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Haulin' Bed Bugs

by Jim Park

Wanna try something completely different? The household moving business is likely the furthest you can get from regular trucking while still hanging on to a steering wheel. The driving part of the job is much the same - keep it between the lines, don't knock anything over, and keep the logbook up to date - but that's where the similarities end. According to some movers, the driving part of the job is just something you do between your customer-care duties, the packing and loading of the truck, and the paperwork.

Few who've tried it and like it ever go back to freight hauling. But the number of successful transitions from regular trucking to household moving is pretty slim. The business is so different, says veteran mover Glenn Bartlett of Atlas Van Lines, that many freight haulers have a heck of a time making the adjustment. At age 50, he's been an owner-operator, or broker as they are known in the trade, for the past decade, but he's been in the moving business for more than 30 years. And that's not uncommon at all. Once you've accumulated the skills and experience you need to do the job properly, it's hard to just walk away. There's good money to be made in household-goods moving, but inexperienced or bad movers can pay out a fortune in claims, too. It's not the kind of job where 'decent' will get you through; you have to be 'great' all the time.

Today, 90% of cross-country moves are loaded and delivered by brokers like Bartlett, and when he hits the road, he's on his own. He's responsible for the safe and secure loading of the trailer, which requires an understanding of the furniture itself, as well as how to visualize a house full of furniture fitting into a bunch of little spaces in the trailer.

Antique furniture isn't the same as a couch from Sears that can be replaced if it's damaged. Some contemporary furniture, Bartlett has learned, is made so cheaply that an arm on a couch can crush if it's stood on end. Over the years, Bartlett says he's seen and handled all kinds of furniture, and he's still learning what's safe to stack and what isn't.

If he's loading out of his home base, he'll take a crew of loaders from the agent he works for, Parkway Van Lines in Ottawa. When he arrives at his destination, he'll visit the local Atlas agent and hire several helpers to off-load the furniture. The same applies when he's loading away from home. He's responsible for paying the crew, so he tries to find the most experienced bunch he can get.

"If I can get an experienced crew, I can usually load about 12,000 lb (a typical two-bedroom house with appliances) in six hours," Bartlett says. "But if they can't wrap, they'll have to carry everything out to the truck for me to wrap, and that can waste a lot of time and money."

Usually, the packing is done prior to the arrival of the line-haul truck, and a crew dispatched by the agent does that. They wrap the furniture, pack the china, books, etc., and box up all the treasures accumulated over a lifetime. Packing is a learned skill, and good packers are always in great demand. Bartlett says it's a real advantage for a driver to have packing skills as well, as he's ultimately responsible for the condition of the load.

Bartlett will occasionally pack his own load, and collect the packing fee, but only on small jobs - somewhere in the 2000 to 3000-lb range. Packing a large home can take a day or two, and it doesn't pay to have the truck sitting while he's in the house packing.

It's the driver's responsibility to supervise the loading of the truck, so he has to have some knowledge of how to load, and how to pack to ensure that job is done properly. As you can imagine, it takes a few years to gain those skills. That's the main reason there isn't a higher level of integration of inexperienced brokers into the moving business.

The Learning Curve

Dean Geldart of Geldart's Moving and Storage in Moncton, N.B., an agent for United Van Lines, says he gets calls regularly from freight drivers who've been talking to one of his brokers about the money they make. "It's almost always a call about a $20,000 line-haul load from Moncton to Vancouver," he says. "That's what gets them interested."

But Geldart doesn't hire truck drivers, per se; he hires furniture people that he later trains to drive trucks. That's what makes it difficult for an experienced driver to become a mover. It takes about two years to bring a new helper up to the point where he's ready to take the lead on a job, Geldart says, which has a serious impact on his earning potential.

"It's hard to hire a driver who's used to making a good wage, then put him into the training program, then out as a swamper at a fraction of what he made as a trucker," he says. "It's a really difficult situation to work around, especially now, when any help at all is getting hard to find."

Most movers begin their careers as helpers. If the helper is assigned to the truck, he or she takes direction from the driver on how to load the truck - where to place the furniture, how to pack it tightly enough to prevent damage due to shifting, but not so tight as to break something in the process. It's an art form, really, spotting those holes to fill with just the right piece. And the packers work in the house, with an experienced packer, preparing the goods for loading.

The damage claims are costly enough, but the worst part is facing the customer having broken their great-great-grandmother's favorite sugar bowl. You can't replace stuff like that, so the cost becomes a secondary consideration.

New brokers can get themselves some on-the-job training by hiring experienced local crews, and learning the trade as they go. Inevitably, it's an expensive way to learn, but it's the only way short of working as a helper for several years. Most of the van lines have in-house training programs to set the drivers up with the basics. Geldart says United Van Lines runs a week-long training course to assist helpers in making the transition to loader/driver.

Bartlett says the spring or fall is the best time to start in the business. It's a bit slower and you've got the time to learn the job. "It's too busy in the summer to take the time to teach someone all they need to get started in the moving business."

Business to Business

The relationship between the broker and the company is rather unique in the moving business. Typically, the long-haulers are owner-operators, and although they may work for, say, Atlas Van Lines, as is the case with Bartlett, he actually works directly for an agent of Atlas called Parkway Van Lines in Ottawa, which is operated by Fred Guy Moving and Storage. Still with us?

The pay scheme seems just as complex, but at year's end, it all adds up. The customer pays the van line 100%, the van line pays the local agent who books the move about 80%, says Bartlett. The broker gets about 80% of what the agent gets, but the figures vary between companies. On top of that, there are a multitude of surcharges, of which the broker sees 100%. The rates are based on the carriage fees from origin to destination. The customer also pays a packing fee to the agent for boxing everything up, which they usually keep because the agent usually deploys the packers to the home.

Depending on the van line, owner-ops are usually responsible for all their own operating costs such as plates, permits, insurance, fuel, etc., plus they pay all the labor costs for the hired help, and the damage claims too. Some own their own trailers and all the gear inside them, but they're the exception, according to Bartlett.

The rates are all set by a tariff, and each van line has its own rates. But when the discounting starts, everyone suffers, just like in general freight. There's some protection for the broker, though. Geldart says that if a local agent books a job below the maximum discount, the broker can bill the difference back to the agent.

Tariffs also apply to the labor rate for the local help the broker hires. In the east, United's rate, charged per helper to the broker, is $16 an hour. In B.C., Geldart says, it's $28. Brokers consequently prefer to hire their own help - experienced freelance lumpers, independent of the tariffs charged by the company. There was once quite a network of these fellows. They'd hang around the hotels where the movers stayed, picking up jobs as they were needed. The movers knew who to hire, and they'd vie for the best help available.

Today, with the shortage of young people willing to work like that, brokers are returning to the agents to hire their help, at the prevailing rate. They've gone from paying 10 bucks an hour, cash, to up to 28 bucks on the west coast, "which can be huge costs for the broker," Geldart notes.

As for those $20,000 line-haul loads; they're common, but you don't make three turns like that in a month. A round trip between Montreal and Calgary, in the busy season, can take three weeks, double that in the off-season.

Geldart points to one of his brokers who, as of mid-October, had made three cross-country trips, plus one to the Northwest Territories, two trips to Ontario, and he was on a Vancouver trip as we went to press. He's actually worked only about five months out of 10, but he's done a lot better financially than many brokers running three times the mileage.

There's certainly money in the moving business, but you earn it differently from the freight game. The mileage is more or less incidental. You'll get the miles, but there's a lot of sitting time, loading and unloading time, and of course the bending over backwards for the customer.

According to Bartlett, that's what separates freight haulers from movers.

"Moving requires an entirely different attitude," he says. "If you're programmed as a freight hauler to run, run, run, run, run, the sitting time will eat you alive. If you can pace yourself to go when you have to and sit the rest of the time, you'll do okay."

Customer Service

Loading household goods is like nothing you've ever done before. If there is such a beast as a typical house, the movers see it as 12,000 lb of stuff that will occupy about 1800 cu ft of trailer space. A 53-ft Kentucky drop-deck van will hold 4400 cu ft, at an estimated seven pounds per. A full load of household goods (two average-sized, or three apartment-sized homes) seldom exceeds 30,000 lb.

Appliances can vary tremendously in weight - generally the older, the heavier. Doctors and lawyers tend to have more books than the average home, and handy-type people might have more power tools than the rest of us, so there's more weight and bulk there than normal. Then there are the outdoor items such as canoes, picnic tables, snow blowers, and the like.

An 18,000-lb house can easily fill a trailer if it's all bulky material. There might be automobiles, motorbikes, or boats, which can really fatten the bottom line for the mover. Glenn Bartlett has had as many as six cars and 12,000 lb of boxes on the van at one time. Talk about putting a puzzle together.

In freight, you're only talking to the shipper or receiver for a matter of minutes. In moving, you're right in the customer's home, sometimes for up to two days. It's a much more intimate relationship. You spend a lot of time with customers during a very stressful period in their lives, and you have to keep the customer's interests and feelings at the forefront, always.

To illustrate the point, Geldart tells the story of one of his top men who had been on a job in Ottawa, moving a woman who had a huge load, 32,000 lb or more, and she had packed it herself. "All the stuff was in an apartment and down in a storage area. It was all over the place. The cartons hadn't been sealed. It was quite something," Geldart recalls.

On the second day of loading, she noted that the loading seemed to be taking a long time, which it wasn't under the circumstances, but the driver got a bit frustrated and said, "Ma'am, had you been more prepared, we'd have been out of here a whole lot quicker."

"Well, the woman started crying," Geldart says. "My driver called me and he was nearly in tears, too. He'd never made anyone cry before. That was about the only thing he'd ever said to a customer in 18 years, and it made her cry. Now, a customer could do anything to him, say anything about his mother, or his upbringing, and he'd never say a word."

They do things differently in the moving business, even the driving routine.

"I don't want them driving all night to deliver the next day," says Geldart. "I want them to do an honest day's driving, then get the sleep they need to be refreshed to meet the customer the next morning. I want them there bright-eyed, not dragging their ass in there, saying, 'Here lady, I've got your furniture,' while scratching a two-day growth on their chin."

That kind of performance doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in the company. Movers are expected to carry the furniture in, and place it where the customer wants it. If he's a good operator, he'll even put the dishes back into the customer's new cupboards. It's that different.

At the end of the two days, the customer will either be hugging you, or saying, 'Man, I'm some glad he's gone.' Customer service is everything in the moving business.

Moving household goods is a different kind of work, indeed. It's satisfying, it can be lucrative, but it demands a special kind of trucker. Less a trucker, maybe, and more of a psychologist, babysitter, mediator, manager, a friendly face, a shoulder to cry on and of course, a good strong worker. That's a tough bill of goods, but then, you're not handling a load of sprockets that no one has any personal attachment to.

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