This year Britannia Bearsbys celebrated its 30th anniversary. Deputy Editor David Jordan took a trip to the Garden of England to meet its founder Paul Bearsby and discover how the business has grown to become one of the best known and respected movers in Kent.
According to legend, it was Henry VIII who first gave Kent the title Garden of England, after eating a particularly scrumptious bowl of cherries that had been grown there. Jane Austen, whose father was born in the county, often visited and is said to have derived much inspiration from her time there. As I negotiated my way down the M25 and over the Dartford Crossing - making a mental note to pay the £2.50 Dart Charge - I wondered what she would have made of her beloved county today with its high-speed rail lines, oil storage depots and sprawling motorway network?
That’s not to say Kent isn’t still a beautiful county and for a removals company, especially one with close connections with Europe, it’s an excellent place to do business.
Britannia Bearsbys moved to its smart new 600-container warehouse, close to the M20 near Maidstone, in 2015. A Mercedes-Benz road train was being loaded as I arrived; I was later told it was bound for Italy, one of Bearsbys’ regular runs.
Paul and his wife Annette started their company, then called Bearsby Removals, in 1987 after leaving Pickfords where he’d been branch manager of the depot in Tunbridge Wells.
“I started at Pickfords as an office clerk a few weeks after doing my A-levels when I was 18,” explained Paul, as we sat in his office. “I gradually worked my way up through the ranks and finished up as branch manager at the age of 25.”
After 12 years Paul decided to start his own business. “We managed to buy a proper removals van and had it sign written with our big bear logo and the words, ‘Mr. Bearsby, the moving man’ on the side. It sounds really naff now, but at the time we thought it was amusing and gave the impression that we were big and friendly,” said Paul. “Money was tight and we had to move back in with my parents for a while to make ends meet, but the distinctive van soon became well known in the area and the business began to flourish.”
“Our office was a fitted wardrobe in the bedroom and I was working about 120 hours a week: removals man by day and office worker by night,” recalled Paul. “Annette used to answer the phone and try to give the impression we were a big company, but all too often the kids would make a noise in the background and give the game away!”
“Eventually we rented a small unit in Tunbridge Wells and began to take on staff,” said Paul. “One of the first people we employed was Peter Rye and after 28 years he’s still driving for us. People do tend to stay; at least seven of our staff have been with us over 15 years.”
Another long-standing member of the team is Ralph Sayers who worked with Paul when he was at Pickfords. Ralph has an engaging way about him and I took to him straight away; not least because he had just presented me with a mug of tea! Joking apart, Ralph is a charming man with a lifetime of experience in the industry and it was clear listening to their banter that Paul thinks the world of him. Ralph handles the initial enquiries, carries out the estimates and is the customer’s contact throughout their move. Oh, and he makes good tea as well.
The company now has a workforce of 25 including Paul’s daughter Katey, who takes care of telephone enquiries and general administration. Annette is still very much involved with the business and now works from home. Transport Manager Michael Hart is another key member of the team. “Michael has taken responsibility for a lot of the day-to-day running of the company,” said Paul. “Annette says I’m a lot less stressed these days and I’d like to give Michael credit for that.”
Bearsbys is a long-standing member of BAR and joined Britannia in 2015. “Joining the Britannia Group has definitely been good for us,” said Paul. “Like a lot of family businesses who join we were initially concerned about losing the identity we’d worked hard to develop over the years, but the benefits of being part of a large organisation far outweigh any perceived disadvantages.”
Most of Britannia Bearsbys’ moves are domestic although the company has extensive experience of commercial work and is well equipped to handle even the most challenging relocations. Recently the company moved Maidstone Museum, complete with its collection of prehistoric animals, to new premises.
With regular fortnightly runs to Italy and other countries on route, trade work for both Britannia members and other movers represents a significant part of Bearsbys’ business. Recently the company has broadened its European service to include Scandinavia with monthly runs to Sweden and Denmark.
As with most of the family removals firms I visit, the people who run them all have their own unique qualities that enable them to succeed. Paul and Annette took a chance 30 years ago and exchanged their safe corporate careers for the uncertainties of private enterprise. With their hard work and the help of their loyal employees they have succeeded in building one of Kent’s most respected moving companies. Let’s hope future generations will continue this industry tradition.
Photo: Top: The Kent countryside around Maidstone, home to Britannia Bearsbys; top right: Bearsbys’ distinctive first lorry; middle left: Paul Bearsby; middle right: Ralph Sayers; bottom right: Katey Bearsby; bottom right: Mercedes road train.
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