Business View Magazine interviews Donald Campbell, President of Campbell Bros. Movers Limited, as part of our focus on Best-Managed Canadian businesses.
Family-owned-and-operated for over a century, Campbell Bros. Movers Limited is a household name in Canada for local, regional, and international moving and storage. Based in London, Ontario, Campbell Bros. provides customers with a full range of moving services, including some surprising, all-encompassing relocation services that corporations and Government entities are finding invaluable.
Relocating successfully and comfortably is a paramount concern in any move. Accordingly, all Campbell Bros. employees are trained, dedicated specialists who pay absolute attention to every detail. The company is constantly upgrading and expanding its truck fleet to ensure it remains the most modern and reliable in the moving service industry.
Company roots date back to the late 19th century, when the Pratt family began doing local moves with horse and wagon. Pratt’s son-in-law, George Target, purchased the company in 1915 and renamed it ‘Target the Mover.’ In 1921, the first truck was purchased. When George’s son-in-law, Alex Campbell bought the company in 1945, it consisted of two ‘modern’ moving vans. Two years later, he teamed up with his brother Doug. They changed the name to Campbell Bros. Movers, and bought more trucks. In the early ‘50s, Campbell Bros. joined North American Van Lines to provide service worldwide. Later, they switched to United Van Lines, which rose from the smallest van line in 1964 to the largest in 1980. The Campbell Group of Companies played a part in that growth. The Campbell Group is now the largest shareholder in United Van Lines, which has a market share of 40 percent of long distance moving.
Alex Campbell passed away in 1986 and control of the company passed to the next generation; Don, Neil, and Vickie Campbell took full ownership. Amazing growth followed, as the company expanded locations and companies. Today, the Campbell Group includes 23 companies and 10 owned buildings, with over 150,000 square feet of modern, palletized household goods storage; more than any other moving company in Ontario. Campbell family members work hard with a trusted, long-term management team, and over 800 employees who are trained at company-owned facilities to offer the very best to customers.
Donald Campbell, current President of Campbell Bros., talks about why this ‘forward-moving’ company is high on Canada’s Best Managed Business list. Family pride and tenacity have a lot to do with it. “My great-grandfather started the company in the 1890s in St. Thomas, Ontario with a wagon and a horse, basically hauling anything for anybody,” he begins. “He sold the company to my grandfather who took it from being a horse and wagon operation to trucks. He went through the Great Depression. I can tell you in talking to him that he had some interesting stories of the long-distance move between St. Thomas and London in the early days. It was a three-day trip with horses and buggies. And later, with trucks that were going 10 miles per hour. They thought the road was straight between St. Thomas and Windsor, but if you were to drive it now, you’d know it’s kind of like a snake going down there.
“Dad bought the company in 1945, and brought his brother in a year later. From then through to the late ‘60s, they were on their own. Then the kids joined them – I started in 1969, and by 1980 I was President of the company. Unfortunately, my father, Alex, passed away suddenly in 1986 – the year we finished bringing the company to the generation I’m in, which is the fourth generation. I’ve been operating the company with my sister and my cousin as equal partners since then, and we now have five children in the throes of taking over, in the fifth generation.”
Campbell Bros. has offices as far east as Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Edmonton and Calgary to the west, with others in between – about 20 different locations altogether. Campbell notes, “We just completed a new three-location acquisition on the first of May; Manitoba for two of them and the third in Thunder Bay, Ontario. We are a member of United Van Lines and, as such, can service anywhere in Canada, the U.S., and around the world. We are an international mover with Star Line moving, and we’re also in the relocating business with a company called Transfer Ease Relocation. They handle the real estate portion of corporate and government relocations, where people being moved need to buy and sell their houses. We also have a Truckload Freight division and Office Moving and Library Moving divisions.”
Customers include residents, businesses, anybody moving from here to there; across the street or around the world; whether paying for it themselves, or having a company or government foot the bill. The long-distance moving industry has been in decline since 1980. Campbell explains, “That’s due to a lifestyle change, so it’s very competitive. There are a lot fewer movers now doing long-distance moves than there were in the ‘80s, and the number continues to decline. But the local markets have increased substantially in the last 10 to 15 years. It seems nobody wants to live in a house for more than five years now – which is good by me. The people who live in a house for 50 years anymore are very rare. As a result, the local scene has become very strong for moving companies.”
Commercial moves go up and down with the nature of the businesses. Some are growing and expanding operations, while others go in the opposite direction, shrinking in size. But it all requires moving. Campbell Bros. Library division seems to grow at a steady pace, as new libraries are needed. Just the re-carpeting of a library is a big job, on its own.
On the relocation side, Campbell says that the buying and selling of houses has become the major source of business for them. “It’s a service that no other mover offers. So, we’re in a spot that can handle everything for the corporate account; from looking after house sales, lawyers, and everything else involved, including the moving. Right from A to Z, they need to call just one person. We are the only ones in the market that can do that.
“We manage the whole process. For instance, a corporation says, ‘We want John Doe to move from Toronto to Vancouver.’ (Of course, they have policies limiting the amount that can be spent). They offer guaranteed home sales to their employees, so they can get on with life. We arrange for house appraisals to set the price, and we arrange for the realtor who’s going to market the house. If the house isn’t sold by the time the individual is moving, we take over the house and hold it for the corporation and manage it until it’s sold.
“At the other end, we help the individual find a new home that’s good value for when they get transferred again, and a realtor to help them buy it. And we look after the lawyers. There’s a list of 30 to 40 different things our relocation division looks after in terms of setting up all the details for the corporation. And we arrange for the move, and storage for goods if necessary. This is how we separate ourselves from competitors. We’re the only company in Canada, and I do believe in North America, that offers the full slate of services.”
It makes sense that other companies would try to copy such a progressive, value-added business model, but Campbell isn’t worried. “We have a lot of competitors in the relocation market – none of which are in the moving business. We have a lot of companies in the moving business – none of which are in the relocation business. And I don’t see a crossover happening. Quite frankly, I don’t think most of the movers can afford to get into the relocation business. And most of the relocation people aren’t interested in going into what is a capital-intensive business; buying trucks, etc.”
Campbell Bros. has a very important partnership with The TD Bank – a comfortable, healthy relationship spanning more than 70 years. With the bank’s valuable assistance, Campbell Bros, has grown from a small family firm to a large one with a great reputation far and wide. They’ve just completed their third acquisition in the last few months; an ambitious undertaking. Combining four different corporations into one could take a year or more to put the pieces together, but it’s well worth it in the end.
Campbell looks forward to a success-filled future for the family business he and his forbears have put their heart and soul into. He acknowledges, “We’ve been going through a succession plan. Within the next year or two, the younger generation will be taking over responsibility of the company. They have a number of ideas to expand upon, particularly taking the relocation business into property management. We just obtained a significant contract about six or eight months ago to manage property for a government corporation. It encompasses taking houses under management in an ongoing scenario; that’s a million-dollar contract, right there. And it’s just the beginning. I expect the relocation business is something we’ll spend more effort in growing. Also, the freight transportation segment will be an opportunity for growth as the economy improves.
“That being said, five years from now I’ll be sitting next to the pool with a margarita in my hand, while the fifth-generation succession team leads Campbell Bros. into a bright and prosperous future. No doubts about it.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Campbell Bros. Movers Limited
WHAT: Largest family-owned moving company in Canada; part of the Campbell Group of Companies
WHERE: Headquarters in London, Ontario