International market a focus for future

It's always moving day for Bruce Bowser. And it was much the same during his youth.

Bowser, whose father was in the Canadian military, spent much of his boyhood on the move, so being president, CEO and an owner of Canada's largest moving company is a natural fit.

Bowser has moved 15 times in his 47 years, but it was his move from Halifax to Toronto in 1992 that set the wheels in motion for his career as an entrepreneur. That's when the former bank manager hooked up with AMJ Campbell Van Lines.

A decade later, as the organization's president, Bowser spearheaded a buyout in which the public company was taken private and thwarted a hostile takeover bid by George Armoyan.

Bowser is now the largest shareholder of AMJ Campbell and part of a management group that has a majority stake in the company.

AMJ Campbell moves about 75,000 families annually. And no doubt, Bowser can relate to every one of those customers on moving day.

1. What were your passions as a youngster?

"I kept busy. I was always looking for outlets, playing hockey, racing motorcycles and working on cars at an auto shop. With my father being in the military, we moved around a lot and inevitably it gave me an appreciation for what I do today. Although I wouldn't want my children to go through that much moving, it was a great experience for me. It allowed me to see the world as a friendlier place."

2. Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit?

"I don't know where it came from, but I had it from an early age. As a youngster, I was pretty independent, always looking at things from the perspective of how I could do it on my own. I never had aspirations to be a banker, but while I was working at the bank (Bank of Nova Scotia) I looked at businessmen I dealt with and always felt I could be successful in business."

3. How has your banking experience served you in your entrepreneurial career?

"Banking is one of the best areas to develop a good, strong foundation for any type of business. If I were able to send my children through a foundational business school, it would be a bank. It's a great place to learn some disciplines, it's a great place to learn how to deal with the public and how to deal with an organizational structure."

4. How did you hook up with AMJ Campbell Van Lines?

"I'd met the founder of AMJ Campbell (Tim Moore) through the Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax. We developed a relationship through the bank. He was in some sort of consulting role with the company then and they were looking for an individual to head up one of their divisions. I interviewed with the chairman of the company (Art Walker) in 1992 and I was made an offer. The bright lights and the big playground of Toronto appealed to me. I was always looking for a change and it was very much a people business. One of the things that appealed to me about AMJ Campbell Van Lines was that it was outside of the traditional mould of a moving company. I came from Halifax expecting to see a warehouse with a little office carved in the side of it. But AMJ was a first-class organization of corporate sales reps and it was a finely tuned organization. I started as vice-president of our installation division, our office moving division, and I was appointed president in 1997."

5. Did you fall out of your chair when George Armoyan (CEO of publicly traded diversified holding firm Clarke Inc.) made a hostile bid for AMJ in 2002?

"Yeah, I was quite shocked. I knew the individual (Armoyan) who had made the bid - he was from Halifax - and I was shocked that he was making the bid without having management onside. He had a reputation of making bids on undervalued companies. At that time, the company had bought a plastics manufacturing company that lost a lot of money. We had spent the best part of two years digging out of that hole and paying down debt. We were just in a position where we had pretty much paid off the bank and the business was doing very well. The company was in good financial shape when the bid came in. My first move was to work with the board and make sure we dealt with the offer in the proper fashion. For me, it was a very quick education, like a Harvard education, on how to deal with bids."

6. How was the idea of a private buyout initiated?

"Within a couple of weeks of the dust settling and getting over the shock of it, I started receiving calls from umpteen different financial advisers asking if we'd considered a management bid. So I spoke to our chairman (Art Walker) and got some advice on how to handle it. I agreed that I would go off and explore it.

For me, part of the process of even contemplating a management bid was to make sure our key players were onside. So I had to quickly meet with our largest franchisees and our senior managers to make sure they would support it."

7. How do you feel about Tim Moore's involvement in the startup of a rival moving company (Premiere Van Lines) with some of your company's former franchisees?

"It's a non-event. We knew that we weren't going to renew some of franchisees from a strategic perspective because it's always been my view that we should have ownership in our major centres. He put a spin on it to say that they were disgruntled franchisees. Well, I think it was him and his brothers that were really the disgruntled franchisees and there were a few others that went his way. But at the end of the day, it has been a non-event. After a year, our revenues are up a little over 25 per cent year-over--year. So obviously, it has no detrimental effect on our business. We haven't lost an account. We've been around for a long time and have a pretty solid reputation across Canada."

8. So what's it been like running AMJ as a private company, compared to a public company?

"As a private company, there are just a lot less people involved in the decisions around the direction of the company. When we decided to get into the shredding business a year ago, we didn't have to call a board meeting to make that decision. So growing the business and making decisions is a lot more streamlined as a private company. From a personal perspective, I obviously have a much larger share of the private company than I did of the public company (he has the largest share of management's 55-per-cent stake). I don't know if that changes the motivation that much, but it has the ability to wake you up at night. We don't get into a lot of numbers as a private company, but we've been very profitable."

9. What's your strategy in growing the business?

"Our strategy is to grow from our core business, which is relocating families. We're aggressively expanding the self-storage business that is part of the core business. We're very much focused on expanding our business into the U.S. during 2006. It's our hope that we'll open two U.S. offices and possibly three. We're now in negotiations on that."

10. How is your business positioned for an economic downturn or recession?

"Our business isn't recession proof. But we've been through a recession before and the moving business tends to get very busy during a recession. During the last recession, offices were downsizing so we were moving them and storing goods for them.

"The real estate market got very busy with people having to downsize and sell homes, so we were busy with that."

11. How would a continuing escalation of fuel prices affect your business?

"We've had to do two things to offset the high prices of fuel. We've had to look at controlling our costs significantly and pass on the costs. I think the transportation industry in general has done a much better job of passing on costs as a result of fuel increases. There are fuel surcharges that have been applied for the last three years that didn't exist in our business prior to that, and we monitor it closely. We've become very conscious of fluctuations in fuel costs and have had to adjust our pricing accordingly. At the end of the day, it certainly costs us more to operate our business but it also costs the consumers more to buy the product, whether it's a product in a store or moving services."

12. What's your long-term vision for AMJ Campbell?

"It's to continue to grow our core business with a focus on our relatively new international business. We've gone from $3 million to $30 million (in annual revenue) over the course of five years (with the international business). I think there's a lot of potential to grow. From a domestic perspective, we have a franchising drive to go into smaller locations. We're looking at opening a location in Orangeville (Ontario) for instance. We're also putting a significant push in growing the self-storage business. We've acquired or opened five (self-storage) facilities in the past two years and I think we'll double or perhaps even triple that this year."

13. What's the biggest challenge for the trucking and moving industry?

"The transportation industry in general will tell you that the No. 1 concern is the retention and recruitment of drivers. It's gotten to a point where we (recently) launched a training and recruitment centre in Toronto to develop, train and recruit drivers."

14. How would you describe your management style?

"We're very much a unit-managed business, so my role is to support those units and provide them with the right tools. I wouldn't be what you would call a hands-on, day-to-day manager. I like to give people autonomy and pay them on a performance basis. My style is really looking for opportunities of growing the business. My strengths are in sales, marketing and creativity. We're constantly looking at ways to create new things in our business to put us out in front of the rest of the pack."

15. What's the most valuable lesson you've learned in business?

"It's to listen to people, from the consumers to the employees. You've got to have an ear to listen to what your customers and employees are saying and be prepared to change accordingly. I'd like to think that part of my style is being flexible. If we need to change something to accommodate the changing needs of our customers or our employees, we need to show flexibility and act on those things."

16. You were involved in a CBC Venture program called Back To The Floor in which you left the corner office to do some heavy lifting. What was that experience like?

"It was refreshing in a lot of ways. I have spent time on the floor in the past. This happened in the middle of the takeover of the public company and it was a very busy time for me. But it was great for me to get out on the floor, to spend time in the trucks and spend time in the warehouse. Since then, I've had a back-to-the-floor week across the company where each year we designate one week where management across the system takes a day or more to spend time in the field. It's good for everyone all around. The drivers and the staff appreciate seeing management on the floor. It gives us an appreciation for how hard these folks work, day in and day out, and it also gives them some exposure to senior management."

17. How has your involvement with World Vision in Honduras affected your perspective on life?

"It was a bit like the Back To the Floor program. We're bright people and we understand through media and television that a large portion of the world lives in poverty - but until you actually get out there and sort of walk a mile in their shoes, it's difficult to feel it. I think we can become almost oblivious to what's going on in the world. So for me, it was a real eye-opener to visit a Third World country like Honduras. All my time was spent visiting villages and seeing the conditions that these people live in and it was certainly a life-changing experience."

18. What does your company do for poverty?

"We've launched a campaign for the company and employees to sponsor children and we've got over 100 children who are now sponsored. I'm involved on a number of charitable boards and encourage everyone in our company to give back, including myself. There's just a huge responsibility, I think, placed on entrepreneurs to give back to the community - both financially and in their time."

19. What's your most prized material possession?

"I'm a grass fanatic, so I have a golf course law mower.

One of my hobbies is cutting grass. I also have quite a sports collection, so another prized possession is a replica Grey Cup that was given to Wayne Gretzky that I bought at a silent auction."

20. Do you think you'll still be running this company 10 years from today?

"I'll still be running this company. That's my hope, anyway. I have a lot of outside activities, from flying a private plane to playing hockey, but I love my job. So I see this as where I end my career."

Bruce Bowser

* Title: President/CEO/part owner, AMJ Campbell Van Lines.

* Born/raised/age: Quebec City/Halifax/47.

* Education: St. Mary's University (Halifax), undergraduate studies; Sir Wilfrid Laurier University (Waterloo, Ont.), master's in theological studies.

* Family: Wife Julia, four children.

* Career: Bowser joined AMJ Campbell in 1992 and was executive vice-president before being appointed in 1997 as president, a post he has held since then. Prior to joining AMJ, Bowser was a branch manager with Bank of Nova Scotia in Halifax. He was with the bank from 1985 to 1992.

* Moonlighting: Bowser is a board member of the Credit Valley Hospital Foundation and the National Club.

* Boyhood idol: Hockey goalie Johnny Bower.

* Passions: Playing hockey, flying his private airplane, golfing.

* Favourite business author: Steven Covey.

* Drives to work in: A 2005 S430 Mercedes Benz.

AMJ Campbell Van Lines

* Brass: Bruce Bowser, president/CEO/part owner; Richard Smith, chief financial officer; Denis Frappier, executive vice-president/part owner; Denis Cordick, vice-president of marketing.

* Profile: AMJ Campbell, established in 1934, is Canada's largest moving company, providing residential and office moving services and related products and services. The company operates through several divisions - AMJ Residential, AMJ Office, AMJ Special Products, AMJ U-Move, AMJ International, AMJ Self-Storage and AMJ Shredding. Formerly a publicly traded company, AMJ was taken private in 2003. A company management group owns 55 per cent of AMJ.

* Fiscal 2005 revenue: Approximately $140 million.

* Passing the torch: AMJ is the official mover of Canada's Olympic team.

* Stat: AMJ moves about 75,000 families annually.

* Website: www.amjcampbell.com

* Head office: 1445 Courtneypark Dr. East, Mississauga, Ont., L5T 2E3.

* Phone/fax: 905-795-3785/905-670-3787.

(Gyle Konotopetz can be reached at gyle@businessedge.ca)