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40 years and still breathing

Aug 18, 2014
Steve Jordan looks at his time in the moving industry and reflects on what was - and what might have been.


 

This year I celebrate, if that’s the right word, 40 years in and around the international moving industry.  Since stepping back from the front line, and becoming simply a commentator, I have interviewed hundreds of people.  Nobody, however, has ever interviewed me, and nobody is likely to do so.  Few, it could be argued, would be remotely interested but, in the hope that some might be curious, and to satisfy my own mountainous ego, I thought I’d do it myself.  So here goes.

 

It was a balmy August morning in 1974 when I walked into the Chesham office of Scotpac to start my new job as a shipping clerk. I had little idea of what to expect. I knew nothing about the job and nothing of the moving industry.  I’d only applied because I’d spent a few months in the merchant navy when I was 18 and I figured anything to do with ships was OK.  If I had known what the next four decades would bring would I have turned around?

 

I remember one of my first jobs was to check the rep’s estimates for migrant moves.  I was told to divide the price by the volume: it should have been about £2.50p/cu ft.  I believe that if you do the same calculation today it works out at about a fiver.  It’s just doubled in 40 years! Now I know shipping rates haven’t changed that much but everything else has.  People paid then, as now, from the proceeds of their house sale.  In those days the average 3-bed semi was worth about £8,000.  Now it’s at least 20 times that but movers constantly tell me their customers “won’t pay more”.  I don’t believe it.  It seems to me that the industry has convinced itself that price matters more than quality and so is incapable of selling the difference.  It was probably ever thus.

 

Six months into my new career, newly wed, ignorant and broke, I was given a choice.  It was a choice that I know now was the first test of my business character.  Glyn Thomas, the manager of the depot, left. Why, exactly, I never knew.  What mattered was he was considering setting up a new company with the Scotpac Warehouse Foreman, Jimmy Hanna – a slightly crazy and utterly brilliant Irishman.  Would I like to join the new venture?  I could have chosen safety.  Not for the last time I took a risk.  A short time later Glyn and Jim created Avalon Overseas, mainly as a local agent for military moves, in London’s Park Royal, with me as the hired help.

 

It was an apprenticeship that lasted the best part of 20 years. The early days were hard.  So were some of the later ones.  On my 21st birthday, a baking July day,  I started at 6.30am, loaded the vehicles with a clapped out electric fork truck that I didn’t really know how to drive, and spent the whole day making 185 cu ft US military lift vans, with a hammer and bolts, frequently having to vault down from nailing the roof to run up the stairs to answer the phone.  As the vans returned for unloading, I believe I had made 15 single-handed.  All day, Glyn had been conspicuous by his absence.  Sun burned, covered in sweat and dead flies, and worn out, I staggered home as the sun was sinking, to find a surprise party waiting for me.  Glyn had been there all day getting things ready and setting up the sound system. I didn’t know whether to hug him or hit him.

 

Later the military work gave way to migrant shipping.  I spent most of my time on the road doing surveys. It was a magical time.  I learned then to be comfortable with my own company; driving 70,000 miles, year on year, there was little choice.   I loved being with customers, helping them, building their trust, getting the business and making a profit.  We had plenty of firsts in those days.  I think we were the first to promote our use of recycled materials, to offer guaranteed transit times and to provide a shareholding for all employees. I always worked out quotes in people’s homes and gave them the price immediately.  That way I was in a position to negotiate, to sell and to close.  It worked, not always, but often. Technology and political correctness has taken those methods out of fashion nowadays.  

   

I enjoyed working with BAR at that time too.  I was on the Overseas Group Council and was lined up to be its chairman had I not chosen to leave the industry.  I was also the Chairman of the Freight Rate Negotiation Committee that we morphed into the MTC during my tenure. It was a great privilege to work with some icons of the industry on that committee: Ted Philp, Paul Mason, Nick Kerr, Moore Shanks and others.  Happy times.

 

Avalon’s warehouse and office burned down in 1982.  We lost everything.  Friends at Interdean baled us out with office space and a phone.  We had no way of contacting anyone. We just sat and waited for the phone to ring with a customer asking where we were.  Some asked about their storage; only then could we give them the bad news. Glyn, Jim and I had virtually decided to wave the white flag.  It was just too hard.  Just as the Scotch bottle was nearing the end, the warehouse foreman came in: a grumpy old git called Ken Reeves.   He said that he’d had a chat with the lads and they had agreed to work for the next month without pay if that would help.  With that loyalty, how could we not carry on. 

 

Carry on we did, for another seven, generally successful years.  But I think now that the fire had taken more out of us than even we knew.  The spark had gone with the flames. When Jim decided to return to Ireland in 1989 we sold Avalon to Trans Euro.  I stayed on to fulfill my contract for three years but my heart wasn’t in it.  I needed to do something else.

 

Someone had once told me that I was good at writing. With a rush of blood to the head I decided on the spot to become a copywriter.  I was a recently divorced, single parent with no money other than a few pounds I’d saved from the family allowance.  I blew the lot on a fax machine and some business cards. The risk taker had returned.

 

For three years I stayed away from moving until Paul Mason, the then treasurer of OMNI, asked me to write a quarterly magazine for the network.  Despite my best efforts, the moving business had sucked me back in.  I wrote the OMNI Observer for 17 years and still work with OMNI today.  From there I was asked to look after PR for BAR and in 2005 was asked to edit the Removals & Storage.  I accepted the honour, set up my new company, The Words Workshop, to handle the job, and held the position until 2011 when we started The Mover.

 

This is not the forum to point fingers as to my reasons for leaving the R&S.  It had been a job that I had loved for the most part but, in the later years I came to believe that BAR’s motives and mine were no longer aligned.  I believed that the industry deserved an independent, unbiased, objective publication and it was clear that I was never going to be given that freedom again within the Association.  Professional differences I think they call it.  I left with regret and full of anticipation for my new venture.  It was like jumping off a cliff in the dark.  Fortunately, the landing was reasonably soft thanks to the advertisers who supported us when the magazine was only an idea; and I must pay tribute to my team at The Words Workshop for making The Mover the success it has become.   

 

The moving industry has given me much more than just a living: international travel, independence, and an insight into the human condition amongst others.  But above all I value the true friendships that I have made through the industry.  Friendships that have been tested and have not been found wanting.  I believe the industry is unique in its ability to do this.

 

There have been many people who influenced me.  Ted Philp, an elder statesman of the industry who once asked my advice and made me appreciate the value of voicing my opinions in public; Tom Ansley who always demonstrated the power of enthusiasm; and Tom Wilkie, possibly the kindest man I have ever met. There have been many others. But most importantly, and unsurprisingly, Glyn Thomas who gave me a chance and taught me that I was only ever at my best when faced with an impossible task.

 

This sounds a bit like a retirement speech.  It’s not.  Partly because I can’t afford to but mainly because I don’t want to.  God willing I’ll be around for a little longer yet … especially if you keep reading the magazine.



Photos - Top to bottom: Steve with Milton Keynes's legendary concrete cows; Glyn Thomas, Jimmy Hannah, Avalon-liveried Luton-bodied transits and Avalon staff party (Noel Glavin is third from the left); enjoying the South African hospitality; receiving a 'furthest from the front' golf award 1999; publicity photo from Steve's early years as a copywriter; building relationships at the OMNI conference in Spain 1999.




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