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Michelle Panik keeps on truckin,’ no matter the freight forwarding obstacle

By Neil Cotiaux   |   Photo by John Goldy

Michelle Panik, the owner and president of Marine Services International, has learned the hard way how to stay the course.

Ten years ago Panik opened her company with only a desk, pen, computer, and business cards. Through a combination of grit, networking, and customized service, she has built her Maple Heights-based business into a nationally respected organization that works seven days a week so customers’ goods can be shipped on time and at a competitive rate to almost anywhere in the world.

Panik learned early about the importance of making the best of sometimes-uncertain circumstances, an asset in today’s topsy-turvy global economy.

As one of seven children raised by a single mom, the budding entrepreneur lived in 22 homes by age 14. Her biological father, whom she met when she was 12, died homeless. “Growing up less privileged is not a bad thing,” the highly focused Panik says. “It’s taught me valuable lessons and it is what drives me.”

Entering the workforce, Panik applied the resiliency that she had developed during childhood to the largely male world of truck drivers and stevedores.

Her first stop was a Japanese steamship company, where she learned the in’s and out’s of import/export work and gravitated to customer service.

“The instant contact with customers, that was fun for me,” she recalls.

After additional experience at a freight forwarding company, Panik felt it was time to move into high gear. So in 2006, while some would-be competitors were downsizing or closing, she leased an initial 5,000 square feet of warehouse space on South Industrial Avenue off I-480 and launched Marine Services International.

Hustling business through her network, Panik booked two big names – BASF and Sherwin-Williams – right off the bat. When an order for a shipment to China popped up, she reached out to a prospective distribution agent she knew. “We had an order,” she says. “I needed to jump on it.”

A growing customer base and overseas leads prompted Panik to add staff and rely more heavily on contract drivers – “I hire on character and attitude,” she says – and eventually expand her warehouse to 22,690 square feet to better serve chemical companies, machinery makers, automotive-goods manufacturers, and myriad other clients.

In its first four years, Marine Services International emerged as a formidable competitor among dozens of freight forwarders in the region, aided by Panik’s visits to nine countries on three continents. “We went from zero to $8 million,” Panik says, referring to gross sales. “Today I still pinch myself.”

But storm clouds unrelated to a deepening recession darkened her financials.

Along with other U.S. businesses, Marine Services fell prey to a fraud scheme built on bogus shipments to foreign buyers, executed with false documents that left ocean transportation intermediaries on the hook.

“The containers had ‘garbage’ (and) not the product promised so they were abandoned,” Panik says. She cut her losses by working with the shipper and paying abandonment fees. “We made a promise to the carrier and scheduled regular payment while still utilizing their services for other cargo,” she says.

As fallout from the scam blew over, a silver lining of a different sort appeared. His name was Tom, an engineer at Honeywell whom Panik had met on a business flight. After three years of dating, the couple tied the knot. “We have a very loving, tight, and fun family,” Michelle Panik says.

With her company back on even keel, Panik continues to conduct business using the same hustle that helped her snag her initial $8 million.

A staff of 18 manages freight service, export, and import activity via air and ocean as well as warehouse and administrative functions.

Panik’s crew has access to all U.S. ports and can use a variety of air cargo services, depending on the nature of the shipment. Trucks help connect the geographic dots. 

But in an uncertain economy, Panik must remain on her toes. Her industry can no longer count on long-term contracts so forwarders must play to the spot market. “Competition is fierce. As a freight forwarder, we are negotiating lower and lower numbers just to get the shipment,” she says.

As a result, she says, “We are always touching customers, whether existing or new. … We are relationship-built.”

Janet Harris-Lange, president of the National Women Business Owners Corporation, says the public and private sectors are interested in doing more business with women like Panik, whose firm has been certified as a “woman business enterprise.”

“Because they have such competition out in the marketplace, they seek certification to market themselves,” Harris-Lange says.

Walking through her warehouse, Panik points to orders awaiting shipment to Italy, Chile, Kuwait, Malaysia, and several other destinations and thinks back to the weekend when shipping labels arrived late. “We gathered up 20 of our friends and family” and worked through the weekend to ensure a Sunday departure of a 27,000-piece order, she says.

In May, Panik decided on an even more personal touch when an agent from Taiwan arrived.

“This time, I felt I would extend an invitation to stay at our home, and he accepted with honor,” Panik relates, so she awoke at 5 a.m. to prepare some tea and breakfast.

After 10 heady years in business, Panik has put Marine Services International on the map and presided over the International Freight Association of Cleveland. She remains a member of the Five-Star Freight Systems World Agency, giving her access to on-the-ground services through 259 offices in 176 countries. “The world is our competition. The world is also our customer,” she says.

For more information: marineservicesintl.com

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