Moving on up

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Nearly 30 years ago Brisbane-based Mike O’Hagan took a mini-move into the removalist game and has seen his operation expand into a mega business with a multi-million dollar turnover. This has been quite an achievement for a complete amateur to the truck-and-haulage caper. 

And while his perception of what the market needed explains much of this success, it was his unusual employment practices for his rather unique workforce that has underpinned MiniMovers remarkable growth.

A turnover of $30 million and 500 employees is not bad for a guy who arrived here from New Zealand as a backpacker with a few hundred dollars in his pocket – and they were Kiwi dollars.

The early part of his CV did not herald the promising business results of recent years. Over an eight-year period, O’Hagan worked for 35 different bosses before eventually getting into the second-hand goods dealer business.

Filling the gap

The furniture removal business that became MiniMovers started unspectacularly with O’Hagan and an old ute. But where did the business concept come from? 

“One day I got a phone call from a frantic customer to my second-hand dealer business panicking because her removalist she had booked was not going to turn up,” he recalls. “It was only a down-the-road move and I said I had a ute and couple of blokes here who could help do it.”

O’Hagan said he had to talk her into an hourly rate engagement but the whole experience worked well and created the seeds of success for MiniMovers.

“She ended up ringing me and said she had never had such a good move and she had done seven before,” he explains. “Our price ended up being $200 but she had been quoted $1000 by the removalist.”

The experience showed O’Hagan that opportunity existed for short-haul moves, which many big removalist firms aren’t good at, and if he could charge an hourly rate, he would have a business that was scaleable into a big business.

“I always wanted a big business that I did not have to work in and I realised if I could quote over the phone I would have an advantage,” he points out. “The big removalists have the expense of a sales force that quote jobs but I was going to cut this cost out.”

And it has worked with MiniMovers now armed with over 100 trucks working the residential areas of Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Melbourne and recently Sydney.

Marketing his business through Yellow Pages and investing in big ads was an early part of his success, but word-of-mouth advertising was more important.

“Around 70 per cent of our business came from word-of-mouth,” he says. “We had a great name that stood out. We had an outstanding product and great staff.

“The key is to create great people – McDonald’s does that but there is something else – experience.”

Create the right business culture

This will shock a few people but O’Hagan hires people without experience and says he learnt that from Maccas.

“McDonalds doesn’t hire a chef – it employs people without experience and gets them to do the work their way,” he points out. “I tried experienced people but they were other business’s rejects and I just couldn’t make it work with contractors.”

He looks for people without experience, he trains them and he ends up with the culture he wants in his business.

Edward de Bono says many of the world’s great entrepreneurs and business achievers are lateral thinkers. This gives them their competitive advantage over their competitors. And when it comes to his people, O’Hagan really tries some outside the square innovations.

One of his earliest workplace initiatives came about because of the nature of the guys he had on his books and his paternal approach to his team.

“These guys are 20-somethings and often live hard and skip breakfast,” he says.

“They also work hard and we had some falling over in the middle of the day, and so one of the girls in the office asked a logical question: ‘Why don’t we feed them breakfast?’ – and so we did.”

While it started as a continental breakfast it quickly became a cooked feed and still is.

“Some 70 to 80 per cent of my staff come to work one-hour early for breakfast and to socialise – it’s great for morale,” he says. “We actually avoid any business because it is their own time but once a month we could give some communication or training.”

MiniMovers from day one, with the frantic customer who needed a short move, has been built on O’Hagan showing his staff what he wants them to show his customers.

“Our vision is to be the market leader in short-distance moving and to be a great place to work,” he says. “You have to share the vision with your staff.

“We have a simple goal: to create an ecstatically happy customer and you have to have happy staff to achieve this.”

Happy people underpin this business and its owner’s vision.

“I had a vision of a total team effort, in a fantastically happy, fun environment, with everyone focused on the customer and the system,” O'Hagan says. “I knew from this would follow a thriving company, which would lead to income, security and job satisfaction for all.”

Leadership can be learnt

At the core of creating a business that will deliver these multiple goals is leadership but O’Hagan does not think he is a “natural born leader”. However, he thinks it is a crucial entrepreneurial skill that can be learnt on the job.

“I was not a leader when I was young,” he reflects upon his pre-MiniMover life. “I wasn’t a sportsman or good at school, but nowadays I am more methodical and that helps with leadership.”

O’Hagan says the impact on him from running his business, reading about leadership and especially being in the company of others who have built businesses themselves has changed him substantially. He says he has always been asking successful people to mentor him but he has also paid for expert help.

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