All The Right Moves

Gentle Giant's innovations apply anywhere

By Timothy G. Habbershon

Gentle Giant moving is the dominant regional mover around Boston. President Larry O'Toole's bright purple vans, complete with yellow "giant" feet on the side, are the first sign that this is an innovative company.

Gentle Giant is a great example of how a company with $20 million in sales can think and act innovatively to find its special advantage over larger national companies. O'Toole says that Gentle Giant's innovation is deceptively simple: Don't follow accepted practices in the industry. The challenge is to overcome the gravitational pull toward conformity. Employees that accept this challenge are the key to the company's competitive advantage.

What can other small companies learn from Gentle Giant about innovation? Consider a few common business concepts, and how this company applies them.

CUSTOMER DRIVEN. Does this phrase sound ho-hum? It is not. O'Toole's innovative thinking about his company stems from his radical application of this phrase. Moving is a stress-filled experience, and, as Larry would say, movers generally add to that discomfort. But Gentle Giant begins with the premise that customers deserve a stress-free move. How many other moving companies teach employees how to empathize with the customer? Customers will pay a premium to feel cared for, sparing Gentle Giant the need to compete on price.

TEAM BASED. O'Toole rows crew. If you have ever seen a synchronized team of rowers, you can understand the inspiration for Gentle Giant's attitude toward employees. Hiring the right people -- internally motivated, like rowers -- and giving them proper incentives is key. Unlike other movers, Gentle Giant employees do not get their pay docked when they damage furniture. That's because Larry wants the whole team to deal honestly and openly with customers; he doesn't want to encourage them to lie or hide damage. As a team, movers review breakage and talk about how it could have been avoided. Gentle Giant invests heavily in training so that every employee will be a leader, take responsibility, and care for the customer. Not coincidentally, Gentle Giant has a large core of full-time workers that stay with the company year-round.

CULTURAL CONSISTENCY. How do you build innovation into a culture? By making sure that the everyday habits of the business are innovative. Gentle Giant movers run -- they don't walk -- between the house and the truck when they're not carrying anything. This is a practical demonstration of their commitment to getting the customer moved quickly and of their energy for the job.

In stark contrast to most moving companies, Gentle Giant intentionally hires fit, athletic people (they even have Olympians in training). Some 80% of its hires have college degrees. New hires get the message right away: They are taken to the Harvard football stadium and asked to run up each section of stairs in order. That's not only to see how fit they are but also, as O'Toole says, to see whether they can finish what they start without whining. Gentle Giant fires whiners early on.

LEADERSHIP BUY-IN. I have never been to a company where top managers and team leaders buy into the mindset so completely. Their commitment to perpetuating the Gentle Giant approach and holding others accountable for their actions is key to their success. This happens for one reason: Leadership integrity at the top.

The company is now sending its team leaders to start branches in other cities. In a rough-and-tumble industry, O'Toole proves that you can indeed be a Gentle Giant.

Timothy G. Habbershon is director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at the Arthur M. Blank Center for Entrepreneurship, Babson College.

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