ANALYSIS: Profile - Higgins steers Kozmo with political gusto. Matt Higgins sees symmetry between political PR and dot-com PR. Both demand strong conviction and a willingness to brave whatever storm. Julia Hood reports on the man who speaks for Kozmo

It's a freezing January afternoon, and Matt Higgins is momentarily crestfallen to find that there are no new orders at Kozmo's downtown warehouse in New York City. 'It's so much better if we have an order to do,' he says. Higgins, Kozmo's director of corporate communications, is prepared to wait. Skipping the PR tour is clearly not an option.

It's a freezing January afternoon, and Matt Higgins is momentarily crestfallen to find that there are no new orders at Kozmo's downtown warehouse in New York City. 'It's so much better if we have an order to do,' he says. Higgins, Kozmo's director of corporate communications, is prepared to wait. Skipping the PR tour is clearly not an option.

It's a freezing January afternoon, and Matt Higgins is momentarily crestfallen to find that there are no new orders at Kozmo's downtown warehouse in New York City. 'It's so much better if we have an order to do,' he says. Higgins, Kozmo's director of corporate communications, is prepared to wait. Skipping the PR tour is clearly not an option.

Once an order arrives, Higgins jumps into action, taking products from the shelves, delivering them to the shiny green conveyor belt, where they are moved and wrapped. A mere eight minutes after the order is placed, it is whisked off to its destination by the 'spokes' - delivery people on bicycles.

There is a whimsical quality to the whole process, evoking images of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Higgins himself is something of a Willie Wonka, swooning over every facet of the facility, from the dispatchers' nifty tracking software, to the bright orange delivery pouches that have become a trademark of sorts for the firm.

The pace and urgency of the warehouse, and the dot-com industry in general, nicely parallels the more intense moments of political PR, where he learned his craft.

'If Matt was the Maytag repairman, he would go crazy,' says Andrew Resnick, Kozmo's SVP of marketing, referring to the TV commercial character who never had any work to do. 'He likes the action. I think he thrives on it. He knows how to deal with the media under stressful situations. He has got us out of a reactive mode.'



The calm within the storm

Higgins, 26, is half of the two-person PR team at Kozmo, a new economy company that has so far survived the bloodbath. It hasn't been easy. The firm, which delivers goods to the home or office in under an hour throughout nine US markets, had to shut down its businesses in San Diego and Houston. It had to shelve plans for an IPO, and last summer laid off some 400 employees.

A dollars 30-million cash infusion in December from Flatiron Partners has kept the company afloat. But it is clear that the tough economy is having an effect. Last week, Higgins was busy fielding press calls concerning Kozmo layoffs. The firm is axing 4% of its work force, half of which are technical staff, and is dropping the dot-com tag to shift its focus away from the Web.

Higgins and Stephanie Cohen Glass are the PR team trying to keep good news about Kozmo in the papers, and deflect attention from the industry's negative projections. Higgins and Cohen both have political backgrounds.

He worked for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; she worked for Emily's List, a nonprofit organization that works to get pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.

They have tackled PR headaches at Kozmo, including a firestorm in Seattle over employee background checks, a discrimination suit in Washington, DC, and the collapse of merger talks with the now-defunct Urbanfetch.com.

Last summer, Kozmo.com in Seattle asked employees to sign a consent form that would allow the company to run credit and background checks on them, in addition to the criminal checks that many employers run. Some employees refused to sign, and the local papers reported that Kozmo was threatening to fire anyone who did not comply.

Higgins says the company never intended to run full checks on staff.

'In my mind, it's one of those non issues,' he says. 'It wasn't what it seemed.' Still, The Seattle Times forced Higgins to defend the policies, asking him to clarify each point of the form.

'Why would you ask the director of corporate communications to explain the law?' he asks. Kozmo decided ultimately that the issue was not worth a battle and revised the consent form.

'It was a lesson well learned,' Higgins says. 'It became readily apparent there was no point in fighting a PR battle over something we didn't intend to do.'

The nonprofit Equal Rights Center (ERC) filed a suit in Washington, DC, accusing Kozmo of not serving the city's African-American neighborhoods.

'We maintained all along that race was never a factor in how we determine service areas,' Higgins says. Kozmo maintained discussions with the ERC after the suit was dropped, and later announced that the company would invest dollars 125,000 to increase Internet access in the DC area.

Higgins will not say much about Kozmo's heavily scrutinized merger talks with the failed Urbanfetch.com, because of a confidentiality agreement.

In October, news of the failed merger provided fodder for the media to sound the dot-com death knell.



A political science

If Higgins does not embrace controversy, he certainly does not retreat from it. Before joining Kozmo, he worked as deputy press secretary to Mayor Giuliani. He was 22 when he was first hired in the mayor's office of research and media analysis.

'The mayor is great,' Higgins says, explaining that Giuliani disregards age, political persuasion and experience in assessing how well his staffers do their job. 'One of the great things about politics is it's the closest thing to a meritocracy. That's how the mayor is anyway, he established that culture.' Higgins was on the front lines with Giuliani during such crises as the West Nile Virus scare, failure of the emergency 911 service, and the crash of Egyptian Flight 990. 'I worked every weekend for a year and a half,' Higgins remembers. 'I marched in every parade there is.'

Sunny Mindel, Giuliani's director of communications, says Higgins is 'incredibly astute at immediately honing in on what the issue is. Some people do not have that instinctive ability.'

Not bad for a kid who, at age 16, bluffed his way into a job assisting Democratic NY Rep. Gary Ackerman's campaign manager. 'He claimed vast computer knowledge, which I needed for demographic lists,' says Alan Gershuny, Ackerman's campaign manager, remembering how Higgins had overstated his ability. 'But he learned it. He taught himself, which impressed me.'

Higgins left the mayor's office in April 2000, in part because of the pressures of law school. He is currently in his third year at Fordham University, where he takes classes at night. It's hard to imagine how he finds the time to keep up with the demands of a dot-com job and law school. He readily admits that his schoolwork sometimes suffers, though he writes for the Fordham Law Review and made the dean's list in the 1998-99 school year. Higgins also lives with and looks after his mother, who is disabled.

It might seem like bad timing to have made the jump to the dot-com world in April 2000, a month after a major market correction. But Higgins enjoys being the underdog.

And from his current vantage point, he has discovered parallels between politics and the dot-com industry.

'The Internet is like politics in a sense,' Higgins muses. 'You have to have faith in it, a sense of intense loyalty or devotion to a cause or a project. It requires tremendous commitment, sometimes at great personal expense.'



MATT HIGGINS

Director of corporate communications, Kozmo

1992 to 1994: Computer operations/assistant to US Rep. Gary Ackerman's campaign manager, Alan Gershuny

1993 to 1997: Assistant to district manager, NYC Community Planning Board 8

May 1997 to July 1998: Researcher, NYC Mayor's Office of Research and Media Analysis

November 1998 to April 2000: Deputy press secretary, NYC Mayor Rudolph Giuliani

April 2000 to Present: Director of corporate communications, Kozmo.



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