Long read: Tony Gilboy has run his Liverpool city region removals business for more than a decade and has seen people at their best and their worst… ‘I see things on a daily basis that most would never see’. Tony McDonough reports
If you want to see the extremes of the real lives of people, day in and day out, then one of the best things you can do is get into the removals business.
Tony Gilboy has now been in the business for more than a decade and he has seen people at their best, and at their worst and a lot in between. He told LBN: “I see things on a daily basis that others would never see or believe from the comical to the sad facts of life”
Tony is the founder and co-director and managing director of Prestige Removals based in Knowsley Industrial Park. It is the second incarnation of the business which was originally launched as Swift Removals and Storage around 12 years ago.
A huge fall in trade during the pandemic meant the original firm, which employed around 14 people, had to be dissolved. Prestige is a slimmed down and more efficient version of its former self, with four employees as well as Tony and his co-director Lynne Ambrose.
A joiner by trade, Tony ran a construction firm for 23 years until he and his then business partner decided to call it quits. Tony then started his own small ‘man with a van’ venture. He alternated between that and managing and maintaining properties he owned.
It was Lynne’s arrival as her role as the accountant that led to the transformation of his part-time business into a full-fledged removals operation.
He explained: “Lynne came into the business through renting her own office at our premises in Kirkby. She started doing the business accounts and then she wanted to be involved more in the running of the business. That is when things changed.
“It took a couple of years to get up to speed and bring on the clients but once we did things started to go really well.
“Over the next few years we did a lot of work for the Livv housing group. They did a couple of residential developments – the Watch Factory in Prescot and Crawford Gardens in Page Moss.
“We moved in 136 tenants in five weeks – that was full-on. That was five or six years ago now and we built up a great working relationship with The Livv Group and they began using us a lot.”
Swiftmove was growing steadily and then came the COVID hammer blow that no one in the world was expecting. And, because of the strict rules on social contact, the removals business was hit hard.
“During COVID you weren’t physically allowed to move anyone anywhere,” said Tony. “I got myself classed as an essential worker. But it meant I had to go out on my own.
“I wasn’t allowed to enter the properties we were moving so I had to watch people struggling to bring out their belongings themselves. It was an unbelievable situation and I’d never known anything like it. I put the guys on furlough, but it just dragged on far too long.”
Eventually Tony and Lynne made the heartbreaking decision to dissolve the business. He added: “We had to go to see an insolvency practitioner in Liverpool city centre. We really didn’t want to do it but felt we had no choice.
“We found ourselves sitting in the insolvency company office and during our initial meeting we were getting really upset at the process we having to go through.
“After explaining in detail to us the process we realised that it wasn’t going to be that bad. As we left there offices he told us that he wasn’t going to charge us a fee. I couldn’t believe it.
“So we went away had a good think about everything we had gone through and then relaunched as Prestige Removals.
“We are nowhere near back to where we were before the pandemic but we have tightened our belts and knowing that trade now is probably a third of what it was back then we will keep growing.”
Tony is back in contact with Livv and both sides are keen to start working together again. He said: “We have to fill in a million forms to get back on their books and we are working through this, they are great people to work with and we understand this is just a process we have to go through.”
Using five removal vans, Prestige Removals takes on both domestic and commercial work but it is the house moves that account for the bulk of its business. And Tony and his team see life in the raw every day.
“I see people who are down on their luck and I see the glamorous side as well. Some of the fantastic houses we see are just incredible. There are places you arrive at where you see a Bentley parked in the drive. We see a whole cross-section of real life.
“And we see divorces and break-ups and people in turmoil – at the best and worst of times of their lives. Sometimes you end up being a shoulder to cry on.
“When you are on the job you have to be able to switch off from the emotional turmoil that is sometimes going on around you. That is one of the things I think we are really good at.”
Tony believes the service Prestige offers puts them head and shoulders above most competitors. They do more than just put the stuff in the van.
Unlike many others they use special furniture protective covers to protect there customers furniture whilst moving and in transit. All furniture gets wrapped in protective film to make sure everything is protected from scuffs and dust.
“For many of our customers, particularly for the older generation, their stuff has huge value to them even though it may not be particularly valuable cost wise it is the sentimental value it holds.
“People hold onto things that the younger generation might throw in the bin yet it is just as unique to them.
“This is there whole life your moving so you have to be respectful and careful in how you reassure them and how you will look after them.
“At the other end of that spectrum some people just don’t care. They will say ‘oh don’t worry, just throw it in the van’. But to us that doesn’t matter, we will still take just as good a care of it.”
“I will explain exactly what they need to hear in terms of what is involved. All we have is five-star ratings. Whether it is me on the job or one of the guys, the customer will always be asked ‘is everything ok where we have left it?’.
“We will put something in one room for people, and then they will want it in another room and then they may get stressed out. We just say ‘don’t worry, we can sort it’. And that is why the reputation we have is so good.”
Competition in the removals market can be fierce. There are people who lost their jobs in the pandemic who have set themselves up as ‘a man with a van’.
I don’t blame them,” said Tony. “I would probably do that myself. But it means we are competing against them and there costs.
“Ok, it is at the lower end of the market, but in tough times that is where you have to go to try to win the work. It is that or shut the doors and we are not going through that again.
“I am by no means a salesman but when I go out and do surveys for potential jobs it is my job to won it. And I can say, hand on heart, if you give me 10 jobs to survey then I will walk away with nine of them if the removals is not down to costs.
“But it often goes wrong when these cheaper less experienced guys try to do a full removal. They will turn up with a small van and there is a full house of stuff to move. They haven’t got the kit we have and nothing is properly protected.
“We know what we are doing and we are regularly getting calls from people when it has all gone wrong with another mover. I never criticise anyone else when I am talking to customers but I will point out to them ‘you will always get what you pay for’.
“We tell them that they will always be able to find someone cheaper but they will never get the level of service or expertise that they will get from us.”
Tony’s background in the building trade can prove invaluable when it comes to getting big furniture items through tight spaces.
He explained: “There was one job where we were helping a guy move into a small cottage and nothing was fitting through the door. Because of my construction background I can remove a window or a door to get something in and put it back again pretty easily.
“A lot of people buy these sofas without taking proper measurements. They just assume it is going to fit through the door.
“On more than one occasion I have just taken the front door off and then popped it back on again – with these UPVC doors it takes me about 60 seconds. People always watch me do that, mouths open in amazement.
“Some people now have these big American-style fridges. We have special straps that go around our chests and under the fridge to help us move it. Customers don’t expect that.”
Prestige can and will move people anywhere in the UK. Tony once spent a traumatic 13 hours on a ferry to the Shetland Islands in rough seas, trying not to throw up.
However, with rising fuel costs, and the growth of congestion charges, Tony is happier mainly focusing on its core North West market.
He added: “I’m also trying to do more upmarket work so we are doing higher-priced jobs and raising the level of service even more.
We have recently moved into new premises with a more convenient office and storage facility.
“My focus is always to provide the best service possible by going the extra mile. We always go over and beyond to keep the service levels high.
“If you keep your customers happy with an amazing service, then they will praise you to others which in turn generates repeat business for us, it’s a win – win situation. everybody happy and the world just runs more smoothly.
“I am happy to be where we are for now but I would just like maybe another 30% more business by the end of the year.
“Right now we run a really nice tight ship. I am more hands-on than before which keep me on my toes. More business would always be great but not to the point where I am running around like a headless chicken. We work smarter not harder nowadays.”