Moving up the Supply Chain

Veteran Gables Politician and Civic Activist Chip Withers has Taken the Family Firm from a Local Moving Company to a Worldwide Logistics Firm – While Keeping his Feet on the Ground

By Mike Clary

December 2018

When Chip Withers was a student at the University of Florida, he did well enough in science to think he might have a career in medicine. “Maybe in clinical research,” he says. 

But the call of the family business proved to be too strong to resist. Withers bought Withers Transfer & Storage from his father in 1980, becoming the fourth generation of his family to run the company. In his years at the helm, he has transformed the family business from a moving company to an international logistics firm, transporting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods worldwide – including surfboards for Jimmy Buffett  and a crated-up guitar Bruce Springsteen left behind after a concert. He has also helped relocate thousands of families, not forgetting the company’s roots. 

Withers has never forgotten his community roots, either. He spent 20 years on the Coral Gables City Commission, helping create the Coral Gables Museum and serving on dozens of boards, foundations and committees. “If he took something on, he gave it his all,” says former City Manager Jack Eads. “Chip has a wonderful perspective, tries to be helpful, and looks for a solution. He always has a positive outlook.” 

In honor of his community service the Rotary Club of Coral Gables earlier this year presented Withers with its annual Coral Gables Martin Hughes Citizen of the Year Award. Past honorees include former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr., activist Roxcy Bolton, and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Steven Leifman. 

Chip Withers

“It’s a very humbling experience, coming from an institution that has as its motto ‘Service Above Self,’” says Withers, 66. What would become Withers Worldwide Transportation Systems began in 1909 when John E. Withers moved south from Minnesota to begin a new life. But, says Chip Withers, “[my] great grandfather was a dirt farmer who found his wooden ploughs couldn’t deal with coral rock. He failed miserably.” 

That failure became opportunity. With his one horse and buggy, John Withers began to meet arrivals at the Miami train station, hauling their luggage to Henry Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel on the Miami River. From there the business grew. 

It’s a very humbling experience, coming from an institution that has its mottle ‘Service Above Self’ …

Chip Withers on the Coral Gables Martin Hughes Citizen of the Year Award

Wayne Elmer “Chip” Withers Jr. is now the fourth generation of the family to head the business, which can still handle a cross-town move in Miami-Dade County or resettle a family from Minnesota. Among personal belongings moved were those of former Miami resident Madonna. But moving household goods now represents only about 10 percent of what the company does. 

The bulk of today’s business is what Withers describes as international freight logistics, chiefly for the hospitality industry. 

“We put together a supply line – warehouses, transportation and installation,” he says. “For example, we might move raw silk from Korea to France, where it is dyed, then send it back to a factory in China where it is used in furniture, then move that furniture to Texas to be treated with a flame retardant, and then send the furniture to the Four Seasons Resort in Nevis where we manage the installation in the hotel.” The company handles an estimated $400 million in product annually, he says. 

Withers was elected to his first term as a city commissioner in 1991 after tasting political success running a mayoral campaign for George Corrigan. “I fell in love with it,” he said of politics. By then, the company had relocated from the 300 block of Almeria Avenue to a massive warehouse in the Doral area. But Withers remained a Gables resident and civic leader. 

Great grandfather was a dirt farmer who found his wooden ploughs couldn’t deal with the coral rock. He failed miserably…

Chip Withers on his grandfather moving to Florida

During his two decades in office, Withers was the critical driving force behind the creation of the Coral Gables Museum, which opened in 2013 in the old police and fire station listed on the National Register of Historic Places (see Time Machine, pg. 104). Withers still holds the position of Chairman Emeritus on the museum’s Board of Trustees. Withers also spoke out against efforts to tighten restrictions on the number of unrelated persons allowed to live in one home, a response to complaints about noise from households of University of Miami students living off campus. The proposed ban was opposed as discriminatory by gay and lesbian groups. “We are trying to legislate morality,” Withers said in 2000. “When the government gets in that role, it’s dangerous.”   

The list of Withers’ community activities is impressive. For the city, he has served on the boards of Planning and Zoning, Economic Development, Code Enforcement, Youth Advisory and Parks & Recreation. He served as President of the Pan American International Mover’s Association and is a member of the University of Florida Alumni Association. He serves as the Chairman of The Alpha-1 Project, Inc., which raises funds to combat lung disease. 

It goes on from there. Withers was a founding board member of the Coral Gables Foundation, a director of the Bank of Coral Gables, the Governor’s appointee to the Small Business Council of the State of Florida, and was honored as one of Ronald McDonald’s House of Twelve Good Men. He is a Member of the UF Foundation Board and of the UF Gator Booster Organization.  

Withers left the city commission in 2011. He made an unsuccessful bid to regain his seat in 2017, motivated in part by his opposition to the Paseo de la Riviera project on U.S.1, a controversial mixed-use development that required a land-use map change to allow for a 252 room hotel, 224 residences and 13-story office building. “I think the city is at the tipping point,” says Withers. “Coral Gables is known for its neighborhoods. But with the emphasis on downtown living, and as the central business district grows, comes pressure from developers that impacts residential neighborhoods. Coral Gables should not become a concrete canyon. I think you have to hold the line.” 

Of his loss at the polls, Withers says, “It was not meant to be, and I am at peace with that.” 

Inside the reception area of Withers Worldwide Transportation Systems

The family business now seems destined to be headed by a fifth-generation Withers. Both Shaefer Withers and Taylor Withers, two of Chip’s four children, work for the company. 

And what would his forebears think of the firm today? “I think they would see that in the 1980s we took a major turn, leaving our roots in moving household goods for a new venture in logistics,” he said. “But leaving the farm in Minnesota was a major turn as well. Both involve a pioneering attitude. I think they would be happy with our spirit and direction.”