Entrepreneurs Give and Get Back from Interns
Jim Berlin, Founder, Logistics Plus
Your business is young. You barely have enough money to pay rent and a small staff. You need more people to grow, but the last thing you can afford is to hire the wrong ones.
Logistics Plus, started by Jim Berlin in 1996 to manage freight logistics GE Transportation Systems, found a solution to the people problem that helped put his young company on track to earn more than $40 million in 2005 and for Berlin to be recognized by Ernst & Young as Western Pennsylvania’s 2004 Entrepreneur of the Year.
The solution then and now: interns.
"We've brought in more than 100 interns from the four colleges in our area in the nine years we've been in existence," says Berlin. "It’s been unbelievably enjoyable and successful.
"The interns have great energy. They're like sponges and love to learn. They get a chance to experience high-end world-class business. We get their enthusiasm, knowledge, computer skills and the chance to see whether they work well in an environment where the customer always needs it yesterday. They get an apprenticeship and we get an audition."
At Logistics Plus, based in Erie, Pennsylvania, interns are managed by individual department heads. "Many times, we don't have to train them because they bring skills that can be easily applied here," says Art Whelan, vice president for corporate development.
Interns also often come with assignments from their professors that are helpful to the company. "We had one that did a flow chart of our invoicing procedure," said Whelan. "It's nice to have somebody independent take a look at that kind of thing. They learn and we learn."
The College Connection
Logistics Plus, like many companies that use interns, developed its internship program through relationships with area colleges and universities.
"A few years ago, when Logistics Plus was first starting up, they sent us a notice that they had internship opportunities available," said Frank Rizzone, assistant director of career services for Mercyhurst College. "Our goal is to get our students out in the real world. Give them a chance to apply some of the theory they learn in the classroom as well as to work in an environment where they have to get along with people and deal with corporate culture. It helps them polish what we call the soft skills."
To earn credit, Mercyhurst students generally serve 10-week internships requiring a minimum of 200 hours. Rizzone has placed about a half a dozen interns at Logistics Plus and been impressed with the results.
"They work on meaningful projects," he says. "We had one young woman they’ve since hired who helped them set up accounting procedures for a new division."
Carrie Payne, assistant director of career development at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, reports similar experience.
"Logistics Plus contacted us about three years ago," Payne said. "Since then, we have provided at least 14 interns for credit, about 25 total. In addition to international business, they're getting the skills necessary to work in any kind of startup company."
Logistics Plus does not pay interns in their first semester, which can be difficult for some students. Still, Payne says, "There’s a lot of potential at Logistics Plus. If the intern is successful, a lot of times they're hired part-time for the second semester and full-time after they graduate."
More than 20 percent of Logistics Plus’s 100 employees in nine countries started as interns.
Tasting the Spirit
Berlin sees cultivating entrepreneurship within his company as a primary role of leadership. Asked to speak at area colleges, he enjoys showing up in jeans and a tee-shirt, telling stories the students don't read in textbooks and sharing the thrill of entrepreneurship.
"People think I'm a workaholic," he says. "I think it's more that whatever I do, I do it all the way."
In the 1960s, Berlin dropped out of his freshman year of college, left the country and returned to jobs ranging from steelworker, truck driver and union organizer to dock foreman, dispatcher and terminal manager. Now focused on making Logistics Plus the most exciting place in which to work and Erie the best town in which to live, he bought and renovated 100,000 square feet of Erie’s Union Station to serve as the company's global headquarters.
"I thought it was a cool place for a transportation company and a good thing for the community," says Berlin. "I believe in karma. That if you do something like this for the community, it will come back to you."
He also encourages employees to give back by providing paid time off to volunteer for community organizations, including groups that promote entrepreneurship such as the Downtown Improvement District, the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership and Erie Young Professionals. In 2004, Logistics Plus was recognized with the Pennsylvania Governor's Export Excellence Award and the Erie County Economic Development Corporation's Employer of the Year Award.
It's a far cry from Berlin's days, as he describes them, as a "crazy radical."
These days, Logistics Plus's global interests take Berlin to places like Kashmir where, despite years of war and Communism, he sees people out on the streets making and selling products. "The spirit lives," he says. "I've come to appreciate that commerce is what binds the world together, and that entrepreneurs are the driving force of that commerce."
It's too soon to tell if any of Berlin's interns will go on to become entrepreneurs themselves. In the meantime, they're tasting the spirit at Logistics Plus.
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.