After 12 years working as General Manager for the Puerto Rico operations of USF Worldwide Logistics, Iris Vincent decided to take a break. Little did she know that a decade and a half later she would be leading one of the premier providers of logistics solutions on the island.
“I felt it was time I retire, but that didn’t last more than six months,” she says.
Her change of heart came as the result of a phone call from Stevens Global Logistics, a US-based warehousing and transportation company looking to expand to Puerto Rico. On a fateful Sept. 11, 2001, Iris closed the deal with Stevens Global and was on her way to becoming a woman entrepreneur. A month later, Iris began operating Prime Air Corporation, the local agent of Stevens Global, with three employees and one client.
“We had to start from zero,” says Iris. “Because of the Sept. 11 attacks, there were many changes in aviation security and regulations.”
Strategically located at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and with offices in the World Cargo Center building, Prime Air Corp. has a warehouse of 60,000 square feet with the necessary infrastructure for all types of storage. In addition to its expertise in handling emergency services for the manufacturing industry, Prime Air has a wide variety of offerings; among these, management of critical shipments, air and sea freight to anywhere in the world, carrying sensitive cargo and refrigerated, hazardous materials, as well as chartered aircraft, among others.
Currently celebrating its 15th anniversary, Prime Air now directly employs 22 people and 17 indirectly, specializing in providing solutions to the constant and ever-changing local and global challenges that arise in a supply chain. This approach has resulted in a 20 percent increase in sales over the past five years. Along the way, Iris approached the Puerto Rico Small Business & Technology Development Center (Puerto Rico SBTDC) for assistance.
“They [SBTDC] helped me prepare an employee manual, forecasts and budget,” Iris says. “I also obtained an SBA-guaranteed loan with FirstBank for working capital.”
The SBTDC is a partnership between the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico. Every year, thousands of individuals approach the SBTDC for business counseling and training.
Prime Air’s loan was guaranteed under SBA’s 7(a) Loan Guaranty program, which provides financing for a variety of general business purposes, such as working capital, expansion or renovation of facilities, the purchase of machinery and equipment, and the purchase of land, among others.
Looking back on the past 15 years, Iris recognizes that, in addition to all of Prime Air’s accomplishments, there have also been many challenges, such as factory closings, the recession and changes in regulations, to mention a few.
“We definitely have reinvented ourselves with regard to the types of services we offer. Our greatest obstacle, however, and what is perhaps an ongoing challenge, is selling to global and multinational companies. It is very difficult to get their attention. However, once we establish business relations with these and other companies we gain their trust, and we have been able to become their allies to help them achieve their organizational objectives.”
Prime Air has secured 500 clients over the years; among them six federal agencies that the company serves on a consistent basis. A few years ago, Prime Air obtained the Women-Owned Small Business certification and is on its way to applying for certification under SBA’s 8(a) Business Development program.
“At Prime Air we continue to strengthen our logistics services to provide customized, flexible and innovative solutions 24/7 for the urgent transport of large machinery or heavy equipment from anywhere in the world, so that our customers can receive shipments on time and meet their schedules for manufacturing, new product launching, and business expansion or their individual needs,” the businesswoman said.
One of the areas in which Prime Air has experienced greatest growth has been in chartered cargo flights. The company recently received for the first time on the island the Russian-made Antonov’s (AN-74TK-100) cargo plane, an emergency flight from Denmark that was transporting raw materials as part of a special project.
“The strategic partnership we have achieved with our customers for the movement of their highly sensitive cargo has been critical to maintaining the continuity of projects and operations of the companies we serve,” said Iris.
Last year, Prime Air was part of SBA’s first-ever Emerging Leaders training series in Puerto Rico, graduating along with 18 other companies. The Emerging Leaders program is a federal training initiative that specifically focuses on executives of businesses poised for growth in historically challenged urban communities. The initiative provides these executives with the organizational framework, resource network, and motivation required to build sustainable businesses and promote economic development.
“The opportunity to participate in SBA’s Emerging Leaders program taught me a great deal about strategic planning that I was able to implement after graduating,” she says. “This has allowed us to focus in the growth of our company.”
Looking ahead to the next three years the company plans to continue its strong growth and double its workforce.
“I am greatly committed to the people that work with me,” says Iris. “Every day I wake up with enthusiasm and a sense of responsibility to help them make better lives for their families. Nothing stops us in our endeavor and objective to look with optimism at our island’s economic development, to support the growth and strengthening of pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies; in addition to the federal agencies that we serve delivering their products or machinery on schedule quickly and consistently,” Iris concludes.