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Interview: Phil Pertoldi, Group Managing Director of Abels Moving Services

Jul 09, 2012
What makes a great company great? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. The moving industry is notoriously competitive yet Abels Moving Services has a history of rising above the crowd. By Steve Jordan.

Abels Removals started in 1962 when Noel Abel expanded from his auctioneering business. Noel always maintained high standards.  He was a member of the old school who knew that a job was only worth doing if it was done well.  Keeping faithful to that ideal has led Abels through good times and bad, and is still working for it today. 

In 1988 Abels became the first removals company to hold the Royal Warrant to H M the Queen.  The connection with the Royal family started in 1981 when the company was contracted to move the Prince and Princess of Wales’ wedding presents.  In 1988 it performed a major move for the Royal household over nine days involving 30 staff and six vehicles moving offices between Buckingham Palace and St. James’.  “It was following that move that it was suggested it might be appropriate for us to apply,” said Phil Pertoldi, the company’s Group Managing Director.

Phil joined the company in 1981 but the change in direction, from a highly regarded local business into an international player had already started. “It was when Robert Crosthwaite joined the company in the late 1970s that there was a step change.  He really gave the company a long-term plan and direction that had been lacking,” said Phil. Robert was the first outside professional to join the company. “He applied his general manager role to what we were doing and made things happen.” It was during that time that Martin Parker joined the company to run the international side and Phil himself, met Tony Abel (Noel’s son) and Robert Crosthwaite at the BAR autumn conference, and was headhunted from Neale and Wilkinson to expand the UK military business from a new Cambridgeshire branch and be mentor to Martin.


The company grew, largely organically, opening in Huntingdon, then Colchester, and St. Albans.  David Muir also joined the team to run the Watton branch and the European division. Phil was based at Huntingdon as the new branch developer. 

St. Albans was to serve the London & International markets.  Ted Philp worked there for around a year after leaving Pickfords and Martin Parker too transferred to that office. “It was about that time that I realised culture doesn’t always travel,” said Phil.  “We were used to the loyalty and hard work you can expect in a small community, but St. Albans was different.  It was a very prosperous area but very hard to hold onto staff.  We often used to bring people in from Huntingdon and Watton to fill the gaps.”

In 1985 the company got the opportunity to handle the home delivery business for retail giant Marks and Spencer.  This took over as a more prosperous alternative to the UK military work and the warehouse in Brandon was opened just to handle the company’s returns policy. In 1991 the company was bought by Hays plc.  Phil stayed on to run the removals side; Robert ran the home delivery; David having left in early 1990.

In 1998 Phil, Robert and a fellow investor bought the company from Hays.  The business has prospered since.  Robert retired in December 2008.  A majority of the company’s business is now overseas moving, around 20% is UK domestic and a similar amount is project work such as the recent project to handle the movement of new furniture into the Savoy Hotel during its refurbishment.

Selling quality

Abels has held up well during the recession while others have struggled.  Phil believes that it has been the company’s ability to project a top quality image that appeals to the right type of customer that has made the difference.  “I think the business is always there, but we have to come up to the mark with the way we sell it, our knowledge, and our expertise so when the sales surveyor goes out they really do know what they are talking about,” he explained.  “We build up a rapport with the client so they understand that we really do know how to do this job.”  As an example, Phil quoted one of the speakers at the BAR conference many years ago: Richard Denny.  He asked why “you are frightened to go a second time to visit a client who will book, preferring to see three more clients who won’t book”.  Phil thinks it’s much better to concentrate on the jobs you can win at the right price.

A lot of Abels’ work is from the bigger homes.  The Royal Warrant has helped the company build a niche in this end of the market, as has many hours of networking amongst the right influencers such as solicitors and top estate agents.  But it’s still not easy.  “We’ve come across some of the biggest skinflints who have sold their house for millions, paid a fortune to the estate agents and still quibble about what we want to charge,” he quipped.  “But you have to be true to your beliefs.  Make sure the customers understand the value of the work that is being done. And you have to be prepared to say no if the work is wrong for you.”

Working online

Phil accepts that the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse.  Much of the company’s European and overseas work comes to it online but you have to be fast to respond and be clever about sorting out the good jobs.  “It’s about how quick and professionally you can respond to that enquiry.  It’s amazing what gems are in those kind of enquiries but it’s very hard work to find them.” Even over the Internet Phil still believes that it is the relationship that makes the difference. “We don’t believe we will get anywhere by just firing a quote in. If we can’t build a rapport with the client we probably won’t get the job.”

Getting the people right

Abels has always believed that it employs the best people.  But what exactly does that mean?  Phil said that training is important – the company has its own training school on site – and a strong peer group that encourages people to do well and be proud of their work. “We often have to go through 10 people to find the right person,” Phil explained. “But we train them well and there is a great pride in the company.  They also like working for famous people in nice houses. Customers often say how much the staff enjoy their job. It’s a good team ethic.”

Abels has also taken on five new apprentices this year.  Phil said that they do not have a minimum academic level to be accepted but they do give them a day’s practical training and that soon sorts out those who have the natural aptitude for the job.  He is concerned, however, that the general educational level of school leavers is poor. “It’s disgraceful that we have 16 and 17 year old boys who can’t read and write very well.”  He has even had to give some people English lessons to bring them up to the level necessary to complete the paperwork properly.  Phil does, however, insist that they look the part.  He doesn’t accept piercings, obvious tattoos or anything that would put the customer off.  Phil also feels that training people early in life is helpful as they become part of the culture and their friends and family accept the unsocial hours as part of who they are. 

Quality standards

Quality has always been important to Abels and, therefore, it comes as no surprise that it has embraced recognised quality standards such as ISO 9001, FIDI/FAIM, Investors in People, etc.  In general, Phil supports the aims of quality standards as a way of documenting a process as a management tool.  He also accepts that it’s important to be able to tick all the boxes when quoting for project work.  However, there are times when he feels the process gets out of control.  He recently had to provide so much paperwork to FIDI for the FAIM audit that he said it would have been cheaper to fly the assessor over for the day.  “But I think that FIDI has done a pretty good job of getting out into the market, so the FAIM Standard is of value.”

For smaller domestic movers, however, Phil can understand how they would have a fairly jaundiced view of standards.  “It’s hard to imagine that they would be of much commercial benefit but the process itself could be helpful by making them focus on what they do and improving efficiency.”

Abels has always been a success story in the moving industry right from the days of Noel Abel and his Shire horses.  Phil is clear about the source of that success.  “We have always been true to the culture that was set by an entrepreneurial family.  What Noel and his son Tony began, Robert, myself, my son Neil as International Manager, John Watson UK Services and all the team have carried forward.

Indeed the first two years of the recession, when most companies were struggling day to day, were among the best in Abels’ history including the 100% purchase of ICM Gerson.  So they must be doing something right.

Phil Pertoldi

Phil Pertoldi is the Group Managing Director of Abels Moving Services.  He started in the moving business working for the Constantine Group and, in the 1970s, ran Neale and Wilkinson Northern Ltd. He joined Abels in 1981. 

Phil was the chairman of the BAR Overseas Group 1993-94 and BAR president from 1997-98.  He has also been the chairman of UTS UK and Ireland, sat on the international Board of UTS, and is a current member of the Unigroup/UTS international Board.

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