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SIRVA in Europe

Feb 07, 2019
Drew Coolidge has recently moved to the UK and taken on his role as president Europe for SIRVA, one of the world’s largest relocation and moving companies and parent of Allied Pickfords.

 

Drew Coolidge has recently moved to the UK and taken on his role as president Europe for SIRVA.

In an industry where scale and reach are critically important, SIRVA stands as an industry leader with operations in nearly every country and is a major influencer in both the relocation and moving fields. I started the conversation by asking Drew to paint me a picture of the development of the business and where it is today.

Drew explained that SIRVA was born in 2003 when private equity firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice first bought North America Van Lines and then acquired Allied Van Lines from the UK’s National Freight Corporation – which included Pickfords. SIRVA became a public company that same year.  Subsequent acquisitions included famous names such as Kungsholms, Arthur Pierre and Rettenmeyer. 

“I moved to Prague in 2006 with my family to set up a service centre and consolidate those moving assets,” explained Drew.  “We divested ourselves of those assets in 2007 taking all the operations we wanted to keep back to Prague.”  The Prague operation now employs around 220 people.

The economic challenges of 2008 that affected the entire US economy also impacted SIRVA as the company sold its Europe moving business to a third party along with other ancillary businesses.  In addition, the company went through significant management changes following a pre-packaged, Chapter 11 process. “We had a solution in hand before going into bankruptcy,” said Drew.  “Some debtors did a debt for equity swap.  We were in and out of bankruptcy in 92 days.”

 

The last ten years have been extremely positive for SIRVA.  The company has been growing globally with new clients and strong client retention.  After eight years with the private equity firms from 2009, the ownership changed again in August 2018.  According to Drew, the new owners are bullish and looking to invest. “They believe that the timing is very good for investing in the moving and relocation business,” he said.

Buying TEAM Relocations
In what might be an ironic twist of fate, SIRVA bought back into the European moving and relocation market by acquiring TEAM Relocations on 2 August, 2018.  Drew ran the acquisition team. I asked whether the company was back-tracking. “We are going back to being a more significant player in Europe,” he said, “but it’s not exactly from whence we came.  Previously we were more moving focussed; TEAM brings with it more relocation.  It certainly looks different from an asset holding perspective.  It’s more of an asset-light model, more ownership and control of the move management than moving itself. It also provides DSP and global assignment management with a significantly larger European footprint; all the things that our relocation customers demand.”

Was this part of a long-term strategy for SIRVA or more opportunistic? “It was a bit of both,” said Drew.  “We wanted to expand our footprint and be more significant in Europe.  We could have made small acquisitions in each country but TEAM gave us the opportunity for a complete splash at one time.  We have now moved from seven offices in Europe to 23.  It was certainly a tremendous opportunity when it arose, and I think TEAM is a very good fit for SIRVA.”  For TEAM the new owner provides an opportunity to market to global clients and not be perceived as purely European. “It was a symbiotic opportunity,” said Drew.

SIRVA’s relationship with suppliers
SIRVA offers its customers a full range of services to help them manage their human resource needs.  The bulk of its business is international moving with US domestic relocation business and transactions related to home sales also being fundamental.  Although the company owns significant moving and relocation assets both in the US and Europe, Drew said it will still rely on smaller suppliers to be an important part of its partnership network despite having the world’s largest reciprocal trading relationship between it, TEAM and Pickfords.

“We have had a long-term relationship with Pickfords, and that will largely continue,” he said.  “As our customers demand other suppliers, we will continue to do business with those who give us very good value in terms of quality and pricing. We are always evaluating our supplier base and there will be some consolidation amongst major suppliers to get better value for our customers. It won’t be a massive consolidation but some ‘beyond tertiary’ [third-level] suppliers, someone handling maybe 15 or 20 shipments, may not see that tonnage anymore.”

Working for SIRVA
Companies wishing to apply to be SIRVA suppliers should do so through the company’s global supply chain management team.  “We are in the process of installing state-of-the-art supply chain management software that will make it easier for those companies to enter into the SIRVA system,” said Drew.  

Drew explained that SIRVA values its broad network of supply chain partners but is always open to new approaches, especially from suppliers in emerging economies.  Although having the FIDI/FAIM standard is helpful, all applications are evaluated to SIRVA’s own standard so not being a member of a trade organisation, such as FIDI, ERC, OMNI or IAM does not preclude them from being of value.

Evaluating qualityDrew Coolidge, President Europe for SIRVA
Drew said that, on the moving side he felt the company had a good sense of who the high-quality players are.  This information comes from customer reports, assessed independently by Gallup.  “We know, for example, that some companies are better in some locations than others.”

“We understand that we can’t get good quality for nothing,” said Drew.  “Although we put a premium on very high quality, we also have a good handle on what good pricing value is and what is fair and reasonable in each market.” When asked about RMCs pushing moving companies too hard to reduce price Drew said that he believed SIRVA to be different.  “We exclude the removal element from our RMC P&L margins. All the profit that we think is fair is within the P&L of the freight forwarding company.”

Handling compliance
For some years now, compliance has been a major issue for businesses worldwide.  Drew explained that SIRVA takes the matter very seriously, requiring suppliers to sign up to the company’s code of conduct, take annual courses focussing on compliance and pass that information on to their employees.  While policing every transaction can prove to be difficult, Drew emphasised the committed the company has to making sure its suppliers abide by the code.  SIRVA employs the services of Trace International, a company that specialises in monitoring bribery risk in its suppliers and giving the company the opportunity of digging deeper if there is an area of concern.  It stops short, however, of requiring each supplier to subscribe to an independent monitoring service.

Regarding self-disclosure relating to potential breaches of compliance agreements, Drew said that self-disclosure would usually be treated differently than a breach that was discovered after the event, depending on the circumstances. “However, the outcome might not be any different,” he said. 

Of course, as a company moving thousands of shipments every year, compliance issues emerge. “We are very careful to stay on the right side of what is right and wrong. Our training does include the difference between bribery and facilitation payments.  We often explain a situation to our customers and ask them if it meets their own standards of compliance. We will take our lead from the customer.”  He added that he feels that having so many SIRVA companies working on the ground in each country, with local knowledge, gives the organisation an advantage when it comes to taking a pragmatic view of compliance issues.

The environment
A company’s environmental policy is part of the SIRVA evaluation process. However, Drew wasn’t sure whether customers would pay a premium for it. He said that some like the idea of having environmental controls such as re-using corrugated cartons, but don’t want old boxes used on their shipments. “It’s now more likely that customers look for efficiencies such as the reduction of paperwork and greater automation,” he said.

Similarly, movers are now beginning to add electric vehicles to their fleets.  He said that some customers will applaud that but was unsure whether they would be willing to pay more for it.  It would also be difficult to assure them that all their shipments would be carried by electric vehicles. “In the US, if we can fit 10% more weight on a truck and have efficient routing, that’s more environmentally friendly and will lower costs. We are constantly striving to do the obvious things for our clients while maintaining our value proposition.”

ISO Standards
I asked Drew about ISO Standards and how important they were to SIRVA.  As a Six Sigma man he said that although ISO is a good start it was not ‘make or break’ for SIRVA. Although Standards would be considered within an evaluation, SIRVA would not reject a company because they didn’t have a quality standard or were not a member of FIDI.  “We like to go a little deeper than that,” he said.  “I would encourage companies to engage in quality programmes to make their companies better. That should be the focus. I wouldn’t recommend qualifying for ISO as a marketing tool.”  He said greater efficiency should create better quality with less wastage and therefore better profits.

Procurement
Suppliers working with SIRVA do so on agreed rates which allow some flexibility for the inclusion of additional charges for extraordinary items such as long carry, high rise, special packing requirements, etc.  But Drew accepts that those charges can get nebulous if not controlled carefully.  “This is where we distinguish ourselves,” he said. “We are a moving company, so we understand how those things work.”

The SIRVA USP
SIRVA believes that it has a unique service model, certainly from the moving side. Drew said that most of SIRVA’s competitors have relationships with the real estate world whereas SIRVA comes from a moving background.  “We are the only company that is global and can cover the US and Canada with domestic moves with our own people as well as being one of the world’s largest household goods freight forwarders,” he said.  “We have the ability to offer US home sale, US and Canada moving, and global relocation services with our own personnel.”  Asked why that matters he said that customers like a single point of accountability: “One throat to choke! We can supply their needs around the globe.  We check all the boxes.”

SIRVA is also hot on technology.  SIRVA Analytics, for example, Drew believes to be unique in the market as it provides real-time information, push or pull, to customers, about their HR programmes worldwide.

In the future
Drew confirmed that SIRVA has seen an acceleration towards more lump sum relocations and smaller shipments. He said that SIRVA was also reacting to the attitude of millennials towards self-service and technology.

But he had another perspective on the trend.  He believes that as the right talent becomes harder to recruit for companies, they will need to re-evaluate the employee experience. In the past some companies, especially in the technology sector, thought employees should consider working with them to be a privilege. “Now it’s a seller’s market.  Employees have more choice, so some relocation policies will become richer as a way of pulling in talent.”

Some relocation functions can now be done quicker and cheaper online, so, SIRVA is working to integrate these services within their own systems rather than expecting assignees to go through third-party websites. This trend also shifts the value of what SIRVA does so it now needs to focus more on functions such as making sure the lease is friendly to assignees and providing appropriate legal support. “It’s our job to bring value to our customers,” said Drew. “As the coordinator of these outsourced services it puts less pressure on us than on our supply chain.”

That said, Drew believes that there will always be a segment of the population that requires on-the-ground services.  “There will be a shift in the views about self-service as Generation X matures, because they won’t have the luxury of time as they move into more senior roles.  As they move from manager to vice president I think their view on self-service will evolve.”

SIRVA differentiates itself in the market through its moving background. Drew said that as a moving company SIRVA understands the challenges, knows that things sometimes go wrong and can be more sensitive to the challenges that movers face every day.  That said, it also understands the business well enough to know what’s possible, to set a standard and hold suppliers to that standard.

Of course, the company is now in the process of its ultimate challenge: moving Drew, and his family, including teenage daughters, from Indiana to Surrey.  Despite his job the stresses are the same as for any other assignee. “There is never safety in numbers,” he said. “If one member of my family is unhappy, it’s the same as if they all were.” Drew will be tough with his evaluation of the process.  His family is excited about the new opportunity but anxious about leaving friends. How much of a cultural revolution it will be for his children he has yet to establish as, like most kids, their world is played out through their phones.  “We relocated before to Prague, but it’s different now.  Now they all have opinions.”

Good luck Drew.  No doubt your experiences will all be fed back and be reflected in the SIRVA experience in years to come.

Photo: Drew Coolidge, President Europe for SIRVA.

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