Instant gratification article on AFR

Monday, 1 October, 2012

Fiona Pearse believes in the edict of no regrets. But being forced to learn the ropes of your family business and to discuss succession planning in a hospital room while your beloved father undergoes bone marrow transplants can shake the strongest of resolves.

Jeff Pearse was only 63 when he died from lymphoma in May 2008, leaving his children the courier business he had begun from his home in Sydney 26 years earlier. It was a traumatic start for Pearse and her younger sister Emma Cronin. Not only were they thrown into the business while mourning their father, but two months after he died they were hit by the GFC.

"It was a huge learning curve at a time when my world was falling apart," says Pearse, now 39. "It was horrible, horrible. And we were watching a weekly slide in job numbers of five to 10 per cent on the same week for the year prior."

Mail Call was founded by Jeff Pearse, then a young father of three, when he returned to Sydney from Britain in 1982 with his wife Lexi, and began working for Wards Express. During work trips to New York he noticed bike couriers whizzing around the city and was convinced it was a niche waiting to be filled in Sydney. The couple sold their house and belongings and poured their savings into the new business with its distinctive blue and yellow logo and catchcry of "consistently fast couriers".

Jeff was the channel manager and Lexi his sole employee, making deliveries in the family car with their son strapped into the back seat. The early years were tough, but the big break came in the form of a JW Thompson account. They appointed a sales rep and business began to build.

When Pearse and Cronin inherited it they were driven by a desire to honour their father's memory, but more immediate was the problem of arresting the GFC-related decline. They devoted themselves to understanding the budget line by line, retrenching workers and tightening costs.

It has taken almost four years to turn it around. The past few months have seen Mail Call achieve unprecedented growth, partly driven through an innovative new service called Want It Now. Using world-first technology the company boasts a three-hour delivery window on retail purchases and a free app that provides a tracking device, giving customers a real-time countdown on deliveries.

The WIN service accounts for more than 15 per cent of business and, 30 years after it was begun, Mail Call has an annual turnover of more than $25 million, a staff of 100 and its Sydney base has expanded into Melbourne, with Brisbane and Perth to follow in the new year.

Pearse and Cronin – both working mothers who had careers in marketing before joining Mail Call – oversee a business that will in December be named among BRW's top 50 most innovative Australian companies.

WIN is not the only reason for the turnaround, but it is an area that excites Pearse. The service came about through the frustration she experienced with limited and lengthy delivery options for online purchases.

Pearse and Cronin spent 12 months researching similar services in the United States and Europe, and met more than 500 retailers in Sydney and Melbourne before partnering with up to 70, 60 per cent of them e-tailers. They range from one of Australia's fastest growing online retailer The Iconic and fashionable shoe store StyleTread, national pharmaceutical distributor Pharmacy Direct and edgy optical frames start-up, Sneaking Duck. Taking their service even further than their UK and US counterparts is the software that tracks the parcels down to the minute, software that Mail Call is now discussing franchising to the UK.

"Whether it's your son's birthday present for tomorrow, a gift for Mother's Day, a piece of clothing for that night out or a prescription that needs filling, we've become a destination for people in a hurry," says Pearse.

At this stage, Pearse says, there is no competition. "There is no one doing it. Because we're both young and female we get online retail. A lot of our competitors are men in their 60s who I think look at it and wonder what it's all about," she says. "I'm a huge believer in everything happening for a reason. And although it's obviously terrible that Dad passed away – and he's left a huge gap – at the same time that's given us opportunities to go in directions that probably wouldn't have happened."