Peoples Services Inc. has shifted gears with third-generation President and CEO Douglas Sibila behind the wheel. Gone are the days when organic growth was sufficient to fuel the 104-year-old company. Now acquisitions are key to success. Fortunately for Peoples, the timing is right, and its reputation and old-fashioned who-you-know networking are driving opportunity.
“A lot of baby boomers are starting to retire,” Sibila says. “They’re looking to possibly sell and fortunately, I’m at a young enough age that I am interested in acquiring. There are fewer of us in my age range than baby boomers, so that creates some opportunities from our perspective.”
The number of operators in the segmented logistics and warehousing industry who are looking to exit could rise given the general success over the past few years of companies in this industry. Word has spread about Peoples’ reputation for fairness in its dealmaking approach, which gives exiting owners confidence that their employees have a future and won’t be seen as line items that can be cut to create a more profitable acquisition. And that gives Peoples a chance to absorb more companies into its regional network.
To capitalize on this moment, Sibila has devised a growth strategy designed to enable Peoples to not just survive in the changing market, but thrive.
Taking the wheel
Peoples’ approach to acquiring Terminal Warehouse in 2010, the deal that was the first in a series of relatively rapid acquisitions, is considered the foundation for those that followed.
With the Terminal deal on the horizon, the company spent 2009 making adjustments that allowed it to remain profitable during the downturn. It also had a lot of equipment that was fully depreciated, but still had significant market value to leverage. Those factors enabled it to borrow at a time when others had trouble renewing their lines of credit, giving Peoples the chance to take advantage of the bottom of the cycle.
The success of the Terminal Warehouse transaction and paying off that debt gave Sibila additional cash flow to make the next acquisition, pay it off and move on to the next. It’s also the deal that marks the start of the Douglas Sibila era, which is characterized by buying healthy rather than undercapitalized companies with an eye toward maintaining or improving Peoples’ total profit margin.
Acquisitions haven’t always been wholly under Sibila’s control. When he joined the family company in 1990, Sibila spent his first decade as part of the due diligence team. When he became president around 2001, his father moved into the chairman role and began hunting for, rather than executing, deals, handing off opportunities to his son who became a majority shareholder in 2010.
Today, Sibila leads a deal team that consists of a few key management staff, his father, and some outside advisers. Now before an opportunity is presented to that group, it comes through Sibila, who does a lot of the due diligence and prep work upfront.
“We walk away from a lot more than we ever get serious about,” he says.
To find deals, the company looks at trade magazines, networks within trade associations and fields calls from brokers it’s worked with. Sibila believes Peoples gets those calls because the company is reasonable to work with.
“We keep in touch with those people and that’s why we’ve been around for 100 years. I believe in karma in the sense that if you do what’s right, things have a way of falling into place. Because we’ve handled those transactions well, not only are the sellers satisfied with how we approach things, so are the brokers,” he says.
For example, when first presented with an opportunity to acquire Style Crest Logistics in 2014, a lead that came to him from a broker on an earlier deal, he was interested, but wanted to digest an acquisition that the company had recently completed. So he passed.
“I even gave him a reference to a couple other people I knew in the industry,” he says.
About a year later, after other transactions had fallen through, the frustrated seller came back to Peoples to see if there was interest. The timing was right and Peoples closed the deal in September of ’15.
Through its current approach, the company has grown into seven states with 42 locations. It owns Peoples Cartage, Total Distribution, Crown Warehousing & Logistics, Terminal Warehousing, Quick Delivery Service, Central Warehouse Operations and most recently Grimes Logistics Services Inc. (now Grimes Total Distribution) for a total of 7.5 million square feet of warehousing space. Its revenue has doubled since 2012 and more than quadrupled from what it was in 2009.
Peoples currently serves polymers; automotive and chemicals, including hazardous materials; industrial; and consumer goods. It also recently got into food.
“That was a conscientious decision knowing that the customers and products we were handling were somewhat susceptible to the economic cycles,” he says.
Food and food-related goods generally are countercyclical or noncyclical, because in good times or bad, people eat.
“As a result, that helped us to smooth out some of the exposure and manage that exposure,” Sibila says.
Geography also comes into play with Peoples preferring to acquire companies that are within its existing network or contiguous to it. The company is in the Midwest and Southeast, covering Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, the Carolinas and recently, Florida.
Each deal not only makes Peoples fiscally stronger, but it also contributes to the strength of its management and deal teams. In that sense, the company’s COO and Executive Vice President, Bill Hanlon, serves a unique role in Peoples’ acquisitions. He helps with deals, but he’s also an example to acquired companies of what making a deal with Peoples is about.
“I like to have him along because I can say, ‘Look, he was in your shoes seven years ago and had a lot of the same questions,’” Sibila says.
Knowing the people brought in through an acquisition are going to be a little nervous — not knowing what’s going to happen to their jobs — Sibila brings Hanlon along, who was the president of Terminal Warehouse and came to Peoples as part of the acquisition, to calm the waters. The display is meant to show that Peoples’ intent is to try to integrate the existing staff and provide resources.
“Our goal is to try to improve upon them,” Sibila says. “For example, the company we’re acquiring, if their vacation policy is a little more liberal, we’ll follow that policy until it integrates into ours. Or, if our policies are a little more liberal — maybe we have eight holidays — we give that to them upfront so at least we can show that they are already better off than where they were yesterday.”
Peoples also offers acquired employees a chance to join its profit-sharing plan and employee stock ownership plan, and works to understand what concerns or issues might exist in the acquired company.
“If there is new equipment that they might need, we try and get that in there as quickly as possible so they start to see we were willing to make the investment,” he says.
It’s a calculated way to create a sense of belonging — that Peoples is looking out for their best interests and that they are now a part of Peoples’ team.
When looking at potential acquisitions, Sibila likes to see an engaged management team, one that isn’t hung up on hierarchy. He says it stems from a culture in which managers on his team, including himself, worked up through the ranks doing just about every job, from sweeping floors to driving trucks.
“If I have a manager that isn’t willing to pick up a broom and sweep the floor, then I probably don’t want him to be part of that team,” Sibila says. “And, for example, walking through the warehouse, if there’s a piece of broken pallet, do they stop and pick up that piece of pallet or do they expect someone else to pick it up?”
He says that behavior shows a willingness to do what it takes to be part of the team as opposed to telling someone else what to do.
In meetings with owners, Sibila is looking at how they interact with their employees, which can reveal more of the culture. Is it a team atmosphere or is it very hierarchal? Were people able to speak their mind?
“As we’ve learned from some past acquisitions, if there are issues with the culture, you can turn it around, but it may take longer than what you had anticipated,” Sibila says.
With nearly a decade of successful acquisitions behind him, Sibila has an aggressive revenue goal he expects Peoples to hit in 2020.
Going beyond that will require considerations for infrastructure and resources, the potential formation of an advisory board, and access to capital beyond traditional financing, possibly through private equity or other institutional investors short of going public.
Regardless of the approach, Sibila says the emphasis will be on smart growth, not just growth for growth’s sake.