Rogers startup Firebend was spun out of Fort Smith-based Propak Corp. after founder Steve Clark envisioned the supply chain company as a technology company with supply chain expertise, an executive said.
Davy Mears, chief technology officer of Firebend, said the Fort Smith businessman’s vision for Propak’s technology to generate profit and revenue led to the start of Firebend and the creation of technology platforms Control Tower and Freight Genius.
Clark said Propak looked to commercialize traditional administrative departments, and the demand for its technology provided an opportunity to offer it to additional customers.
On July 1, 2019, Firebend launched with four partners, including Clark, chief financial officer Cyndi Dye, CEO Justin Marshall and Mears.
“We’re not a typical startup,” Mears said. “Our first day of business, we had 32 employees and already had customers, and our technology developed because we’d built that over time within Propak.”
Mears said Firebend’s technology is unique from other supply chain technologies because its proprietary rapid-development platform allows for custom-developed supply chain technology. While competitors are selling products to customers across various industries, he said it’s the same technology only reconfigured differently for each customer.
“Let’s take warehousing, for example,” he said. “We have customers who need technology to manage their warehouses. Where we’re different is, in a fraction of the time our competitors take to implement and configure an out-of-the-box warehouse management system, we can build something from scratch that is very proprietary and very unique to how they want to manage their warehouses.”
Firebend is also unique because it comprises supply chain leaders and technologists, Mears said.
“We speak that language, and the insights we can provide clients because of the decades of experience gives us a competitive position,” said Clark, noting the team’s Rockfish experience along with the access to “world-class and unique talent provides us an opportunity to provide value to our clients.”
The company has 44 employees. Most are split between the offices in Rogers and Fort Smith. It also has about five employees working in locations across the United States.
SUPPLY CHAIN TECH
Mears said Freight Genius is a transportation management system for freight brokers, and Control Tower was designed for clients across various industries who want better visibility throughout their supply chains.
“Control Tower is our largest product of the two,” he said. “Control Tower is … the rapid development platform. It’s referred to as headless technology. Our customers are paying for a subscription to our product that enables them or us to develop custom apps on top of it rapidly. We have modules in transportation, warehousing, procurement and order management — all areas of the supply chain so we can quickly develop supply chain technology that they need.”
Control Tower can also work with customers’ existing supply chain technology and integrate one customer’s system with another “with a business intelligence layer so that our partners have full chain of custody visibility of their supply chains for the first time,” he said. “It’s like the connective tissue of existing supply chains.”
He said retailers could use the technology to have visibility into the supply chain, such as when used assets leave a store because of a store reset. Without Control Tower, retailers depend on supplier data for how the assets were liquidated, and this information might come weeks or months after it’s shipped. The retailers’ and suppliers’ systems are integrated with the technology, allowing real-time inventory flow visibility.
Mears noted that a customer within the reverse logistics supply chain reported a 100-fold recovery on invoices after learning about being overcharged. The visibility allowed the customer to hold supply chain partners accountable. Also, a customer saves on transportation costs by letting the technology determine a more efficient shipment destination.
Freight Genius is a technology for brokers who help customers needing items shipped by matching them with carriers to complete shipments. Mears said Freight Genius provides brokers with data, integrations and ease of use and helps them quickly and efficiently move freight for customers. The technology goal allows brokers to move more freight at higher margins.
“Because of our data-rich integrations … [the broker] should have enough information to know what the shipper should pay and what a carrier should charge,” he said. “It’s more transparency.”
He explained that a customer’s margins increased by about 5 percentage points within 90 days of starting to use Freight Genius. He added that the customer’s former technology took new brokers two weeks on which to train. The training was reduced to one morning with Freight Genius.
BROAD INDUSTRY SUPPORT
Existing customers operate in various sectors, including retail, reverse logistics, auto manufacturing, the cannabis industry, store resets and retail liquidation. Mears said the company has kept all its existing customers since it was established.
As the company’s first customer, Propak uses Freight Genius. Greg Jensen, vice president of business development for Propak, said Firebend helped the company build a more robust transportation management system after the company started to move more freight.
“It’s given us a tool to grow with,” Jensen said. “It’s internet-based so that you can log on anywhere. It helps you connect with the carrier base. As far as brokerage goes, it’s very important to be able to communicate with your carrier base as much as it is to communicate with your customers. It’s got a lot of tools that allow us to quickly and easily communicate with both customer and carrier partner.”
Mears noted the company’s organic growth and that it has not focused on marketing or sales but rather product/market fit and preparing the product to scale.
“Our big next step is to come out of … stealth mode and begin showing the world what we have to offer, particularly the distribution/retail world,” Marshall said. “It’s time to jump out of the cake.”
Dye said the company has four clients in the pipeline and noted it could implement its technology for new customers in two to three months, down from nearly six months. She expects revenue to rise from $6 million in 2021 to $6.5 million this year before increasing by 25% in 2023.
Clark recruited Dye to Firebend after she served as a Propak auditor and chief financial officer at digital agency Rockfish Interactive, a company Clark co-founded. In 2011, publicly-traded communications company WPP acquired Rockfish, which has since rebranded to VMLY&R. Dye has nearly 30 years of experience as a certified public accountant.
Before July 2019, Marshall and Mears worked at Propak. Marshall, who has 20 years of experience in supply chain and reverse logistics, worked at CHEP before joining Propak in 2011. Mears also worked for Rockfish.
Long-term, Clark sees Firebend as an industry leader in big-data management, focusing on supply chain and real-time solutions for Fortune 100 clients.