Tax Time Ticking : Accountant Business Picks Up in a Hurry for Courier Services

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Cavers rolled his chair from the file cabinet to his desk and announced, "Sheet number three, 10:40."

Cavers was beginning a third roster of incoming customer calls, which made it an unusually busy morning at California Express Courier Service in Costa Mesa.

Almost one-third of the 117 million Americans who must file federal tax returns are trying this week to beat the Friday midnight filing deadline.

And any business that does any business with accountants is feeling the crunch. Courier services are expecting a 35% to 50% increase in business during the week leading up to tax day.

"We'll probably go straight to midnight on the 15th," said Mike Zelmer, operations manager at Fountain Valley-based AAA-PCS Express. "This is our heaviest week."

In Orange County, which is home to more than two dozen courier services, many of the companies have stationed drivers in Irvine, near the local offices of the major national accounting firms. As tax returns are completed, they are carried by couriers to clients for their signatures.

Others are busy, too. An estimated 400,000 to 600,000 Orange County taxpayers are filing returns this week, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Twelve Orange County post offices have announced plans to remain open later than usual on Friday. Accountants and other tax preparers are working almost around the clock.

"I'm trying to get four or five hours of sleep," said Chip Higgins, an independent accountant in Irvine. "I'm working, other than that."

Courier services are open early this week, many at 7 a.m., and most have hired extra, temporary drivers. Zelmer and California Express are both offering a 20% discount this week to new customers.

The discount has brought in an average of five new clients daily since the middle of last week, said John E. Franse, president of California Express.

His operation--with seven drivers--is relatively small. The three-room headquarters office is cozy enough to allow the dispatcher, without raising his voice, to ask the lone salesman to pick up the phone. Next month, however, California Express plans to quadruple its space and add warehousing capacity for small parts storage.

As fax machines and satellites have cut into the business of document delivery, many courier services are specializing in transporting bulkier things, such as clothing and blood samples.

Some, like California Express, act as a distributor for a client company's sales force in the field.

California Express charges $10 to $15 for its average delivery, but rates change based on distance and the required speed of service.

Franse, 29, is a former electronics technician who became burned out and took a job as a driver for a courier service.

He eventually became vice president of that company, a 25-driver operation. Then, he took a job at a major courier operation--75 drivers--to learn how a large operation worked.

In November, 1992, Franse and Cavers opened a business on Airway Avenue, a kind of Miracle Mile of Orange County transport services. Federal Express, Airborne Express and three other courier companies have operations in the neighborhood because it is near John Wayne Airport.

"This is a very entrepreneurial business," said Stephen Miley, president of the Messenger Courier Assn. of the Americas, a trade group based in Washington. His service, The Go-Between Inc., serves the entertainment industry from a Los Angeles office. "It's a great way for an individual to work for himself."

Franse said that owning his own business, after five years in the industry, has so far brought only one unexpected result.

"I'm surprised at how good a relationship we can have with our clients," he said. "We make a point of knowing the first names of the people who call. We know what's going on in their lives."

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