Bekins Company History

Address:
300 S. Mannheim Road
Hillside, Illinois 60162
U.S.A.

Telephone: (708) 547-2000

Private Company
Incorporated: 1940 as Bekins Van Lines Company
Employees: 2,000
Sales: $200 million (1994)
SICs: 4214 Local Trucking with Storage; 4213 Trucking Except Local

Company History:

The Bekins Company is a leader in the moving and storage industry. Originally specializing in transporting household goods, the company now also moves office furnishings, trade show exhibits, and company inventories, as well as providing storage facilities for a myriad of items.

The company's founder, Martin Bekins, was the son of a Dutch immigrant, Sjoerd Bekius, who arrived in New Orleans and then made his way across land to eventually settle in a Michigan farming community in the mid-1800s. Sjoerd's migration probably entailed loading his belongings onto a horse or into a horse-drawn wagon and slowly making the trek to his destination; until the turn of the century, the moving and storage industry did not exist.

After leaving his father's farm and settling in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1880, Martin changed his last name to Bekins. His brother John soon followed and the two young men found jobs driving freight wagons during the day. In the evenings they completed their education. After graduation, the Bekins brothers decided to apply their job experiences in a practical manner, and in 1891 the Bekins Company opened for business in Sioux City, Iowa, offering moving services by horse and wagon. Their first financial statement listed assets and liabilities of $2,246.67.

As early as 1830, tales were circulating that fabulous riches in gold were free for the taking on the western frontier. Pioneers by the thousands began to make the treacherous trip across plains, deserts, and mountains in lumbering Conestoga wagons or "prairie schooners." Two main routes developed: the Oregon Trail along the Platte River, and the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis to Sante Fe, New Mexico. Moving household possessions was a challenging venture as furniture and sentimental keepsakes were bounced over the rugged terrain.

Astutely noting the nation's migration to the west, the Bekins brothers quickly opened another office in Omaha, Nebraska. Two other brothers, Dan and Taeke, took over the management of the Sioux City location. In 1895, Martin decided to expand the business to Los Angeles. Bekins was the first company to use covered moving vans on the West Coast and to specialize in moving household goods.

Although steam power had been harnessed for numerous purposes through the centuries, perhaps none was as significant as its use in the development of the locomotive in the late 19th century. The continental railroad system would greatly enhance opportunities for expansion and mobility. In anticipation of these changes, the Bekins brothers established the Bekins Household Shipping Company in Chicago in 1898 to serve as a link between the two coasts. Shipments were pooled from locations up and down the eastern seaboard for rail transport to California.

In the years following the turn of the century, particularly during Theodore Roosevelt's administration, the United States enjoyed an economic boom. A significant portion of the population was prosperous enough to own second homes or excess furniture that required storing. As a result, public warehousing emerged as an industry. Bekins' first warehouses featured a ramp that allowed the horse-drawn vans to be driven directly into the building for unloading.

However, like the Conestoga wagon, the horse-drawn van was destined for oblivion. By 1903 Bekins was replacing the old moving method, driving the first motor trucks on the West Coast. The initial Bekins trucks, powered by two-cylindered, air-cooled engines, were two of only 700 such trucks in the nation. By the end of World War I, Bekins had ceased to use horse-drawn vans altogether. There were now four additional Bekins organizations in the Northwest, Colorado, Iowa, and Nebraska, owned and operated by the children and grandchildren of John Bekins and Dan Bekins.

Bekins built the industry's first reinforced steel and concrete warehouse in Los Angeles in 1906. Later that same year, another Bekins warehouse was under construction on Mission Street in San Francisco, when the infamous and devastating earthquake and fire hit that city. The superior construction of the warehouse's foundation and walls allowed it to remain intact, and Bekins deployed its motor van to bring the newly homeless to the warehouse for temporary shelter.

Martin's children--Milo Sr., Reed, Floyd, and Ruth--purchased the company and installed Milo as president in 1918. The decade that followed saw Bekins introduce specially constructed shipping boxes called "porto-vans" for transporting household items by boat and rail. Warehouse companies created a national network to coordinate transportation. The network was aided by the National Moving and Storage Association, which Milo Bekins helped to found.

The network operated in this manner: a person who needed to move household belongings would contact a local warehouse company, which would in turn contact another warehouse company in the destination city. The local company would transport the crated possessions, either by electric or horse-drawn trucks, to its warehouse. Routing personnel would consult railroad schedules and arrange for hook-up on a particular train. The destination company would be advised of the expected arrival time by wire. When the train reached its destination, the destination warehouse company would pick up and store the contents until the owners arrived and arranged for its delivery to their new home. By the end of the 1920s, Bekins had nearly one thousand porto-vans crisscrossing the United States, until the construction of transcontinental highways changed the character of transportation once again.

Bekins adjusted its operations accordingly and the industry's first move by transcontinental motor van was accomplished in 1928. The padded moving van left Sioux City on June 23, driven by Bekins employee Gordon Mead and his son Wayne. Eschewing the newer U.S. routes 40 and 50, the Meads traveled the Santa Fe Trail and arrived in Los Angeles on July 8th of that year.

During the 1920s Bekins locations were opened in Berkeley, Sacramento, Fresno, Pasadena, and West Hollywood. Bekins extended its motor van operations into the northwestern and eastern regions of the United States in the 1930s. Moving and storage companies became federally regulated along with the trucking industry under the Interstate Commerce Act of 1935.

In 1940 the regional offices were combined to form Bekins Van Lines Company. At first the warehouses were concentrated in the center of major cities. With the end of World War II and the proliferation of suburban communities made possible by the automobile, however, Bekins moved its warehouses to the outlying areas as well. Two of Bekins' most noteworthy moving jobs during this time were the relocations of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the New York Giants to San Francisco in 1958.

Bekins' growth accelerated in the 1960s. By 1963, the company was posting gross yearly revenues of $40 million with an after-tax net of $1.8 million. Four major areas of service developed: local moving and storage within communities; long distance moving of household and other valuable goods; international moving and storage for military personnel and civilians; and other related services, such as the storage of business records, records management, film storage, and office and industrial moving.

It was perhaps not surprising, with its geographic focus in California, that Bekins was able to cultivate business amid the Hollywood movie industry. From facilities in Hollywood and Los Angeles, Bekins' film centers were created to store, clean, repair, and distribute millions of dollars worth of film. Moreover, the company created a catalog system to allow for easy retrieval of the films. Bekins' electronic products division had its start during the 1960s as well and became one of the company's most profitable services, until computer mainframes and other electronic items became more manageable in size, and the retailers and consumers were able to handle the equipment themselves.

In the 1970s, federal deregulation of the moving and trucking industry generated an environment of intense competition. The Motor Carrier's Act of 1980 was designed to allow more opportunities for new businesses and to allow existing ones to expand their services. The act also provide for increased price flexibility. To survive, Bekins employed creative marketing techniques to retain and attract customers. With its "No Excuse Move" promotional campaign, Bekins became the first moving and storage company to offer guaranteed pricing, guaranteed pick-up and delivery dates, and full replacement protection coverage. As the world entered the computer age, the pressure to use state-of-the art information processing was also increasing. By 1987, Bekins was tracking 95 percent of its shipments in an integrated set of online computer systems.

Bekins was purchased by Minstar, Inc., in 1983, in that company's explosive rise to prominence under the leadership of corporate raider Irwin L. Jacobs. However, by 1987, the Bekins family was able to repurchase their company from Minstar and return it to its privately owned status. In the meantime, however, under Minstar's parentage Bekins had been transformed from a family-run business to one with over 2,000 employees, 470 independent agents, and more than 50 wholly owned moving and storage companies.

By the 1990s, the nature of the van line industry had changed dramatically. The moving of household goods settled into a cyclical pattern, with one-third of all household moves scheduled during the three summer months. Demographers also projected that the aging Baby Boomer population would create a decrease in U.S. mobility rates. Companies were forced to further diversify, and Bekins was characteristically in the vanguard. Although 60 percent of its business was still generated by moving household goods, a growing 40 percent was in specialty distributions, particularly equipment for the trade show industry. Another growing area was in catalog delivery and the delivery of large catalog orders for such retailers as Williams Sonoma, Neiman Marcus, and American Express. True to its strong customer service emphasis, Bekins not only delivered the furniture or appliances, but it uncrated them, set them up in the consumer's home, and promised to handle the return if any items were defective. Company executives predicted that 80 percent of Bekins's future growth will come from specialty distributions in the late 1990s.

Perhaps Bekins' most innovative venture of the 1990s was its contract logistics operations, whereby it took over a retailer's entire transportation, delivery, warehousing, inventory control, installation, and billing operations. In the early 1990s, Bekins contracted with Eastman Kodak to provide this service for Kodak's high-end copiers and printers. To make this project possible, Bekins developed a national inventory management system called Distribution and Logistics System, or DLS, that employed discrete item tracking via bar coding.

Bekins also faced some challenges in the mid-1990s. During this time it became involved in a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department. Specifically, the 1995 suit charged that a Philadelphia affiliate of subsidiary Bekins Van Lines Co. had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, when some movers allegedly refused to move the belongings of a customer whose friend was stricken with AIDs. The suit remained unsettled in early 1996.

During this time, the company also made an unsuccessful bid to acquire the moving division of Mayflower Group, Inc. Instead, Unigroup, the parent of Bekins's rival United Van Lines, took over Mayflower in 1995. This merger left six major carriers in the United States with more consolidations expected. A change in regulatory agencies due to the disbanding of the Interstate Commerce Commission was also expected to affect the industry. Nevertheless, its revered history of moving household goods and its willingness to keep pace with a changing industry by exploring and implementing new lines of business boded well for Bekins.

Principal Subsidiaries: Bekins Moving and Storage Company; Bekins Van Lines Company.

Further Reading:

  • "Bekins History," company document, Hillside, Ill.: Bekins Company, 1978.
  • Bryant, Daniel P., Journey to the Promised Land, Los Angeles: Newcomen Society, 1964.
  • Harrington, Lisa, "Van Lines Change Their Stripes," Transportation and Distribution, December 1994, pp. 28--32.
  • Jackson, Gianna, "Moving? Prices Are Rising, So Get a Move On," The New York Times, April 22, 1995, p. 39.
  • Slobodzian, Joseph A., "Justice Department Sues Moving Company for Discrimination," The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 25, 1995.
  • Svaldi, Aldo, "Movers Stuck in Gridlock, Lack Drivers, Vans, Space," The Denver Business Journal, August 5--11, 1994, pp. 7--8.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.