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Mike Devereux: out but not down

May 09, 2011
Mike Devereux has been in the moving business all his life but is retiring this year after over 50 years in the industry.

Mike Devereux has been in the moving business all his   life.  He is someone who has never been shy about voicing his opinion and, as a past president of BAR, he’s had plenty of opportunity over the years to do so.  But this year Mike’s retiring after over 50 years in the industry as man and boy. Steve Jordan thought it might be fun to renew his passport and make the trip to sunny Billingham to see if his old friend had moderated any over the years.  Not a chance!

It was Mike’s father, Kenneth William Devereux, who started the company in 1946.  When Ken returned from the War he bought a vehicle and started working for the local Teesside chemical works and engineering plants.  It was in the early 1950s that he bought his first removal van.  “We never saw him during the week,” said Mike remembering his childhood years.  A few years later, when Mike decided not to go back to school the summer before his 15th birthday, he found out why.

Mike’s mother ran the business from the house.  In those days people didn’t have so many belongings and it was often possible to do more than one move in a day.  “We used to have a sheet of paper, half A4, that my mother ran off on a Gestetner machine,” he explained. “It had columns marked 8.30, 10.30, 1.30 and 3.30: we did four removals a day. We even had a few corporate accounts - Woodhouses, Brown Bros & Taylor - that specialised in cheap furniture; we did the deliveries for them in the evening after the removals had finished.” Of course after the work was done there were still all the estimates to do.  That’s why he hadn’t seen much of his dad until the weekend.

Looking back

As he approaches his retirement he looks back on his work with fondness for the way things used to be done and, something of a jaundiced view of the industry today. We’ve all seen the e-mails that do the rounds with tales of how things used to be done in the old days - days when children played in the street, trousers only had holes because they were worn out, and anyone with a wire sticking out of their ear was deaf – and Mike does have some fond memories of those times in the moving business. “In the old days common sense prevailed. You got paid for what you did and didn’t expect anything else. Even without all the health and safety regulations very few people got hurt. If they did, Dad would help them as much as he could and they wouldn’t sit at home waiting for some parasite solicitor to come on the TV encouraging them to claim compensation.  They just got on and did the job.” Of course, they didn’t have a TV anyway.

But Mike recognises that times needed to change.  He tells tales of how, years ago you could drive all hours. “But the roads were so bad they kept you awake,” he said with clear memories of dodging pot holes and foxes on the long two-day haul to London. “Now the motorways are very straight and fast so you have to have regulations on drivers’ hours and speed limits. That I don’t mind. As progression has taken over, common sense has run along side it.”

What Mike does not like is all the outside influences that have become oppressive. He sees it as snooping. “I object to people coming in here telling me how to run my business. They don’t know how to do it but they come in and tell me anyway.”

Mike was referring to the officials from local government, the HSE and, of course, the Standards organisations that have such a significant role in all our lives today: ISO 9001 (administration); ISO 14001 (environment), ISO 27001 (information security); BS EN 12522 (removals); BS EN 14873 (storage); BS EN 15696 (self storage); and BS 8522 (commercial moving).

“Of course everyone has a choice about whether then choose to comply with any of these standards,” said Mike, “but if you want to look professional and be professional you have to do it because your competition is doing it too.  Sometimes I wonder when all these numbers are going to run out. Soon there’ll to be no room to put anything else on the paper. The problem is we are feeding thousands and thousands of people who wander around with degrees in gross stupidity. They’d be better off sweeping the streets rather than going around annoying people.”

I told you he hadn’t mellowed.

The BAR years

Mike was involved with BAR, and especially The Institute, for many years.  He served as the BAR president in 1993, a role he accepted as a great honour.  His boardroom is dominated by a cabinet full of memorabilia much or which was gathered from BAR functions, conferences and other association meetings around the world.

Brian Mitchell, the General Secretary of BAR for many years until his death in 1996, was one of Mike’s greatest industry friends. “He was a man who walked along with his arm around me all through my BAR life, guided me and chastised me if I went too far, and looked after me all through the presidency. He was a guiding light – an absolutely wonderful man.” 

Mike tells of one of the saddest and also happiest days of his life. He and his wife, Janet, married on Mike’s 50th birthday. He said it was so he only had to pay for one party! The day after he and Janet were on honeymoon in the Lake District, even the sun was shining, a rarity in The Lakes – then he received a phone call.  Brian Mitchell had died while getting ready for his daughter’s wedding. “It was an absolutely devastating blow. It was a great loss, that in my opinion, BAR has never got over.”

“Brian was a leader who understood the business. That meant that changes in the BAR were always driven by the needs of the members. I have always been a raggy-arsed furniture remover and still am. People have more expensive furniture nowadays and we all wear uniforms but the job is the same.  Brian understood that.”  Mike went on to say that despite all the codes, regulations and standards that have been imposed in recent years, he still made more money 30 years ago.

“I miss the camaraderie we had in those days and feel sorry for the youngsters coming up that never had those good times. In those days the BAR Area meetings were packed; we had 200 people-plus attend every BAR Northern Area dinner dance.  We don’t even have one now!”

It’s no great surprise that Mike was not a fan of the recent proposal to make BAR membership Standards based. “I was extremely pleased when it was rejected because it would have brought another level of bureaucracy to an already over-weighted bureaucratic association.”

No regrets

Mike has had his battles with authority in recent years but, overall, he has no real regrets. He’s been able to work with his family: his mother and father in the early years, his brothers Ken and Tony now run the transport division, and his son Karl works with him on the removals side - and he’s made friends all over the world. “I’ve had an absolutely great time.”

Something tells me that the great times are set to continue for Mike and Janet as they settle down in the home they built together in Corfu. He certainly leaves his company in pretty good shape, despite a couple of lean years recently, for the next generation to grapple with the opportunities and the frustrations that the future will bring.  


Top: Mike Devereux with his father's portrait; Centre: Back in the 50s, KW Devereux would furnish transport for local scout trips; Bottom left: (left to right) Mark Trodden, Mike Bell and Karl Devereux; Bottom right: Mike with accumulated memorabilia from a lifetime in the moving industry.

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