Operations Success Stories

Zai Cargo’s road to success was smoother, thanks to Florida SBDC at FIU’s assistance

Zai Cargo is a family business through and through.

“Our business is a parcel company. We ship boxes, mainly personal effects, to Central and South America. We pick them up and deliver them directly to customers or to other multi-services companies. We consolidate them here in Miami and ship them by ocean, air, or ground to Central and South America,” says Alexander Zapata, whose family owns and operates Zai Cargo.

“The mind behind Zai Cargo is my father’s,” Alexander explains. Hi father used to work in a courier company in Colombia and had the idea back in 1997 when he came to this country — Patterson, New Jersey. Over the next few years, Alexander joined the business, along with two brothers and a few uncles. Because all the cargo to South and Central America moved through Miami, Alexander moved from New Jersey to Miami to create a hub for the business that would consolidate nationwide all the cargo to Central and South America, Alexander says.

Growing the business was not always a smooth journey. They began to expand, opening offices in Los Angeles and a handful of other cities around the country. “We traveled a lot in the US visiting customers. Our customers are mainly what we call multi-services businesses, or small businesses that provide different kinds of services to Central and Latin American people.” But they expanded too quickly. Zai Cargo had to pull back after the financial crisis of 2008 and closed all their offices, everything but their three core locations – Miami, LA and Patterson.

It wasn’t easy for Alexander in the early days because he was the only person in Miami, and at one point his father wanted to close the one in Miami too and have him move back to Patterson. Rising competition and political issues in the countries of destination were other mounting challenges. Still, Alexader recalls saying to his father, “I’ll tell you if I move or not because I think we have a real opportunity here.”

Turns out he was right.

Today, Zai Cargo is thriving, with about 45 employees. “Even though we’ve been a little bit stuck for a couple of years, our sales are around $9 million to $10 million a year, with these three key offices,” Alexander says.

But success didn’t drive up until he sought some help from business experts.

To get through the pandemic and set up the business for long-term growth, Alexander in 2020 sought the help of the Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center that offers no-cost consulting and training to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties.

One of the key benefits of SBDC at FIU is that with 17 consultants, they are very likely to have at least one specialist that can best help with any small business owner’s challenge and Zai Cargo is an excellent example of working with various Florida SBDC business consultants according to their expertise.

First, Alexander had some financial doubts and met with SBDC at FIU Financial Consultant Roberto Castellon Roberto helped him through the process of getting a loan and buying a warehouse. With real estate costs escalating rapidly after he bought that warehouse, it turns out the timing was right for that purchase.

Next, he received assistance from Nile Kirec, an SBDC at FIU consultant specializing in marketing and communications. Nile has been helping Alexander with rebranding, website changes and the rollout of all of that. He also worked with Ricardo Newark, also an SBDC consultant specializing in business growth and finance, about operational challenges, and he helped the team better focus on taking the next steps. SBDC consultant Kiomara Hidalgo is helping the company set up HR systems. The result: The company has been growing in sales this year.

For the rebranding, for instance, Nile guided them through the process, starting with helping Zai Cargo find someone to help Zai Cargo with the design and offering advice on everything from decisions about the color of the new logo to making sure the new branding was everywhere. “We’re now in HR with Kiomara. She’s been guiding me with my questions and doubts that I had about HR.”

What’s next for Zai Cargo? “Right now, the main idea is to optimize what we have — we know we are in three main states — and get the word out about Zai Cargo.” The business might open an additional office in time, perhaps in Chicago, Alexander says.

As for working with a family business, Alexander was raised by his grandmother who had nine kids – his father and his eight uncles. His uncles were almost like brothers to him.  Being a family business has its ups and downs and its advantages and disadvantages, but in this case, he wouldn’t change anything because the biggest advantage “was giving an opportunity to our family to come here and work with us — and create a new life. And through time, obviously more people have been involved outside the family and have been growing with us as well.”

What is Alexander’s advice for other small business owners?

Have a vision for where you want to go. Be ready to take calculated risks, be persistent, work hard and seek out consultation when you need it.

Most importantly, Alexander says, “surround yourself with good people, because that is definitely going to help you to be successful and grow.”

Website: zaicargo.com

IG: Zaicargo

FB: Zai Cargo






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