Successful Entrepreneur Continues to Grow One of Nation’s Largest Independent Movers.
The expansion of Loudoun County-based JK Moving Services, highlighted by the recent dedication of a new, 75,000 square-foot warehouse in Sterling, Virginia, is the brainstorm of founder, president and CEO Chuck Kuhn.
Kuhn, who started JK Moving at age 16, has positioned the company to be a dominant and ground-breaking player in the residential and commercial moving industry — and the second largest independent mover in the nation.
Its newest facility adds to the company’s massive, 600,000 square foot presence in Loudoun, along with 80,000 square feet of space in Montgomery County, Maryland. JK Moving employs about 815 people, and the new space will add another 150 jobs in Loudoun. Kuhn also has plans to create a campus at Routes 606 and 28 in Sterling for a headquarters, administrative offices, warehouses and truck parking.
The Tribune covered the Sterling dedication in an article published Jan. 19, then followed up with Kuhn to learn more about his path to success, what drives him to keep building the company, and how he views being a business owner and resident of Loudoun County. This article is a composite of those visits with Kuhn.
The first thing that comes to mind when interviewing Chuck Kuhn is to wonder whether there are two of him. His interests are many and diverse — both personal and professional — and Kuhn is a devoted husband and father to nine children, ages 14 to 30.
“I’ve encouraged my children to do their own thing, follow their own passion, be their own person,” Kuhn said. “I’ve seen a lot of family businesses eat families, and so I’ve never really encouraged any of them to come into the business.” Of his five girls and four boys, one son works in the business.
As previously described in the Tribune, Kuhn and his family had a bad experience with a mover when he was a young boy. Years later, he and his brother went to work for his uncle’s small moving company in Maryland. Kuhn saved up his earnings, got a $5,000 loan from the uncle, and started his own company.
He named it JK Moving Services, using the initials of his father. Within four years, Kuhn’s brother, father and mother were working for the company too — his parents having retired from Bell Atlantic.
Fast forward 36 years and JK Moving has grown to become a national powerhouse in the moving industry. The company provides residential, commercial and international moving services. It also offers storage for corporate records and document shredding, and operates a relocation services arm. All but the last are branded under the JK name.
Moving is big business in the U.S., and the industry is divided between a small number of large, national, agent network franchisees, and independents. Kuhn said the trend is toward consolidation and co-ownership, and that the nationwide franchisee model gets about 95 percent of the national and international long distance moving business.
“We’re completely different,” said Kuhn. “The independent model is almost opposite of the agent network approach, and that makes us more accountable to our customers.”
Key differences include the drivers, the tractors and the trailers. “When you call JK, you will get one of our trucks, drivers, crews and trailers,” Kuhn said.
He contrasted that with the network model, where drivers are independent owner-operators who may also own the tractor they drive. They don’t own the trailer though, which most likely is not owned by the local franchisee either. The trailers, like the drivers, travel the nation, following the jobs. “We own our own equipment, we do our own work, and everyone is an employee of the company,” he said.
Kuhn said most of the network model is focused on the residential market, though he acknowledges that some local franchises strive to offer local commercial moves.
For Kuhn, the commercial market is an important part of the business. That’s an understated way of saying JK Moving has become the largest commercial office moving company on the east coast, and possibly in the nation.
Commercial services are typically larger projects than residential ones, are competitively bid, and have smaller profit margins, Kuhn said. And the residential and commercial moving markets are very different, as are the way they expect to be served.
That difference is why residential movers often struggle to dabble in commercial moves, Kuhn said. The client for a residential move is nine out of ten times a female spouse, whereas the client for a larger commercial or office move is typically a facilities manager and more likely to be male. Also, the residential move happens during the day with the client watching, whereas office moves are typically done after hours and over a weekend so the client is back up and running on a Monday morning.
Kuhn said residential moving is seasonal, and when movers have trucks sitting idle, such as over the winter, they often try to solicit commercial business.
“But when a residential mover tries to go after commercial business, they have to think about re-tooling their shop. It’s a different animal, different trucks, different training, different hours,” he said.
Kuhn divides the commercial office client into one of three types. If it’s a small office move, JK Moving is likely to be dealing with an office manager or proprietor who is getting three to four bids. For a larger move, the company is typically dealing with a facilities manager who is bringing in three to four movers for a walk through. There is a lot of pressure to get the move right.
“Eighty percent of facilities managers are terminated within 60 days of a corporate relocation, and that’s a national number,” Kuhn said.
The trend in the past five years has been for the facilities manager handling a larger move to team with an outside move management firm. That firm solicits the bids, spreading the responsibility. Depending on the culture of the client, the choice will then be best value or low bid, Kuhn said.
The presence of a move management firm is both a challenge and opportunity for Kuhn. “You’re putting someone between you and the ultimate decision-maker, but you’re also dealing with someone who is more experienced, someone one who understands the value of a quality service provider, and the risk of going with low bid,” he said.
From a practical standpoint, Kuhn said that a major office relocation in the Washington, D.C., area is likely to be handled by one of two companies. Some assets of a third, Office Movers, were recently taken over by JK Moving. Office Movers filed for bankruptcy in December 2016, and its CEO said debt of $8.8 million would force the firm to close and lay off about 900 area workers.
With only two viable companies in the area for larger commercial moves, Kuhn was asked why a move management company is needed. He said that when a management company shops out of the area too and identifies five potential movers for a client, it almost always comes down to a choice between JK Moving or Moving Masters, so it’s a good way to test JK Moving’s value.
The demise of Office Movers positions Kuhn to expand in the greater Baltimore market. “Office Movers was definitely the largest player up there, and there are one or two smaller guys up there too,” he said. “We want to get a large foot-hold, and cover the Baltimore beltway the same as we’ve covered the beltway market here.”
Kuhn is seeking to acquire more facility space outside of Baltimore, most likely in the Ft. Mead area, and has two brokers actively looking. This would include more business from greater Annapolis, which the company already services from Gaithersburg.
The military is a business sector of its own for JK Moving, and the company has done work for the Department of Defense for 35 years, Kuhn said. “Department of Defense residential moving probably makes up 15 percent of our business,” he said.
JK Moving has used targeted direct mail and telemarketing for 30 years to identify potential clients. Yellow Pages used to be a big part of its marketing efforts too but that’s in the past. “For a while we were spending $1.5 million a year in Yellow Pages advertising, and we were getting results,” Kuhn said. “But as the internet came along, everything changed.”
The company has also had success using radio, and on occasion other mass audience tools, but Kuhn said the value is mainly to maintain and expand brand awareness. He said JK Moving also used to advertise with all the area professional sports teams, and at all their local arenas, but no longer.
“We tracked it for three to five years, depending on the team, and the results were nil as far as generating new business,” he said. “We had better results sponsoring Loudoun soccer than we did sponsoring the Washington Capitols.”
Kuhn said he is still challenged when he wakes up every day, and his interests remain diverse.
“It might be getting established in Baltimore, it might be negotiating our international shipping lines, or going out for a bid on a large project,” he said. Or staffing. “I like getting top talent and keeping them focused on the shared goals and core values of the company.
The interview with Kuhn came just after President Trump’s executive order on immigration, and Kuhn was asked for his views and how this might affect his business.
“Our client mix is extremely diverse, and the World Bank is a large customer of ours,” he said. Along with the U.S. military, JK Moving also works with foreign military clients.
“On the employee side, JK is a real melting pot, and foreign workers are a huge part of our success,” Kuhn said.
He has been active in working with federal visa programs that allow foreign workers to come into the U.S. for temporary work, but made clear that he is a strong believer in everyone following the law.
“There are aspects of the Trump immigration order that concern me greatly, but I think it’s evolving,” Kuhn said. I’m all in favor of foreign workers coming to the U.S. legally, with vetting and background checks as needed, and for them to be paying taxes like everyone else. And I think you can accomplish both goals — to have a foreign work force and avoid any form of discrimination, and still have legal workers.”
Kuhn said that he could not get a legitimate background check done for someone who is in the U.S. illegally. “And if I can’t get that done, I don’t know who I’m putting in the home or office of my customer. I won’t take that risk.”
Irrespective of the immigration order, the ability of an employer to adequately vet a prospective employee is a major concern to Kuhn. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re a U.S. or foreign worker, we have to do a full background check, a pre-employment drug test and a driving record check,” he said.
Describing his outside interests, Kuhn calls himself a jack of all and master of none. He likes fresh and salt water fly fishing, and has been as far as Alaska, Mexico and the Bahamas to fish. He also likes shooting clays, snow boarding and flying — as a pilot. The family also has a farm in western Loudoun where he raises beef cattle and chickens.
Kuhn isn’t sure what will happen when all his children are graduated from high school and move out of the house, but said the family does a lot of recreational activities together and he expects that will continue. All are avid snow boarders and certified scuba divers, and four are pilots. He is looking forward to it, and to having grandchildren.
“Loudoun County is so diverse, and I’ve enjoyed living here and growing my business here,” Kuhn said.
He highlighted the work of the county Board of Supervisors, economic development director Buddy Rizer, and the Sheriff’s Office in particular for promoting positive change.
Kuhn is a big proponent of government efficiency, and said he could do an all-day interview on that topic. “The amount of waste in federal and state government drives me insane,” he said. “If I ran my business the way they handle their budgets we would’ve been bankrupt a long time ago. I don’t have any difficulty in paying what I do in federal and state taxes, but I have great concern over how that money is managed and spent.”
“Loudoun has come a long way but still has a long way to go,” Kuhn said. “The roads still leave a lot to be desired, especially in the west where so many are unpaved and poorly maintained. My wife has lost three rims and three tires in the past 12 months from potholes in western Loudoun.”
Kuhn had mostly good things to say about the Loudoun County Public School (LCPS) system. “We came out of the Fairfax County public school system and the private school environment, and have been very pleased with the quality of Loudoun County teachers. It’s the executive leadership of the schools that concern me more than anything else,” he said.
Kuhn said he has had difficulty bringing matters to the attention of the Superintendent of Schools and some members of the School Board. “Try to reach somebody, and see how responsive they are for your request for information or a meeting. Good luck.”
One day, after three months of emails and phone calls without a reply, Kuhn said be became exasperated and went to the LCPS administration building and sat in the lobby for three hours waiting to see the superintendent or one of his direct reports. He said he was told everyone was tied up in meetings, and that he could reschedule.
A conversation with Kuhn inevitably turns to philanthropy and the programs Kuhn and his company have supported over the years — especially related to the educational development of children, disadvantaged children, and children’s health. He cited the Washington, D.C.-based Fight for Children as a prime example, and has served on its board for the past 15 years. He has also been a longstanding supporter of Habitat for Humanity, Race for Hope, and the Wakefield School.
As for JK Moving, by any objective measure Kuhn’s approach to business has paid off. The company has averaged a 25 percent compounded annual growth rate for the past 35 years.
Reader note: This story was updated on Feb. 10 to note the bankruptcy filing by Office Movers and correct the reference to Office Movers as being acquired by JK Moving.