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20 years on the acquisition trail

Oct 06, 2014
It has been 20 years since Geoff Watson and Gordon Lyall bought Doree Bonner. In that time the company has grown beyond recognition. As the company slips quietly into its 3rd decade under their stewardship, Steve Jordan stopped by the group headquarters in Dartford to see how they did it and what the future holds.

Geoff and Gordon have been friends and colleagues for a long time.  Their career paths have closely mirrored each other so it’s not surprising that they should find themselves running a business together.  What is more surprising though is the level of success they have enjoyed since joining forces in 1994.  That is, until you dig a little deeper; then it all makes perfect sense.


Both started their industry careers with Hoults, later bought by Pickfords as part of the company’s ‘Alternative Brands’ network that also included famous names such as Pitt & Scott and Trenchards.  Geoff became MD of Alternative Brands in 1989, was promoted to the Board of Pickfords in 1991 and later ran the company’s European operations. After leaving Hoults, Gordon ran Pitt & Scott before becoming a director in charge of The Alternative Brands and subsequently a director of Bullens, another Pickfords acquisition.


They were both successful and greatly valued, but harboured a desire to have their own companies.  In 1994, after Pickfords had abandoned its Alternative Brands experiment of which Gordon and Geoff were advocates, the pair bought Doree Bonner in Crayford.  Bonners of Welling had started in 1929 and been acquired by Alan Doree’s Catford-based company in 1989 (the origin of the company’s black cat logo).  Although the company was highly valued for its excellent local reputation and was well known for its expertise in moving to and from Ireland, its facilities in Crayford were lamentable.


“When we bought the company it was working out of a portacabin over a gun factory located between a council tip and a land fill site,” said Geoff. “It wasn’t much to look at.”



Over the next five years many changes were made culminating in its move to the current group headquarters in Dartford in 2000.  The most significant change, other than the obviously improved premises was a dedication to the acquisition trail, in many ways copying the business model that had been discarded by Pickfords. Over the next few years Doree Bonner acquired local businesses that all had excellent reputations, owners who were prepared to stand down and, in many cases, freehold warehouses. Names such as Richman Ring, Chapmans, John Duncan , Express and Jordan & Jarrett came under their wing: ten locations in all throughout the UK.


So what was it that Geoff and Gordon could bring to these companies that they had been unable to achieve as independents? “We knew we couldn’t do much with the domestic business but we were able to add international and commercial work,” said Geoff.  “We were also able to add a lot of management tools, business practices and group branding.”  All the Doree Bonner depots have common branding and the vehicles are in common colours but with the local identity still featuring prominently.  Local advertising remains in the name of the local identity, but international work is promoted in the group name only. “We wondered if having the local names on vans would be a problem for corporate accounts, but it never was,” said Geoff.


Today, the Dartford office alone is five times bigger than the original company they bought in 1994, together the group employs 180 staff and has 70 vehicles in the fleet.  What’s more, the company is profitable.  Its policy of acquisition has worked.


The Doree Bonner difference

The culture of any business filters down from the top.  Doree Bonner has become successful because its key people have made good business decisions and employed good people.  But it is the business culture that is responsible as much as anything else. “Gordon and I care about our staff and our customers,” said Geoff.  “If we care, so does everyone who works here.”


This principle shows itself in many ways.  Every customer is called the day before the move to make sure they know what to expect; briefings are held every morning before the crews leave so that they understand the job and the personal requirements of each customer; training includes inter-personal skills as well and practical ones; and if there is an insurance claim, it is a company requirement that the general manager visits the customer and brings the claim to a satisfactory conclusion within seven days. Doree Bonner uses Survey Monkey to record customer feedback. The company has also recently introduced its Values principles which are explained in a new brochure, discussed during training, displayed throughout each branch and posted in cabs. 



The company’s work is now 35% international.  All shipping operations are handled through the Dartford hub.  Most of the work is for private customers and goes to the main migrant destinations.  Doree Bonner is loyal to its overseas agents preferring to stick with trusted companies rather than spraying its considerable tonnage around chasing reciprocation. “Our relationships are very strong,” said Geoff. “Our agents know that if we lose a job, so do they, so we work together to make sure our services are excellent and our prices as good as they can be.  We don’t work for practice, only for profit.”


2008 was the only poor year in the company’s history.  To combat the recession Doree Bonner focussed on business development, switching its sales effort from private to corporate.  It was a complete change in strategy.  It worked and today the company has a strong portfolio of corporate clients, mainly for domestic moving.  It also handles international corporate work but mainly for its agents or relo clients. “Although moving is a small part of relocation, it’s often the part that goes wrong,” said Geoff. “The clever relo companies know this and are happy to pay sensible rates for a high quality job.”


Paul Chesterman and Charlotte Aherne have been with the company for some years: Paul from Pickfords where he was Geoff’s trainee in 1984 and Charlotte from a Civil Service background. In recent years they have driven a programme of cooperation with estate agents and large businesses that has been very successful for Doree Bonner capitalising on the former’s need to provide services to their clients and the latter’s for a good quality and value-for-money service. 



Doree Bonner values its FIDI/FAIM membership as Geoff says that its customers see this as the most relevant sign of quality in the industry today.  He has also been a keen supporter of BAR over the years but does feel that it has now lost its way somewhat. “I don’t think it should be commercial in any way,” he explained. “It should provide information, advice and access to training from industry experts.”  In a published article recently Geoff made it perfectly clear that he did not think the BAR’s membership criteria were nearly stringent enough.  He said that all BAR Members should operate from commercial premises, not residential properties, that if they offered storage but did not have their own warehouse customers’ effects should have to be stored with another BAR Member to ensure contract conditions and membership criteria were upheld, it should be a requirement for all staff to be “legally employed”; that all vehicles should be “taxed and insured”; and members should be audited at least every two years. He said these criteria should form part of the minimum requirement for any professional industry.


The future

Asked what he is most proud of at the company, Geoff has no hesitation in putting his people on a pedestal.  People like Sally Saunders, for example, who was the company’s first employee and is now the Personnel and Administration Director; Nigel Smith, the Financial Controller who has been with the company since before the acquisition and is relied upon by Geoff and Gordon. And the general management team, all long-term members of staff who have been loyal supportive and successful.


For the future, he suspects the company will be back on the acquisition trail before long but he has no desire to spread its tentacles beyond the UK’s shores.  “Anyone reading this article that is interested in selling should get in touch,” said Geoff. He is concerned about increasing regulation and red tape, dealing with unrealistic pricing (not only from man and van operators), maintaining quality in the industry, and the exponential growth of technology and social media.  But despite these anxieties he believes that nothing can replace face-to-face communications and personal contact.  “People buy people,” he says, “and people will always pay a little more to get that little bit extra.”


Photos top to bottom:
Photo 1: Geoff Watson outside the group headquarters in Dartford;
Photo 2: Foreground: Dale Watson, Team Leader; Background: Graham Barnett, Team Leader;
Photo 3: Doree Bonner Staff;
Photo 4: The entire fleet assembled on Bostall Heath in 1953;
Photo 5: left to right - James Dasey, Group International Director; Gordon Lyall, Joint Managing Director; Sally Saunders, Group Personnel/Administration Director; Geoff Watson, Joint Managing Director; Nigel Smith, Financial Controller/Company Secretary.

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