Best-selling author — and FreightWavesTV guest — Steve Ferreira has a new book, “Navigating B2B: Master Your Industry, Your Business, and Yourself,” to be published on July 20. The chapter of this exclusive excerpt is titled, “Picasso Was No Engineer.” 

By Steve Ferriera

My first impression of Judy was that I found it mildly ironic that her entire business was grounded in health and wellness. The woman looked for all the world like she could use a few weeks of sleep, a juice cleanse, and a mani-pedi. The bulk of her business came from the sale of patented vitamin supplements which she manufactured in Asia and had freight shipped to the United States. The only problem was Judy didn’t know the first thing about container shipping and the dark circles under her eyes were evidence of the fact that this had been causing her some serious stress. Her business was doing well from a sales perspective, but she was hemorrhaging money transporting her product from Asia.

I was twenty-five at the time and had been settling into my role with Sea Land for about two years. Judy came to us looking to have her problem fixed; she wanted to stop the bleeding. When I reviewed her list of invoices, I was able to find a few minor fraudulent charges, but nothing that would really make a sizable impact in her margins. She wasn’t paying inflated rates, and for the most part, wasn’t being taken advantage of. Freight shipping can be costly, especially if you don’t know the tricks of the trade.

Judy was grateful for the savings I was able to find for her, but it was obvious from her expression that she was immensely disheartened. Technically speaking, my job was done. I had evaluated her invoices, ensured the successful delivery of her product at the best available rates, and confirmed the pick-up and loading day. But … it was somewhat heartbreaking to watch this poor woman’s dreams crumbling in front of me. Without really having any game plan whatsoever, I reviewed her file for an hour or two longer after she had left my office that day. I went through the invoices again and again without turning up anything new. “Shit,” I thought to myself. “There’s really nothing I can do for her.”

I was about to give up and call it a day when something caught my eye. Scrolling through her files, I had accidentally clicked on a photo of Judy standing in front of her shipping container filled to the brim with boxes and boxes of vitamins. She was smiling back at the camera, clearly filled with pride at having made her dream a reality. But it wasn’t Judy that caught my attention. What I noticed, first and foremost, was the container. More specifically, the empty space. Though the image was slightly pixelated, I toggled the mouse over the boxes and zoomed in. I could just make out what I estimated to be a solid foot and a half of empty space near the ceiling of the container. What the hell … why was there so much room in there? Why hadn’t she packed more boxes into the container if she had that much space?

Boom! My eureka moment had arrived!

Judy had no idea how much money she was losing by not taking advantage of the full space within that container. She paid for every cubic inch inside that corrugated steel box. Thus, not jamming it full was the very near equivalent of cutting a hole in both of her pockets. I zoomed out of the image, rummaging around furiously in my desk drawer until I found pen and paper. I looked up at the image, then down at the paper, then up at the image again. Okay, yeah I can do this, I thought.

Well as it turns out, I’m not Picasso. My chicken scratch container would have taken last place in a stick figure drawing contest, and that was being generous. Although I personally could not draw it for her, I knew that the math, and more specifically the geometry, was there. I just needed someone else to translate my vision so that I could show Judy how she might maximize every inch of that space.

Sea Land had a staff of graphic designers and engineers capable of creating a perfectly workable rendering of my plan. The only issue was they billed thousands of dollars for each project, no matter how small, and that would be invoiced directly to Judy. Costing her more money was the exact opposite of what I was trying to do. Instead, I decided I would hire someone else. I quickly surfed the web’s various freelancing platforms until I found a graphic designer willing to take on the project. He estimated the total at about $150 and said he could have it to me by the end of the following business day.

Two days had passed when I called Judy on the telephone and asked if she could come to the office that afternoon for a brief meeting. I told her that I had found something she might be interested in hearing. Judy showed up a few hours later and I presented her with a plain manila envelope and told her to look inside. She gave me a puzzled look but opened the envelope anyway, pulling out a beautifully stylized rendition of her shipping container filled to the absolute brim with product. I might not have been Picasso, and that artist was certainly no engineer, but damn did we do a good job together.

Of course, Judy had no idea what the hell she was looking at.

To her, it was just a picture of her vitamins in a shipping container. She didn’t understand at the beginning. So I explained to her everything that had happened, going over the receipts again and again looking for errors, stumbling upon the photo and eventually hiring the graphic designer. Even more than that, I had taken it upon myself to crunch the numbers for her (thank you accounting degree!). Based on my calculations, by simply adjusting the way that each shipping container was packed and loaded, we would be able to fit about thirty-three percent more product into each container, effectively skyrocketing Judy’s profit margin per load.

It was worth every penny of that $150 to watch her eyes light up like that.

And that wasn’t all. Judy was so impressed and taken aback by my work ethic and willingness to help her, even beyond the duties of my station, that she made it a personal point to go and commend me in front of some of the highest executives in our office. The result? I was given a promotion and moved to a managerial role in a larger office in downtown Boston. That meager $150 out of my own pocket money had been paid back threefold with interest.

That was my first introduction to the substantial power of giving in the development and cultivation of B2B relationships. 

About the author

In the two decades since the onset of his solopreneur career, Steve Ferreira has recouped over $50 million in lost revenue for his clients by pinpointing some of the largest, undetected billing errors in ocean freight shipping. His 36 years in the industry have equipped him to become a global logistics guru, Ferreira’s company, Ocean Audit, has assisted 17 of the world’s Fortune 100 Companies including the likes of Nike, General Motors and Dow Chemical. He can be seen hosting FreightWavesTV’s “Navigate B2B,” a nationally televised show that serves as an ongoing effort to help others develop their own B2B business personas.