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'I always say doing removals defines you for the rest of your working life'

The stories you don't know about some of the world's best and little-known brands

As an amateur jockey in his spare time, Antony Ward Thomas tackled Aintree’s
Grand National fences for the first time at the age of 52.
As an amateur jockey in his spare time, Anthony Ward Thomas tackled Aintree’s Grand National fences for the first time aged 52.

“If you can kick on from this shockingly hard job, the long hours and come out of it unscathed,” says Anthony Ward Thomas, who owns one of the UK’s most successful removals firms, “I always say it kind of defines you for the rest of your working life. It’s a good training ground.”

Ward Thomas took just this route nearly 40 years ago. Starting out in Battersea, London with one van and no gearbox on a bank loan in 1985, he turned over his first £1m profit in 2004. Twenty years on, he now employs over 550 staff with a sales turnover of £50m.

Given that his name is behind the eponymous brand, Ward Thomas has instilled customer trust as one of the linchpins to success. “We provided a different feel to the work that people expected,” he says.

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After a stint working at the London Metal Exchange, a stripped off Ward Thomas was fired after a fire extinguisher episode at a Christmas party — “my definition of a bon vivant but no one else's,” he reasons — before spotting a gap in the removals' market.

Working for a rival business in Camberley “as a student” for two weeks’ work was an eye-opener. “The amount of thievery was extraordinary,” he recalls. “One time, the crew was getting rid of stuff onto another small van which was going into storage. It was endemic in the industry, people were paid poorly and they made up for it on the job.”

‘Caring about every move and offering a consistent service
are the two things that mark us out,' say founder Antony Ward Thomas.
‘Caring about every move and offering a consistent service are the two things that mark us out,' say founder Anthony Ward Thomas. (Alistair Hood)

After 12 months, Ward Thomas bought a second lorry and hired more staff. “The people we employed wore their cap with pride,” he adds, “they were willing, able and polite. They also weren’t thieves with no ambition. Those were my competitors.”

Ward Thomas, a former amateur jockey, expanded steadily until 2003 when he started using profits to make acquisitions. This was strengthend by bringing in a co-director, Charles Rickards, which Ward Thomas says was a “game changer” for the brand.

He says: “Charles brought a skillset, an analytical and inquisitive brain. I am a salesman where I still feel the pain when my efforts to sell removals fall on deaf ears when they go to a competitor.”

The year Ward Thomas recorded a £1m profit, the business also started selling employee shares, which has since built up to a 53% stake. Ward Thomas adds: "If someone asked me the single biggest reason why the business has performed so well, it would be our employee share ownership."

Ward Thomas says his staff are “paid well, respected and looked after”, while he also hosts a Friday night barbecue twice a month in the summer where “people let their hair down”.

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The firm currently has four branches in London, as well as in the home counties. It purchased specialist logistics business Bishopsgate in 2007, which was sold this year, and has acquired 11 satellite brands over the years, including then struggling Aussie Man & Van in 2012 for £1.

“There is no relevance to be nationwide, removals are localised,” says Ward Thomas. “There is no advantage of having branches everywhere. Pickfords and Bishop’s Move have tried that.” The latter, established in the 1850s, now has one branch in Guildford.

In the past they have moved houses for the likes of actors Tom Holland and Keira Knightley, who rode in the van with removals staff, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, and even used helicopters during one move in Verbiers.

Ward Thomas says organic growth, entwined with its traditional red uniforms, is 70% of its business and accounts for word of mouth, referrals or repeat business.

Ward Thomas employee shareholders receive dividends quarterly depending on how
well the business has traded in the previous quarter.
Ward Thomas employee shareholders receive dividends quarterly depending on how well the business has traded in the previous quarter.

He is also well aware of competition, which relies on web traffic compared to the longevity of Ward Thomas in the market. “We have to be aware of all this which is why our branding is so high in our list in maintaining our reputation,” says Ward Thomas. “As my name is on it, it gives a degree of comfort to the customer that there is someone answerable at the end of the phone or the move.”

The difference, he says, from when the firm started in the mid 1980s is that today’s customer has more product in the household. Gone are the days of one television in the house. Now in his sixties, Ward Thomas still relishes the day-to-day sales, which includes pricing a move.

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“Now I’m a bit more complacent, I look through the letter box and hope for the best," he smiles. "I used to be terribly accurate and prided myself on getting the box count right.

“The essence then is to convince customers to let complete strangers into your house, into their drawers, their life and then put it all back again with a wave and a smile. With the brand with my name on a big red lorry, it is encouraging when we are left alone and trusted to get on with it.”

Leadership

Back in the day the office staff all had HGV licenses and had gone through the pain of the ‘removal man’. That commands a certain amount of respect that they know that’s the case. Crews would come back and we could feel their pain and success and that ethos has been the same all the way through.

Industry challenges

I certainly wouldn't be starting out now knowing what I know. The barriers to entry are much higher now than back then. The rules and regulations, legislation, the Brexit fallout. It puts people off. There is a six month course of professional competence and the HGV course is three weeks. They place these hurdles in your way, they become more compressed and you will run out of puff before the end of the race.

Turbulent property market

Stamp duty should be up to the vendor, not the buyer. Why a purchaser should pay in addition to your tax free gain, and the purchaser has to pay a percentage of that, is entirely counter intuitive. It would make life a lot easier for first-time buyers as well as for anyone trying to climb the property ladder.

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