Mini profile: Rolling along

Rolling along

After rough start, Local Motion follows 11-year growth path

by Matt Krumrie     David Seeley’s start in the moving business was as horrific as the stereotypical moving story—the very image that Seeley’s Local Motion today strives to defy.

It was 1992 and he was 26, newly laid off from his job in the shipping department at ADC Telecommunications, and reluctantly going to business school at the University of Minnesota. To top it off his band broke up — “because we were really, really bad,” says Seeley.

He took the layoff in stride, and still worked hard in school, but the band’s demise made him owner of the truck used to haul its equipment. The vehicle was “old and dilapidated — a truck that no one else would want.”

He had to find some way to make money, and fast. He placed a notice on a board in Chaska advertising a moving company. The next day, someone called Seeley to move furniture because the hired moving company did not show up.

He got a buddy, cleaned up the truck a bit, and started driving out to the job. The only problem was the truck had no tabs, no insurance, and Seeley didn’t have a license to operate a moving business. On the way to the move the truck broke down and police came to the scene. They cited Seeley for the violations, putting him $1,700 in the hole. Seeley had the truck towed, did some repairs, and then eventually completed the move he was hired to do.

Seeley vividly remembers the frustration, but more importantly, he remembers how he was able to provide his first customer with a service that someone else couldn’t. That has stuck with him ever since as he builds a business in an industry known more for mistakes than for high-quality service.

“I was determined to get this thing going,” Seeley says. “I had called around to all the moving companies in the Yellow Pages, and noticed none of them were really doing anything different. You could swap names of the companies and still get the same information. That’s when I decided there was potential to really make a difference in this industry.”

Local Motion has made major headway in a business that features dozens of moving companies, a few nationally known and dominant players but many more here-today, gone-tomorrow concerns. The Eden Prairie-based residential moving company has grown from two employees and $1,700 in the hole to 80 employees with projected revenue of $4 million in 2003. Annual revenue jumped 70 percent from 1995 to 1996, and has been increasing at a 30 percent clip every year since. In 1992 Local Motion did about 500 moves. In 1996 it did 2,000 moves, and in 2002 almost 4,000 moves.

“What I’ve done is listen to our customers and to our employees,” says Seeley. “I have tried to instill my values and goals with the company to our employees, and our employees carry that out on the job, because they are the ones working with our customers. Moving is a very stressful time period, and by understanding what our customers are going through we can address all their needs.”

Local Motion gets 70 percent of its business through referrals and repeat customers, Seeley says, adding that its marketing campaigns can’t even keep up with that rate.

Henry Brandis, senior vice president of Edina Realty, says it was easy to call Local Motion one of its recommended moving service providers.

“They are a very progressive, growing company that is focused on customer satisfaction,” says Brandis. “I know our Realtors feel comfortable recommending Local Motion to clients when closing a sale.”

Seeley, 37, stresses the vision of the company “to be the number one local moving company of choice in the Twin Cities metro area” to potential employees the first day he meets them. The mission itself isn’t innovative—versions of that can be found on the walls of many firms. But instead of providing members (Seeley calls employees members because he feels they are all members of the same team) with a pep talk and sending them into the field, he stresses upward mobility within the company. What he wants is people who share the same vision.

“I want to plant that seed when we hire people,” says Seeley. “I want people who are on board from the start. I have created a vision that emphasizes job security through company growth, meaning everyone that works for us knows they have the opportunity to move up the company ladder.”

When Seeley talks about providing opportunities for growth, he has the members on staff to prove it. Tony Lupton, who is also Seeley’s cousin, was one of the first movers to work with Seeley in 1992. Lupton progressed from moving furniture to sales, and is now in charge of training and development.

Brett Smith started with Local Motion when he was 18, working in the field as a mover. He stayed with the company throughout college and worked various positions, including as a weekend dispatcher and an HR assistant. He recently graduated from the University of Minnesota and landed his first post-college job — human resources manager for Local Motion.

“It was something that stuck with me from the get-go,” says Smith about Seeley’s upward-mobility talk. “The vision he shared with me, and other employees, I had never heard before from an employer. I saw this as a growing company, with an owner who valued his employees.”

Seeley freely admits the growth of the company has come with problems. Because of the demanding nature of the job, turnover is always an issue. The roughest period, Seeley recalls, was from 1996 to 1999, a time when “we were beating ourselves up,” he says. “During peak season our guys were working until midnight, then had to be back to work at 6 a.m. to do it all over again. Our growth was getting ahead of us and we really had to slow things down. We didn’t have a real good handle on how to share information with each other, and we didn’t communicate well. It had a big effect on everyone.”

That resulted in a lot of unhappy workers, Seeley says, yet customer satisfaction remained high as staff did whatever it took to get the job done right.

In that period a consultant also recommended cutting some office staff, which Seeley did, letting go two long-time workers in the process. He says that “was awfully hard to do.”

Another big issue is financing. The company has never had investors, making it difficult to eliminate debt. Seeley says his balance sheet is now looking good. “A business is always going to carry some debt,” says Seeley. “But it has to be managed and you have to have a strategy for managing debt, and I didn’t have that strategy early on.”

Finances are such that this summer Local Motion will open up a depot in Coon Rapids to target another market, the do-it-yourself mover. The depot will allow people to rent things such as moving boxes and blankets, and trucks of different sizes.

Seeley believes he has come a long way as a business owner, but refuses to feel a sense of accomplishment.

 “What I look at is how I can make Local Motion a better place today, tomorrow and the next day. You do that by investing in quality people who make things happen,” Seeley says.

Matt Krumrie