Tony Polimeno '93, Brian Healey '93 P'18 '23, and Luke Howarth '93 have been friends since freshman year, but their launch of Prep Partners Group hasn't tested that friendship—it's the reason the business is thriving
When Tony Polimeno ’93 dishes his favorite story about pitching a prospective investor in Prep Partners Group, a business that existed only in concept at that point, the tale represents more than a pleasing anecdote. It reveals the existential core of the venture’s ongoing and growing success.
“The guy is a St. John’s alum,” explains Polimeno, the company’s CEO, as he sits in the conference room of the firm’s Rochester, N.H. headquarters. “I’d barely gotten to the business model and he stopped me, then pointed at me, Brian (Healey ’93 P’18 ’23, COO), and Luke (Howarth ’93, Chief Business Development Officer) and said, ‘I’m in. I know where you come from and you know where I come from and it’s from the same place: The Prep. That’s all I need to know.’”
The exchange isn’t the kind of case study you’d find in the textbook of an MBA program. Then again, neither is the foundation for these three high school friends’ plan to build a business. Consider this: we’re talking about a trio of close, longtime buddies who had enjoyed 25-year careers in completely disparate arenas of the corporate world, who never talked about their jobs with one another, and who knew only rudimentary details about what each one did for a living.
“Do you know how many times we’ve been told this wouldn’t work?” asks Healey. “The only ones who were game were our families. Otherwise, it was a constant stream of ‘This won’t work. You guys are full of it. Delusional. Why would you go into business with your friends? It’ll ruin your friendship. It’ll ruin your lives.’”
“Statistically, that’s probably good advice,” Polimeno adds. “But we’re talking about 30 years of relationship-building. Knowing each other. Knowing one another’s families. Weddings. Christenings. Godfather to a kid. Trust and caring. If you don’t have that, forget it. The handshake deals that we have—just a handshake—that’s probably a million dollars worth of lawyer fees, just in our own handshake deals. We wouldn’t even need an operating agreement except our investors need to see that piece of paper.”
The first building block of that unbending trust can arguably be traced back to French class in the fall of 1989.
“We were in the front row together,” says Polimeno. “Well,” adds Howarth, “we didn’t start in the front row, if you know what I mean.”
More than 30 years later, Prep Partners is now rapidly carving out an important place in the Northeast’s transportation, deliverables, logistics, and warehouse management sector, helping to integrate an array of industries, carriers, and third-party distributors via warehousing and customer fulfillment. What does that mean in English? If you sell goods online and you need to assemble, pack, ship, store, or transport those products, Prep Partners is in the business of removing a lot of your headaches.
It’s also a business that Polimeno, Healey, and Howarth are scaling up at a rate that’s not for the faint of heart. They formed their LLC in February of 2019, bought the land where they built their new warehouse in July of 2020, and left their day jobs in early 2021. The Rochester facility opened just prior to this past Memorial Day and they already have another property under agreement where their second warehouse will go.
In the early days of getting the business off the ground, Healey, a Peabody native and resident, began carpooling with Howarth to New Hampshire. Pretty soon, Healey’s wife asked him if he was starting a company or going back to high school. “I said, ‘A little bit of both.’ And that’s what it is. It’s perfect.”
To be sure, there’s plenty of kidding around among old chums, but that’s a patina coating over a colossal amount of planning, palm-pressing, advocating, arguing, and just plain hard work. A lot of that, early on, was simply coming to understand one another’s skill set.
Polimeno, who grew up splitting time between Gloucester and Tewksbury but now lives in Hingham, came to the table with a quarter-century résumé of success at MEDITECH, where he oversaw all aspects of a massive real estate portfolio, including developing and managing over 1.2 million square feet of Class A corporate real estate in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Minnesota.
Healey, meanwhile, spent his professional career in operations, running supply chain and logistics as a third-party vendor ensuring customer fulfillment for a variety of businesses. His expertise lies in warehouse operations as well as facility and inventory management along with strategic planning and data analytics, among other phases of the industry. “That’s been my whole life,” he says.“Putting these systems in place, then doing storage, sort-pack-ship, and distribution.”
Howarth’s wheelhouse is sales and entrepreneurship, chops that allowed him to span multiple industries throughout his career. A Beverly native now living in Wellesley, he ran a tech company for eight years before launching small technology and consumer packaged-goods companies as a consultant. Polimeno recalls divvying up the labor at the group’s first substantive meeting in 2019.
Pretty soon, Healey’s wife asked him if he was starting a company or going back to high school. “I said, ‘A little bit of both.’ And that’s what it is. It’s perfect.”
“We decided that I’m going to run the real estate, Brian will run the operation, and Luke is the sales/biz dev guy,” he explains. “For everything else in between, we’re going to consult our friends and professional connections we’ve made over the years. That’s the model. We do business with people that we’ve all done business with.”
And business is a-boomin’. Since booting up operations out of a temporary, 7,500 square-foot warehouse in Billerica serving one primary customer—Stonewall Kitchen, a specialty food producer based in York, Maine—Prep Partners now boasts its own 150,000 square-foot facility serving 10 clients with 55 workers in the warehouse and 68 employees in all. Goods of all manner, shapes, and sizes occupy racks, shelves, pallets, and almost every available horizontal surface in the gleaming, state-of-the-art complex that’s flooded with natural light. Stonewall products in various stages of assembly dominate the front of the house with holiday gift baskets for gourmet pancakes, jam sampler sets, and Bloody Mary Mixer kits dotting the scene.
Mind you, nothing sits still for long.
“We went from doing 30 percent of (Stonewall’s storage, assembly, pack and ship) business to doing 92 percent of all their business,” says Healey. “The best compliment we’ve received so far is when they told us they can’t tell the difference between the kits we build for them and what they used to do in-house themselves.”
Ninety-two percent of Stonewall’s business means Prep Partners currently kits 1.5 million packages annually for just one client, a process that takes eight months to complete.
“It Doesn’t Feel Like Work”
The first 18 months of outreach and strategizing definitely seemed a little fly by night, even for the three amigos. And not just because the idea was born over a casual drink amongst friends back in 2018.
“We’ve met in every restaurant up and down Route 128,” says Polimeno. “Coffee shops, hotel lobbies.”
“Yeah, free Wi-Fi,” Healey chimes in.
“It’s like trying to sell a dream on the back of a napkin,” continues Polimeno. “People were like, ‘You’re going to do what?!’ It’s that entrepreneurial thing, though. The seed. But we weren’t even a seed—the seed wasn’t even in the ground yet.”
That’s where Howarth comes in.
“That first year, it was just, what do we have? Can we do this, what does it look like, and is this real?,” he recalls. “Once every two weeks, we’d meet and talk a lot. And then we got to the point where we were looking for space. Everybody kind of committed that this was something we wanted to do. It was really about timing. Plus, there weren’t two other people any of us would do it with otherwise.”
And for good reason.
“I mean, we were literally selling nothing at that point,” says Healey. “But because of Luke’s relationships, we had people invested in this company before the land where this building sits was even under agreement.”
Be that as it may, making Prep Partners a reality required a leap of faith. To many outsiders, the plan would seem overly dependent on esprit de corps and gut instinct. So how exactly did the whole caper survive germination from seed to seedling and from sapling to a sprawling superstructure in the New Hampshire woodlands? At least without someone losing their nerve.
“I think your morals have a lot to do with it,” says Healey. “You wouldn’t be friends if your morals weren’t aligned and that carries through for our whole life. We were just friends, and now we’re doing business together. But that’s a lot easier to do as friends than as colleagues or peers. We have two agreements on the business side. First, we’ll never let this interrupt our friendship or our families’ relationships, and second, any decision we make here as a company, it’s done collectively by the three of us.”
For Polimeno, it’s about that partnership as much as it is about anything else.
“We never used to talk about work, and now, that’s all we talk about,” he says. “But all this? It doesn’t feel like work. It just doesn’t. Equally important, I know these guys feel the same.”