Steve Jordan went to see Airpets at Heathrow to find out more about the business and how moving companies can use pet shipping as a profitable added-value service for their customers.
It happens about once every 90-seconds. It’s a deafening noise, but nobody at Airpets notices the passenger jets taking off from Heathrow just 500 feet above them; least of all Max Levell, who has lived on the site his entire life. What planes?
You could also ask, ‘what dogs?’. There’s the constant woof of contented canines everywhere; but nobody hears, not really. If they did, it wouldn’t matter. You have to be a certain sort of person to work in such close proximity to animals all day, every day. You have to love them.
Third generation business
Max is the third generation of his family to own Airpets. The company was started in 1966 by his grandfather, John Woodward, who later passed the business on to his daughter who appointed Martin Brown who managed the business for over 30 years. Martin has now retired so Airpets has returned to direct family control with Max taking a very hands-on approach.
I had been to Airpets before, maybe six years ago. What immediately struck me, as the automatic steel security gate swung open, was how little had changed in that time. It looked exactly the same. I even thought I recognised some of the staff. Then again, why change something that’s not broken.
Max welcomed me with a cheery smile and a mug of steaming tea before we settled down to talk about his business. Although he’s lived in the family home, on-site, all his life; and although the pet shipping business has been a permanent backdrop; Max got about a bit before deciding to settle. He trained as a commercial pilot but, after the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001, the market for pilots slumped. He then spent three years as the pilot of an air ambulance covering a 1,000-mile arc around London – great job! Max also has his own business restoring vintage Porsches: but that’s a story for another day.
His decision to become more closely involved with the pet shipping business was born out of a fundamental admiration for his granddad and the business he had created. “I felt that the business was lacking direction from the family and I think this is the best way to make sure things happen in the right way,” he said. “I’d love to be able to pass it on myself one day.”
There are lots of pet shipping companies in the UK, so what is it that makes Airpets different? Well, being at the end of a hub airport runway would not be a benefit for most organisations but, if you are a pet shipper, it’s very handy. “We do everything we can to make sure our animals are as comfortable as they can be,” Max explained. “Being so close to Heathrow means they don’t have to spend a moment longer in their sky kennels than necessary. If their plane is delayed, we just let them stay with us until it’s time to go. I don’t think any other pet shipper can do that.”
There’s also the benefit of 50 years of experience. Max said that there are a lot of newcomers into the pet shipping business. Some might be good, some not, but there is no way of telling the difference. Any company can hide behind a flashy website.
Airpets provides a comprehensive door-to-door service from anywhere in the UK to anywhere in the world. The company has a fleet of airconditioned vehicles, experienced staff, its own veterinary surgeons, heated boarding kennels, a five-star cattery and onsite sky kennel making. Why does it matter? Well, Max said that many companies do things in a very fragmented way and that’s when things go wrong. “We control everything here. It’s totally seamless. If something goes wrong, we sort it out ourselves. There’s nobody else to blame.”
One of the big problems, just as with removals, is when customers try to do something themselves. “We try to advise people but they sometimes insist on using their own vet or building their own kennel. We often have to pick up the pieces for other pet shippers when something has not been done properly. But sometimes there’s nothing we can do. It can be catastrophic.”
Most of Airpets’ business comes from private individuals by recommendation. Max also works for corporations and some government departments. Only around 20% of its business comes through the moving industry which seems astoundingly low. I know that some movers have relationships with pet shippers but, according to Max, most don’t. Why is that?
Movers have the honour of spending more time with customers than anyone else in the supply chain. Most households have a cat or a dog and every surveyor in the business has amusing stories to tell about canine (or feline) capers. Customers are often more worried about looking after Rover or Tiddles than they are their furniture. So why don’t companies seize the opportunity of providing an added value service to their customers and making a few extra quid at the same time? I have no idea!
Airpets offers commission to moving companies who refer clients. Other companies will do too. There’s no need to do anything, other than make the introduction. Even if you are not interested in the extra cash, helping your customer by introducing them to a pet shipper can make the difference between converting the move, or not, and it’s good to help customers make wise decisions. I am shocked that most companies seem not to bother.
I didn’t really discuss the pet shipping process with Max. It’s complicated and specialised and you shouldn’t be tackling it unless you know what you are doing. But there has recently been a change in the regulations regarding the importing of pets into the UK which is important. Max explained that if a customer is importing an animal, a ToR number (Transfer of Residence) is required otherwise the customer will have to pay 20% VAT, based on the value of the animal, when it enters the country. It is possible to reclaim the VAT if a ToR number is obtained within 12 months.
I said at the beginning of this piece that you have to love animals if you are going to work with them and, above all, that’s the overwhelming impression I was left with on leaving Airpets. The staff are encouraged to take their pets to work with them and the company even provides a staff kennel block for their use.
If you have read this far it’s because you are interested in animals, or in making a little extra, or both. My message, whether you use Airpets or not, is to get a relationship with a good pet shipper and use it to help your customers make wise decisions to help their pets travel safely, smoothly and in as much comfort as possible. Companies are always searching for a sales aid that will provide an edge against the competition. For many, this might be it.
Photos: Top: Megan Keenan, Senior Import Clerk, with her pack of spaniels that accompany her to work each day; top right: Max Levell; bottom right: Olivia Grellier, Veterinary Surgeon, checks out Sammy, a 13-year-old Labrador.
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