Federal Companies: Built to Last

by Gabrielle Balzell

Having grown from a single warehousing and distributing center to become a multifaceted, global moving, storage and logistics provider, Federal Companies celebrates a century of service and 100 years of "making moves that matter."

It started with a simple question: How do you get something from Point A to Point B? A century later, finding the solution to that age-old question—while ensuring prompt delivery and outstanding customer service—remains the philosophy that Jeff Bogdan, vice president of sales and marketing at Federal Companies, calls “the backbone of everything that we do.”

Building a Legacy
Founded in 1913 by Clarence Ullman, Federal Companies began as a single warehousing and distribution facility at 800 South Adams Street in Peoria during the city’s golden age of whiskey and beer production. “Back [in] the early days… Peoria was very, very strong in the cordial business and in the liquor manufacturing business,” explains Bill Cirone, company chairman. “We did a tremendous amount of work for the distilleries for both product movement and product storage.”

As Peoria’s downtown grew, so did Federal Companies. It phased out its horses and buggies in exchange for Model As and early trucks, and expanded to include relocation services for both businesses and families. From the very beginning, the company proved its adaptability. “As our customers’ needs changed, so did the company,” Bogdan says. “What had been to get something across town became get something across the state. Before you know it, you’re crossing the Mississippi.” But with this expansion of service area came an increase in logistical challenges. “[When] you send an employee off to California, how do you get them back?” Bogdan asks, noting that in the early 20th century, it was hard just to cross the highways, let alone get back to your hub, without an operating authority. That discussion would become the basis for an entirely new company.

Established as a nonprofit cooperative in 1928, the formation of Allied Van Lines offered smoother interstate travel for independent movers by organizing return loads under one carrier and dispatching shipping directions amongst member agents. This effectively minimized deadheading—traveling without freight—and dramatically improved efficiency, enabling Allied agents, including charter member Federal Companies, to increase their customer reach and strengthen their clout in the moving industry.

Over the years, new challenges presented even more opportunities for innovation and growth. The business weathered the Great Depression remarkably well, with Federal Companies adding new facilities in Danville and Decatur in the 1930s. With the highway expansion of the 1940s and ‘50s, the company invested in a fleet of new, high-capacity trucks, granting the ability to carry larger loads across more miles. The ensuing decades saw the firm expand across the river into East Peoria, launch a retail home delivery business, and add new domiciles in St. Louis and Dallas. By the 1980s, it had extended its distribution network across the United States, and by the ‘90s, to locations around the world.

Through the decades and the transitions they brought, Federal Companies prospered with each new generation of leadership—with Clarence Ullman passing the torch to his son, Jerome, who later left the business and family legacy to sons Don and Dick. When the last generation of Ullmans began thinking about selling the company in the late 2000s, longtime employees Cirone, Bogdan and Randall Shrock, now vice president of finance and administration, stepped up. Shrock remembers wondering, “Could we, as an internal group of executive management, look at doing that instead of them going to an outside buyer, who may do any number of things with this organization, which had built such a great presence?”

The answer was a resounding “yes.” Despite the worldwide financial crisis and high economic uncertainty, the trio purchased Federal Companies on March 4, 2009. “Business [in general] was suffering tremendously,” Cirone recalls. “For us to be able to do that, I think it speaks volumes to the strength of the Federal Companies.”

“Most people didn’t even know it happened,” Bogdan says of the purchase. “That’s how seamless it was—with our customers, our employees, our vendors. On March 4th, it was business as usual—no big layoffs, no cut benefits. It was a non-news story.”

“I think the highest compliment… you can pay to a business is when the customer realizes that there’s no change going on,” Cirone adds. “And I think the highest form of a compliment to the Ullman family is the fact that the business was built to last… [It is] our responsibility… to steward the company and make sure it’s built to last for the next hundred years.”

Today, a century after its founding and four years since coming under new ownership, what started as a small, family-owned business boasts more than 200 full-time employees operating out of nine locations across the nation. Having evolved from its spirits-driven roots, Federal Companies offers domestic and international household and office moving services; retail, “white glove” and final mile delivery; medical, document, records, third-party logistics and virtual data storage; freight brokering; and specialty moving services, in addition to warehousing and distribution services.

Though the company has seen its share of change over the last hundred years, one thing that’s remained the same, Cirone asserts, is its commitment to the customer. “We’ve operated from a set of core values our entire time, and honest and integrity have been right there at the base of it from the very beginning.”

Evolving with the Customer
“You know, they would have never thought a hundred years ago we’d be storing bytes,” Bogdan remarks. “‘What’s a byte?’ But you have to evolve as clients’ needs evolve. You have to evolve with them, or you cease to exist.”

While the majority of the Federal Companies’ revenue still stems from the warehousing and transportation of tangible goods, the digital age has placed a new emphasis on cyber storage and security, a trend that led it to establish Virtual Cloud Solutions, a subsidiary offering data storage, encryption and retrieval. The business has also seen a major shift in its record storage services thanks to the development of Scan on Demand technology, which allows customers to retrieve documents electronically rather than by physical delivery.

“We had clients that wanted paper brought to them,” Bogdan says. “Now we can image them and post them in their data center… You can reduce emissions, save money and actually have a better, faster service instead of us delivering something to you.”

Changing customer interests and needs have also led Federal Companies to key in on a multitude of other specialized industry segments over the years. For instance, it’s made a niche for itself as a premier motorcycle shipper, handling close to 10,000 transactions a year through its Federal Motorcycle Transport division. A testament to the quality of its service, the company is a preferred shipping partner for Ebay Motors; the exclusive shipping partner for the Harley Owners Group, American Motorcycle Association, Honda Riders Group, and Walnecks; and the official carrier for the Guggenheim Museum’s Art of the Motorcycle exhibit.

“What we do is try to manage a portfolio that’s both safe and services the customer in the areas we feel we have the expertise,” Cirone explains. “That’s how the company survives—through that diversification.” In central Illinois, he says, Federal Companies is often branded as “the movers,” but in reality, it’s much more. “It could be many different things to many different people,” he explains. “We might be branded as being a security company… If you’re a tobacco manufacturer, you think of us in the distribution business.”

“If you’re Maui Jim or Hallmark or a few others, you think of us as an imaging and data storage company,” Bogdan adds. “You could think of us as a relocation company, because we’ve moved [you]. You could think of us as a distribution company, because we’re distributing [your] product every day out of this facility. You could think of us as a digital company, because [you] use our imaging services to view documents… We’re also a home delivery company for companies like Home Depot, Sonoma, GE [and] Sears.”

“We have the privilege of touching about 350 customers every day in some form of transactional management, whether it’s in Singapore; Hong Kong; Dubai; Peoria; Paris, France; Paris, Texas; Paris, Illinois,” Cirone notes. “And the transactions are varied all across the world.”

Giving Back to Move Forward
Along with a proven track record of resiliency and versatility, Federal Companies boasts a long history of philanthropy. “We believe that business has the responsibility to help take care of the communities, whether it’s across education, youth, self-reliance… [or] health,” Cirone says. “The more that we can invest our time and resources into that effort, the more opportunity will probably be given to people of all ages.”

That’s why Cirone, Bogdan and Shrock, who all serve individually on a multitude of community boards, offer their employees ample opportunities to give back—whether assisting the American Red Cross in disaster relief, fundraising for Wildlife Prairie Park, fishing for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Peoria, stuffing stockings for Crittenton Centers, or matching employee donations to a cause they believe in through the Heart of Illinois United Way.

Holding true to its centennial slogan, “Companies that give back are companies that move forward,” Federal Companies has seen its investment in these causes paid back tenfold—benefiting its customers, employees, the community and the company. “It’s a responsibility that I know the three of us hold very dear. We spend a lot of time in the community trying to help it both grow and thrive,” Cirone says. “The more you give, the more you will get back. And if your people can see you’re invested in the business and in them, they have higher efforts.”

Rallying Around the Customer
Whether commemorating company anniversaries or celebrating milestone sales, Federal Companies makes the extra effort to recognize its employees’ dedication—the factor which, according to Cirone, has kept the business progressing over the past century. In addition to highly-educated individuals who possess sophisticated knowledge of the moving and distribution industries, Federal Companies’ staff consists of “employees that, at the root of their day, want to do something correctly for someone else because we are in the service business. They understand customer satisfaction.”

It’s a lasting understanding, and one Cirone, Bogdan and Shrock attribute to having grown the business from a small, family-owned operation. It’s also why Federal Companies’ 2,000 partners know its staff on a first-name basis and trust them to perform above par and on time with every transaction—whether moving a family across town or virtually delivering an x-ray halfway around the world.

Having served it well for the past hundred years, Federal Companies’ commitment to rally around the customer, Cirone believes, will yield yet another century of success. “You do what’s necessary to make sure that you bend and a find a solution,” he explains. “We’ve had several challenges… that test our resolve, test our resilience, but at the end of the day, they test our ability to be adaptive and to change, to be innovative.”

Though no one knows what the future holds, Bogdan says “making sure we’re valuable to our customers and helping them achieve their goals” will remain the top priority. “A hundred years from now, their needs are going to be totally different than they are today. We have to be innovative, adaptive to help them grow.”

“It will be a different business—that is for sure,” Cirone agrees. “But there will be some point… that our services—in terms of management and transportation, be it household goods, records, final mile—will be needed. And we will be the innovative company that will have that process for them.” iBi

Federal Companies is headquartered at 200 National Road in East Peoria. To learn more, call (800) 613-0208 or visit federalcos.com.

 

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