Nike sends a batch of orders from Nike.com to a UPS facility in Kentucky. Within minutes a UPS employee using a state-of-the-art radio-frequency bar-code reader, grabs the item usually made in Asia and delivered directly to UPS off the shelf. The product, often a pair of Nike's famous shoes, is then quality checked by another UPS employee, carefully packed and sent out the door within 24 hours. "While Nike is researching how to make a better product or looking for another Michael Jordan, we're handling this side of the business," says Dale Helton, a UPS supervisor.
Other UPS employees are filling custom orders for TeddyCrafters teddy bears (dressing them in farmer's outfits or fire fighter's uniforms) or putting together kits of accessories for Nikon cameras. If a Toshiba laptop under warranty needs fixing in the U.S., the damaged product never touches Toshiba. It is shipped (usually from a UPS store) to UPS's Kentucky hub, where a UPS worker evaluates the problem, takes from nearby shelves whatever new Toshiba parts are required, repairs it and then returns the refurbished item within 24 hours on average.