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Keeping the marbles on the tray

Nov 12, 2012
An interview with Nigel Dews, MD of Harrow Green
Harrow Green started in 1983 as an East London domestic and commercial mover.  Since then it has grown to become the leading commercial moving company in the UK. It has been a remarkable development in an ever-changing market.  Like all stories it has its elements of luck but, most of all, it’s been a matter of hard work and a remarkable ability to keep customers happy.

When Reg Allen and his business partner Tony Sullivan started Harrow Green in 1983 they could not have had any idea of the stroke of good fortune that was just around the corner.  It would provide the company with probably its greatest ever challenge and a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. It was called Canary Wharf.

Canary Wharf was the largest office development project London had ever seen.  It was built in London’s docklands and called Canary Wharf because, when it was used as a dock, many of the imports came from the Canary Islands.  The first tenants moved into the offices in 1991 and it was Harrow Green who was there shifting the desks.  Now over 93,000 people work there.

“Harrow Green had already made a decision to focus on commercial moving, but Canary Wharf gave us significant new opportunity. We already had several blue chip customers that Tony had brought from his previous life, using them as a reference point gave us the ability to rapidly scale up and of course the wins gave us win credibility in the wider city, we very quickly built up an impressive track record of blue chip companies,” said Nigel Dews. 

“Harrow Green moved 70% of the new occupants into the complex including those from Midland Bank and Morgan Stanley. At the same time we were also doing major city moves for Swiss Bank and BP.  I was at Pickfords at the time and I remember that everyone on the commercial side aspired to be like Harrow Green. They seemed to be a cut above everyone else in terms of their marketing material, their wider service offering and their engagement with customers.”

And it was this engagement with customers that set Harrow Green apart from its competitors at that time. The company was among the first to recognise the value of account management - keeping the customer happy – and developed its own dedicated Account Management Department that was just there to help customers plan and make their lives easier.  Reg Allen, now the company’s non-executive chairman, called it “Keeping the marbles on the tray”.  

 Why commercial?

Right from the early days Harrow Green recognised that it was in the commercial sector that their future lay.  “We stayed in commercial because business-to-business has a different relationship.  The international and domestic markets are more emotional because you are dealing with people’s personal possessions.  There’s also more opportunity to build long-term relationships and repeating business with commercial customers,” said Nigel.

However, not wishing to miss an opportunity, the company also developed its own International Department run by Steve Wilkins.  Reg Allen had, indeed, been on the FIDI Board and understood the value of international work as a way of maintaining an overall world view.  “But we only do corporate moves and are still very selective about the companies we work for.  We do domestic moves only for our existing corporate clients.”

The IT problem

The company’s development in commercial moving coincided with the IT explosion in which corporations became increasingly dependent on their IT systems for their day-to-day operations.  This developed into a problem for the commercial moving industry that Harrow Green solved at a stroke.

Until then commercial moves had largely taken place over the weekend with customers closing down on Friday night and being ready for business on Monday morning.  But as IT systems became more complex, it became impossible for their own IT departments to keep up with this ‘big bang’ approach to relocation.  “So we partnered with an IT services provider and created Relocom, a company specialising in the relocation of IT systems,” explained Nigel. “This immediately removed that barrier and allowed us, once again, to perform an 800-staff relocation over a weekend with the minimum of disruption.”

Getting higher up the value chain

For years the removals service had been a long way down the chain when it comes to the overall relocation.  Removals was seen very much as a bought-in service rather than part of the whole project management.  Harrow Green was determined, right from the early days, to be a valued member of the team that was able to influence decisions not simply follow instructions. “Furniture and fit-out companies were the first to handle design and project management,” explained Nigel.  “Relocation never appeared on the tender. The fit-out companies had preferred suppliers or developed their own service.”

In 1999, when Nigel joined the company, it started to spread its wings outside London and to add on more additional services including a furniture division, and a separate project management division, as well as the ever widening specialist IT services (through Relocom), and, in 2006, a fit out division.

“It used to be that just doing a good job got you on the tender list.  Now customers want to know what else you could do for them, demonstrate you can add value and introduce something new.  For us, the more services we can provide into the customer the more opportunity we have to develop our relationship. Customer longevity is extremely important to us.  We have a number of contracts where we have our people permanently based on a customer’s site, this type of service integration is always bespoke to the customer’s specific needs. All the services we provide can be described as being associated with a workplace change event.”

Recession and buyout

When the recession hit Harrow Green found it hard to compete in the fit-out market and made the decision to close the division during 2011, although Nigel is keen to point out that furniture still plays an important role. Harrow Green still provides furniture to clients and has strong partnerships with leading furniture manufacturers.

 “Most recessions didn’t affect us much,” said Nigel. “As long as people moved we did OK.  But in this recession people just turned out the lights.”  In February 2012 the company was taken over by Restore plc. One of the UK’s leading business services groups specialising in office relocation, records management, document scanning, recycling and shredding. “The company has a policy of buying well-run companies and supporting them, not running them,” said Nigel, he added “As part of Restore plc we have access to greater financial resources and the stability offered by a very strong balance sheet. As a result we hope to be able to grow the services that we offer through continued investment in our people and systems.”

Association supporters

Harrow Green has been a strong supporter of BIFM and the FMA.  Many large companies are engaged in regular office churn (called BAU, Business As Usual), a function that is often administered by outsourced FM providers.  Nigel sees having close contact with these organisations as essential as the relocation side is an area that these companies generally do not touch.

The CMG too is important (The Commercial Moving Group of BAR) and Nigel said that it has become more so since it adopted BS 8522 as a compulsory standard.  “It is very encouraging to see this now appearing on tender documents and is raising the bar for the whole industry.”

What is quality?

Few would doubt that Harrow Green provides a high quality service.  But for Nigel, what exactly is it that makes his company’s quality exceptional?  “We believe that there should never be a negative gap between customer expectation and our performance, also we make sure we focus on the outcome. We try to approach every project by having the customer's best interest at heart, we work very hard on our consistency of service, how and when we communicate and take time to understand our customers different needs. I want my customers to think that doing business with Harrow Green is simple.  I also want customers to have access to key people when they need it, personal commitment is very important to me.”    

Harrow Green also has its own training school.  “I want our crews to have the right tools, to be fully trained in the right competencies and skills, and know what's expected of them.  If we achieve this I think that is a demonstration of quality too.”  But Nigel admits that there is only so much that training can do. “It’s their attitude that is vitally important.  They spend the vast majority of their working time within our customers environment, so knowing how to interact and engage with people is key, this has become a really important part of our operative recruitment and selection process. We also place massive importance on the role and responsibility of our supervisors and foreman. We have designed our own training and development programme, which we are very proud of.”

Trade services

Harrow Green has some of the best commercial facilities around the country - Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Norwich, Bristol and London – all of which are available to other members of the trade for storage.  But the company has considerable expertise in handling large or difficult projects and it is in this area that it sees it can also be of help to other companies.  Nigel said that there is no need for a company to turn a large job down just because it’s bigger than they would usually tackle. “If a company needs help with a large commercial relocation we are happy to support them,” he said.  “This is about maintaining the industry standards in the eyes of the customer. We will always help when we can.”

Recycling

Recycling and reuse has become a vital part of commercial moving in recent years allowing customers to meet their own CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) responsibilities.  On large scale moves the furniture clearance project can be almost as big as the move itself.  The company’s office in Silvertown, E16 is a fully accredited recycling facility and has a policy of ‘zero to landfill’.

It is helped by its charitable partner Planet Office Global that recycles and reuses furniture for schools, charities, start-up businesses and third-world countries. It has a similar approach to electrical items, where meeting WEEE regulations is crucial with its first priority to wipe data to maintain security then arrange for equipment to be reused where it is most needed. 

Left: Planet Office Global work with Harrow Green to recycle office furniture
Middle: Harrow Green Operations: Rob Johnson, Lee Jackson, Andy Flynn and Kim Jackson
Right: High value lock up at Harrow Green in London


The future

Of course, Nigel is a little wary about revealing details of his plans but they all revolve around offering services that are associated to a workplace change event and have closely related m
arkets.  “We also want to encourage new talent,” said Nigel. “I’m not sure there is a clear career path within our industry but the new BAR apprenticeship scheme will help.” Harrow Green has already taken on apprentices through the scheme.

“It continues to be important that as an industry, we do not allow our service to become commoditised especially when dealing with procurement departments.  We need to make sure we are able to differentiate ourselves. The operational side of the business is very important but we have to win the job first and this should not always be based around being the cheapest price.”

“What is really important about our future is that we continue to set new standards, always keeping it simple and build on our great reputation.”

Quick profile: Harrow Green

Harrow Green is the leading commercial moving company in the UK in terms of turnover and geographic spread.  It is owned by Restore plc a business services group offering office relocation, records management, document scanning, recycling and shredding.  Nigel Dews has been the MD since 2008.  Ian Studd is the Executive Director London and currently the BAR President.  Terry Gibbs is Regional Director for the Midlands, North and Scotland, based in Birmingham.  Reg Allen, the company’s joint founder, is non-executive Chairman.  Charles Skinner CEO of Restore plc and Adam Councell the company’s Group FD also have seats on the Harrow Green Board.

Quick CV: Nigel Dews

Nigel joined the Pickfords management trainee programme in Huddersfield in 1985 and became branch manager of Bradford less than two years later.  He quickly moved up through the organisation to bigger branches and became the general manager for Scotland and the North in 1999 working out of the Glasgow office.  He was recruited by Harrow Green that same year to lead its diamond plan designed to expand its operations outside London.  Nigel started in Leeds, quickly adding depots in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. During this time he introduced records management to the company as a stand-alone business.  He was appointed to the Harrow Green Board in 2005 and moved to London.  He became MD in 2008 as part of the company’s succession planning.

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