The buck stops at Paul Verst's desk, and that's been one of the keys to success for the family- run Verst Group Logistics in Walton.

Verst, president and CEO of the warehouse, distribution and packaging provider, has handled sales and marketing for the 35 years he's been part of the business started by his father, Bill, in 1966.

"If somebody wants something done or pricing. The call comes to me and a decision is made on the spot," says Verst.

"What we've found out is they may have a list of four companies they want to call to bid on a project. If they call us first and I can get an answer to them right on the spot, they don't make the second phone call."

That focus on customer service driven by family involvement serves the company well.

One of the largest third-party logistics providers in the Midwest, Verst has annual revenues of $150 million and 1,200 employees.

It operates 16 facilities encompassing 4.2 million square feet in three states and counts among its customers Kroger Co., Procter & Gamble Co., Kraft Foods, Brown-Foreman and Miller-Coors.

Besides warehousing and distribution, the company has moved aggressively over the last dozen years into providing contract packaging for some of its customers.

"Today we're the largest contract decorator of full-body shrink labels in the country," says Verst.

Originally developed after the Tylenol poisoning scare in 1982 to make bottles tamper-proof, the full-body labels are slipped over bottles on a conveyor and heat or steam is applied to shrink the label forming a second skin. Shrink sleeve labels have grown in popularity because they allow manufacturers to create distinctive 360-degree advertising on bottles that vie for limited retail shelf space.

Verst's move into contract packaging is an example of how its customer focus has grown the business.

In 2000, Verst said, "We were going through a strategic planning process looking at how we could add more value for customers."

A manager mentioned that many customers were sending product from Verst's warehouses to contract packaging companies to apply labels and then shipping them back.

"We thought we could cut that expense for customers if we got into contract packaging," he said. "One of my cousins said there's this thing called full-body shrink labels, and there's this company called Ally Packaging in Cincinnati you ought to talk to."

Verst ended up buying Ally Packaging and moving its small operation to one of its warehouses in Northern Kentucky.

"They had one machine doing about 250,000 bottles a year," Verst recalls. "Today we're doing about 350 million with eleven machines."

The staff has grown from five to about 175 employees at Verst's Hebron packaging operation.

"We never envisioned it being the size it is today," says Verst.

Joel Anderson, president and CEO of the Chicago-based International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA) - a trade organization of 500 third-party logistics providers, says a number of warehouse companies have started as family-owned businesses but only a few have made the progression from one-warehouse operations to multiple facility operations in several different markets.

"Verst has made that leap successfully," he says. At the same time, he said the company has been smart to stay focused on its Midwest regional market.

Most freight moves within a 500-mile radius and logistics companies can get into trouble when they jump out of their home market to a new, distant region where the cost of operation and management can get out of control.

Putting the customer first has been a part of the company's philosophy since Bill Verst acquired half interest in Strothman Express, a small Camp Washington trucking company then owned by a family friend.

Bill, who turned 82 in June, started working for his father unloading rail cars for the old B&O railroad at what is today Longworth Hall. He used to have this framed on his office wall: "If we don't take care of our customers, somebody else will."

Strothman got into the warehousing business a couple years later when the owner of neighboring J.C. Buckles Transfer Co. walked into Bill Verst's office one day.

"He told dad he had not paid his taxes and was heading to Mexico. He asked if dad wanted a warehouse company, threw him the keys and that's what got us in the warehousing business," Paul recalls.

The companies grew and moved to Sharonville and later expanded again in Northern Kentucky. Paul, his two brothers and four sisters all worked in the business while growing up in Wilder.

"We started out cleaning restrooms, sweeping floors and operating forklifts," says Paul who attended St. John the Baptist Catholic Grade School in Wilder and later Covington Latin before graduating from Covington Catholic High School in 1973. In May, he was named "Northern Kentuckian of the Year" at a fundraiser for his alma mater. He went on to earn a bachelor's degree in accounting from Xavier University in 1977 and an MBA from Xavier in management two years later.

"I always assumed I'd be in the family business," says Verst, who took over as president and CEO when his dad retired in 1992. "It was my dream. I loved it. I loved the people and I loved that every day is a different challenge."

Kroger is one of Verst's oldest customers. About 15 years ago, the grocery chain decided to outsource its distribution operations in Cincinnati and Louisville, and Verst formed Zenith Logistics to handle dry good distribution in those markets. About five years ago, Zenith also added distribution and trucking for Kroger's Louisville stores.

Paul also followed in his father's footsteps in giving back to the community. Bill participated in Northern Kentucky politics, served on the Northern Kentucky University Board of Regents and was Wilder sheriff once upon a time. "Giving back is part of the family expectations," he says.

Paul is active in a number of local nonprofits, serves on Xavier's President's Advisory Council, is past chairman of the Tri-County Economic Development Foundation and was named to the Kenton County Airport Board last fall. He's also lay minister at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cold Spring and mentors a student at NKY and at Xavier. He's cut back on that because this year he's serving as chairman of IWLA,

Another key to Verst's growth over the last two decades has been its executive board consisting of Paul, his brother-in-law Jim Stadtmiller, CFO and Bob Jackson, COO.

"Between us we have almost 100 years of experience. We've gotten along well and we managed to grow the business more than tenfold."
But Verst, 55, said the company is developing a short and long-term succession plan for the future.

In the meantime, Verst says the company is focusing on improving profitability, but growth in still part of the agenda.

"We've got too much talent in our organization," he says. "If we're to retain that talent, we've got to continue to grow and provide opportunities for them."