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Sunday, 13 May 2012 20:00

Mother knows best: Mary Ellen Sheets helps foster culture for Two Men And A Truck moving company

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Mother knows best: Mary Ellen Sheets helps foster culture for Two Men And A Truck moving company PHOTO: Mitch Ranger Photography
LANSING — A business that started as a way for two brothers to make some spending cash in high school has blossomed into an expanding international moving company that's leveraging technology and improved processes to grow.

["Two Men and a Truck: Giving up independence for common benefit"]

As a challenging economy forced people to move or change locations, Two Men And A Truck International Inc. could barely keep up with orders. When that flood of business turned into a trickle, the company needed to make some tough decisions to get back to its roots, spelled out in the company's tagline: "Movers Who Care."

Luckily, President and CEO Brig Sorber could always turn to the advice his mother gave him that defined one of the company's core values, the Grandma Rule: "To treat everyone the way you would want your grandma to be treated."

Setting the tone

From the start, Mary Ellen Sheet's fingerprint was all over the company. She helped Brig and brother Jon Sorber to hone the company's name, developed the logo on the back of a napkin and laid the groundwork for its community-based vision. Then she took over the company while the boys were in college at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

Sorber said his mother wasn't the typical entrepreneur, since she already had a good full-time job with the state government, but she took an interest in the moving business. For the brothers, that meant they could always come home on school breaks and have a quick way to make a buck.

As Sheets ran with the idea, the business began to take off. She saw the potential and bought a larger used truck to allow Two Men And A Truck to start doing larger moves. The company quickly began to take off.

"She absolutely loved the business," Sorber said. "Really, it became hers. She quit her job with the state of Michigan, hired a couple of guys ... and bought a brand-new truck."

The company didn't make money for two years, but Sheets worked without paying herself just to get it off the ground. When the company did make money — its first $1,000 — she didn't know how to prepare the taxes, so she decided to give the money to nonprofits in the community.

Sorber said the business community embraced the company because of the generosity Sheets started. It helped the company earn its new tagline: "Movers Who Care."

"Mom was never one to look at profits first. She just wanted to do a really good job," he said.

When you look at the decisions she made, they were the typical mother decisions," Sorber said. "She was not trying to bust people for a buck. She was always taking care of people. When she gave the first $1,000 away, she really set the tone for the company."

Two Men And A Truck has been a family-run business from the start. Sister Melanie Bergeron opened the second franchise in Atlanta, Ga. and today serves as chair of the company, focusing on its franchising arm. Jon Sorber operated a Grand Rapids franchise before rejoining the corporate office. Brig Sorber got his start with a franchise in Marquette while working full-time as an insurance agent before moving back to Lansing in the mid-1990s. He initially served as a franchise business consultant before taking over as president in 2007. He added CEO to his title in 2009.

Fixing what's broken

Over the past two years, Two Men And A Truck saw business climb about 30 percent. So far this year, the company's business is up 21 percent compared to 2011, Sorber said.

But growing the business hasn't been easy.
When the recession hit, the company was flooded with business as many people fled areas with poor job markets or had to move because of a foreclosure.

Business came easily. But the volume of business masked certain problems that were occurring in the company and with the franchises, Sorber said.

"When there is so much business, you can't see where you're broken," Sorber said. "We had so much business in 2000 to 2006 that we didn't realize how many jobs we were losing. Our customer service reps ... turned into order takers because there was so much business. When the business started to dry up, we couldn't close a deal."

While fewer people were buying homes, they were becoming choosier in selecting a mover, he said. With a "broken" customer service model and a failure to interact with customers via their preferred method online, he said the company fell on some tough times.

"We were losing more business not because of the recession, but because of our inability to adapt to how customers were using us," Sorber said. "We were at the brink of failure five years ago, and our franchisees could feel it. We were grasping at straws, which is a reactionary way to run the business. We needed to get in front of the eight ball. We need to really lead in moving and service in general. It took a lot of risks to get back to where we are now."

At the home office, Two Men And A Truck brought in some outside processes, expertise and skill sets and adopted a new management philosophy focused on accountability. The managers found they had to re-earn the trust of the franchisees, Sorber said.

"We've made some mistakes here, but what we've found is that when we own up to our mistakes and we fix them, our franchisees will call me up and say, 'Brig, you swung and missed the ball. But, we want you to keep swinging because your batting average is pretty good,'" Sorber said.

"What we try to do at our home office is keep our batting average high. When we are going to make changes, you need to bring those franchisees in and get their input. If they're part of the process, in many cases, they want to push harder than we do."

Currently, Two Men And A Truck is in the middle of a $14 million investment to put the entire company, including the 200 franchises, on a single, cloud-based server — versus having each franchise running its own independent server. The platform, known as Movers Who Care 2, was built in-house with partners from Lansing and Grand Rapids.

"At Two Men And A Truck, we didn't invent moving, but we can take new technology and apply it to an old service," he said.

Sorber said the new platform would lead to the utmost in transparency because it will allow the franchises to see all the data the company collects for a real-time comparison across all the locations, including customer service data. The cloud-based system will also help the company improve its logistics capabilities so that it eliminates running empty trucks as often as possible.

"We need to be a system of one and all work together. It's OK if we stumble and fall, as long as we stumble forward," Sorber said. "We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. There is no Nirvana in business. ...We grew like gangbusters and then rocked back on our heels. We thought the business was just going to come. But we need to evolve and change."

Looking for opportunities

As a result of making changes in the company, Sorber said Two Men And A Truck has been able to grow and capitalize on filling gaps in its franchise portfolio. The company has a goal of generating $275 million in revenue from some 420,000 moves in 2012.

Currently, the company has 1,400 trucks, 4,500 employees and spans more than 220 locations in 32 states. In 2013, Sorber expects the company to go through a period of even greater expansion, adding another 30 to 40 locations.

It also has a growing foreign business with 20 locations in Canada and one location each in Dublin and London. Sorber said the company sees a building opportunity in completing international moves from end to end.

All that out-of-state business has translated into $108 million in royalties coming back to Michigan over the company's history.

Based on Sheets' early guidance, the company also stayed true to its mission to give back to the community. The company donates 10 cents from every move to the American Cancer Society, which translates into $350,000 that Two Men And A Truck has given away over its history.

Sorber said in the next few years the growth opportunity for Two Men And A Truck will come from the East Coast and West Coast and "mining the diamonds in our own backyard." While growing the international business is a possibility, he said filling in the states where the company has no presence will be important, especially as the cloud-based logistics system comes online and franchises in smaller communities have a better opportunity to be profitable.

"We're setting records right now, but it's not because record (numbers of) people are buying houses. It's because we're doing a better job of communicating what we do to the customer, we're doing a better job of making sure their move is taken care of, and we're doing a much better job of ...taking responsibility and fixing (problems)," he said.

Staying true to roots

Leveraging technology is certainly important, Sorber said, but the company need not abandon low-tech solutions — like being mindful of providing good customer service in what are often stressful times for people buying the company's services.

In some cases, Sorber said it all comes back to listening to your mother.
When paid marketing consultants told the company that it had a "horrible logo" that looked "too ma-and-pa-ish" and instead suggested options that included prominent tractor trailers typical of big van lines, executives told them, no thanks.

"We just went: That's not us. We took Mom's drawing ... blew it up and put it on the side of the truck," he said. "The customers loved it, and the franchisees loved it. And we stuck with that."

Read 3485 times Last modified on Thursday, 02 August 2012 19:58

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