Out of the Box: How Heather Stewart transformed a supply chain service provider into a shipping software pioneer
When Heather Stewart took over at BBE Expediting — a supply chain service provider and logistics company serving the Canadian North — she knew she needed to diversify the “feast or famine” business. So they developed the GoBox app to enable carriers to bid live on shipping jobs, with the expectation it would be used by their own customers. But interest keeps growing, and with two successful white-label launches already complete, Heather is excited for the future of the platform.
By Shelley White
Growing up, Heather Stewart always knew she wanted to be a part of the family business.
In the early 80s, her father bought BBE Expediting, a supply chain service provider and logistics company serving the Canadian North, based in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Heather and her brother spent their summers working alongside their dad, doing everything from cleaning warehouses to driving forklifts to loading planes with goods for transport.
“When you work for a family business, the common thing people think is, ‘Oh, you must have it good, working for your dad,’” says Heather, now President of BBE. “But actually, you don’t, because the expectations are higher with you over anybody else. We had to learn how to work hard and it was tough, but I definitely learned the business from the ground up.”
Heather fell in love with the business, but her father encouraged her to see what else was out there. After a degree from Mount Royal University in Calgary and a few years of outside experience, Heather found her way back to BBE in 2005. Her father sold the company in 2007, but Heather’s journey at BBE was just beginning. In 2011, the new owners asked her to be President of the company. Two years ago, she and four others on the management team did a buyout and became the owners of BBE.
“Now it’s majority-owned by women, which is very cool, especially in an industry like ours which has been male-dominated, through and through,” says Heather. “It’s a very unique part of our business.”
As a supply chain service provider, BBE provides logistics and freight services to the mining, airline, oil and gas and construction industries, focusing on remote areas in Canada’s North. In addition to their Yellowknife headquarters (and other locations in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories), they have strategic hubs in Edmonton and Ottawa, which are flight gateways into the Arctic.
While BBE has been going strong for four decades — they moved close to 70 million pounds of freight last year — there have been challenges along the way, says Heather.
“The tough part is that the North can be feast or famine. It’s based on resources and market price and getting environmental approvals to see projects going ahead,” she says. “It can either be foot on the gas or all on the brake, and so we had to figure out how to diversify the business.”
That desire to diversify BBE led to the development of GoBox, software that Heather says is “a little bit like the ‘Hotels.com’ of cargo.” With the GoBox app, users can enter a shipment going from point A to B, and all of the carriers in BBE’s network that could possibly pick up the shipment will live-price it, allowing the user to select the best deal.
“We said, ‘Let’s bring that network of carriers that we use everyday to our customers and let them pick what they want to move, at the cost they want to pay,” says Heather.
They initially designed GoBox thinking it would just be used in-house for their customer base, but interest started coming in from all over. Air carrier Canadian North asked them to white-label GoBox for their cargo network, which launched under the brand Fetchable in February. Canadian real estate company Ivanhoe Cambridge enlisted BBE to develop a white-label version of GoBox to power a “shop-and-ship” service in the Edmonton International Airport shopping mall. That product launched this past May.
“It’s happened pretty fast,” says Heather. “It’s been a flurry of activity just to get the two products to market and it’s been a big push.”
The development of GoBox was the reason BBE first began working with BDC, Canada’s bank for entrepreneurs. “We were figuring how we were going to pay for all this R&D,” says Heather. “And they actually support tech innovation through loans, which very few banks or institutions will do.”
BDC supported them with a technology loan, and asked if they would be interested in applying for the Cisco Women Entrepreneurs’ Circle of Innovation program, which matches female business owners with internship students from the University of Waterloo.
“I said yes, 100 per cent,” says Heather. “We have a whole bunch of people here who are really good at logistics, but not that tech-savvy. So we really wanted to help move our GoBox program forward and we thought tapping into Cisco would be a fabulous way to do it, and it really was.”
This summer, the Circle of Innovation enabled them to bring on an intern from the University of Waterloo, Stanley Wong.
“We had a project planned for the summer for him to work on, but he really outperformed anything we could have ever expected,” she says. “He was able to tap into the resources at Cisco really well for us and to move things along really quickly.”
Stanley worked on developing and improving BBE’s GoBox technology, completing projects like system load testing and building business cases to help BBE assess different technologies they would need to support and scale the system.
Heather says Stanley’s work was a huge benefit for the company, and she would recommend the Circle of Innovation program to any entrepreneur looking for a leg up.
“It’s a horse in the race that you didn’t have before,” she says. “It gives you someone to take on projects that are either currently in the queue, or projects that are sitting there and you know you need to look at. It was a real gift for us.”
With two new iterations of GoBox now in the market, Heather and her co-owners at BBE have lots of ideas about the future of the platform. The team is currently working on a strategic plan they will roll out in 2019.
“We’re not sure which direction it’s going to take,” she says. “But we’re pretty excited about it.”
The Cisco Women Entrepreneurs Circle — a program led by Cisco in partnership with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) — addresses some of the obstacles women-led businesses face in building their tech capabilities. Are you a business owner? Fill in a short survey to register for free virtual training from the Cisco Networking Academy and fill in your knowledge gaps, or try the BDC digital maturity assessment tool to find out in less than 5 minutes where your business stands compared to your peers, and how you can improve.