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.

In addition to above-average income, household movers enjoy the benefits of such recent innovations as electronically figured tariffs instead of the much longer paper billing, good fuel surcharges and more ergonomic training. But one of the most defining qualities for success in this field can’t be provided by a carrier or any other third party: people skills.

Cordiero figures he’s got about two minutes to make a good first impression. “I have to use everything I’ve got – humor, compassion and professional explanations – to put the customer’s mind at rest,” he says. The impression he makes and the level of service pays off; he often is requested by the company’s top repeat customers.

“You become intimately acquainted with the client and get a unique look into their personal life when you pack up all their possessions. In fact, sometimes we get more of a look that we’d like,” he says with a laugh.

After the mover meets the client, the physical work begins. Apple Transfer drivers fan out, prepping the house before the first stick of furniture is lifted, Diseati-Ayers says. Floor runners are put down, doorjambs protected, doors covered, edges wrapped in blankets and every potential obstacle removed before the job begins.

Good prep can make or break a job, Cordiero says. He does all his own prep and says it’s a huge factor in reducing claims. Careful preparation also reassures the client and sets the tone for the move.

Next, helpers begin packing and loading. Some owner-operators bring a trusted helper, though they often hire one or more locally. However much help an owner-operator has, he still stays on the job from the beginning until the last box is unloaded.

Most movers handle the inventory process themselves. “I don’t want to depend on a helper to be as careful with the paperwork as I would be,” says Mike Stinelli, an owner-operator from Phoenix.

He was glad he handled the inventory on a recent move. He’d just finished loading a 4-year-old girl’s possessions when she came skipping into her empty pink-and-white bedroom.

“Where’s Charlie?” she asked. His heart sank to his boots. Charlie was her live turtle – which he had inventoried as a toy. Luckily, his attention to detail resulted in the swift recovery of the pet. “You never know what’s going to happen on a job,” he says.

Most movers do their own packing, but some prefer to leave that to others. Gary Malcolm says he appreciates the expertise of the packers his company provides. “I like to concentrate on loading and driving,” he says.

Malcolm, however, stays on top of the operation even when he’s not doing his own packing, knowing he’s responsible to pay his own claims. “If you keep your claims low, you’ll make a good bit of money,” he says.

Using helpers not only makes economic sense but also helps cut down on bodily wear and tear. “I make sure I have someone to help me lift something that’s too heavy for one person,” Malcolm says. “I can’t afford to get hurt.”

He’s been lucky to enjoy good health, but many longtime movers say there’s no way around back and joint injuries. Degenerative discs and pulled muscles are common complaints. “It’s somewhat of a young man’s job, but there are not a lot of young men coming into the business,” Tuck says.

More attention to ergonomic lifting and the use of helpers cuts back on injuries. Cordiero stretches every day and engages in physical activity – such as biking and walking his traveling partner, a German shepherd named Pound – to stay fit for the job.

Along with the good money comes high job satisfaction, thanks in part to the bonds that develop between movers and their clients. Garlick has enjoyed getting to know many of his repeat customers. “There’s such a high level of interaction that you develop relationships not often seen in other segments of the trucking industry,” he says.


HELPING HANDS MAKE IT HAPPEN
Most owner-operators have to hire their own helpers. Because sloppy assistance in packing and loading can lead to a claim that the owner-operator has to pay, this is one of the challenging parts of household moving.

There’s also the matter of good workers being hard to come by. Owner-operator Joe Garlick travels with his longtime employee, Tim Worth. He’d rather pay Worth for his time throughout the drive than try to do it without him. “We’ve worked together for so long, it’s one less detail I have to worry about,” Garlick says. If the job is too big for the two of them, then he dips into his “little black book” of local names and numbers.

Owner-operator Bob Cordiero hires local helpers from a carefully guarded list he’s continually updating. The workers make an average of $12 to $15 per hour and can make or break a job. “I have to pay for any damages, so believe me, I’ll fire a guy in a minute if he doesn’t do the job to my expectations,” Cordiero says.

Most household movers say the quality of temporary helpers has decreased over the years. Larry Park, owner of Park Transfer and Storage in Tuscaloosa, Ala., an agent for North American Van Lines, says helpers tend to be more transient and less dependable than when he started out 30 years ago. “However, when you get good, hard workers, you keep up with them and treat them well,” he says. Competitive hourly wages, meal and travel expenses and a general attitude of respect toward helpers goes a long way toward keeping the job moving smoothly.

Owner-operator Mike Stinelli says he runs his crew like a drill sergeant. “I’m tough but fair,” he says. “You have to earn their respect and keep them motivated to do a good job. Unfortunately, your helpers reflect on you.”


UNPACKING THE NUMBERS

A year in household moving:
$10 BILLION in revenue
1.8 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS moved by professionals
17 MILLION HOUSEHOLDS change homes each year

Average cargo in a commercial move:
Weighs 8,000 POUNDS
Travels about 1,200 MILES

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