From pig farming to B flat. A tribute to Colin Gordon

Jan 07 | 2016

At age 75, Colin Gordon has decided to retire from the moving business.  Steve Jordan caught up with him in his company’s meeting room at the IAM convention, to chat about old times, and what the future holds for this beacon of the international moving industry.

Colin Gordon has been in the moving business for 53 years. Although our paths had crossed many times in the past, at BAR events and international conferences, I had never got to know him well. So it was a special pleasure to have the chance to sit down, one to one, and chat to this quiet ex-patriate Brit who had been a guide and mentor to so many for so long.  

He was just 22 years old when he walked into a sparse office in North Finchley to be interviewed by Jack Gerson and his son, Michael. Until that moment he had no idea about the moving industry. He’d left school aged 17, worked on a farm in Kent cleaning out pig stys, a bank, and for Columbia pictures. At 20 he headed off to Stockholm, attracted by Sweden’s claim to be the world’s most progressive country, where he worked in a factory putting nuts, and later Cognac, in chocolates.

Two years later, after hitching back to London, he placed an advert in the Daily Telegraph under the Situations Wanted column: “Young man, 22, well-travelled, speaks some French and Swedish, looks for a challenging opportunity. Public school (if that’s really necessary).” 

Jack Gerson saw the advertisement, thought he sounded a bit ‘off the wall’, and told Michael to get him round for a chat. In short, Colin got into the moving business the way most of us did – by accident.  

“I accepted the job,” said Colin. Michael was only 25 at the time and so it was a good thing that Jack was there to add some maturity. Michael and I were both so young at the time.”“ Colin still treasures his letter of appointment which he still keeps safely to remember those days.  

At that time the company, Michael Gerson Ltd. had just four employees: Jack, Michael, Bill Saunders – who did the books, and Pat, the secretary. “Michael and Jack taught me everything I know,” said Colin. “Michael would take me on surveys to show me the ropes. What better mentor could I have had! I remember thinking how lucky I was to find a job that I loved so much with such great people.” It was about this time that Colin grew his distinctive beard: so he would look a bit older and wiser in front of customers.  

As everyone in the industry now knows, the venture was a success. “The Legacy from the old Pall Mall Depository (Jack’s old company) was a great advantage,” said Colin. “We had actors, dukes and duchesses on the books and we received a lot of high quality imports from friendly agents overseas. People soon worked out that we meant what we said, we handled every shipment individually, and did a good job.”   

Even at this early stage in his career Colin was an industry man. He was very much involved with The Institute of the Furniture Warehousing and Removing Industry, becoming its National Chairman in 1972, as Michael had been just four years earlier. That year he organised the first ever Institute study tour. “People said we were crazy,” said Colin. “They didn’t believe we’d be able to pay for it.” But Colin approached the Road Transport Industry Training Board (RTITB) who gave a hefty contribution to help with the costs, and the people came. The trip was to Canada and the USA. “We used Pickfords Travel to keep it in the industry and everything was organised by our friends abroad.” The Canadian side was organised by Bryan Bennett, then with MacCosham Van Lines. Little did Colin know how this relationship was going to affect his career thereafter.   

The early 1970s in Britain was not a good time. “There were strikes, power cuts, and IRA attacks,” said Colin. “It came to a head when my children wouldn’t get in the car before I’d checked it for limpet mines. It was time to leave. I wanted a new life somewhere else.”  

It was a desperately difficult decision for Colin. “Michael was stunned,” he said. “He tried to give me additional freedom in the business but that wasn’t the problem. Victor Bondarenko and Arthur Pierre both had offered me jobs in London, but I had been so close to the Gerson family, they had done so much for me, there was no way I was going to set up in competition against them. The ties would just have got in the way.”  

So, in 1975, with his wife, three children a dog and a cat, he headed off to Canada, arriving in January in Edmonton with a temperature of -25C. “I soon discovered what living in that climate is like,” he said.  

It was about this time that MacCosham was beginning to develop its international business. Bryan bought a company called Lancaster Moving & Storage in Toronto which became MacCosham International with Colin at its head. Ida Ceravolo was the first employee (now director of marketing for TheMIGroup in Toronto). Three years later, Bryan bought the international division from MacCosham Van Lines. He had a friend in advertising who suggested the name of Movers International. “Every time we answered the phone we would say what we do,” said Colin. “It seemed strange at the time but it was great.” Bryan became president with Colin as his vice president. Mike Sarll soon joined them from the UK to provide valuable industry experience. 

In those days there were few companies in Canada doing international removals and even fewer doing them well. “We were the only specialists,” said Colin. “Our reputation grew through the industry because people knew we would handle the business properly. It gave us a head start.”  

“Building something new in a new country was difficult,” he said. But the fact that he was an expatriate gave him an empathy with customers and they trusted him. “They knew that I understood what they were going through.” Colin is justifiably proud of the work he and his team did at that time. “The company has grown to what it is today for all kinds of reasons that were nothing to do with me. But I am proud to have been there on the first day.”  

It would be impossible to live through such a varied and pioneering career without a regret or two, and Colin does have some. In 1982 he had a feeling that he wanted to do something for himself so he left Movers International. He was going through a divorce at the time and he admits he made some bad decisions. He hooked up with his friend Peter Schaefers in the US but then realised he wouldn’t be able to get a green card because he had been born in Hong Kong. He returned to Canada and started a new business with Val Prinsep, now with Worldwide Movers Africa, called Gordon & Prinsep, which started well but didn’t survive long term. “It was all part of life,” Colin said, philosophically, “I regret making the decision too hastily but don’t regret the experience. I learned the things that I do well and those that I don’t. I only do the things I’m good at now.” Aged 50, he started again from scratch.  

Bryan Bennett invited Colin back to Movers International, he was there for over 20 years. During that time he worked on the quality side of the business helping to build the company’s reputation worldwide. He was there on 11 September, 2001, a moment that had a profound effect on him. Colin had remarried in 1999. When the twin towers were hit, Colin’s wife was in the air above Manhattan and saw the immediate aftermath. Colin feared that she was on one of the stricken planes and had no way of finding out for sure. “As it turned out she was on one of the last planes landed. I drove down as soon as the border was open.”  

Colin realised that the moving industry was vulnerable as it carried non-specific cargo. When, two years later, an initiative between large US corporations and U.S. Customs gave birth to the C-TPAT scheme, in which companies could qualify for reduced inspections at ports, based on certain specific security criteria, he was the first in the industry to be its champion. “I spent several weeks ensuring that everything was in place and that we fulfilled all the requirements. As part of the process, I travelled to the UK with two US Homeland Security Officers to inspect the facilities of our two largest agents in the UK as part of the C-TPAT procedure. I knew that this was the right thing to do and that it would be an important step for the company. I was very pleased that the company became the first moving and relocation company to be certified.”  

Following the certification, Colin spent several years lecturing and making presentations on 'Terror’s Trojan Horse' at Industry and Corporate gatherings, including The BAR Conference, FIDI in Stockholm, OMNI in Mexico and at many corporate and industry meetings around North America to raise awareness of the vulnerability of international shipping in general and international moving in particular. “We must all remain vigilant and aware of the dangers of being used unwittingly by terrorists and we all have the responsibility to ensure that our security precautions are never compromised - now more than ever.”  

Colin has been working three days a week for some time but now he’s handing in his key to the executive washroom for good. What’s he retiring to do? As you might expect, he’s a long way from carpet slippers and TV. He is a keen member of two organisations, which operate from two local universities, where he debates the lead story from The Economist each week at one and moderates a class on Jazz Appreciation at the other. In addition, for his birthday three years ago, his children bought him a trombone. “Learning to read music at 72 ain’t easy,” he confessed. But he’s joined a band of friends, all over 55; they practise every week, do concerts in the street and have a fabulous time. The oldest member is 87 years old. They call themselves ‘The Grateful Alive’. “It’s not the official name of the band but describes it quite well,” said Colin.  

As Colin looks toward as future played out in B flat, those who knew him well will appreciate the contribution he made, not just to his company but to the industry as a whole. On behalf of all those, may I say, “Thank you Colin, and may your retirement be long and happy.”

Photos:  Top:  Colin Gordon; middle right:  Colin networking with Enrico Frigo (left) and Gerry Lane at IAM in San Diego; bottom left:  He has recently taken up playing the trombone.

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