Anthony Ward Thomas hired two “old fat” blokes from a well-known removals firm to help him as he moved house from south Kensington to Clapham.
He also took a day off work, which was why he discovered his hired musclemen in his bedroom, trying on his clothes. Later, as he unpacked at the new place, Ward Thomas discovered two of his shoes had been stolen by the movers too. “It felt very intrusive, horrible,” he says. So when a few months later he was fired from his job as a trader at the London Metal Exchange, (“I was really bad at it, then there was an incident with a fire extinguisher at Grovesnor House Hotel,” he mutters) and started casting around for an idea to start his own business, removals came to mind. “It didn’t need any particular skills,” he explains. So Ward Thomas put down a £500 cash deposit on a £2000 truck at an auction. “I didn’t have any other money, so I called up my bank manager to borrow the other £1500,” the entrepreneur explains. “And the bank agreed … oh, how the world has changed!” One of Ward Thomas’s his first moves was a London office where the manager had told him they needed about 30 crates and had no furniture. “I turned up, on my own and with my one truck, and they had nearly 600 crates,” he remembers. “I had a bit of a panic. Then I went outside and found two blokes walking around in navy blazers. It turned out they’d just left their Army recruitment interview, so I asked if they’d help out for a bit. They did, we sorted the move — though it took three days — and they ended up working with me for a few years before enlisting.” Building up AWT into a heavyweight business was, Ward Thomas admits, “shockingly difficult. “My truck was 15 years old with no power steering. The first time I filled it up entirely, it was so overloaded it took three men pulling a rope to get it out of its parking space. Another time, I got stuck and a local bus driver parked up to help me turn a corner.” But word of mouth recommendations kept coming — “although in the beginning, I think it was because my movers and I were nice, rather than particularly good,” Ward Thomas laughs. Annual revenues doubled each year, and Ward Thomas bought another vehicle every 12 months, before ramping up the rate as demand grew. Today he has 95, and the business — which has its headquarters in Acton — is best-known in upmarket areas. AWT vans regularly move the residents of Kensington and Chelsea, as well as celebrities, including moving Cate Blanchett’s belongings from London to Australia, and Orlando Bloom’s around London. “He kept trying to help by moving boxes, but we had to tell him we’d do it ourselves,” says Ward Thomas. AWT also moves items sold at Bonhams and Sotheby’s auctions. But not all of its moves have always been smooth. Once, Ward Thomas was packing up the contents of the contents of a London house and taking it down to Devon. He found the owner’s cat wandering around, so packed it too. “We thought the owner would be thrilled, they’d forgotten their cat, we’d rescued him.” Only it turned out the cat didn’t belong to that family. Ward Thomas claims he left the cat in Devon — “it would have a better life out there.” Another move relocating a family from France to Britain saw 10 illegal immigrants hide in an AWT van. They weren’t discovered until the van reached AWT’s Acton depot. Then there was the occasion when three removals men went to a house on the King’s Road, explained to the foreign cleaner that they were there to move the contents, and loaded the van. Meanwhile, Ward Thomas took a call from the customer later that morning asking where the removals team were: turned out the team had gone to the wrong King’s Road. But The entrepreneur reckons the decision that most changed his business was his move towards the “John Lewis” style of ownership. “I’d been running the company as a sole trader, but in 2004 organised a management buy-in where everyone from drivers to warehouse managers bought 16% of the equity, with an option to buy another 16% once the business made a profit of £1 million, which it did a year later,” he explains. Since then, Ward Thomas says staff work harder and longer — “no one looks at their watch” — and AWT has made four acquisitions, including buying rival firm Aussie Man & Van out of administration last year. Recession, says Ward Thomas, didn’t damage business. “The last few years have seen ridiculous values in prime London properties, the Middle East, Greeks and Arabs have come in, so there’s been plenty of moving work helping existing residents move out.” A five-bedroom house in Chelsea would cost about £4,000 to pack, move and unpack, Ward Thomas says — helping turnover to hit £15 million this year. The company is now expanding its storage business division. “People are buying more stuff, they need a place to keep it all,” he says. And best of all for him: more belongings cost more to move, too. AWT Founded: 1985 Staff: 200 Turnover: £15 million Business idol: Sinclair Beauchamp, co-founder of Pret a Manger —“when he opened his first shop, he too said he’d open one a year. I think he’s beaten me though.”