Mark Burchell is the chief commercial manager at Sterling Lexicon in Jacksonville, Florida. Steve Jordan spoke to him to find out more about the company’s recent transformation and how he sees the future emerging for the moving and relocation industry.
It was on 23 April 2018 that Lexicon Relocation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Suddath Companies, announced that it had acquired UK-based Sterling Mobility. The new Sterling Lexicon handles around 25,000 annual global relocations with 16 regional offices and more than 1,500 supply chain partners serving 180 countries around the world.
“When we considered the cost of growing our footprint organically, people, facilities, corporate infrastructure, and the length of time it would take to develop the market presence and market share, the opportunity to acquire Sterling was too good to miss,” explained Mark, who now heads up the sales and revenue growth for the company’s mobility business. “It also came with a fantastic reputation, well-known brand around the world and most importantly a team of really talented and highly motivated people. It was really an opportunity to bring on board some significant talent with a culture that was similar to Lexicon. It’s really been a merger of equals that complement each other.”
The combined company is both an RMC and a moving company. It keeps its business in-house where it can and, of course, uses the network of Sterling companies around the world. It still maintains close relationships with many of the US agents previously used by Sterling. “I call it co-opertition,” said Mark, recognising that those legacy relationships are much too valuable to let go.
A moving heritage
Every company searches for a USP, so I wondered what Mark felt differentiates Sterling Lexicon from its competition. He said that, unlike the large RMCs that mainly came from a US real estate background, Sterling Lexicon has 100 years of moving pedigree behind it. “We come at the business from a different perspective. We didn’t build a business model on purely collecting referral fees on everything we do, it’s not in our DNA. We also have an integrated international forwarding capability with offices in India, the Far East and throughout Western Europe to give the company a broad global footprint. When you put that all together into a customer story, I think it does make us different.”
Mark said that the company is positioned at the intersection of people, services and technology. While technology is accelerating in its importance and ability to drive the market, relationships are still very important. “People are a critical element,” he said. “I think some companies have lost sight of that. This is not a business that can be run by robots … at least not today!”
Technology and disruption
That said, IT is clearly very important, and Sterling Lexicon has recently formed an innovation team that is charged with the task of working out what the future will look like. “As more services are purchased through Smart devices, we need to have the necessary systems and platforms that support the digitalisation of relocation,” said Mark. “They are my ‘looking over the hill’ team. You can’t really plan far into the future, but you need to have plans that address where the market is going. The horizon is about 18 months out and anything beyond that is difficult to accurately predict given the rapid pace of change we are experiencing in the business today.”
Mark recognises that the industry is in a transitional phase that needs technology and a human touch. He doesn’t agree that if you are a Gen Z you only want to talk to Siri. “People are motivated by different things; there is still an element of risk in the unknown. It’s true there is much more information than there was ten years ago, but is that information accurate and relevant?” He explained that the company’s tag line is ‘Mobility Optimised’: it aims to match the right place, right time, right job, right service and right experience for transferees to get them settled as quickly as possible while smoothing the way for the HR decision maker too.
My conversation with Mark took place only the day after a milestone meeting at IAM (International Association of Movers) about Standards in the industry and how the communication process between stakeholders throughout a relocation can be digitalised for greater efficiency and accuracy. Mark hadn’t been in the meeting, but I asked for his opinion on the principle. He said that he felt it was right that the industry was thinking in that way and there would be external factors that would force the industry to adopt these methods. “Without question that is the future,” he said. “I am 100% behind it. But we will see continued disruption in this business. The competitor I fear most is the one I don’t yet know: someone probably sitting in a university dorm. They will come at our business from a totally different perspective and cause disruption that will make it unrecognisable.” Mark pointed to the disruption we have already seen with websites such as TaskRabbit that gives homeowners easy ways of getting anything done around the home, including moving.
The lump sum market
A big part of the brief for Mark is helping clients with mobility strategy. Different vertical markets have different drivers for relocation and companies on the IT dominated US West Coast must work hard to win the best talent: for them the relocation policy could be critical to both recruitment and retention of their top talent. Lump sum payments to assignees has become a popular for many relocations and Mark confirmed more than 30% of Sterling Lexicon corporate relocations now fall into this category.
Of course, the marketing process for the traditional and the lump sum customer is different. “We manage our
lump sum clients through our digital marketplace where people want quick access to information, a vetted vendor database, and access to additional relevant services where appropriate” explained Mark. Sterling Lexicon, unlike some companies, has not chosen to separate its branding for the disparate markets and Mark believed that they are not that different anyway. He said the most attractive lump sum business is the managed cap segment where the corporate customer is making a direct recommendation to work with a company such as Sterling Lexicon. In that environment the corporate client still has a duty of care so that the assignee can focus on doing the job. “In that respect there is a close relationship between the traditional and digital branding and service mix.”
I asked Mark what keeps him awake at night. What bothers him? He said that he is generally very positive about the industry. Although people move for different reasons and they don’t take as much with them, he hasn’t seen any slowdown in the process of globalisation and people are still moving. He is concerned about geopolitical uncertainty caused by political unrest, trade wars with China, Brexit, North Korea, Hong Kong and the like, and whether these will cause companies to slow down. “We just make sure we run the business prudently and have contingency plans,” he said. “We are a ‘for growth for profit’ business and so are constantly looking at what we do and try to learn every day. It’s also important for us to motivate our people and give them the right tools to do the job.”
The moving industry has increasingly been focussed on price and I asked Mark how he managed the balance between price and value in his company. He said that business development is all about delivering value to customers and making sure they understand what they get for their money. He said that digitalisation can help with efficiency and productivity but also perhaps most importantly an enhanced customer experience. His company already uses BOTs and chat features to smooth the process. “By using technology in this way, it allows you to focus your people on more customer-facing tasks that add more value. If customers appreciate the value of your service, that should translate into a price point that is above the norm.” He added that the Suddath Companies have always diversified and invested in sales training and technology. “I think that the companies that haven’t done this are already in trouble.”
People still matter
Despite his years in the industry Mark is still excited and inspired by the moving business. He said that being at IAM in Chicago, for example, has reinforced for him the importance of people and relationships. He said how exciting it was to see the new generations and new talent coming through, from all over the world, that keep the industry energised and relevant. “It’s great to see people from all cultures coming together. It’s a fabulous melting pot and a nice energy boost. You can’t measure the value of attending a conference such as IAM and seeing the dynamic of 2000 people mixing and working together. It’s good to see that we do not work in a completely digital, sterile environment. This is still a people business at heart. Long may it continue.”
Photo: Mark Burchell, Chief Commercial Manager, Sterling Lexicon