published Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Flush with cash, Lamp Post plots road ahead

Drew Belz, Brian Gillikin, Bethany Mollenkof and Isaiah Smallman, from left, work at Fancy Rhino in the Lamp Post Group.
Drew Belz, Brian Gillikin, Bethany Mollenkof and Isaiah Smallman, from left, work at Fancy Rhino in the Lamp Post Group.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
  • photo
    Access America founders COO Allan Davis, CEO Ted Alling and CFO Barry Large, from left.
    Photo by Staff File Photo.
    enlarge photo

About Access America:

Founded: 2002

Sold: 2014, to Chicago-based Coyote Transport for an undisclosed amount

Employees: 500

Revenues: $600 million

Founders: Ted Alling, Barry Large, Allan Davis

Shippers: 10,000

Contracted trucking companies: 35,000

Contracted trucks: Hundreds of thousands

Shipments per day: 1,500 to 2,000

Source: Access America

•••

About Lamp Post Group:

Founded: 2010

Partners: Ted Alling, Barry Large, Allan Davis, Miller Welborn, Jack Studer and Shelley Prevost

Headquarters: Loveman’s building at 8th and Market Street in downtown Chattanooga

Workers: More than 2,000 at all companies

Source: Lamp Post Group

In the TV series "Lost," the Lamp Post was a secret facility used to help find a mysterious island.

A lone lamppost in C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" marked the beginning of an adventure.

Chattanooga's Lamp Post Group borrows a bit from each tale, officials say, mixing the secret technology of "Lost" with the wide-eyed wonder of "Narnia" to help young entrepreneurs realize a dream.

"It's where the journey starts," said Jack Studer, a partner at Lamp Post.

That journey got a first-class upgrade with this week's windfall at one of Chattanooga's emerging investment groups.

The cascade of cash generated by the sale of logistics steamroller Access America for hundreds of millions of dollars could ripple through Chattanooga's fledgling startup community, funneling new investments through the venture incubator known as the Lamp Post Group.

The three millionaire founders of Access America -- Ted Alling, Barry Large and Allan Davis, all graduates of Birmingham, Ala.-based Samford University -- make up half of Lamp Post's board, an investment group that trades working space, back-office support and early-stage funding to promising business startups in exchange for a 20 percent ownership stake.

Access America's three partners, all of whom are in their mid 30s and say they have no plans to quit the business, are sitting on a mountain of liquid capital estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, which they plan to invest in the Scenic City.

"We now have the ability, for our existing investments, we can take them all the way," said Studer, a tech and finance whiz who serves on the Lamp Post board that also includes include bank executive Miller Welborn and Shelley Prevost, the team's official director of happiness.

Lamp Post itself is patterned after the model that launched Access America, in that the tenderfoot transport company, before moving to an expansive space in Warehouse Row, was housed for years in a back room of Key-James Brick, which was owned by Large's father, James H. Large.

Securing its first customer, along with complimentary office space, consistent mentorship and access to cash, launched a third-party logistics company that doubled its sales nearly every year for 12 years.

Lamp Post, its founders say, is an experiment, an attempt to replicate that experience for others, invest a little money in other hungry entrepreneurs and perhaps even earn a little back.

The firm's name itself is an outgrowth of that philosophy, the idea that company need to be nurtured at birth, coaxed through childhood and ultimately set free to chart its own course. Lamp Post is both a business incubator and a venture capital fund, and its organizers want it to be even more.

"It's a family," Alling said.

•••

To Lamp Post executives, the lucrative sale of Access America to Chicago-based Coyote Logistics for an undisclosed sum serves as both a vindication of their incubator model, as well as proof that the the city once known as the Dynamo of Dixie can again breed big companies capable of creative jobs and producing wealth.

"This money will stay in Chattanooga for a long time," said Welborn. "This is the first of many exits you'll see at Lamp Post."

Before March, fast-growing companies in need of tens of millions of dollars would sometimes seek it outside of Chattanooga, which carried the risk that the companies would leave to move closer to their source of funding.

The city's first venture-capital fund, the Chattanooga Renaissance Fund, kicked off 2010 with a then-unheard-of $3.2 million that it spread across a dozen companies. That was enough to fund the first stage and perhaps the second stage of any new business, but not enough to compete with the billions of dollars available to companies elsewhere in the U.S.

For that, connected investors would often take local businesses on a road tour to San Francisco, Atlanta or even Nashville.

Chattanooga's challenge became clear when some of Lamp Post's early ventures fizzled out -- not because the entrepreneurs lacked original ideas, but because they lacked the financing to rapidly scale and compete with others who were better funded, Studer said.

Now, entrepreneurs in Chattanooga can access the capital they need from the newly resurgent Lamp Post, which will work beside the upgraded $7 million Renaissance Fund, a $1 million fund called Blank Slate Ventures and a female-focused $2.5 million Jump Fund.

"This will truly allow us to take a lot of the money that we got from Access and reinvest it in startups over the next three, five or 10 years," said Welborn, who was also an early investor in Access America.

The money will also serve as a motivation for growing companies to stay in Chattanooga, even as they add offices elsewhere in the country.

"If you want to go to San Francisco, that's great if you need to expand, but your headquarters stays here," Davis said.

•••

The transition from transport tycoons to startup savants began in earnest nearly three years ago, when Alling, Large and Davis handed control of Access America over to top employee Chad Eichelberger and walked away to help young entrepreneurs get the funding and manpower necessary to realize their dreams.

The three, along with Studer, Wellborn and Prevost, equally divided their shares in the venture.

Unofficially, something like Lamp Post has existed for more than seven years, and served as an umbrella for Access America, as well as sister companies AAT Carriers, a hazmat hauler; Reliance Partners, which provides transport insurance; and Steam Logistics, which coordinates international transport.

Lamp Post cuts down costs by sharing accounting, human resources, IT and other back-office functions, which cover both its remaining transportation businesses as well as its numerous startup ventures.

"We say don't worry about cash flow or billing, just sell your product and we'll spin you out," said Davis.

Access America isn't the only venture with a future, Davis said. Fancy Rhino, a creative group that specializes in video, has scored deals with Samsung, Nike and Disney, and has moved to an office outside Lamp Post but within the same building, a former Loveman's department store downtown.

"They're the first ones to leave the incubator," Davis said. "They'll most likely be the first ones to leave Loveman's, and we're having these discussions right now."

Not far behind is Ambition, the company credited with helping to propel Access America's sales to new heights using analytics and a concept called gamification to create competition in the workplace. The technology can track everything from who makes the phones sales calls to who closes the most deals and offer rewards accordingly, using the Salesforce.com platform.

Another company, Bellhops, has grown to more 2,000 trained college students in 116 cities. Customers can summon bellhops through an online interface for help with everything from moving day to trash pickup.

Chattanooga Whiskey, among the most dynamic young companies to emerge from Chatanooga's startup renaissance, is working to build a combination distillery and tourist attraction in the heart of the Scenic City's downtown district. Although Chattanooga Whiskey was birthed outside of the Lamp Post after gathering millions of dollars from local investors, including Lamp Post.

"That's the whole ethos of Lamp Post, it's let's take that one success and roll it into the next success, and roll it into the next five successes," Studer said.

•••

Hot on the heels of Access America's sale, which created the largest private third-party logistics firm in the U.S. and second-largest such firm overall after publicly-traded C.H. Robinson, the partners are now working out what will happen next.

Alling plans to spend a year in London, where he will live and work in an effort to bring more international talent to Chattanooga.

Davis and Large have floated an ambitions plan to spur the development of new downtown housing, which will serve as new digs for the incubator's growing army of developers, designers and number crunchers.

It's part of a concept the partners are working on called "soft" return on investment, as opposed to selling a company for pure profit. They plan to use a portion of the sale's proceeds to create a place where creative types love to gather.

"It's for actively recruiting outside talent to get to Chattanooga, and once they get here, making Chattanooga a better place to live," Large said. "We want to be able to grow fast."

Those plans, which would concentrate talent in the city's core, represent an outgrowth of the contagious faith that permeates the halls of Lamp Post.

It's an unfailing devotion to the idea that with enough collective wisdom, hard work and financial opportunity, new businesses can grow in Chattanooga.

It's a belief that 12 years ago would have seemed impossible, at a time when many of the foundries and textile mills on which Chattanooga had depended for decades were closed or closing.

The group's convictions were cemented in 2002 with a crazy phone call from Alling pitching a germ of an idea to Large. Alling predicted that the two could grow a company that fills extra space in trucks returning to the warehouse into a $100 million company within a few years. Alling offered to quit his job and the two partners, along with Sigma Nu fraternity brother Davis, would build a business from scratch.

Asked at what point the trio realized their logistics company could grow into one of the top third-party logistics firms in the U.S., the three remained still for a moment.

"I never doubted," Davis said finally. "If you don't believe it will happen, it will not happen."

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at 423-757-6315 or esmith@timesfreepress.com with news tips and documents.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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