Load & Lock

He moves, he stores, he delivers, he installs

by Phyl Newbeck

lowells0918Lowell’s Moving & Storage, the South Burlington company launched by Bruce Lowell in 1996, has undergone several transformations since its inception.

It’s not the physical nature of Bruce Lowell’s job that gets to him. One look at his biceps shows that moving furniture is not really a stretch for the 56-year-old. The stress comes from owning his South Burlington-based business, Lowell’s Moving & Storage, which has undergone a wide variety of changes since he founded the company back in 1996.

Lowell grew up with two brothers in Essex Junction, the son of an IBM worker and a homemaker. After graduating from Essex High School, he followed his twin brother, Brian, to New Jersey.

He was initially mystified when Brian bought him a pickup truck. “You don’t know anyone here,” Brian explained. “You can spend time moving things and meeting people.”

Brian was working for his in-laws and Lowell had no obvious career path, so he followed his brother’s advice. “I was 21 and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls, “but within a month we had a full-fledged business. We did that for three or four years.”

Although Lowell enjoyed the New York City music scene, he missed Vermont. He came back, married, had a child, and held a number of self-described blue-collar jobs including work as a plumber and delivering food. Brian had also returned to Vermont, and while Lowell was toiling for $9 an hour delivering food, his brother was delivering furniture and making more money while working less.

Lowell and his wife were able to obtain a Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity house, and using the money that would normally have gone to a down payment, he bought a van in December of 1995. The following month, he quit his job and started Bruce Lowell Delivery. “It was slow going,” he says “but after nine months I hired my first employee.”

Lowell’s biggest customer was Staples, for which he both delivered and assembled furniture. When his brother decided to leave his own business, which was called Lowell’s Moving & Delivery, in 1997, Lowell bought him out. Within a year, he had four employees and five vans.

Not content to keep the business static, he took another leap when he rented a storage warehouse at Fort Ethan Allen in 1998. “It was $800 a month, which was huge at the time,” he recalls. A United Parcel Service strike the following year led to a contract with April Cornell, which sold furniture and clothing across the United States. “We worked with them for about eight years,” he says. “It was a huge gig.”

Around that time, Lowell’s business was discovered by Vermont and New Hampshire woodworkers, and he soon had two trucks doing monthly trips with their wares up and down the East Coast.

The main focus of the business became “white glove delivery” of custom furniture. “That went well until around 2008 when the economy collapsed and my trucks stopped filling,” he remembers. He had five or six trucks devoted only to work with Staples, but when he had to raise his prices, the company terminated his contract, giving just two weeks’ notice.

The good news is that Lowell had other avenues for revenue. In 2000 he won a contract with Fletcher Allen Health Care (now The UVM Medical Center) followed by one with Middlebury College. Lowell and his crew moved office furniture internally and to other buildings.

The residential side of the moving business began to increase to make up for the other losses. His first storage customer, Creative Office Interiors, hired the company for office installation work, a line of work that now makes up roughly a third of the company’s income and is increasing. “I’ve been with them 23 years now,” he says.

These days, Lowell’s also has a contract for office installations with Red Thread Spaces. He recently did a large job at Norwich University and is about to perform similar work for Keurig Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

When Red Thread Spaces changed its business model in February to one that required a contractor to receive, deliver, and install furniture, sales representative Bart Flagler turned to Lowell. “Our work had been somewhat parallel so I didn’t know him,” Flagler says, “but when I told people we were working with him, they all seemed to know him and were happy with the change. I’ve never had so much positive feedback in my career. The consistent comments are that they are timely, extremely polite, and do everything they are asked to with a smile.”

These days, Lowell has downsized his fleet to two trucks and one van. Three years ago, he added storage to the company’s name and is trying to grow that end of the business, although he recognizes that the rise in local personal storage units has cut into that. At this point storage accounts for less than 10 percent of the business proceeds.

He has nine employees, two of whom have been with him for 20 years, but he notes that he’s had difficulty hiring and retaining staff because of his inability to guarantee them a full 40-hour work week. The company continues to do some work out of state, although that accounts for less than 15 percent of its income. Officially, Lowell does business as both Lowell’s Moving & Delivery and Lowell’s Moving & Storage, but of late he has concentrated on the latter as the company name.

He concedes that there have been a lot of stumbles along the way. “In 2008 I sat with my head on my desk because the phones weren’t ringing,” he says. In addition to changes in focus, the business has had four locations but has now settled nicely into its 1-year-old space in South Burlington.

Lowell says 2018 has been his busiest year ever, in part because other companies seem to have the same difficulty he does in hiring help. He notes that he offers employees $3 an hour more than he did two years ago but still has difficulty finding staff. “Millennials don’t want to do this,” he says.

Staffing and the cost of business insurance are two of the biggest obstacles he faces. Other issues include the rise of big box stores, which has eliminated company profits in packing supplies. “Movers used to make a lot of money on boxes,” he says “but now it’s more of a courtesy thing.”

Lowell hates sitting in the office. He won’t answer his own phone and admits to not being “paper-oriented.” Not surprisingly, he enjoys the traveling that comes with his job, including trips to Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida. A lot of that work is residential moving jobs.

He’s pleased that the vehicles he travels in are more eye-catching than they used to be. “When I started, I bought black trucks and did gold lettering,” he says, conceding that he stole the idea from the Boar’s Head trucks that he admired. A few years ago, a woman he hired for help with marketing told him it wasn’t easy to read the print. Lowell’s tattooist, Reno Kruger, had been working for the company for five years and he designed the new orange lettering.

Kruger’s work is also displayed on Lowell’s body. At age 50, Lowell quit smoking and discovered the gym, where he works out regularly. His arms and torso are covered with tattoos, all of which are dedicated to pigeons.

On his right arm is an homage to the pigeons that carried notes to command centers during World War II, and his left arm features a futuristic view of a man building the ultimate pigeon. A pigeon-themed mural adorns his back.

Although he’s no longer involved in the sport, Lowell has a long history of racing pigeons, a hobby he started when he was 13. He hopes to get back into the pastime but concedes that the old-timers are dying and youngsters are not showing interest in the sport. He estimates that there are no more than 10 pigeon racers left in Vermont.

There is no typical day at Lowell’s Moving & Storage and Lowell likes it that way. He continues to enjoy the physical work and notes that 99 percent of his customers are great. He is more than willing to cut a check for the small minority who might not be happy. The work isn’t boring, and every once in a while the company moves something memorable like a recent 20-foot aluminum dinosaur that took up the whole truck.

Andrea Wolga, the owner of that dinosaur, says she will be asking Lowell for assistance moving a similar sculpture shortly. He has done more traditional jobs for Wolga as well, moving her from Waterbury to Williston a decade ago and from Williston to Essex this year.

“I had 250 boxes,” Wolga says, “and he said it might take his crew eight hours, but it was done in less than three, which was fabulous. If I ever move again, I’m definitely calling him.”

Lowell admits he didn’t have any grand plan when he started. “I made everything up as I went along,” he says. “I’m not an educated guy but I seem able to work myself out of every jam I get into.”•