When Mike Frank first started in the moving and storage industry, he manufactured and sold equipment as nondescript as you could get — plain white shipping containers. Today, his Homestead-based company, Container On Wheels, otherwise known as COWs, is as familiar and friendly as the black-and-white Holsteins they resemble. The company cartoonist also creates caricatures to give each container a persona, such as “Cowsteau” with a snorkel and diving mask, “Nascow” with a red racing helmet, and “Cowboy” in a bandana and Stetson.
To date, there are 62 COWs dealers with some 90 locations across the United States and Canada (because some dealers have more than one location), Frank says. And the bovine-looking containers are as memorable as they are corny.
“They are fun to look at,” says Val Cooper in Texas, who became COWs’ first customer five years ago. After seeing the concept at an industry convention, Cooper immediately signed on to lease several containers to supplement his Lubbock-based business, Storage Professionals of Texas. “Once customers see this, it sticks in their minds,” he says. “When they think of a move and they think of a container, they’re going to think of cows … So many people spend millions of dollars to get people aware of their product. People see it, they don’t forget it. It made my job so much easier.”
This May, COWs celebrates its fifth anniversary in a big way — with the inauguration of its 100,000-square-foot factory in Homestead and a planned expansion that will ultimately increase the number of employees fivefold from its current 40 to 200. At a time when many in South Florida find that jobs are still hard to come by, Frank plans to add welders, fabricators, assemblers, administration staff and sales. “I see people who are very qualified and very desperate,” he says, noting that at one point he even hired a 53-year-old out-of-work attorney for his sales department. The company would have put out the call for new hires much earlier, Frank says, but instead of a six-month process to obtain a certificate of occupancy, it took a year and a half.
The company manufactures and markets containers, which come in two sizes: 8 feet and 16 feet long. The smaller containers hold up to 3,000 pounds, which equates to the contents of a two- to three-room apartment. “Our sweet spot in the market is 2,500 pounds and less, which are studios and one-bedrooms,” says company manager David Nathan. He can accommodate larger homes by simply adding additional containers. On the retail side, people can rent these containers for $150 to $200 a month, depending on the distance from the dealership.
In a bit of a role reversal, the owner’s wife, Ana Frank, runs the plant that fabricates rolled steel into the containers and creates the cow logos that adhere to the containers. “I basically run the operation,” she says, adding that her teaching experience and master’s degree in elementary education from the University of Miami helped prepare her for the job. She laughs and adds, “I don’t think they have a course in college for this.” She currently is the only woman in the plant, and her teaching skills come into play in her firm but fair handling of the 20 men who work for her as welders, forklift operators and assemblers. She greets each employee by name and plans to continue to do so even when the plant roster swells to 60, as expected by the year’s end.
New hires are necessary because the company is expanding its production and already has a backlog of some 400 containers that have been ordered, Mike Frank says. Since 2009, the company has manufactured roughly 2,500 containers. When fully operational, the new plant will be able to produce up to 25 containers a week, he says.
Cooper, the storage-business owner in Lubbock, says he has plans for some of those containers. Today he leases 36 containers and envisions adding a dozen more to his fleet this year, with an addition of three each year for 10 years. Lubbock is projected to grow by an estimated 150,000 people over the next decade, and Cooper foresees an increased demand for moving and storage. He already is tapping into the market of the college students who attend Texas Tech and other neighboring schools.
Cooper credits COWs with increasing his profits by 22 percent last year. That increase is especially notable when considering an overall decline in the moving industry. According to Census Bureau figures, slightly fewer than 36 million people moved in this country last year. That’s 11.7 percent of the population, down from 12 percent in 2012. That percentage rate is even lower than 2008, when America’s mobility rate fell to 11.9 percent, from 13.2 percent the previous year. At the time, that marked the lowest rate since 1962.
“In 2009, we started to see the decline,” says Bob McLean, executive director of the Mobile Self-Storage Association. “It was very fast, very unexpected. It took a while before it affected the mobile self-storage business. At first, people were still paying their bills. People were still retiring. In 2009 and 2010, that’s when things started to slow down. A third of our members left. In some cases, they sold to a competitor. In other cases, they closed the doors.”
THE START OF COWS
Of course, 2009 was the year Frank chose to launch COWs.
The company was a natural evolution from his previous experience in the industry, where he retrofitted containers. Some of those containers ended up helping the military in Iraq and Afghanistan or were put to commercial use by companies such as Coca-Cola and Patrón Tequila, he says.
In 2007, Frank hit upon the idea of COWs and joined forces with David Nathan, a New Jersey entrepreneur who had developed a prototype container that could be moved with a pickup truck. Unlike PODS (Portable On Demand Storage), which uses a hydraulic lift system and a tractor-trailers to deliver storage units to their clients, the COWs system can simply be rolled off a flatbed trailer because it has steel casters.
Instead of buying the container, Frank bought the company.
For a while, the company operated in New Jersey and South Florida, where Frank’s wife, Ana, was raised. It had a facility on Bird Road, then moved to Doral in 2009. Last year, it moved to its current location in Homestead — a building that they completely retrofitted, from electrical to plumbing. The factory now resembles a spruced-up dairy barn with bright red paint and white trim.
“The building was abandoned before Hurricane Andrew,” Frank said, adding that it was a favorite site for Burn Notice, the popular television series about a former spy who escapes repeated assassination attempts. “ Burn Notice used to use it for warehouse scenes and blowing things up.” Before that, the building was an avocado and lime packing plant owned by the Kendall family, which lent its name to a neighborhood in Miami-Dade County. COWs negotiated a long-term lease with the Kendall family.
In early May, several employees were cutting sheets of steel into rectangles that would form the sides of the containers. In a backroom once used for refrigeration, an industrial-grade Mimaki printer emitted an endless stream of staccato noise as it produced the various cow images that were to be adhered to the containers’ outer walls, much the way a bumper sticker is applied. In another corner of the warehouse, finished containers were folded and stacked on pallets, ready for shipment.
Frank’s business plan is simple: He created a container that is easy to move. Then he paired up with existing moving and storage companies that already help businesses and individuals move or store their goods.
A YouTube video with the subtitle “So Easy … Even a girl in wooden shoes can do it” illustrates the ease with which one can use COWs equipment. Rather than a narrator droning on about the qualities of the process, the video shows it instead, accompanied by Dueling Banjos (otherwise known as the theme song from Deliverance): A petite woman in pigtails and wooden clogs delivers a container to a homeowner, who fills it with boxes, and then the woman retrieves the container and drives off into the sunset.
The delivery system is so nimble that it is ideal for Beltway Movers, a hometown mover in the Washington, D.C., area. “If someone wants an apartment packed up in downtown Washington, a 53-foot [moving van] is very difficult to maneuver downtown,” says Doug Shelton, the president of Beltway Movers. But COWs can go anywhere a pickup truck can, says Shelton, whose company has been affiliated with COWs since 2010 and leases 32 containers.
The beauty of COWs is that not only is it easy for the dealers to deliver to their clients, but also it provides clients — both businesses and individuals — with numerous options.
The containers come in handy for moving, renovations or staging a house in advance of a sale. The homeowners can pack the container themselves or oversee the dealership’s employees as they pack. Once everything is in the container, the homeowner puts his or her own lock on the unit and can seal it. That way, the client determines who can access the unit and when.
The client can use it for on-site storage, have the company store the unit on its premises, or ship it to another location. The B2B model is often used on a seasonal basis when stores have excess inventory but need to rapidly replenish their shelves, particularly during the holiday season, Frank says, explaining that companies such as Walmart often fill their containers with toys to instantly satisfy customer demand. The containers can be trucked in on a daily basis or stored in parking lots in advance of stormy weather.
Frank vets each moving and storage company that wants a COWs dealership, saying, “We turn down more folks than we accept.” He looks for those moving companies that have been in the business for generations and whose territories do not overlap those of existing clients. The dealerships start out buying one of his customized trailers and leasing at least 17 containers. Marketing representatives from COWs spend the next three months helping the dealers develop this new dimension of their business.
He envisions the company growing exponentially, beyond the 62 dealers throughout North America, as the factory increases capacity. While he plans to remain a mom-and-pop operation, he is optimistic that the company will profit both by redefining the market and increasing its market share.
Ultimately, he says, that puts COWs in a good position, where “we are a threat to the big boys.”