Don Ullman is chairman of the board of Federal Companies. He graduated from Peoria High School and Colorado College, and then served in the Army for two years. He’s been involved in running the business built by his grandfather for nearly four decades.
Ullman is past president of the Illinois Movers’ & Warehousemen’s Association and past chairman of the Allied Van Lines Quality Alliance. He’s also past president of the Peoria Public Library, Crittenton Counseling Center, Congregation Anshai Emeth, and is current president of the IPMR Foundation.
Tell about your background, schools, attended, etc.
I was born in Peoria, educated in the Peoria school system, and graduated from Peoria High School in 1957. My father and brother were also graduates of Peoria High School. My grandfather, born in Bloomington, moved to Peoria at an early age. He purchased and sold Newman Ullman Distributors as prohibition was a high probability. He felt Peoria needed public warehousing, and so they built the facility at 800 SW Adams. For a short time he was also in the discount furniture business, doing local moving as part of the furniture business. This became a better blend for the company, and retail furniture was history. With the founding of Allied Van Lines, we became a charter member in 1928.
After graduating from Colorado College and completing the ROTC program, I went on to serve in the Army with the Third Armored Division in Germany. As an ordinance officer, my time was spent maintaining equipment; consequently, I came to understand the value of safety and preventative maintenance, which has served me well in our business today.
I entered the family business in January 1965. I worked in Peoria for approximately 10 years, primarily in sales, then moved to Chicago to run a branch in Elmhurst before returning to Peoria to assume operational and management responsibilities for the household goods division.
With the death of my brother in 2000, I assumed the presidency and was responsible for all locations and all product lines. In January 2003, Bill Cirone, a 25-year veteran of the moving industry, accepted the position of president of Federal, and I took on the responsibility of chairman.
Federal Companies is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year and is a third generation family-owned business. How have the operations of the business changed through the years?
Like many businesses today, some things change and some things remain the same, and our industry is no exception. We’re basically in the labor business; so whether we’re moving people’s household goods in or out of a residence or receiving and distributing cases of commercial goods, the labor function has pretty much remained the same.
On the other hand, the equipment is vastly improved, with electronic engines for trucks providing better fuel mileage, governing speed, measuring engine performance, etc. But probably the greatest change has been in the automation of our administration sales, inventory control, and accounting functions. With the advent of the computer, we can now track shipments on a minute-by-minute basis. Instead of looking at a book or pulling out a map to find a location, we can pull up a screen for a detailed routing to the customer’s home.
Structurally, probably the biggest change occurred in 1980 with the deregulation of all transportation. Airlines, railroads, and the trucking industry all felt the impact of the change. For the most part, deregulation is a misnomer, for the government still has very defined rules and regulations governing transportation—from safety to legal to reporting. The major impact was open pricing and the ability to add new products or services. Interestingly enough, Federal’s greatest growth has come from the opportunities made available by deregulation. Another major change has been the attraction to our industry of better educated, more sophisticated, informed, and highly skilled employees at all levels.
What’s the vision of Federal Companies?
Continue to be a growing, viable company with effective, high performance management at every location—a company that reflects our core values and strives to be our customer’s number one choice.
This in itself sounds pretty basic, but is required for the company to grow. Growth will come from expanding the service lines we have in our given markets, but new growth will require new markets.
At this juncture I see us still being a central Midwest-focused company, but depending on opportunity, we could expand out of what’s considered the Midwest geographic area. But the fit would have to be near perfect.
How has the company diversified through the years? What are the different services Federal Companies offers?
Because we represent Allied Van Lines, we have the image of “just a moving and storage company.” It surprises people to find we have a number of services that relate to the core structure of our firm, particularly in providing labor and storage. We’ve been in the logistics business for a number of years, providing inventory control and physical distribution for products that are seen every day on a grocer’s shelf, and to a lesser degree, used for commercial purposes in manufacturing and food processing.
Along with that, we have a freight division with a 48-state authority, so not only can we receive and store the goods, but a major part of our customer base also requires that we transport their products to their customers—some like to call it “single source” logistic.
Home delivery for area furniture and appliance stores keeps an entire department busy managing the 25 trucks in central Illinois and eastern Iowa.
Our fastest growing division is shipping uncrated motorcycles anywhere in the continental United States and Canada. This department handles about 23,000 phone inquiries a year and over the last 12 years has handled more than 60,000 shipments. Within the motorcycle industry we handle a number of exhibits. In the last few years we’ve provided transportation for both the Guggenheim Museum in New York and its new facility in Las Vegas, and a motorcycle show at the Museum of National History in Chicago.
How has the files storage business grown through the years?
Throughout our various locations, we have approximately 250,000 boxes of records with on-line access for our customers.
Records storage is a major concern for corporations today, and because of the issue of security—even before 911—more and more companies are looking for managed, off-site locations to keep track of active and inactive files. Our facilities are well secured, with on-line inventory information availability 24 hours a day. One of our locations not only stores hard copies, but also has a specially constructed data room for backup computer tapes, cassettes, etc. In addition, our service also includes pick-up and delivery of file boxes and, if requested, scanning files via the Internet to the customer.
A major portion of our growth in this area has come from firms that initially used mini warehouses for their records; however, between extreme temperature fluctuations causing paper deterioration and the lack of on-site management, we’re an excellent alternative—many times at a lesser cost.
What’s the moving company’s greatest challenge?
Besides a challenging marketplace where the industry has an over capacity, probably the single greatest challenge is attracting production staff. Demographics for most industries, from manufacturing to service, within the next year or so will be confronted with a major shortfall of skilled and semi skilled labor. We’ve taken rather dramatic steps in our recruiting effort and are spending considerable resources in training. Even with all this, I see it as an ongoing issue.
About how long does a typical business move take? How long is the planning stage? How long does it take to do the actual move?
Like any major industry, planning is the key ingredient for success. So much of the move involves ensuring one’s personal requirements are met in the new community—from doctors, hospitals, schools, housing, to such small things as changing mailing address, notifying friends and neighbors of your new home, to securing telephone and utilities services. The physical part of the relocation might be the easiest, for our people can do all the packing. The base service consists of loading, transportation, unloading the goods at the new residence, and if requested, providing all of the unpacking. The moving process normally consists of one or two days to complete packing; one day to load the goods; depending on the mileage and size of the shipment, two to six days for delivery; and one day to unload and put the home in some semblance of order.
Death, divorce, and moving are three of the greatest anxiety events that occur in one’s life; consequently, we spend a lot of time training sales and production people to handle the sometimes-difficult situations. In many instances, two of the three events precipitated the move. Overall planning unquestionably avoids many of the emotional pitfalls that can occur.
What are some of the more interesting moves Federal Companies has been involved with over the last 90 years?
One interesting thing about our business is that we’re involved in virtually every facet of our society, for sooner or later some form of relocation takes place. Several years ago we participated with another firm in handling the Caterpillar corporate headquarters move from various locations to downtown. When the Central Bank merged with the Commercial Bank years ago, we had armed security travel with every load. We were asked to go to Houston and move a complete data processing center from one side of Houston to the other because of the specialized equipment and experience we had in moving computer libraries. The Des Plaines Public Library, Decatur Public Library, and years ago the Peoria Public Library are just a few of the traditional libraries we’ve moved over the years.
One of the most interesting moves we handled a few years back was moving the Milikin University (Decatur) School of Music out of their building while it was being remodeled and then moving everything back. The uniqueness of this move was there were no elevators in the building, and we had 97 pianos—12 being baby grand pianos—to move. We used a high lift forklift, took most of the units out of the windows, and moved them into the temporary building, which had no elevator, using the same process. The Bloomington Historical Society required the same kind of equipment and expertise since the elevator in their old building was slow and about the size of a postage stamp.
Of all of the moves we’ve ever handled, the one that comes to mind as the most unusual was moving St. Mary’s Hospital in Galesburg from its old location downtown to its current location on the edge of Galesburg—particularly the last day—because they had a patient in an iron lung. We moved the patient in the operating lung, along with a power generator, in the van one Sunday morning. The Galesburg Police Department escorted us the entire route for safety reasons.
Do you handle more residential or business moves?
From a numbers perspective, we do more residential moving than office and industrial, but the skill set and equipment translates very well for office moves, and it’s been a very good blend for our company. Office moves require special equipment, and within the Federal system, we’ve developed a large inventory of this material to handle moves from a few employees to hundreds. Just this past summer, our St. Louis facility handled a large law firm moving from various locations into a single building over a period of a few weekends. The key to this firm, as with most companies, is to minimize down time, for in many cases, the cost of the move is minimal in comparison to not being available for their customers.
How are international moves handled?
International moves have many similarities to domestic moves in packing requirements; the primary difference is instead of a reusable cotton pad (for domestic moves) we use a combination of bubble wrap, Styrofoam sheeting, and paper pads loaded into an overseas container. The unique part of international moves is the varied modes of transportation to get the container from one’s residence in the States to a new home halfway around the world. Trucks, railroads, steam ships, and—in some cases with small shipments—airplanes all require a very defined tracking process. The international infrastructure is very dependable; therefore, we have very few problems, especially since the shipments are tracked daily.
How can people best prepare for a move?
With the advent of Web sites, virtually every piece of information one needs is available with the flip of a switch. Community information, schools, doctors, hospitals, languages, employment, cost of living, etc., can be accessed, but it does take time to assimilate the information. As I’ve said previously, planning is the key, and we spend considerable time working with transferees providing additional information to use prior to the move, so they have a punch list of potential issues that can be addressed. Regardless of what level of service people are looking for, family involvement and planning are critical ingredients to a stress-free move.
What would people be surprised to learn about Federal Companies?
Surprising to many is the depth of our management, the diverse product lines, the sophistication of our IT department, and our service capacity. Every time we hire a person from within the industry, they comment on the strength of our people, training programs, our data technology, and our core values. Since we have our own IT department, we’ve customized virtually every operating program we have.
Are there any misperceptions about your business?
The greatest misperception is probably more of an industry issue, particularly in the household goods business, due to exposé programs run by the various TV networks. One piece was done just recently by NBC’s Dateline. They tend to find unscrupulous or illegal operators, primarily in big cities, who routinely discredit the reputations of legitimate movers. A growing concern within the industry are the dot.com brokers who, for the most part, promise cost and services that are difficult—or next to impossible—to provide. Adding another layer to the process causes more problems than they generally solve, and many have folded. Since they’re perceived as part of our industry, it adds to the negative image for all of us.
Fortunately, the majority of our asset-based, full-service competitors in all of our markets run their businesses with integrity and commitment to quality. When that occurs, everyone wins—particularly the moving public. IBI