A dispute with Amazon forced this family-owned shipping company to retool its mission — and business took off
“Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have lost their jobs or need a side income. If they start a company, we can do the heavy lifting for them, and they can focus on sales and marketing.”
Brian Antar studied English at Penn. But growing up in a family that built a successful network of discount stores was like majoring in making sure customers get the merchandise they want, when they want it, at the right price.
So when Antar suggested that the family company — which at its peak owned nearly 30 Valu-Plus stores in Philadelphia and beyond — shift from wholesaling to focus on fulfilling sales made by others, “I told him, ‘It makes sense,’” his dad, Elie, said, adding, “Brian has a head for business.”
The younger Antar is now the CEO, and his father the president, of Shipmate Fulfillment, a company that warehouses, packages, and ships a variety of household goods, personal care products, apparel, and other items to the customers of about 40 online retailers.
“Our clients are start-ups and small- and medium-sized companies, and about a third of them are in the Philadelphia area. We manage their inventory and do their order fulfillment,” said Brian Antar, 32.
“Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have lost their jobs or need a side income. If they start a company, we can do the heavy lifting for them, and they can focus on sales and marketing,” added Antar, who as a teenager was a stock boy at a Valu-Plus in North Philly. Later, he worked as an assistant to his father — in the same office he now occupies as CEO.
Shipmate employs 15 people, including neighborhood residents who have worked for Antar family firms for decades and hospitality professionals who lost their restaurant or bartending jobs due to the pandemic. The company operates in a massive, well-kept warehouse it owns in Frankford; the five-story Unity Street landmark was once the headquarters of a company that supplied Unity-Frankford grocery stores in neighborhoods citywide until the 1970s.
“I love the history,” said Antar, who has a small collection of coffee, cinnamon, and other containers of goods with the Unity-Frankford label on display in his office. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to have my own brand. I distinctly remember telling my parents this was something I wanted.”
Elie Antar was born in Lebanon and emigrated to the United States from Israel in 1968. Five years later, Elie and his brothers Morris and Isaac opened the Center City flagship of what became Valu-Plus. They bought the Frankford warehouse in 1984 as the chain — which prided itself on hiring locally and offering better quality goods than similar retailers — opened stores in Philly, Camden, Atlantic City, and Baltimore.
“I know how to buy a good product at a good price,” said Elie. “That’s my specialty.”
But as online retailing gathered steam and the economy sputtered in the late 2000s, Elie and his brothers opted to leave bricks-and-mortar behind. They sold Valu-Plus to the Rainbow clothing store chain in 2011 while holding on to some real estate, including the Frankford warehouse.
In 2014, Elie rebooted the company as a wholesaler and online retailer of housewares and small appliances, mostly imported from China. A dispute with Amazon, which had been fulfilling the company’s online orders, led to Shipmate’s 2019 launch.
The company is young, as its entertaining YouTube channel and other social media fluencies attest.
But its old-school roots in warehousing, logistics, and the challenges facing small businesses run deep. And Shipmate’s clients are an eclectic array of e-commerce merchandizers, with wares such as children’s clothing made from organic materials, luxury pet beds made in India, and hand sanitizers, masks, and other necessities of life in 2021.
“Valu-Plus once was a small company,” Brian Antar said. “Shipmate breaks down the fulfillment barriers for start-ups and small companies. We give them the opportunity to scale up, which they can’t do if they’re using their garage as a warehouse. We help them grow.”
Gavin Perrett, who purchased the rights to and is reviving the once-esteemed Penfold Golf equipment, accessories, and clothing brand, said he was “running the company out of my attic” in Havertown in early 2020 when he sought Shipmate’s help. His wife, Lindsay, a respiratory therapist, was pregnant with their second child, and the pandemic was starting to disrupt the world.
“I had golf balls all over, and massive pallets coming to the house,” said Perrett, 36, a squash professional who hails from Tor Quay, England. “I told my business partner, Timothy Levin, ‘I can’t keep doing this from the attic.’”
An online search for Philadelphia-area fulfillment companies yielded Shipmate; a conversation with Brian Antar sealed the deal.
“The main thing was his willingness to help an up-and-coming brand reach its goals,” said Perrett. “They pay attention to detail, and that’s a huge part of Penfold Golf itself. I don’t want my product just thrown in a box.”
An Ocean City, N.J., tennis apparel retailer owned by two sisters who grew up in Moorestown also has found itself in sync with Shipmate’s familial vibe.
“I love Brian’s story of the family business, and I went to Villanova, so I also love having that Philadelphia connection,” said Candice Kolins, who runs Cruise Control Gear with her sister Kristen Vogelbacher. The two design as well as sell their clothing line and work closely with its Peruvian manufacturer.
Shipmate provides fast shipping, “which everyone is looking for, and great service,” said Kolins. “If you call them, they get right back to you.”
In the 300,000-square-foot warehouse, which occupies an entire city block and has 14 bays and seven elevators, workers like Lew Nelson keep the merchandise moving. So does Zachary Campbell, who has worked for the Antar family for 34 years and describes his current duties as “paying attention to everything.”
When the pandemic hit, Nelson, a father of two, lost his cooking job in Fishtown but within days got hired by Brian Antar, who knew the restaurant’s owner.
“It’s been going great here,” the 29-year-old West Oak Lane resident said. “I’m learning a lot about the business and moving up the ranks.”
Said Campbell, 58, of Frankford: “I was 17 when I started working for Brian’s father and his uncles. I watched him grow up from a kid, and I’ve grown with this company.”
Chief marketing officer Bill Carlin, who’s 25 and lives in Bristol, has been with the company for five years. He’s also the ebullient host of its videos, which feature practical advice for e-commerce newbies and other viewers, whom he addresses as shipmates.
“I studied marketing at Penn, and I don’t mind being in front of the camera,” said Carlin, who has an on-screen presence that’s perfect-for-Philly.
“I try to be genuine. I pick a topic and pretty much wing it,” he said. “It kind of puts a face to the brand. You talk to people like a normal person, you tell it how it is, and it makes things relatable. And people reciprocate.”
Antar, who earned a Master’s degree in Liberal Arts at Penn, loves to write, and is rehabbing a vintage house in Center City, acknowledges he has so far been unable to realize his childhood goal of having his own brand — of batteries.
But he’s jazzed to run a company like Shipmate.
“It’s the complexity and the challenges that I meet every single day,” said Antar. “The details of running this kind of organization are similar to what I find in writing — it’s very nuanced work. There’s a lot that goes into it.”