There are some people who seem to have been at the heart of the moving business for a lifetime. Two of these – Rob Chipman, of Asian Tigers, and Phil Wells, of JK Moving – are retiring after combined service of more than 46 years. At the IAM convention, FIDI Secretary General Jesse van Sas invited them to discuss their thoughts on the industry – and where they see it heading in the years ahead
Rob Chipman, CEO of Asian Tigers, and Phil Wells, Senior VP of Global Move Management at JK Moving, are retiring after long careers in the moving industry.
Both started out in other industries. Chipman began in banking and finance, and was posted to Hong Kong. But after 12 years of working in that large, corporate environment, he concluded: ‘I wasn’t a good bureaucrat, and the moving business gave me the opportunity to be in a smaller, more entrepreneurial environment.’
Wells, meanwhile, worked in procurement for the Australian Embassy in Washington DC, with responsibility for organising the comings and goings of staff between the two countries. ‘This was how I superficially came to know about the moving business,’ he says.
His first job in the sector was with Security Storage Company, in Washington DC, one of the largest movers in the region, working for clients including the US government, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. He stayed there for 16 years.
The two men had similar first impressions of a highly involved, hands-on industry, where every decision counts. Chipman likens joining moving to riding a unicycle. ‘Every single move you made was treacherous and risky, but it really made you sharp… I loved it, and I am here, 30 years later.’
For Wells, the sheer volume of admin in his early days made an impression: ‘I’d never seen so much paperwork in my life; it was unbelievable.’ The travel and supportive network were among the reasons he stayed in the business.
Chipman singles out two areas that have changed immeasurably during his time in the industry. The first is the type of customer with which movers are dealing.
‘It used to be the local HR representative – from Citibank or Michelin, or whoever – and we could establish a good relationship, get close to them, listen to their needs, and help them,’ he says. ‘Then we were dealing with multinational head offices, before they took control away from these offices, and we’re then dealing with RMCs and other agents… so, as far as the client goes, we just get in there and do the job. It has taken a lot of satisfaction out of the business.’
Movers have had to get pleasure from work in other ways, he adds – such as by building efficiencies or getting into digital advertising.
Technological advancement is the second, more recent, change, Chipman says – but despite progress in operational areas such as virtual surveys, he adds, admin has yet to be fully transformed.
‘This is probably the biggest opportunity for improvement,’ he says. ‘You can make incremental improvements to the packaging and operations side – better materials, recycling, and so on – but on the administration side we can really get better… and you can make radical improvements through the integration of technology.’
Wells agrees, saying technology affords movers a greater geographical reach, and gives younger employees the tools to excel at the unique jobs on offer. However, he adds, having seen some people not enjoying or thriving in the industry – including some offspring of owners in family businesses – prospective employees must ‘get’ the industry to bloom.
Chipman says that while the first couple of years in a moving career can be challenging, ‘once it’s in your blood you really start to see the benefits, and you learn a lot of the basics about how trade works’. These are great transferable skills, too.
‘Passion in moving is a non- negotiable,’ says Wells, and Chipman adds: ‘They have to have a personality, a spark, to be interested in other countries, in other people, languages, and the rest. This is key.’
Praise for FIDI
Chipman, a self-professed huge supporter of FIDI, of which he is a former President and Board member, says the organisation ‘has established a bar for quality and has raised it slowly… so we’re getting better and better over time. If we didn’t have FIDI, this wouldn’t be happening. The FIDI office is so well organised and executes so well. If every moving company around the world could do the same, the industry would be better for it.’
He adds that quality and the openness of the FIDI network of Affiliates is essential to the overall success of the organisation, too.
Wells served on FIDI’s Board Nomination Committee and says: ‘During my time, I think we chose some great people for the Board’, which has included more women on the Board and in Presidents’ roles, and seen the leadership team grow in regional diversity.
He was also President of FIDI USA, a positive experience that included organising last-minute activities in San Diego after conference venues in Brazil and Puerto Rico were cancelled at short notice. ‘I don’t think the membership fully appreciates what goes into organising conferences,’ he says. Chipman adds: ‘This is one of the most stressful things FIDI does. It really earns its stripes with the conferences.’
Both men have experience of learning on FIDI Academy seminars – Asian Tigers became a Platinum user – and of FAIM, which Chipman says ‘saved our bacon a couple of critical times’. JK regularly sends staff members on in-person and online courses, and Wells says the company is ‘very keen’ on this institution, which is central to the progression of its staff.
FIDI offers a diverse range of support for businesses already, says Wells, but he sees potential for it to help organise bulk buying shipping services. ‘With 600 members, maybe there are opportunities to negotiate shipping rates,’ he says.
Chipman says streamlining payments with FIDI’s netting service – due to be launched during 2024 – will bring a huge improvement. ‘It’s very clumsy the way we’re doing it,’ he says, citing the benefits that a similar system has brought to members of the Harmony network.
Both are enthusiastic about FIDI’s Professional Cooperation Guidelines (FIDI PCGs), which Chipman describes as ‘a distillation of best practices around the world by more than 500 of the best moving companies’. Wells says the guidelines will be improved further still – particularly in environmental, social and governance, and related areas – by the arrival of younger people onto the committee, including a colleague from JK.
So where is the moving industry going from here? Preceding his answer with a ‘movers are inherently pessimistic’ caveat, Chipman says that – after a COVID-driven moving bonanza – he expects some quieter times ahead, but also worries there is a ‘shift away from globalisation’ and towards protectionism that could cut the volume of moves.
Wells adds that younger people are generally more minimalistic, which will reduce the size of shipments, too, while Chipman says that, as the standard of living grows in many destination countries, people have less need to move their home comforts with them.
Chipman believes the industry’s conservative nature has ‘served us well in some ways, but held us back in others’. ‘That’s why it’s time for me to step aside – we need the 30 and 40-year-olds to take over.’ Wells says he learns a lot from mentoring up-and-coming industry members: ‘They can teach us a lot – and see the world a little differently.’
He adds that working in the moving business has given him unparalleled personal experiences. ‘Some of the FIDI Conferences – being by the Great Wall, or the Pyramids, or sitting on a marble bench by the Taj Mahal. What other industries could give you this?’
Chipman agrees, adding that visiting varied and interesting places has been accompanied by meeting incredible people from around the world. ‘Talk about a colourful group of really interesting individuals, with fascinating stories to tell,’ he says. ‘How can you beat that?’