On the move

| December 12, 2008

Good people skills help household movers earn big bucks in niche market.

Packing up your worldly belongings and moving across the country can be one of life’s most stressful events. That’s one reason household movers earn some of the top bucks in the industry. Mostly owner-operators, they are highly specialized professionals who calm the frazzled nerves of their customers while taking responsibility for their most treasured material things. Home owners are notoriously anxious about the moving process, and a successful operation requires drivers with much more than just a clean driving record.

Joe Garlick of Fredericksburg, Va., has been moving customers for 26 years. He’s used to walking into the emotionally charged atmosphere of a household in flux. “I’m as much a shrink as I am a mover,” he says.

Before he even meets the customer, he’s in 24/7 cell-phone contact. In an industry that relies on repeat business and referrals, customer care permeates every aspect.

Garlick’s sister, Barbara Diseati-Ayers, co-owns his business, Apple Transfer, an agent of Paul Arpin. She says communication is key and the driver is a critical link between company and customer: “His demeanor and professionalism have to give the client the confidence they need to put their worldly possessions in the hands of the mover.”

Once the rapport is established and the details of the move worked out, Garlick still has to settle the client’s nerves before he pulls out the first box. “I introduce myself and my helpers,” he says. “I then try to listen to their concerns, and really focus on what’s causing the anxiety. Most of the time, it’s a matter of transferring my confidence to them.”

Garlick’s focus on customer service exceeds the demands of most trucking jobs. He’s moved some of his top clients dozens of times and largely is responsible for Apple Transfer’s 98 percent repeat and referral business.

Like all successful owner-operators, he has to deliver the goods safely and on time. But the rewards – top pay and high job satisfaction – make the household moving niche an enticing one. It also is a well-established market that reflects the country’s strong economy.

The American Moving and Storage Association, whose members include all the major van lines, projects a strong second half this year after a below-average 2006 and a slow-starting 2007. “As the economy picks up, so does the moving industry,” says Maryscott Tuck, director of statistics and training for AMSA.

Fleets continue to look for ways to attract top-of-the-line drivers. “It’s a very highly compensated niche for a good, customer-service-oriented owner-operator,” Tuck says. “A good mover can comfortably gross over $200,000 a year.” Of that, top owner-operators should net $90,000 to $100,000, Garlick says. The average net income of the small number of respondents to the 2007 Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report who own a drop-frame trailer, which often is an indicator of household moving work, was $79,000 in 2005.

Bob Cordiero, an owner-operator from East Haddam, Conn., who leases to Paul Arpin, says he netted $75,000 last year, a slower year than usual. He takes February off and does most of his volume in the summer, the industry’s busy season. He owns his own trailer and picks up other loads during the slower months. Gary Malcom, a United Van Lines operator, hauls household goods in the summer and electronics and high-end machinery the rest of the year. “The top money is in the summer months,” says the Ellenboro, N.C.- based owner-operator.

Most owner-operators lease to major van line agents, such as Apple Transfer, giving them flexibility to take on other loads when the industry slows down in the winter. Some owner-operators lease directly to a major van line, and others lease to independent carriers that have no affiliation with a van line.

Owner-operators should beware of leasing to “rogue movers,” Tuck cautions. “If you get offered a gig that seems too good to be true, it’s probably a scam or fly-by-night moving company.” Red flags include companies without a legitimate address or website, or that require customers to put up a large cash down payment and significantly undercut the prices of the reputable moving lines.

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