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Moving in Harmony

Jul 14, 2018
Steve Jordan visits the Harmony Relocation Network head office in The Netherlands to find out more about this rapidly-growing organisation

The story of the development of Harmony is complex. Every conversation I had about the company gave me another part of the jigsaw but the complete picture remained elusive.  I decided to trek to the company’s headquarters in Weesp, Netherlands, to talk to Managing Director Paul Bernardt and Marketing Manager Vanessa Cremers, to gather the remaining pieces.  

Paul and Vanessa explained that UTS Europe (the forerunner of Harmony) was a joint Dutch/German initiative set up in 1992 with North American Van Lines as 40% shareholder.  It was a great success.  “People wanted to be involved,” said Vanessa.  “It was a bit like oil spreading on water.”  Throughout the nineties it prospered and, around 1995, developed into a sales operation for corporate international work. However, in 1999, when North American and Allied were both bought by a large US investment company, there was a conflict of interest so UTS separated.  

The next incarnation came 18 months later when UTS signed an agreement with UniGroup. “The relationship was already strong between us as some of the North American people had joined UniGroup,” explained Paul. From 2001 the new alliance, branded as UniGroup Worldwide UTS, started to further expand internationally with UniGroup as its US partner. For more than a decade, the relationship prospered. Then the road got a little bumpy.  

The UTS brand was under attack in the US by UPS that felt consumers would be confused by the similarity in the names.  UTS won the ensuing court case on a technicality but to prevent any possibility of further problems, the group changed its name to UniGroup Relocation (Network). “We felt that the market wanted to see us as one company,” said Paul. “It’s easier to sell a single brand, whereby the brand itself also tells what it does.”  

Less than a year later UniGroup invested in own assets around Europe and, effectively, the alliance partners became competitors. This made the relationship untenable. “Under competition law, if you are competing in the same market you can’t even mention the word ‘customer’,” said Paul. The organisations decided to separate on good terms.  “It was all done very professionally, there was no fall out, it was a good exit.”  

In 2015 a new name had to be found once again. The name Harmony was chosen as it was felt that it reflected the image and purpose of the organisation.  The word ‘harmony’ also means the same in 45 languages spoken in 150 countries, and creates the same emotions.  “We wanted to show that our members are local companies, craftsmen, family owned and proud of their heritage; that’s what differentiates us from our competition,” said Vanessa. “It is our power.”  

Vanessa explained that it was still a big ask for the members.  “Only two years before they had been asked to change their branding and now they were required to do it again including stationery, trucks, e-mail signatures, etc.,” she said. “It was a totally new brand unknown to the industry and we asked them to have faith in the new branding and implement just before the peak season.”  The pill was sweetened by a change of strategy where the member company became the local leading organisation, supported by the shared services centre of Harmony.  “It meant that their own brands became the dominant brand, supported by the network brand.”  Their Harmony Proud Member logo was made with their own corporate colour, to show the firm relationship.  Only the head office uses turquoise Harmony logo without the Proud member element.  

The commercial co-operative, as Paul likes Harmony to be known, remained strong, despite the upheaval.  The Board also decided not to seek another alliance in the US but to work on expansion with members there, just like in the rest of the world.  “We spoke to Suddath because we knew the company, it has huge international business, and had just bought Secor in Washington, DC which was a co-owner of Red Sky software,” he said. “Suddath was also trying to decide how to expand internationally and wanted to do so through a commercial network. It was a good fit.”  

At this time Harmony also changed its business model to cease its direct sales operations and focus entirely on providing support services. When the organisation was made up of smaller member companies it was necessary to provide a central sales service.  With large bookers involved this was no longer necessary or possible. “Our members are the hunters.  That’s the way the larger bookers like it. We stick to developing activities that are better done centrally, and where we truly add value.”  

Since the change, the staff at Harmony has reduced from around 35 people to 18.  “It’s now a completely different profile of members. Most of the original German and Dutch members of ‘UTS’ have left but another 27, bigger companies have joined.” Paul explained that it is now the big bookers that brought in the business with the smaller members and the central office providing the support.  He said that companies are encouraged to keep the tonnage within the network but are not required to do so. “Our task is to make working within the network so attractive that it becomes the logical choice, and business within the network is growing fast”  

Since then Harmony has expanded in the US with the inclusion of New World in Chicago; Daryl Flood in Dallas; and Champion International in Pittsburgh.  “Now we have four excellent companies in the US and we need to give them the time to feel comfortable with the network,” said Paul. Harmony is also expanding in Europe with the recent addition of Grospiron in France, and Harsch and Kehrli + Oeler in Switzerland.  

The shared services provided by Harmony are extensive.  It is, for example, the only organisation in the industry that has successfully implemented a financial netting system and has made it mandatory with all members; it provides insurance, a group ISO programme, billing services, software, data processing, sales training and training for compliance and GDPR; and it has the ability to provide fast, comprehensive information for RFPs giving competitive cost prices allowing members to determine their own margins and respond quickly and inexpensively. All services are supplied on a pay-as-you-go basis. Even some of the larger Harmony members prefer to use the central services rather than hire specialist staff.  

Harmony members are required to comply with a strict code of conduct.  Membership is open to any company, as long as Harmony believe it to be of benefit to the organisation as a whole, and subject to a reference check and passing a physical inspection. Local members do not have a veto on new members joining, however, it is important to keep a good balance between the number of members in any country, and the size of the market.  Harmony prefers members to be FIDI or at least going through the application process. All members undergo both an internal and external audit every three years. 

Membership is in three categories:  full membership with full voting rights; system membership with half voting rights; and branch membership.  Members pay a fixed fee, and a variable fee on a scale depending on the volume of business received from the network.  A large net booker, for example, would pay significantly less then a net receiver. “We see this as a fair allocation of the costs,” said Paul.  

Harmony has been through some challenging times in recent years, it has changed its name, changed its business model and started to attract a completely different kind of company into membership.  “We are now stable, growing, deliberate in what we do and who we talk to and, I believe, on the right track,” said Paul. “Our main recruitment effort is currently in Latin America as we are ‘only’ represented in Chile, Brazil and Mexico.” Steve Crooks joined the company 18 months ago specifically to manage the American recruitment programme.  

How big will Harmony become?  Today it is represented in 55 of the world’s 195 countries.  Paul believes that it could easily be twice the size or more.  Out of 54 African countries, for example, it has members in only three. But covering the whole globe will be difficult and probably unnecessary.  Where will it be next year at this time … nobody knows … except, probably, Paul and Vanessa.  

Photos: Top: (Left to right): Willem-Frederik van der Heijden – Director Operations & Shares Services; Peter Harsma – Finance & IT Director; Vanessa Cremers – Marketing & Communications Manager; bottom right:  Paul Bernardt – Managing Director  


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