The Dutch Safari Company is a classic cars concierge, working to help get clients into their dream cars. We met with owners, Erica Plumlee and Nick van den Akker, to learn more about this complicated business, and to discover how to make life a never ending safari adventure.
The fire was sparked when Erica was on Safari in Africa, and Nick found a Craigslist ad for a 1972 Land Rover Series 3 which the seller labeled as a “safari special”. The vehicle had stripped aluminum with a lot of flare – including a purple, black, and silver abomination dedicated to the Sacramento Kings. Nick fell in love with it. So, he purchased it for $4,200.
This was the beginning of what would become a lifelong obsession with Land Rovers and Range Rovers. By the time Erica returned, Nick sank a few more thousand dollars into the Series 3 to get it road-ready and presentable. They took the car out as much as possible. Their goal was quite literally to “make safari our life,” and they did.
Alaska to Patagonia
Like typical teenagers, Erica and Nick would drive aimlessly around, dreaming of ways to delay having real jobs and just stay on safari forever. They had a few ideas, including opening a food truck or a lawn mowing business. One idea was for sure: their business would be called Dutch Safari Company.
Instead of planning the company part of that endeavor, they got straight to work planning the safari part. Erica and Nick started mapping out a two-year expedition that would take them from Alaska down to Patagonia, and eventually beyond. They soon realized that Nick’s little Land Rover Series wasn’t going to cut it. So they started looking at the newer Land Rover Defenders. It was the perfect model for the trip, but it was only available in Europe.
Erica and Nick had family in Holland, so they headed over for a visit to bring back some new wheels. They found an orange Defender 110 which ended up being the same price they paid for the “safari special” back in the states. They started looking into import laws and logistics and planning their course of action.
Quickly realizing the pain and expense involved in the ordeal, they decided to make it worth their time. Since two Land Rovers fit in a 40-foot shipping container, they’d spring for a second one, sell it when they got home, and use the profits to cover the travel expenses to Europe. It was an awesome idea and would have made for a great profit margin – if the shipping end of things hadn’t gone so badly. The cars got held in customs, and miles of red tape made the experience a logistics nightmare.
The duo learned a lot from their first international shipping mistakes, but they still did manage to turn a profit off of their first sale. They knew that they’d continue to figure out how to do it quicker, easier, and cheaper. They also knew there would be a market of consumers who were not going to want to go through that nightmare themselves – who would find value in a concierge service to take care of everything from locating and purchasing the car, dealing with brokers and freight forwarders, collecting the vehicle from the port, and obtaining the U.S. title. These things are huge ordeals and not something the average car enthusiast is willing to manage.
“Once I pulled back the curtain on the shipping industry, which is really not designed for individuals to get involved, I was really fascinated. I wanted to figure it out and how to make it efficient, because it’s stuck in the past.” – Erica
A brilliant business was born. Nick first realized the huge value of the services they were offering when he discovered the significant cost difference of vehicles depending on their location. “It was just a matter of logistics between these two places, so you had a very low cost in one place and a very high cost in another place and no other difference between the two cars. It’s just a matter of getting it transported to the final destination.”
Leveraging Logistics – Keeping the Client Happy
“The most challenging part of the job is keeping track of everything,” says Nick. “The number of people we work with and the number of companies we have to touch in between the time we find the car and the time that it’s at the client’s door with the U.S. title. It’s a lot. And the clients’ only interaction should with us.”
Erica and Nick’s job is to keep the client happy and keep them up to date with the location of the car without bogging them down.
“Figuring out the logistics were a much bigger part than we thought it would be.” – Erica
Erica soon became an expert at dealing with exceptions as well. For instance, 4x4s, in general, tend to have aftermarket add-ons like roof racks and big lifts. Not understanding these special considerations from the beginning led to hundreds of wasted dollars per car shipment.
Paperwork was another big hurdle she had to learn how to jump. Erica and Nick had an epiphany when they got one of their cars stuck in Poland for about six months. It was throughout this customs nightmare that they realized “if you don’t stay on top of the paperwork in your car and where it is at all times, no one else is going to do it for you.”
From the time they drop off the keys in Europe to the time it hits the port, a Dutch Safari Company vehicle usually touches 18 different companies. Each has the car for a very small period of time, and if something goes wrong or paperwork is misplaced, “It’s always somebody else’s problem. And it really felt like… if I wasn’t bugging my freight forwarder every single day, the cars would be lost into an abyss,” says Erica.
uShip to the Rescue
Erica and Nick discovered uShip in 2015. They’d been working with brokers in the U.S. at the time and having a really difficult time nailing down pricing. Every time they’d get a price for a job, they had no way of guaranteeing it was going to stick. They also had no way of comparing bids to know if they were getting a deal. This made it impossible to budget the cost of shipping or estimate timelines, as they’d constantly fluctuate. Timelines are important for Erica and Nick, especially when dealing with exports, which typically need to get from the lot and to the port within two to three days. Working with brokers simply wasn’t cutting it.
Erica found uShip after hearing about load boards from a broker she was working with. While she was searching the web, she came across several load boards, but then she landed on uShip. She was so impressed with the modern usability of the site that she never looked back.
“When I found uShip, I was just thrilled because, for the first time, I could see a price range – if I’m willing to wait a couple of weeks, or a higher one if I want it moved tomorrow. And realistically, here’s this number in the middle. I love that.” – Erica
With uShip, Erica can keep track of things at all times because she’s able to communicate directly with the carrier. This makes it so much easier for her to coordinate with the people at the pickup and delivery location and keep clients informed as needed.
Erica also likes having control over quality by selecting carriers based on criteria like real feedback, reviews, and credentials. Dutch Safari Company has had a lot of issues in the past, and with uShip, they can help prevent such issues from happening again by choosing the carriers they work with. Their tactic for choosing quality carriers is to consider service and rating history over price.
Today, Dutch Safari Company ships about eight to ten vehicles a month through uShip. They can do more business now because uShip has helped them to streamline the process. Everything from knowing what they can expect to pay, to having a solid idea of pickup and delivery dates, to being able to view the driver locations, just helps them run their business better.
It’s also comforting for Erica and Nick to know that drivers through uShip aren’t paid until the vehicle has been successfully delivered. It’s one streamlined payment, instead of a credit card payment to a broker, followed by a cash payment to a driver. They absolutely can’t have a driver asking their client for cash when the client has already made a full payment to Dutch Safari Company.
Thanks to uShip location sharing, Erica and Nick always know where their cars are, and when they’re going to be delivered. Clients want deadlines, which can be difficult to provide on a six-month project moving a car from Poland to New York. There are a lot of different companies and moving pieces involved, and shipping is always what causes the most delays. uShip allows Erica to know that at least at the very end of the 100 plus hours of work they put into the process, she can tell a client “Okay it’s going to be there on Tuesday, the six months are over, you’re about to have your dream car.”
“uShip has just made my entire involvement with the business a lot easier.” – Erica
Using uShip has completely renewed Erica and Nick’s faith in carriers. The difference in quality they’ve experienced since making the switch has been a complete turnaround. It’s helpful to know that when they book, there’s a phone number with a human being on the other end, and he takes pride in his business, wants a good review, and wants to work together again. You just know you’re going to get a better experience when you book direct, which is what uShip allows you to do. Erica says she gets five to ten bids on every shipment she lists, so the pickings are always pretty good.
“I remember we had one shipment going from Austin to Los Angeles and the hood blew off of the car somewhere in Texas and I remember thinking it would be a nightmare. This driver just instantly took it to a shop, and he paid for the whole thing. I was blown away that he would do something like that.” – Erica
Dutch Safari Company offers each client cargo insurance, so it’s helpful that they can obtain this directly through uShip. Thankfully, working with uShip carriers, they’ve almost never had to use it – but it’s good to know it’s there.
It’s always a magical moment for Dutch Safari Company when clients receive their dream cars. It’s usually a moment that’s been six to eight months in the making. For Erica, it’s good to know that “the drivers are always really nice with them and it’s always a good experience.”
“That last step of delivering a car from Austin to the final destination is in a lot of ways the easiest for me because uShip makes it so easy, and I don’t have to do anything other than set up the shipment. Anything can happen in that last step. Knowing that I trust the people who are delivering the car and I trust uShip to step in if there is ever an issue is great and it makes it easy for me. I rest easy at night knowing that I did my part, the car is out, and now it’s going to live its life with a new owner.” – Erica
Safari for Life
Last year alone, Dutch Safari Company imported and exported over 150 cars. Seventy percent of the cars they source come from outside of the U.S. Most of these are from Europe, then some from Central and South America. About a third come from inside the United States. They have clients in Europe they export, too.
Eria and Nick have never stopped learning and never stopped searching for ways to improve the efficiency of a complicated industry. There are always more moving parts than expected, and they’re constantly working to streamline the logistics end of things to help save the business money and make their lives easier. We’re glad that one of the ways they do this is to use uShip.