The small village of Harleston in rural Norfolk seemed an unlikely place to find one of the East of England’s most respected removals companies. Deputy Editor David Jordan took a trip into the country to meet the boss.
I’d allowed two and a half hours for the 100 mile trip from The Mover’s office in Milton Keynes, but as I followed yet another truck along the A143 towards Norwich, my satnav predicted I’d be ten minutes late for my appointment with Hamiltons Removals’ Managing Director Michael Sawyer. I pressed on and arrived with two minutes to spare. Finding the car park full I pulled up at the roadside next to one of Hamiltons’ smart dark-green liveried MAN trucks.
After signing the visitors’ book Michael greeted me with a firm handshake and a smile and we made our way up the spiral staircase to his office. Over a cup of tea - served in a proper cup and saucer - we chatted about the business.
Hamiltons began trading in 1993 and is still very much a family business with three generations now working for the company; the youngest being Michael’s 19-year-old son Sam who is responsible for the company’s two warehouses. Our conversation was politely interrupted by Michael’s father, Brian, who had received an important call and needed him to deal with it. While Michael was out of the office I asked Brian - who is now chairman of the company - how he had become involved in the removals industry. “We started in the furniture retailing business back in the 1960s,” said Brian. “At one stage we had five shops and it was all fine until the big discounters came on the scene selling furniture made in China and offering interest free credit.”
Brian told me his younger son Nick – now transport and operations director– had been ‘moonlighting’ doing removals at weekends with the firm’s vans and had turned it into quite a good part-time business. “That was our motivation to move into the removals business full-time,” said Brian. “So in 1992 we sold the furniture stores and started what is now Hamiltons Removals.”
Shareholder and Director Paul Walsh looks after the European operations of the business. Hamiltons now employs around 50 people and operates a fleet of 25 vehicles.
On his return, Michael showed me the training manual every new employee is given when they join. “We introduced the new manual this year and every member of staff signs up to it,” said Michael. “It literally goes through everything; what to wear, smoking policy, health & safety, staying away from home, and all the skills they need to do the job in the way we want it doing. We have our own in-house training manager who teaches things like packing, loading and manual handling, so we know everyone is working to a high standard. We’ve found it’s better to train our own people rather than recruit people already in the industry. We’ve developed our own ways of working over the years. For example, we start at 5 o’clock in the morning and all our vehicles are on the road by 6:30; that’s not something most people in the trade are used to,” said Michael.
The company moved from Ipswich to its present location about ten years ago and in 2012 acquired additional warehouse space a few miles away near Beccles. “We originally intended to increase the size of our existing 20,000 sq ft warehouse and had even obtained planning permission, but when the site in Beccles came on the market it was too good a chance to miss,” said Michael. “It was formally used by an apple growing company and although it was very run down it was perfect for us. It took a lot of imagination, effort and money to knock it into shape, but it’s given us around 100,000 sq ft of warehouse space and there are other buildings on the site that we’ve been able to rent out.”
Plans are well advanced to convert part of the original warehouse in Harleston into a self storage facility, which is expected to open for business next year.
Currently around 45% of Hamiltons’ turnover is generated from European work, the main destination being Switzerland. Regular trade groupage services are also provided to France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic and Scandinavia. UK business accounts for a further 21% with the remainder coming from Deep Sea, storage, insurance, commercial and packaging.
“We didn’t really get into Europe and Deep Sea until 2004, when we became a franchisee for Bishop's Move. Their international manager at the time was Les Wyatt and he helped us tremendously in the early days and taught us everything we needed to know,” said Michael. “When the recession hit in 2008 our turnover in the UK dropped by 57% and it was the European business that saved us. We do a lot of business with relocation companies and overseas movers as well as private individuals.”
Added value services including house cleaning, insurance and currency exchange are a very important part of Hamiltons’ business and all boost the bottom line. “We have an arrangement with Currencies Direct to handle foreign exchange for both our customers and our own overseas business transactions,” said Michael. “Customers are usually unaware that such services exist and are often sceptical at first, but the savings can be substantial and may even cover the cost of the move, so we’re very keen to promote it. The fees we earn over the course of a year make a significant contribution to our revenue and I would urge other moving companies not using them to consider doing so.”
This year Hamiltons has had an exceptionally good year, but Michael is not complacent about the future. “The recession in 2008 had a devastating effect on everyone in our industry and we must all do everything we can to protect our businesses in the future. I believe that spreading the risk by working in a variety of markets and looking at ways of generating additional revenue streams is the key to our long-term prosperity and survival.”