Moving on up in a challenging economy

May 24, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Rob Felcher's move to a new apartment back in the early 1990s when he was a student at Lansing Community College took him a lot farther than he had planned to go.

As he rounded a corner near his new apartment, with a big piece of furniture sticking out of the back of his car, he spotted a business nearby and a thought struck him.

"I thought, 'I'm moving furniture. I should check that out,'" he said.

The business was Two Men and a Truck, a moving company founded in Okemos in 1985 by Mary Ellen Sheets and her two sons, Jon and Brig Sorber.

Felcher, who was 24 at the time, had been studying business at LCC because he had always wanted to start a business of his own. But now he just needed a job and he was a hard worker, so he went into Two Men and a Truck and applied.

He got the job and went to work as an hourly employee, lifting and grunting and moving stuff for the next two years.

Felcher said he didn't have any intention of making a career out of Two Men and a Truck.

"That wasn't what I wanted to be when I grew up," he quipped.

But his hard work was noticed by Jon Sorber, who saw that Felcher had management potential. Felcher was promoted to assistant manager, and Sorber taught him a lot about running a business. Six months later he was promoted again, to manager. Another six months passed and Felcher found himself promoted to general manager of both the Lansing franchise and the Grand Rapids franchise.

Today, he owns the Two Men and a Truck franchise that covers the southern half of the Grand Rapids region from its base in Wyoming at 1575 Gezon Parkway.

Two Men and a Truck has come a long way from the moving company that started with one truck and two high school brothers hauling stuff for other people in order to make money in the summer time. After the Sorber boys went off to college, their mom kept getting calls from people who had heard about them and wanted to hire them. So she formed a real company with her sons, built a reproducible business model and began selling franchises in 1989.

Now there are more than 200 Two Men and a Truck locations in 32 states, plus Canada and Ireland. There are about 189 franchises in the U.S. alone, with about 1,200 trucks on the road. The privately held company made its 2 millionth move in 2005.

The corporation offers its new franchise owners classroom training at Stick Men University in Lansing. Other support includes monthly reports, annual meetings, and even Two Men and a Truck brand clothing and professional marketing materials.

"People look at us as a local moving company," said Felcher, although Two Men and a Truck does make long hauls — Florida to Michigan is a common run, for instance. However, unlike the big moving companies, the company only uses 26-foot straight trucks — no semis.

In addition to household furniture, Felcher said, "we do business moving. You name it, we do it — other than heavy-duty rigging," he added, referring to industrial equipment.

There is a lot of stress in the moving business. Some of it is emotional and some is simply physical; anyone who has ever done it knows how exhausting the work can be.

Rob Felcher
Two Men and a Truck/Grand Rapids South
Position: Franchise owner
Age: 41
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Eagle, Mich.
Family/Personal: Wife, Kim; children, Joshua, 8; and Emily, 6.
Community/Business Involvement: Board member, Michigan Movers Association; elder, Riverview Church, Holt; Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce; Movers for Moms.
Biggest Career Break: Stopping on impulse to apply for a job at Two Men and a Truck in Lansing.

"We usually tell people we hire in, 'Give it about two or three weeks, and you're going to find yourself becoming iron man'," he said.

But the business also requires another type of strength: an ability to empathize with the customer.

"A lot of what we do is psychological as much as it is physical," he said. "I think we do a great job with it."

"It" means reassuring the individual or family that everything is going to OK. Felcher said moving is one of the most stressful events in people's lives. Many people who have prepared for a major move will recall the dread they experienced that some careless lout at the moving company might damage a family heirloom.

Felcher said his movers are trained to demonstrate up front for the client how they are going to pad wrap the furniture and then carefully load and/or store it, so that the owner has one less thing to worry about during the trauma of a move.

The recession has had a big impact on the moving business, according to Felcher.

"We've seen a huge spike over the past year in people moving out of the state," he said. But while Two Men and a Truck was busy with long hauls, the local moves it is best known for declined as the recession got worse. The local business was flat in 2007, then started declining in 2008 and declined further still in 2009. He said 2009 was down about 11 percent from 2008.

That did not necessarily mean fewer people were moving; it meant the loss of jobs forced many people to move themselves using a rented truck, or at least they moved many of their possessions themselves and had the professionals do only the big, heavy pieces to keep the cost as low as possible.

The first few months of 2010 have shown a great improvement in the moving business, according to Felcher.

"If there's a bright spot in Michigan, it's definitely West Michigan," he said.

About three years ago, he decided to buy a Two Men and a Truck franchise, because "I love this company," and he wanted to have a business of his own. Jon Sorber owned the Grand Rapids South franchise, which was the second oldest. But Sorber wanted to concentrate on his work in the corporate headquarters in Lansing, so he sold the franchise to Felcher.

Felcher's first couple of years as an owner were challenging — coinciding with the recession. Just a few months ago, though, the corporation honored him for having the fastest-growing franchise.

Moving household possessions is largely a seasonal business that starts in May, but the summer months are busiest because parents with school-aged children often try to avoid moving during the school year.

Felcher said he had about 50 or 55 employees as May was approaching; by the peak of the summer season, he expects he will have closer to 60 employees.

"I have a tremendous staff at all levels," he said, and his employees are determined to "continue to be the No. 1 franchise, based on service."

Felcher is a member of the board of the nonprofit Michigan Movers Association, which works with the state in setting moving rates. Commercial movers in Michigan are required to be licensed by the state and are regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission. The MPSC website includes a consumer alert headed "Make Sure Your Mover Has a License!" A number of consumer protections are built into a new state law regulating movers, but those aren't much help if someone hires an unlicensed mover.

"Remember, a mover is breaking the law if they are moving you and are unlicensed. And it may cost you more than you bargained for!" states the website. It is probably a reference to what Felcher and other professional movers refer to as "the Craig's List guys" — individuals who run a Craig's List ad as movers. Those are frequently answered by people "looking for the cheapest way to move," said Felcher.

The problem is, an unlicensed mover will show up with a rental truck and a helper and "could destroy half your stuff, collect payment — then they're gone" by the time the damage is discovered, said Felcher.

It's not totally business with Felcher and his employees. They are also involved with several charitable events each year in the Grand Rapids community. They pick up toys collected for Toys for Tots during the holiday season and also gifts donated to Angel Tree. They moved pillows collected for American military personnel serving overseas in Operation Pillow Talk.

He and his employees are also active participants in the annual Two Men and a Truck campaign around Mother's Day, called Movers for Moms. Working with kids at the National Heritage Academies charter schools who collect things needed by young single mothers, the Two Men and a Truck movers in Michigan delivered more than 14,000 gifts to the 14 shelters for young mothers, including shelters operated by the YWCA in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

"I have been blessed, and if I can pass that along and help others, I certainly try to," Felcher said.

Those moving vans can come in very handy at charitable moments like that.

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