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The Colin Quarrington Story

Feb 08, 2013
An interview with Colin Quarrington, PR man, on his retirement.

Colin Quarrington retires this month.  After 40 years as the PR man to the industry, he’s hanging up his camera and closing his notebook for the last time.  Steve Jordan met him in London to give him the opportunity, for once, to tell his side of the story and to reflect on a career dedicated to the moving industry and the people who have made it great.

I confess to approaching our rendezvous on a bright December afternoon with a little trepidation.  I don’t usually get nervous before interviews, and I have known Colin for 30 years or more so I should have been perfectly relaxed, but interviewing the man who has interviewed everyone is not a normal day at the office, even for me.  I should have realized, however, that Colin was equally apprehensive.  He’d never done a full-length interview before.  After four decades as the trusted aid and mentor of the industry’s leaders, there was too much to say - too much to remain silent about.

Colin’s work in the moving industry has been dominated by two groups: BAR and FIDI.  He was the PR man for both organisations, but that doesn’t begin to tell the story.  Yes he wrote and distributed press releases and acted as the guardian of their commercial images, but it was in his role as ‘the man who makes things happen’ that he found his true identity and the moving industry, worldwide, found its most loyal friend.

Early days
Colin was brought up, with his brother and two sisters, in Tangier, Morocco.  When the family returned to England Colin went to boarding school in Kent: “It’s fashionable to be critical of boarding schools but it’s a great preparation for life – if you don’t make the effort to get on with everyone else you’re sunk, and even if you’re rebellious by nature you have to learn self-discipline.”

It was while browsing in the school library that Colin made a discovery that would guide his career in a most unexpected direction. “I came across a big fat yellow book that described how in the early 1950s the American baking industry was in big trouble,” he explained.  “They put together a fighting fund of about $4million and came up with the idea of Dunking Donuts.  It changed everything.  I thought that if PR can change an entire nation’s thinking over a piece of fried dough, I want to be part of it.” 

PR was an almost non-existent business in England at that time and Colin’s parents were dead against it; although he left home at 16, to please them he spent two years studying to be a solicitor but was soon bored; a family friend, a director of Aims of Industry, advised him to get into PR by way of practical experience in journalism.

He got a job on a local newspaper in Harlow, Essex. “That was good training too. I remember that after handing in my first story John Weyers, the terrifying sub-editor telephoned me: ‘Mr. Quarrington,’ he said in menacing tones. ‘If you ever use a word in your copy that is not wholly Anglo Saxon in its origins I will personally tear out your guts and stuff them up your arse.’ And slammed down the phone!”

 After a spell in a sanatorium as a result of what was euphemistically called ‘burning the candle at both ends’, he move to a PR firm in London with accounts such as Volvo, Carlsberg, Bacofoil and Polaroid. “I learned a lot. It was a very small PR firm and I had to do everything: photography, press releases, design, special events – I even bought a Rolls Royce for a Hollywood movie star!”

A friend told him about a journalist in Portsmouth desperate for help with his growing PR agency. They met and decided to work together. But to his horror he was told that one of his clients would be a removals firm called White & Company.

“I thought, I really don’t want to work for some awful company with a couple of old vans under a tin roof. But my new boss told me just to go along for a meeting with Geoff Halliwell and talk cars to him. It opened an entire new world to me. I’d found my doughnut!”


                                                        Above: A cartoon of CQ by a work experience lad in the office

New business and the moving industry

The PR company became extremely successful but in a pattern that soon became familiar, success went to the company’s owner’s head. When not only a new BMW coupe arrived in the car park but the man’s mistress was given a senior role in the company, Colin walked out and formed his own company.

By this time his abiding interest was the construction industry working in dredging, civil engineering, hover technology and heavy plant and he built up a small portfolio of clients in that business. However, Sam Elliott, the MD of White & Company was on the board of the British Association of Removers which was considering hiring a PR agency. He asked Colin if he was interested.

“The 1968 Transport Act had abolished the old A and B licences and opened up the industry to van operators,” Colin explained.  “It had changed everything in removals and the BAR wanted someone to help them get the Act repealed. I told them to forget it and instead to take a more positive view of the situation by promoting the quality of the traditional remover against Man-and-a-Van … But BAR decided it couldn’t afford my rather modest fee, so when I heard it produced a rather indifferent magazine, I offered to take that on at no extra cost. I felt guilty taking it away from the editor but his magazine was desperately old fashioned.”

The magazine was a success and almost immediately moved into profit. In addition Colin’s company took the BAR message to the public through a relentless PR campaign through local press and lifestyle magazines.  “There were a lot of good companies within the BAR and the organisation was doing great things with its training (led by young, enthusiastic people like Colin Gordon now of TheMIGroup) but nobody knew about them.”

When Joe Luxford (Luxfords of Weybridge) took over the BAR presidency at short notice he asked for Colin’s help in planning his conference and so began a relationship with the BAR and later FIDI conferences and the beginning of the steepest of learning curves.

“I wanted to make a difference, so I spent £3,000 of my own money showing what a little bit of professional audio-visual could achieve – and luckily I had huge help from Neil Hambridge from Trans Euro who had a lot of theatrical knowledge.” The conference was successful and Colin, and his wife Pam, became part of the conference scene.

Colin had first met Pam when they were both teenagers, but didn’t marry for another 17 years. They became inseparable at conferences with Pam forging her own role as an essential support act to Colin and a friend to all those wives who were often unexpectedly thrust into the unwelcome limelight of a conference. “Pam was brilliant, there were so many things I couldn’t have done without her – she was my eyes and ears. For instance, I often wonder if Dick Ferriday knows that he was saved from having a Gary Glitter tribute band during his gala dinner because Pam and I got to the room with only minutes to spare to turf them out – somehow the booking agency had muddled the venues … or she and our dog would be with me at the office at 11pm waiting for the CMG chairman to fax through his copy for the conference the next morning … there are dozens of stories like that.


Left: When BAR conferences changed – Joe Luxford’s conference in Bournemouth was transformed – and members appear to enjoy the change at a themed French evening!  Right: Pam Quarrington and Jim Thompson (centre) enjoying dinner at the end of a Board meeting in Brussels.

Building BAR
When Hugh Wilson left BAR Brian Mitchell took over as General Secretary.  “I often wonder if people realise just how fantastic he was – smart as paint, no side to him, industrious and always well prepared. You couldn’t put anything over him.  If you stepped out of line Brian would pick up the phone and shred you like coleslaw.  After that everything would be forgotten and you would still be the best of friends.”

His relationship with BAR was very good, especially with Brian Mitchell and Sylvia Hawkins, the Secretary.  “They were a great team – and understood the membership. For instance, to this day when attendance at conferences is much lower I believe, no one realises that Sylvia always tracked past delegates. Weeks before-hand she would be on the phone cajoling and bullying people to register. In that way she probably added another 25% to the numbers. And we always went back-to-back with the FIDI meetings. It was typical of the way she and Brian worked.”

But Colin remembers many other remarkable people too. Chief amongst them is David Trenchard: “It’s a fact that big men are often the lightest on their feet – David is a big man and dances beautifully. He makes it seem so effortless – and that’s how he operated within the BAR – he was the consummate politician. But from his mind poured a stream of brilliant ideas for the good of the entire industry.”

“Then there was Eric Bourne. Tall, languid and always affable, he steered the BAR Publicity Committee for years with a skill that was a joy to watch. He was never afraid to try new ideas but sometimes with projects like the Customer Care Programme he was ahead of his time.”   Colin also remembers working ferociously hard with Tony Richman to create the Commercial Moving Group (CMG) against odds.  “It eventually succeeded thanks to the support of Derek Payne, the then president. It’s one of the things that I am most proud of during my time with BAR.”

When Michael Gerson joined the FIDI Board he recognised that the organisation needed to modernise. The FIDI Journal, a rather ponderous publication produced in three languages was very well intentioned but amateur, rather like the Removals & Storage of old. Colin got the editor’s job but it was soon made clear that his enthusiasm for the task ahead was not shared.

“One day I got a call from Mr. Andre Van Der Casteele of the FIDI office in Brussels. He told me ‘I understand you now have the contract for the FIDI Journal. You must understand Mr. Quarrington that you will not receive any co-operation from this office.’ And with that he put the phone down!  I understood then that the European ideal had some way to go.”

Then it was Jean Pierre (Arthur Pierre) who first asked Colin to help with a conference and Jim McCluskey (Grace Bros) who really changed things – “Well, more than change – Jim introduced a revolution.”

Committing to moving
Taking on the FIDI work was a big step for Colin and Pam. They had become part of the BAR family and knew that to make the relationships work it was necessary to have a real affection for the family members.  “We were now going into a bigger family and we knew we would need to commit to it.  We decided to gradually let go of our other clients which ranged from a leasing company (our biggest client by far) to construction-related businesses and to exchange ambition for the opportunity to travel and to spend our working lives with people we really liked.” 

The FIDI Institute and 35 Club
I asked Colin what he was most proud of during his career with FIDI.  “The FIDI Institute (now the Academy) and the 35 Club,” he said, without hesitation. 

It was in about 1986 that Jean Pierre conceived the FIDI Institute to provide training for the worldwide industry.  Lars Östman (Kungsholms) had recently retired and was enjoying life in the South of France when Colin and Jean descended upon him, handed him a computer, and gave him a few weeks to come up with the definitive manual for international moving.  “But Jean Pierre has a way of making things happen and it did happen after relentless hard work – suddenly there were 25 students from all over the world, studying together and bonding. It was a fantastic experience.”

The 35 Club came later as a way of keeping those young students together. “It was intended to build on the success of the Institute and to provide a platform for young people.  It’s hard to imagine but people used to tell me horror stories about the Old Guard at FIDI back in the fifties, some of whom were so grand that they totally ignored young people. But the 35 Club has done extraordinary things under the direction of its Board members – they have all been amazing.”

Recently, club members ambushed him when they named him the 35 Club Godfather and gave him a pen inscribed: Godfather 35 Club: CQ.   “Nothing in my entire business life has meant more to me. I was touched beyond measure.  I love the 35 Club because I love people who get on with their lives and do things. They play hard and work hard and I adore people who put a lot back into life.”

Long hours
For Colin working in the moving business has been a labour of love; but it was labour nevertheless. He was a work-a-holic.  Going to BAR meetings sometimes three days a week, going to Area meetings all over the country, spending three months a year on the road for FIDI, handling PR, the magazines, helping to organise three conferences a year (FIDI and two for BAR). “I was being run ragged because we were a tiny office. One day I overheard Pam telling a friend ‘I know when Q’s been home because I see a dent in the pillow’.  I thought, there’s a warning here. So I trained myself to get up at 3.00am every day.  That way I could usually get home in time to be with Pam.”  Even now he still wakes at 3.00am.

Leaving BAR
Colin resigned the BAR account in 2000. His last job was the centenary conference for the incoming president, John Luxford, nephew of the legendary Joe Luxford, for whom Colin had organised his first BAR event. He had enjoyed 27 happy years working with the organisation but, eventually, petty politics got him down.

“Almost every BAR president I had worked for was a sheer delight.  They were clever, affectionate and hard working.  But towards the end you could sense growing hostility – but in every association you always get people who come waltzing in with egos bigger than brains, move the furniture about and then bugger off. Certainly some people thought I had too much influence. Some were appalled that I wrote key speeches for instance -  but they weren’t bright enough to see that was part of the PR function. These same people probably really believe that an article in a newspaper under the by-line of David Cameron is actually written by him.  But of course it isn’t – his PR advisors listen to his briefing and then write the article or speech.”

“Anyway, there was a sort of a sort of seminar to discuss the future of the BAR, with everyone invited including the office cleaner, probably … but not me. After the meeting a good friend called to advise me to watch my back for the next three months or so – but I thought, after all this time and hard work why should I watch my back?”

He decided to quit, but in order to secure the job of his very hard working editor of Removals & Storage, he concocted a ‘pretty transparent’ story about retiring on the grounds of ill health.

Inspiring people
Throughout his career Colin has worked with the leaders of the industry.  Asked who had been the most inspiring he immediately said “The two Jims (McClusky (Grace Bros.) and Thompson (Crown)). They were not only visionaries but had such charisma – you would walk on hot coals for them. Both had an incredible eye for detail and were very well organised – and they made time for you because they understood the PR function and wanted things to be right. When I see some of the people standing in front of a conference now I often think ‘The Jims would never be as sloppy as this’.” 

But there have been so many others to learn from: “Ernst Jörg (Packimpex), who is typically Swiss and so passionate about everything he does; Cees Zeevenhooven (TEAM), a fantastic action man.  He’d just pick up the phone and get the job done.  Jean Pierre could take you into battle (even though you might not win) with total belief; Peter Robinson, a master class in management, never flustered, always seeing the wider picture; Chuck Lawrence with an incredibly analytical mind that could close like a steel trap; and Eric Lim who clearly hates cobwebs because he worked like a true tiger to open all the windows of FIDI.”

FIDI Today
Colin isn’t leaving FIDI with a sense of a job completed.  “People will be irritated by me saying this but FIDI hasn’t been the same since Karin Wouters left. She certainly got a bit above herself, but she was an obsessive worker, the office hummed like a sewing machine and I think we made a good team. Nothing was left to chance when we went to an ERC meeting to persuade corporates to use FIDI members. Sometimes she would take someone off for a coffee to explain how to draft an RFP, while I manned the stand and did the selling; in the evenings we went to the bars to drum up contacts. She had the same approach to everything which is why we had some of the best conferences, communications, PR and publications. She was tough, wholly committed and she made mistakes. Who doesn’t?”

“In terms of PR the goal Karin and I aimed for was to position FIDI right at the heart of the mobility industry. After all, we are the ones with the assets, the trained staff, the knowledge and experience and we deserve the high ground. I still believe that passionately – and it’s good to meet up with independent relo companies who may only have 50 or 100 moves a year, but since FIDI’s campaigning, they are all going to its members.”

His contract with FIDI has been terminated in a fairly bizarre manner which he is reluctant to discuss: “But it’s probably in line with the current mantra being spouted about ‘delivering service faster, cheaper and more efficiently’ which is the sort of language used by corporates that makes movers despair.

“I still have letters written to me by the late Phil Reading of Manchester, who used to refer to me as ‘That toffee nosed Tory from the South’ – and they are precious to me. We were great friends and worked together with Arthur Brown of Vanplan to secure the industry’s first ever mobile training vehicle to provide packing instruction around the country. BAR got it for free. I still have hundreds of similar memories, from people who actually worked on the vans to those like Paul Evans who is just a phenomenon. You can see their elbow marks on our kitchen table.”

olin makes a point of never regretting anything.  He’s met some wonderful people in the moving industry. He admires their drive, intelligence, reliability and hard work.  “I think that what I found in the construction industry I also found in the moving business – hard working, intelligent people, doing a tough job that is too often under-valued.”

He’s past normal retirement age now and jokes that he intends to become “a domestic goddess” – although Pam threatens to lock him in a shepherd’s hut in their meadow and not let him out until he’s written a novel.

He will no doubt continue his passion for classic Jaguars; he might even add to his collection of 400 Dinky toys; he has work offers from friends in the classic car business, but writing a book, perhaps the obvious choice, is not high on his list.  “I don’t really like writing,” said the man who has written more words about the moving business than anyone in history, “although I must admit I rather enjoyed ghost-writing the adventures of Rita, for the 35 Club. Rita was a very pretty but extremely naughty girl and I made up these adventures for her -  Pam would research the latest in make-up, hangover cures and fashion and I would do the words. I remember a woman coming up to me and saying: “Colin, I just love Rita – she understands so well what we women go through … she is just amazing!

I’ve always felt a bit guilty about that.”

By the end of the interview we were both struck with a mutual sense of inadequacy.  For Colin, how could he possible say all he wants to say, how could he thank all those he wants to thank and how could he possibly allow his true feelings out when the emotions, good and bad, are still so raw?  For me, how could I reflect the significance of Colin’s contribution to the industry and the affection in which he is held by so many, in just a few words?  Without saying a word, we both came to the same conclusion: we couldn’t.  Perhaps we need a little more time to pass before instalment two.

Meanwhile I asked Colin what he would say to the good people of the moving industry if they were all in the room at that moment.  His response was simple.  “Thank you for being my friends.”  On behalf of the moving industry Colin, may I thank you for being our friend too and wish you and Pam a long, happy and healthy retirement.

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