The van lines would become the foundation for a full-service relocation provider. That strategy, he says, called for assembling assets. With Rogers anxious to move on to new CD&R projects, it was time to bring in a full-time CEO, says Rogers, who adds he reacted enthusiastically when Kelley’s name came up. The two had been colleagues at General Electric Co. (GE), says Rogers, a 26-year GE veteran whose last positions before joining CD&R as a principal in 1998 were as senior vice president and as a member of GE’s corporate executive council. Kelley, meanwhile, notes he had worked at GE from 1994 to 1998, including a stint as vice president in the major-appliances division, before he joined Ford Motor Co. (F) as vice president of global consumer services, eventually becoming president of Lincoln Mercury. “The roots of SIRVA’s culture come from GE,” says Rogers
FLEET OF FOOT
Transforming the relocation business wasn’t the objective when private-equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice (CD&R) acquired North American Van Lines in 1998 and merged it with Allied Van Lines in 1999, explains SIRVA chairman and former CEO, and CD&R partner, Jim Rogers. He says the initial, more modest strategy was simply to gain a foothold in the $7 billion global moving space, which, he says, was fragmented among numerous small, often independent or franchised competitors. By 2002, SIRVA says, it reasoned that the $1 billion in annual revenues it garnered between North American and Allied gave it enough scale to justify investment in technology infrastructure and to institute cost control measures. As it became more efficient, says Rogers, SIRVA instituted a growth culture.
The strategy was viable at the time, says Rogers. But “we spent all of 2000 integrating equal-size companies that had been archenemies for a long time.” By the time SIRVA merged the companies, ramped up technology and cut costs, he says, the environment had changed radically. During the information-technology boom of the late 1990s, says Kelley, corporate coffers were overflowing, and SIRVA’s clients took the position that “talent infusion was key, and they’d put talent where they needed it.” As a result, says Kelley, “relocations boomed.” But when the economy cooled in 2000 and 2001, so did relocations, he points out. Even as total volume diminished, he says, clients searched for cost savings. Instead of moving employees by hiring independent movers, he says, companies were contracting with such comprehensive third-party relocation advisers as Cendant and Prudential Relocation. The strategy was meant as a way to reduce per-move relocation costs, says Rogers, who adds: “We woke up and realized the market space was still terrific; it was just that buying habits had changed.”
Rather than hunker down and protect what market share it had, SIRVA embraced an aggressive, acquisition-based offense, says Rogers: “It’s a high-integrity meritocracy, passionate about customers, having a belief in the magic of people, high differentiation in compensation, recognition and reward and honest talk and no hierarchy or cronyism.”
Enter Brian Kelley in July 2002.”Literally a month before I got here,” says Kelly, now 43, “SIRVA bought Corporate Relocation Services [(CRS), a third-party relocation firm based in Cleveland], handing me a nice acquisition that had tremendous potential for future growth.”
Acquiring CRS, however, would not allow the still relatively small SIRVA to go head-to-head with the much larger competitors, notes Kelley, who has a degree in economics from Holy Cross College. So, he says, the company redefined the market space in a way that played more to SIRVA’s core strength: the combination of relocation and moving services. Most relocation services solicit bids among movers when relocating a client, explains Rogers, who notes, “We owned the moving brands. We could go to customers as the one company in the world that could guarantee trucks and drivers in the peak summer moving season. We had cost advantages because we did not have to mark up the moving. And we offered risk abatement in terms of buying and selling houses (offering a pre-agreed price if a relocated employee’s house remained unsold after a specified period of time).We came up with a very, very strong value proposition, and it’s worked spectacularly.” To market its new full-service offerings, the company first targeted its long-term moving clients, says Rogers, and added new customers as experience built.
Other acquisitions, made possible by CD&R equity, bolstered SIRVA’s ability to provide complementary services to clients, explains Kelley. He reels off in quick succession a string of companies SIRVA bought between 2000 and 2004: In the relocation business, he says, the company purchased PRS Europe in Belgium, France and the Netherlands; Rettenmayer in Germany; and Prime International of Australia — now SIRVA Relocation — in the Asia/Pacific region. He says international moving-company acquisitions included France’s Maison Huet and Allied Pickfords in the Asia Pacific region.He adds that SIRVA moved into providing vehicle and liability insurance by buying TransGuard and the National Association of Independent Truckers (NAIT). From 2000 through June 2004, SIRVA reports, the company spent more than $154 million on acquisitions meant to gain advantage over competitors by building out its global footprint. SIRVA now has more than 8,000 employees in over 40 countries, says Kelley. About 20 percent of the company’s gross revenues come from European and Asian relocation services, he adds.
By November 2003, SIRVA executives say, the company was large enough to go public. The initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, along with a secondary offering completed in June, raised approximately $800 million. The proceeds were used to pay down debt, reduce the ownership stake of existing private investors and position SIRVA for additional strategic acquisitions, says Kelley, who notes CD&R retains about a 30 percent stake in the company.
Kelley insists that SIRVA’s methodology is simple: It uses every asset to leverage its way into profitable markets, a tactic he illustrates with scribbled diagrams and matrices. An early example: “When we acquired Allied, we also got TransGuard, which provided insurance to moving companies. So we asked,Why can’t we insure companies that aren’t moving companies but have fleets, trucks and drivers? That drove the National Association of Independent Truckers acquisition.NAIT at the time represented 11,000 drivers, and we’ve grown that to about 30,000. There’s still a 200,000-driver growth opportunity in the U.S.”
Kelley explains that SIRVA continuously cross-references its products and services (moving, relocation, insurance, business services) with customer channels (corporations, consumers, government, fleets, and drivers) and geography, looking for opportunity. A country in which one customer channel or product/service category is strong may present possibilities for growth in another arena. “The growth game,” says Kelley, “is all about taking current products to new channels and exploring new channels with current products.”
To simplify its business model, SIRVA says, it is disposing of underperforming logistics businesses, asset-intensive operations that move heavy or specialized loads and do not meet the company’s growth demands. SIRVA reports it sold its North American specialized transportation business in October and expects to complete the sale of its European counterpart shortly; Transportation Solutions is also for sale.
LOOKING FOR MOVERS AND SHAKERS
Rogers says that the businesses are only one facet of SIRVA’s success formula — the others being culture, people and operational excellence.He particularly points to culture, noting that SIRVA started at a disadvantage: Some initial acquisitions were “corporate orphans,” or small divisions of larger companies. “In those environments, they don’t get the money, talent or encouragement to be the best they can be.” Given such drawbacks,Rogers says, they were infected with static, complacent entitlement cultures with promotions and rewards based less on performance than on seniority. “Changes,” he says, “had to be made.”
Kelley admits that he is passionate about “a culture that sees the possibility of the future, that sees the benefit of change. You have to show people why growth is important and how it’s possible. You have to give people the confidence to grow, and provide businesses with the tools and the investment they need.” He says employees who bought into the growth culture helped provide “a mix of expertise that’s been here quite a while, plus new talent that challenges and learns at the same time.”Morgan’s Safalow lauds Kelley’s efforts to date: “He has significantly altered the company’s culture, making it more sales-oriented.”
Kelley ticks off the names of “athletes” who have joined the company and who share his vision of SIRVA’s potential, lured — as he says he was — by a sense of opportunity and commensurate reward. He also touts the SIRVA Leadership Program.”We hire kids right out of college and put them through an 18-month program so they can step up and play a big role for us.” The first crop of nine students — immersed in sales, marketing, finance and operations, working on cross-functional projects and in the field with customers and agents — will graduate in January, says Kelley, who notes that five new participants have begun the program and 15 more are slated to join through July.
Once the right people were onboard, SIRVA says, it began upgrading its operations to favor a customer-centered approach embodied in a “lean Six Sigma” quality-assurance program. SIRVA develops a “dashboard” of metrics particular to each customer, Kelley explains. “We go to the customer and say,’ Here’s how we’re performing for you, and here’s how we’re performing for other clients. If we’re not doing as well for you or not meeting your specs, why?’ It’s a unique way of approaching the client because it’s collaborative and you work together to improve your quality based on customer selected metrics.” Kristie Kederis, SIRVA vice president for quality and a certified Six Sigma black belt, notes that SIRVA conducted a series of “Voice of the Customer” roundtables to determine which metrics were critical. In relocation, she says, these include level of transferee satisfaction, total expense by relocated division, number of days a home is on the market, home-sale price compared with its appraised value, and billing accuracy. “A reporting engine that sits on top of our systems allows us to automatically query and populate the graphs,” says Kederis. Reports are tracked internally on a weekly basis and reviewed with clients monthly, she says. “We monitor and analyze risk points before problems occur, and issues are resolved before reports reach the client. This contributes to our 98 percent retention rate.” SIRVA reports that it completed 20,000 transfers and 365,000 moving shipments in 2003. SIRVA says it was awarded a GSA Federal Supply Service Schedule contract in 2003 and is one of a handful of companies that offers a full range of relocation services to federal agencies. Safalow notes that SIRVA has gained market share at the expense of other market players: “In 2003’s fourth quarter, approximately 80 percent of SIRVA’s new business was won from a competitor.” Under Kelley’s watch, Rogers says, SIRVA continues to enhance its range of services and expand its global reach. In September 2004, for example, the company reports that it acquired D.J. Knight & Co., a specialty residential brokerage and relocation-services company operating in 32 states as well as several European business centers. Rogers says he expects such aggressive expansion will continue: “We’ve just started in this, and we have many years ahead of strong growth and operating leverage and the ability to self-fund more acquisitions.”