Lewis Levy loves panic. Ten years in the world of express delivery services gave the Silver Spring native an ulcer. But the 80-hour weeks have also transformed Levy's Air Couriers International Inc. from a firm that took in $44,000 its first year to a worldwide network of nearly 2,000 workers and $25 million in annual sales last year.
Levy, 44, is thriving by catering to computer companies, law firms, health-care groups--businesses that rely on same-day, coast-to-coast deliveries.
Customers have included an Arab sheik who purchased Liberace's piano and wanted it delivered to a yacht moored near Italy; the Smithsonian Institution, which wanted a hunk of Skylab wreckage delivered from the Australian outback, and the promoters of "Star Wars," who wanted the stubby robot R2-D2 shipped across Canada on a promotional tour, Levy said.
"We get a lot of high-tech business--the folks who want a replacement part delivered right away to a computer that's down," said Levy. Air Couriers also has rushed cornea tissue for an operation in Tokyo and valves to an oil rig in the North Sea.
Competition in this specialized world of same-day deliveries is no less cutthroat than the next-day delivery market dominated by companies such as Federal Express and Airborne. In this country alone, roughly 500 same-day delivery firms are scrambling for their share of what Levy estimates to be a $100 million-a-year market.
The rivalries have forced rates down dramatically. "In 1973, one of our most popular routes was the Washington-to-New York run," Levy said. "We charged $69.50 for four-hour, door-to-door delivery. In 1983, the cost for that same service is $39.50." International rates also have plummeted. In 1973, a Washington-to-London, two-day delivery cost $199.50; today, Levy offers the same service for $29.50.
To succeed in a business where even a traffic jam can jeopardize timely delivery, Levy has organized a simple network. A client dials a toll-free number to reach Air Couriers' Phoenix office, where 350 computer-equipped operators transmit delivery information to 1,500 drivers around the world. Pick-ups are guaranteed within an hour of the initial call.
For airborne deliveries, packages go out on the first available flight and are delivered within 90 minutes of their arrival in the next city. Levy has agreements with all major airlines to have his shipments handled as baggage, rather than as freight and can deliver packages to airports as late as 20 minutes before takeoff and retrieve them as early as 15 minutes after landing.
"The big difference between us and folks like Federal Express," Levy said, "is that most of those guys have local offices. We have one big office that acts as a clearinghouse. When you call us, say from Kentucky, you'll talk to us here in Phoenix." Levy also maintains offices in 10 major cities around the country.
Keeping track of his far-flung staff comes easily to someone who at age 12 was dispatching cabs for his father's Yellow Cab of Silver Spring Inc. Levy bought that company when he was 25 and later started Central Delivery in Washington, where he was known as "The Pink Panther" for the 400 rose-colored vehicles he used.
Levy sold the taxi and courier firms in May 1973 and founded Air Couriers. Two years later, he moved to Phoenix, taking 29 of his 30 employes with him.
He keeps representatives in 100 countries to tap international markets. Every night, an Air Couriers worker--as well as 18 competing agents--takes the day's deliveries from New York to London, where he meets another courier who travels a circuit to the island sheikdom of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and then to the United Arab Emirates. Packages are delivered by other couriers to intermediary stops in between these two cities. The process is then repeated in reverse. CAPTION: Picture, Silver Spring native Lewis Levy has built his air express company into a $25 million enterprise.