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28 August 2018

All Pro Shipping – The Story

When we look at a successful business, it’s all too easy to assume that success has always been there. Very rarely do we get to uncover the struggles, pain, and failures that paved the road to a thriving, profitable business. This is the story of All Pro Shipping, home of ShipYourReptiles and ShipYourAquatics, and the two men that made it happen. 

It all started back in the early 1990’s. Chad Brown attended the University of Colorado, played football, and maintained the rather unusual hobby of keeping and breeding a large variety of reptile species. During those years, he met another young man working as a clerk at a music store Chad liked to frequent. Robyn Markland had grown up in Hawaii and had absolutely zero exposure to the idea of reptiles as pets. Despite their differences, the two became fast friends and Robyn inevitably learned the joys of reptile keeping. 

In 1993, Chad was maintaining a 100+ collection of various colubrids, boa constrictors, leopard geckos, bearded dragons, Burmese, ball, carpet, and Savu pythons—all in a 550 square foot warehouse space that also served as a hang-out spot for he and his friends. That year he was picked in the 2nd round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. For six months out of the year, he would be living in Pittsburgh and traveling constantly, so Chad asked Robyn if he’d be interested in caring for and managing the collection during his absence.

That was the beginning of the partnership we all know and love today. As the years went by, Chad’s little reptile breeding business, Pro Exotics, grew. They expanded into adjacent warehouse spaces and Robyn began to hire others to help with their care. Although he started drawing a paycheck from Pro Exotics at the very beginning, it wasn’t until several years later, around 1999 that Robyn began to realize he would have a life-long career working with Chad.

Chad’s peers in the football world respected the fact that he ran a business outside of his pro-ball career, but found the subject of his business to be a little weird. “You’d be surprised how many 300 pound tough guys are scared of a little baby reptile!” Chad said.

Through the 90’s and early 00’s, Pro Exotics grew into a thriving business, utilizing the growth of the internet to promote their brand and build new platforms to help beginners learn how to care for a variety of exotic reptiles. One of the many questions that Chad and Robyn fielded was “How do you build a successful reptile breeding business?” 

Beyond the obvious answers such as “Research, invest in quality animals, and lots of hard work” there was also “Get a shipping account with UPS or FedEx that allows you to ship live animals.” It’s all but impossible to build a profitable breeding business if your customer base is limited to your own local area. However, in the years that followed 9/11, such accounts were becoming increasingly difficult to get. One had to be a “known shipper” in order to ship live animals, but how does one become “known” if you can’t start shipping because you’re not known? 

Around the same time the guys were pondering this question and wondering how to help the newer generation of reptile breeders, they were contemplating their own shipping costs. Pro Exotics was spending around $25,000 per year on shipping and getting only a very modest “volume discount” for all that. What if they combined their shipping efforts with another large shipper, like LLL Reptile? Much higher volume and better discounts for both! But UPS put a firm foot down and said, “Absolutely not” to the idea of combining two different accounts.

Even so, the seed of an idea had been planted. What if Chad and Robyn could figure out a way to let other reptile breeders ship under their account? Doing so would give them a chance to become “known shippers” and would increase the volume of shipping through Pro Exotics, which would allow for greater volume discounts for everyone. 

About a year before, another group of breeders tried to create a reptile shipping company that would meet these needs, but they did so without any sanction from either UPS or FedEx, and their attempt went down in spectacular flames. Chad and Robyn were convinced that they could create a better model, working in cooperation with UPS, and they set out to do so. 

They worked with their UPS Rep, who brought higher tiers of management into the conversation. There were a lot of layers to work through: attorneys for legal issues, safety boards, corporate offices worried about brand impact, pilot unions, and more. But after several months of talks and written proposals, their Rep announced that they had all the appropriate approvals. 

All Pro Shipping launched several businesses right out of the gate. Shipping reptiles was the catalyst, but they also wanted to assist with other hobbies that involved complicated shipping needs. ShipYourReptiles, ShipYourAquatics, ShipYourBicycles, and others, took off like rockets. 

But things weren’t going to be so simple. About six to eight months into the deal, it became clear that the Rep had not gotten the correct approvals. Alarm bells started to sound after one particular customer tried to take matters into their own hands. They had shipped a snake through ShipYourReptiles and the shipment experienced a delay along the way. Rather than calling SYR to help with the issue, the customer called UPS directly and demanded that they track down the package and get it moving again. What was inside the package? A harmless rear-fanged snake known as a False Water Cobra. All the agents at UPS heard was “cobra” and all hell broke loose in the search for that shipment. 

That was when Chad and Robyn were informed that they were no longer allowed to ship snakes at all. While there are plenty of other reptiles in the world, such as geckos, lizards, turtles, tortoises, etc, the vast majority of the animals in the reptile hobby are snakes. How can you keep a reptile shipping business viable without being able to ship snakes? Daunted, but not defeated, the guys continued to press forward, and passed the word to their customers that snakes could no longer be shipped. 

(Side note: UPS is still anti-snake to this day. It is against their TOS to ship snakes through their system.)

Shortly after that fiasco, UPS started making noises about 3rd party shipping. Chad and Robyn invited them to inspect their packages and make certain there were no snakes or other unauthorized shipments being made. UPS did inspect them and found NO unauthorized shipments. The ShipYourReptiles customers were living up to their promises. Even so, the UPS company policies were inconsistent and arbitrarily enforced and they eventually put the brakes on 3rd party shipping altogether, completely destroying the All Pro Shipping business model. 

Seeing the writing on the wall, Chad and Robyn began talks with FedEx even before the final letters were formed. Three months of negotiations had gone by before UPS drove the final nail in the coffin of their business relationship. However, they were three very frustrating months of difficult negotiations, followed by several more months of one “No” after another. 

For ten full months, All Pro Shipping continued to pay a staff that had no work to do. The stress of it landed Chad in the hospital for eight days and caused him to lose 60 pounds. 

The turn-around came from an entirely unexpected direction. During a pro football social event, a nice woman complimented Chad’s wife on the dress she was wearing. They started talking and Chad learned that the woman was the head of Sports Marketing for FedEx. Although she had absolutely nothing to do with the shipping of live animals, Chad decided he had nothing left to lose, and he explained to her what they’d been trying to do with FedEx. Later, phone calls were exchanged, and the head of Sports Marketing graciously set up “The Call” with the right group of managers that finally got the ball rolling in the right direction. 

FedEx came out and inspected the Pro Exotics facility to get an idea of what kinds of animals they’d be working with. They worked out specific packaging requirements and sent them to the FedEx labs for testing. All the logistics and legal requirements were being ironed out. The last, and most difficult challenge was the Pilot’s Union. They didn’t want snakes on the planes! Chad was flabbergasted. They fly bees all over the country, every single day, despite how common and deadly bee allergies can be, but they balk at harmless baby snakes. The union was eventually won over by an email campaign that featured pictures of cute baby snakes and other reptiles being held in bare hands. 

Finally, in 2011, All Pro Shipping was back on the map! FedEx took a more cautious approach, however. They wanted to test the waters and see how the business model worked with reptiles before allowing any other branches to grow. After years of success with reptiles, they opened the doors to ShipYourAquatics, and to this day, All Pro Shipping is the only 3rd party shipper certified and approved to ship aquatic animals. Also, recently approved, was ShipYourInvertebrates! That branch is waiting only for final package approval as All Pro Shipping works on engineering the safest and most efficient packaging for invertebrates. 

Achieving success with FedEx did not end the extreme challenges these partners would have to endure. 

On September 26, 2011, in the wee hours of the morning, a fire began in the building that housed all of Pro Exotic’s snakes. When all was said and done, more than 2500 precious snakes were lost, decades of long-term breeding projects halted in a single day, and the dreams of good men buried in ashes and melted racks.

The immediate and overwhelming outpouring of shared grief and support from all corners of the herping world stunned Chad and Robyn. Not just friends and business associates, but people they had never met or spoken with, as well. Every kind word and every dollar donated surprised and touched them deeply. “The hours, days, and weeks following the fire taught us all that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves—a community that is strong and compassionate, and much more deeply connected than we might have ever realized,” Chad said.

Despite the intense struggles and tragedies, the persevering and steadfast characters of these two friends kept them moving forward, even when there no longer seemed to be a road to travel on. Although the live-breeding chapter of their lives has closed, Chad Brown and Robyn Markland continue to be a strong, positive force and voice, striving always to better our community and make the dream of exotic breeding businesses accessible to everyone. 

"We are in our 25th year together as partners, and SYR has seen incredible growth over nearly a decade, far and away the industry leader and standard of excellence when it comes to live shipping. We are no longer on the livestock and production side of the industry, we are now on the service side, but I find the challenges and rewards just as thrilling, and I am really happy to still be pushing forward in our industry after 25 years."
Robyn Markland


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