Jonathan Lancaster admits that when he was studying for his MBA at Missouri State University, he had no inkling he’d get into selling shipping containers.
But Lancaster, who works full time at Mid-Missouri Bank, says when a potential business partner presented the opportunity, it appealed to his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I think once I decided to commit to that, I knew that I wanted to be in and around just general business. I feel very comfortable in my career choice in that perspective,” Lancaster says.
Lancaster first invested in Superior Containers LLC in 2017. In 2018, when his silent partner chose to exit the day-to-day operations, Lancaster invested 50% and moved the business to Ozark from Houston, Missouri.
Christie Lancaster, Lancaster’s wife and Superior’s business manager, says the company is focused on one thing: sourcing, selling and delivering steel shipping containers that have been retired from their sea-faring days.
“When we looked at the market, we saw a demand that wasn’t met,” Jonathan Lancaster says.
Not a one-trick pony
Shipping containers are manufactured for one purpose and typically have a 10-year lifespan, says Jonathan Lancaster.
“They’re built to carry goods safely across the sea and if one falls off, they’re designed to stay watertight until they can be recovered,” he says.
Despite their narrow mission, the containers can be used on land in a variety of ways.
Locally, Superior has sold mostly to the agriculture industry. Farmers use them for secure storage of equipment and supplies.
“We get lots and lots of orders from farmers for storage, feed or hay,” Christie Lancaster says. “But we do everything from the farmers to the people who are wanting to do this instead of a shed.”
The containers are available in two lengths, 20 feet or 40 feet, and a third is called the 40-foot-high cube unit, which is a foot taller at 9 feet, 6 inches. Each is 8-feet wide.
While the cube is the biggest seller, she says customers say they like the containers because they’re watertight, pest proof and easily secured. Some say they’re priced right, too, considering the escalation of lumber costs this past year.
“With the cost of lumber right now, a lot of people are realizing they can get a steel container instead of a shed,” Christie Lancaster says, adding Superior’s largest container costs less than $5,000.
Lumber hit a 52-week high of $1,670 per 1,000 board feet on May 7, but prices have since settled down to $904.90 per 1,000 board feet as of June 17. A year prior marked the 52-week low of $401.30, according to Nasdaq.
While the containers are frequently purchased for storage, they’ve been used in surprising ways too. Some of the more novel uses are transforming them for use in home construction, for tiny houses, “she sheds,” offices and food-truck-style bars and restaurants. Think the Taco Habitat eatery on South Glenstone Avenue, though that was a venture through Boxman Studios in North Carolina.
“The sky is the limit,” Christie Lancaster says. “We like to say these are just giant Legos you can build with.”
Derek Scellin, Superior’s business development specialist, says he sees the company’s growth potential. Scellin says just having a home base gives it an advantage over competitors that typically sell only online.
“Our business is one where, a lot of times, containers are purchased online with Craigslist,” Scellin says, noting the industry doesn’t have a stellar reputation. “We have a location. This is our business. We have a face to talk to. We actually have a location where they can come and look at the containers and see what it’s all about.”
The containers are sourced from depots at Springfield’s three nearest ports: Kansas City, St. Louis and Memphis, Tennessee.
Christie Lancaster says customers can buy them in a varying degree of use, from one-tripper containers, which are the most expensive, to those that have seen considerably more saltwater. Superior buys only containers that are watertight and wind rated.
The containers, however, aren’t for everyone.
Some cities have zoning restrictions regarding containers, and because of their size and weight, they aren’t ideal for every site. In fact, Jonathan Lancaster says logistics is one of the larger challenges.
“It takes a lot of heavy equipment to move one,” he says. “Where folks want to put these boxes is usually in their driveway. But we’ve delivered them up the side of a mountain.”
He recalls a prospective buyer building a hunting blind on 1,000 acres in the Ozark Mountains.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll see if I can get my semi in there,’” he says.
With a delivery area primarily within 150 miles, Superior sells about 30 containers a month, Christie Lancaster says, and nearly hit $750,000 in 2020 revenue. She says it’s a rapid clip for a crew of four, which includes depot and delivery drivers.
The growth plan this year involves hiring more drivers and marketing the business.
While selling containers is vastly different from his daily world in finance, Jonathan Lancaster says it’s satisfying.
“From the day-to-day banking world, it’s nice to have a breath and say, ‘We can go get dirty,’” he says.
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