By Stacy Perman
The Two Men and a Truck brand began simply enough. To help drum up business for her sons' part-time moving service in the early 1980s, Mary Ellen Sheets made a line drawing of two stick figures in a truck cab and placed an ad in the local paper.
It worked. In fact, too well. Sheets, a single mother and data analyst for the State of Michigan, kept receiving moving inquiries -- even after her sons, Jon and Brigham Sorber, left for college. "One day, I came home from work and there were 12 messages on the answering machine," she says.
Sheets was understandably hesitant to just turn away business. So in 1985, she bought a used pickup truck for $350 and hired two men to do the heavy lifting. "That $350 was the only capital investment I ever made," Sheets says. And seeds for the nation's largest franchised moving company were planted.
Today, Lansing (Mich.)-based Two Men and a Truck operates in 27 states. The outfit made 250,000 moves last year, generating $150 million in revenue along the way.
Its success was born largely out of Sheets' early discovery that local, residential hauls -- from Point A to Point B within the same city, as opposed to long-distance -- were a greatly underserved market. She initially ran the part-time operation from her dining room. But as orders kept coming in and the business continued to grow, she found herself devoting more time and energy, and began drafting formal business plans and operating manuals.
In 1988, after putting her third and last child through college, Sheets finally felt comfortable with the risk of leaving her government job to run the company full-time. "Everybody said I was crazy," she recalls. "I had a good-paying job with health benefits and vacation." But she also says she had caught the entrepreneurial bug. "It was going pretty well. I was so scared, but I just wanted to do this so bad."
That same year, at the urging of a woman she met while speaking on a panel at Michigan State University, Sheets decided she could leverage and grow Two Men through franchising. A year later, she sold her first franchise to daughter Melanie, a pharmaceutical sales representative. Then her sons bought franchises, as did some of the moving men. "After we had sold 10 franchises, my attorney said, 'I think you are going to make it,'" she says. "But I always knew we were going to make it."
Today, there are 152 franchise locations. Franchisees pay an initial fee of $32,000, but capital costs (including trucks and office space) bring total startup costs to roughly $100,000. Royalties run 6% of gross revenue, with an additional 1% for advertising -- considered standard in the franchising world.
Along the way, however, there have certainly been bumps in the road. For one thing, Sheets was never exactly embraced by the traditionally male-dominated trucking business. At one point early on, she says, competitors reported her for minor violations. She was eventually hauled into court when some of her truckers drove 10 miles outside the company's zone. Says Sheets: "We made a lot of mistakes and learned the hard way."
Unlike the other moving companies she had seen, Sheets decided that Two Men would put a premium on customer service. "Moving had a cruddy reputation," she says. "I made sure everything was spotless. And we went out of our way for the customers." Sheets put her movers in uniforms and gave them business cards, charged by the hour instead of weight, and paid for any damage to be fixed. The company's mission statement remains: "Treat everyone the way you would want your Grandma treated."
From the start, Sheets handed out postage-paid reply cards, with just five questions, to her customers. Last year, the company received 66,000 responses. Sheets says that only 1% of the comments are negative -- and she uses them as an opportunity. "We want to get it right with our customers," she says. "Sometimes we send them flowers or a gift if something went wrong." As a result, Two Men gets about 95% of its business from word-of-mouth referrals, eliminating the need for much advertising.
With no formal business background, Sheets says she has relied mostly on her own instincts and experience. She credits her time volunteering at a hospital crisis intervention center with helping her to handle customers over the phone. "It taught me empathy and how to listen," she says.
STICK MEN U.
When it came to marketing, Sheets took a similar grassroots approach. She printed brochures and placed them in apartment buildings, handed out mugs with the Two Men logo filled with jelly beans, and turned the trucks into mobile billboards -- displaying the original stick-figure logo. Her goal was, and remains, to bring a personal touch to an industry known for its uniformity and stressed-out customers.
Like most successful franchisers, Sheets realized the need for consistency. In 1998, she established Stick Men University, a comprehensive training facility at the company's Lansing headquarters. Here, franchisees and movers learn the basics -- from answering a customer's first phone call to a handshake after the move is done. On site, there is also a two-story house set up to simulate many moving challenges, like transporting a piano down a narrow staircase and moving crates of fragile china.
At Two Men's computer lab, franchisees learn to pay their royalties electronically, check their colleagues' spending patterns, and communicate with each other about what's working and what's not. "I want them to be successful as fast as they can," Sheets says.
Richard McBee, a former seventh-grade social studies teacher in Birmingham, Ala., is the most successful among them. Eleven years ago, he decided to go into business for himself, and has since become Two Men's top franchisee -- with $5 million in annual revenue, two locations, and a third in the works. "I'm still astonished at what we've done," he says.
The Two Men system and well-respected brand convinced McBee to make his initial investment of $90,000. "I didn't feel comfortable getting into a business without a lot of support," he says. And once up and running, McBee made his own success by expanding his customer base slowly, and enlisting a payroll service and legal and tax advisers to help avoid mistakes along the way.
Two Men is once again a family affair. Sheets is CEO and daughter Melanie Bergeron is president and chief operating officer. After stints in the corporate world, Sheets's sons have returned -- Jon is a franchise owner and board member, while Brigham works as director of licensing.
"I'm still shocked by our success," Sheets says. "I worked so hard, I never really knew how big it was." Indeed, the company that began almost by accident could easily be re-named One Family and a Thousand Trucks. Or more simply, a family success story.
Perman is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York
Edited by Rod Kurtz