In Search of the Next Great Niche
As CEO of the company her father founded, Megan Smith draws on strong empathy skills and employee engagement to keep Symbia Logistics on the path to growth.
Megan Smith is leading Symbia Logistics through its second big transformation in just a few years. Smith was named CEO of the family business in 2009, and in 2014 the company obtained the Women Business Enterprise (WBE) certification. “That’s when we started taking off,” she says. “We saw growth rates of up to 5,000% between 2013 and 2016.”
Another big change began in 2018, when a non-compete agreement with a former co-owner expired, allowing Symbia to diversify its services. Today, the company earns about 80% of its revenue from dedicated pallet management services it provides to one big customer: CHEP North America. Now, though, Symbia is pursuing a bigger share of the general third-party logistics (3PL) market, with an emphasis on warehousing, distribution, and e-commerce fulfillment.
We recently talked with Smith about her career trajectory and leadership strategies.
IL: How did you launch your career?
I grew up in Symbia Logistics, which my father founded. Starting when I was 18, I worked as a customer service representative at the pallet plant during the summers. I started learning about trailers, calling in loads, setting the daily schedule, managing people. In 2006, I opened a retail store based on a business plan I wrote while studying business management at the University of Denver. Our emphasis was on eco-friendly and socially conscious products. I formally joined Symbia Logistics in 2009.
IL: Tell us about an experience early in your career that helped to shape you as a leader.
The business I founded, Unity Boutique, was located in a historic district in Denver called Old South Pearl Street, which was starting to go through a rebirth at the time. Some of us in the district had ideas about pulling together activities on the weekends, aside from the existing farmers market, to attract younger people and families. I was so excited by those plans, I didn’t realize that some people had been on the street for 10, 20, or 30 years and weren’t happy to see young people come in and try to take over. We hadn’t expected that kind of pushback.
Overcoming that resistance helped to shape me as a leader. By showcasing the opportunities to bring in more foot traffic, and a demographic with more disposable income, we were able to overcome people’s objections. Eventually, we all came together and started to become a cultural center for Denver. It turned into something special, and it’s still going on.
IL: What challenges keep your customers awake at night?
On the business-to-consumer side of things, customers are concerned about fast, accurate, and cost-effective service and delivery. We help with all of that; that’s a basic expectation. But what really keeps them up is that they can’t find a company that also provides high-touch, guaranteed services, including extras such as special packaging, package design, labels, and containers. We do all that. We’re also investing in technology for customers, such as a machine to shrink wrap product in a particular way. We say, “Let’s invest in this together, because we believe you will grow, and we want to grow with you.”
IL: Tell us how you have overcome a major challenge in your business.
CHEP has more than 250 million pallets circulating in the world and pallet building is a labor-intensive job. Retaining and onboarding employees in our pallet management sector is one of the most interesting challenges I’ve had to tackle as CEO. We have about 1,200 pallet building associates. There are also geographic obstacles to overcome, with different styles of employees in different markets.
A lot of my success with this boils down to utilizing soft skills—connecting with people over things they’re interested in. For example, instead of just capturing basic information when we onboard someone, we ask about their interests. We get them involved and reward their performance in ways that are important to them; maybe tickets to a baseball game or a weekend dinner with a spouse. We try to create a company that treats employees right, so they treat customers right.
IL: What makes you an effective executive?
I have strong empathy, a high tolerance for risk-taking, strong verbal and written communication skills, and a desire to be different. I’m always looking for new niches that we can pursue within an industry.
IL: How do you keep employees engaged?
We personify the pallet or box, showcasing how critical the supply chain is to our associates and their families and everyone they know. I have an initiative for next year to increase retention by providing learning opportunities that help employees feel the connection between these products and the end users. It opens up the idea that logistics is a craft, and that there are opportunities to grow in the logistics world.
IL: What’s the hardest aspect of your job?
I hate to admit this, but it’s time management. With so much growth, so many opportunities, and two young kids, things have become more challenging than they were when I was 22 years old.
IL: Any advice you would share with your 20-year-old self?
Don’t sweat the small stuff—you’re doing great things.
IL: How do you spend your time outside work?
I do a lot of community outreach, speaking at schools, being a mentor, giving time to the Boys Hope Girls Hope of Colorado, and giving back to the community in other ways. I love spending time with my children, and we love to travel to exotic locations. I’m currently pursuing my masters in supply chain management through Michigan State University. And I enjoy live music of any kind, even karaoke.
How Does She Do It?
If Megan Smith could change places for a day with any executive in the business world, she’d choose Martha Stewart. “I had the pleasure of meeting Martha Stewart in 2016, and the experience has had a lasting effect on me,” Smith says.
“We were at a women in business event, where there were a few guest speakers,” she adds. “Stewart was by far the most successful among them, but her humility was shocking.”
Smith says she’d like to gain insights into how Stewart runs her business empire. “I would love to find out what her average day looks like,” she says. “How does she manage so many people and market segments, and how does she maintain her creativity? The brands and products she has built around her passions are truly remarkable to me.”