The Armstrong principle

Oct 14 | 2015

It’s been over 30 years since Dale Armstrong bought a moving company in Toronto, changed its name to Armstrong Moving, and started building it into one of the country’s most successful moving organisations. Steve Jordan spoke to him to find out how.

The moving company that Dale bought was virtually worthless, had a poor reputation and one broken-down truck. But Dale realised that he had a talent that could be applied to any business: the ability to get good people around him. With hard work and dedication the business expanded first to do local moves in the city, then long haul within Canada, long distance moves in the USA, international moves, fine art and commercial warehousing.

Asked what has been the key to his success, Dale makes it sound deceptively simple: “We consistently apply the proven business principles of continuous investment in the latest technology, staff training and process improvement,” he said. “All our management and employees embrace the culture of ‘better today than yesterday’.”

Dale is the CEO of the company. His fellow owners are Rod Speers, President and Derek Duffy, Vice President. “There are some things that we do really well,” explained Derek. “We embrace these things passionately.”

One of those key things is people development. “We know that if we can make our people a little better today than they were yesterday, we are going to keep growing,” said Derek. “The business benefits of low staff turnover, job satisfaction and higher profits will follow.”

One of the ways in which Armstrong is true to its principles is the Armstrong College that is dedicated to ensuring that every employee is at the top of their game. Derek explained that the idea was not necessarily to focus on technical subjects such as learning about documentation or packing skills, it is more about self development.

“We recently had a naturopathic doctor come to talk to us about how we can all strengthen our immune systems,” he said. “By having healthier employees we help them to embrace their lives both at home and at work. This type of lifestyle advice is woven into the curriculum of the Armstrong College.”

“We were all surprised how well everyone did,” said Derek. “Because they are very detailed people they went about their task meticulously. It would have taken them a month to pack a house but it did give them a good appreciation of what the packers do.”The College has been operating now for over ten years. During that time guest speakers have included experts on: insurance, public speaking, physical fitness, how to write e-mails properly, and even ergonomics to help those who sit at their desks all day to do so efficiently and safely. Last year the College organised a packing competition that was open to everyone except the packers. One of the road crew gave a brief tutorial then all the office staff had a go at packing a china barrel. When they had finished, the barrels were cut open to see how everyone’s work compared with the professional job.

Attendance at the College is compulsory for everyone, including the business owners. “It’s mandatory,” said Derek, “But they don’t need any encouragement. Most people are very happy to take part.” At the end of each session, which may include plenary meetings and workshops, the participants complete a short survey to rate the course and to provide feedback on what other topics they would like covered in the future. This level of engagement has allowed Armstrong to shape and grow the educational programme over the years.

The day after every session the staff take part in a test to assess what they have gained from the previous day’s course. They are grouped into teams to inject a little competition with the winning team being awarded a prize. “It’s very engaging with everyone encouraging each other,” said Derek. The company even publishes a ‘Top 10’ list of who’s doing best. Armstrong also invites customers to speak at the College to provide an insight into the complexities of their business.

The benefits of this type of education are not always easy to quantify. It’s more a question of faith: you know it works so just do it without necessarily assessing every twist and turn. “We don’t have statistics on the success of the programme but there is a massive amount of research that says that the companies that invest in training for employees do better,” explained Dale. “We know that it helps us to attract and retain employees. It’s a major differentiating factor when working at our company.”

The Armstrong College has become a vital part of the company’s development that sets it apart from much of its competition. But there are other aspects of the company that have also contributed to its success. It is, for example, a culturally diverse company. That is partly because Canada, as a country built on migration, is culturally very mixed anyway, but it’s also because Armstrong has made sure its staff represent as many sections of global society as possible.

“Over 50% of our people were born outside Canada,” said Dale. “We have people who are fluent in 15 languages and we are very good at making sure we use that cultural diversity for the benefit of our customers. Being able to work in their mother tongue can be a great comfort to people when they are dealing with unfamiliar subjects such as visas or customs clearance.” The importance of this type of diversity was highlighted at one of the staff feedback sessions following a College course.

Another area singled out for attention was the differing needs and skills of generations. The company’s workforce includes baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y employees, who all have different skills, outlooks and ambitions. “These generational differences are fascinating and looking closely at them makes sure that we touch all the important things for each group,” said Derek.

The Armstrong principle of making everyone today a little better than yesterday does sound simple, but it’s not. To pull it off requires constant attention and dedication to the cause. Two of the company’s latest initiatives, for example, are the Move for Hunger campaign for which Armstrong has become one of the top ten contributors; and Tree Canada that provides reforestation for areas of the country following natural disasters such as flooding or

damage from human activity such as mining. “This type of Corporate Social Responsibility activity is very important to us and our customers,” explained Dale.

So yes, to build a successful moving company you have to be able to do the moves well. But there is a lot more to it than that. It has become a cliché that a company’s staff are its greatest asset, but it is true and the way in which a company motivates, rewards and educates its people is critical to its development. For Armstrong Moving, this principle has served it well in the past and will continue to do so in the future.

Photos:  Top right: from left to right Derek Duffy, Dale Armstrong and Rod Spears; bottom left: the Company Headquarters.

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