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April 2010
Destination: Excellence
By Heather Head

     Just as I’m settling into a comfortable leather chair for a chat with Jack Hickey, general manager of the Charlotte location of Hilldrup Moving & Storage, we’re interrupted by sales rep Mike Sandell, arms full of files and notebooks. He’s rushing out to meet a potential customer, but first wants to tell me how much he loves this company.

     “I’ve been with a lot of moving companies over the years,” he professes. “A lot. But none of them is anything like this one.”

     He pulls out a bulging binder and begins to show me photos demonstrating the quality of work performed by the company. “When I show this to the customer, it’s usually a sell,” he explains. “And I love knowing that the company is going to deliver exactly what I promise. Most companies aren’t that way.”

 

A Moving History

     Since 1903, when R. G. Hilldrup first offered horse and carriage transportation in Fredericksburg, Va., extraordinary service and customer care have been the company’s defining qualities. When Hilldrup himself retired in 1940, he chose a devoted employee, C. B. McDaniel, to take on ownership. The company has remained a privately owned and run enterprise, and is now run by a third generation of McDaniels.

     In the 1960s, the company joined forces with United Van Lines in order to expand their offerings and gain the ability to offer coast-to-coast moving. The 1990s saw new branch locations added across the Southeast and as well as international capabilities, plus the addition of a commercial moving line that now represents 30 percent of the company’s revenue. Through it all, the company has maintained its family-owned status and its high level of customer care.

 

Storing Up Goodwill

     Close your eyes for a minute and think about the word “warehouse.” Chances are you are not imagining anything like the Hilldrup warehouses on Carrier Drive next to I-85 in Charlotte.

     Gleaming polished floors, comfortable temperatures, and tidy stacks of wooden vaults reaching to the ceiling. On one edge of the space are stacks of construction materials awaiting use by a contractor for Bank of America. Down several aisles are carefully packed Christmas decorations for Northlake Mall. At the far end, there is even a jet ski and a 1911 REO Touring automobile, complete with leather carriage-style seats and a canvas canopy. All is catalogued, scrupulously clean, and neatly ordered.

     One of the company’s two warehouses represents the only true climate-controlled facility of its kind in the area, Hickey says. It’s offered for delicate material storage, as an optional service or, when available, as a free upgrade to thank a customer for their patronage. Sometimes, they’ll back an entire truckload of short-term storage goods into the climate controlled space and hold it for a customer that has run into a temporary delay and doesn’t want their possessions exposed to the elements.

     The way Hilldrup stores the cargo entrusted to it exemplifies the company’s approach and is all the more impressive because it happens at a point in the service cycle that the customer rarely sees. The cleanliness, the care taken (one forklift even utilizes optical technology to prevent accidental bumping of racks or boxes), and the evident organization all contribute to an overall impression of quality.

     Personnel attend regular training sessions either on-site or at central company locations where they receive instruction and practice in the handling of valuable items, from artwork to antiques to oriental rugs that have to be stored in a special area and handled in a particular manner to prevent damage during transport and storage.

     The photos in Sandell’s sales binder demonstrate the same attention to detail at every point of the cycle. Every door frame, every stair rail, every potential point of contact with the customer’s furniture is carefully padded before the loading begins.

     Sandell closes his binder and asks me to come outside for a moment. He wants to show me the stacks of used moving boxes in the back of his car. He’s on his way to a sales appointment, he says, but along the way he’s going to drop these boxes off at a customer’s house. They are doing the packing themselves, and Sandell is going to save them the expense of buying boxes by giving them some from a previous customer’s move.

     “That kind of personal attention to details and going beyond the call of duty exemplifies the attitude expected of all Hilldrup employees,” Hickey points up.

     And Hilldrup returns that same care to the employees through exceptional employee policies and attention to worker needs. Sandell and Hickey are not alone in expressing their loyalty for the company—throughout our tour of the grounds, Hickey frequently stops for pleasant exchanges with various employees, several of whom express their appreciation for the company’s treatment.

     One example of the company’s attention to employee and environmental concerns is an ongoing shift from the use of cardboard boxes to plastic crates that boast the double benefit of being both re-useable and safer for workers. Employees can set an empty crate onto a rolling cart, fill it, close it, and set another empty crate on top. Once filled, the entire stack can be rolled to the loading area where a forklift is used to transfer the crates to the truck. The new method saves workers the strain of lifting boxes and significantly reduces worker’s compensation claims. It also adds considerably to the environment as significantly less cardboard is used.

 

Conveying Community Spirit

     Hilldrup’s commitment to service and quality extends beyond customers and employees and out into the community. They are especially proud their membership in a program developed by United Van Lines called “Move Rescue” that rescues people who have been scammed by shady moving companies.

     The scam occurs when a family has hired a moving company for an agreed-upon price, but at the destination the company demands significantly more before they will release the goods. Upon hearing of a case like this, United deploys a crew to locate the family’s goods, obtain a release from the storage company, and move the family into their new home—oftentimes at no charge.

     Another program, called “Discover America,” teaches school children about geography and math through a unique in-person, interactive curriculum. In this program, a Hilldrup Moving & Storage employee nicknamed “Driver Dave,” talks to children in grades two through five about his job responsibilities and conducts a tour of his vehicle. The children then follow his travels through 10 cities across the United States through letters, picture books, postcards, and various other souvenirs from the driver. They are encouraged to discuss the material, calculate mileage, and trace his route on a map provided by the company.

     Other Hilldrup community services include a portable stage that the Charlotte location maintains and offers for use, free of charge, to any organization that requests it. The stage consists essentially of a tractor trailer from which one side has been removed. It has, for example, been employed downtown during music festivals. The company delivers the stage and helps to set it up pro bono.

 

Transcending Obstacles

     Despite their impeccable record and outstanding service, the company has its share of challenges.

     “In the early years,” comments Hickey, “the greatest challenge was finding employees who fit our model.”  They have never hired just anyone off the street—drug testing and background checks were standard at Hilldrup long before it was standard in the industry.  Additionally, their criteria for hiring include a level of commitment and care that exceeds the expectation of many candidates. However, over the years they have developed a staff and a reputation that has made recruiting and retention a relatively simple matter now.

     Lately, their challenge has been the same as that of many companies: The economy. In particular, fewer companies are now offering moving packages to new or relocated employees, or they are offering a lump sum payment rather than paying for the move altogether.

     As a result, the end customer has become much more price sensitive. And although Hilldrup always prices competitively, Hickey points out that their higher level of service means that they are not usually the lowest priced option: “And when you’re paying out of pocket, those few hundred dollars make a difference.”

     Still, many customers continue to choose Hilldrup for the higher level of service, especially after they visit the warehouses or see the extra care their possessions will receive. Hilldrup has met the challenge by also diversifying their services, specifically by focusing more heavily on the commercial end of the business.

 

Relocating Business

     Commercial moves represent 30 percent of Hilldrup’s business, and an effective buffer against the current recession.

     “During down times,” Hickey explains, “companies are more likely to move in search of lower rents or better lease packages.” That effect counterbalances the natural decline in business due to companies either going out of business or choosing not to move for economic reasons.

     For over 20 years, Hilldrup has handled commercial moves for small companies, massive corporations, and everything in between. They offer relocation management, budget/cost analysis, installation, warehousing, IT services, and even liquidation services for companies downsizing their offices and stock. Additionally, their turnkey approach is unique in the industry and provides a high level of convenience and efficiency for commercial customers.

     They also offer storage of large, unwieldy, and unusual commercial materials that no one else can handle.  On the day of my visit, one end of the climate-controlled warehouse holds four enormous pillars up on wooden stands. They belong to Duke Energy for a hydroelectric plant they are building nearby. They are lying on their sides—about eight feet long and a foot and a half in diameter—and made of heavy-duty metal. They are hefty.

     In fact, Hickey explains, they are so heavy that if they sit in one position for more than a few months, the industrial-strength metal alloy will warp. To avoid that costly effect, on each end someone has written “March, June, September, December,” at each of four compass points. When I visited, the month “March” was facing up. A few months from now, a pulley system will have been assembled, employed, and then disassembled, and the word “June” will face up.

     The warehouse also holds additional equipment for this project, including a generator and other equipment that is so large it requires a portable crane to be moved.

     Whether it’s commercial, residential, corporate, international or military, Hilldrup is proud of their history and commitment to quality moves and fair treatment of everyone from customers to employees. Hickey has worked for Hilldrup for eleven years. He says he has stayed in Charlotte and with Hilldrup because he loves this city and he loves Hilldrup.

     The care the company takes of the customer is second to none,” he affirms. “They treat the employees with that same care, and that’s worth sticking around for.”

     Sandell concurs. “Now that I know what a quality company is like, I don’t ever want to work anywhere else.” The reason: What Hilldrup promises, Hilldrup delivers, even if it means going an extra mile (or three thousand).

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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