"Crisis Planing" was the title of the assignment that Dawn Capalbo had just finished as part of her curriculum at Monmouth University. After 15 years as co-owner of I.F.S. Air Freight, she was well aware of how quickly a business could be affected by uncontrollable events. You plan for the worst, fire, robbery, product tampering.
But even that assignment could not prepare her for what happened three weeks later.
On July 30, 1998, Capalbo's 55-year-old husband and partner, Sam, died suddenly of a heart attack.
It was hard to fathom a worse crisis. She was forced not only to deal with her grief, but also to deal with the immediate challenge of trying to run I.F.S. by herself.
The Capalbos had bought I.F.S. in 1984. Located in Eatontown, NJ, it specialized in airport freight service from JFK and Newark airports to local New Jersey businesses. It had only two trucks, fewer than a half-dozen employees and was on the verge of going out of business. By the time of her husband's death, I.F.S. serviced the NY/Tri-State area. The company had 17 trucks, 28 employees and was grossing about $2.2 million a year.
While Dawn had handled the billing and some other administrative chores, her husband was responsible for it's day-to-day operation. He negotiated contracts, dispatched drivers, and even made deliveries himself when necessary.
Capalbo didn't know if she could run the company by herself, but she was determined to try - for herself, for the memory of Sam, and for her employees.
Others doubted her ability. "They told me it was a tough business and that I was a young woman in a man's business," she said. "I think everyone was waiting to see if I had what it takes. I didn't know if I did, but I don't think you ever know until you actually take up the challenge."
Some of her customers openly questioned whether they'd get the same level of service. One driver resigned, and her competitors asked if she was interested in selling out.
She remembers coming into the office the day after burying her husband and trying to make sense of the paperwork on his desk. "I looked at little notes he had written in the margins of documents. There were a thousand questions I had in my mind, but couldn't ask him."
At the same time, she was trying to cope with her own very personal and painful loss. That was compounded by encountering business acquaintances weeks and months later who didn't know her husband had died. "Every time I told the story it was like reliving that night."
But Dawn persevered. She rode the routes with the drivers and learned the aspects of the business she didn't know. She instituted a successful employee bonus program designed around bringing in new customers. And she didn't lose one of her old customers.
It paid off. Profits are up substantially, and this year's sales are expected to reach $3 million. I.F.S. now boasts a meticulously maintained state-of-the-art fleet of trucks, tractor-trailers and cargo vans, and a new, proprietary software system.
"What separates I.F.S. from our competitors," says Dawn, "is our ability to seamlessly service all of a customer's transportation needs with one call. We even accept credit cards."
Capalbo has re-branded her company as I.F.S. Freight & Courier. Her marketing campaign features recognizable, bright street signs with positive affirmations like: "We'll go the extra mile for you" and "We do that!"
And Capalbo did do it, despite the doubters.