The Story of Anthony Ward Thomas Founder of Ward Thomas Removals

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Anthony Ward Thomas was working as a salesman for an
aluminium company when a chance conversation with his
boss changed his life. Ward Thomas says: ‘My boss told me
that by the age of 27 I really should know what I was doing
with my life because it would be the last chance to make
something of myself.’
It was just the wake-up call he needed. The words of
advice stayed with him and a few months before he turned
27 Ward Thomas looked around at the aluminium firm and
realised that it was not somewhere he wanted to spend the
rest of his life.
So, to force himself to take action, he quit his job and gave
himself two months to work out where his future lay. He
says: ‘If I hadn’t left my job I would have turned up for work
every day like anybody else. Leaving gave me the incentive
to actually do something.’
Born in London and brought up in Essex, Ward Thomas
was one of six children. His father was a businessman and

his mother was a successful novelist and he was sent away
to boarding school at the age of seven. He says: ‘As a child I
was quite shy to begin with, but at boarding school you tend
to develop a fairly tough outer shell and so I became quite
gregarious.’
He left school at 18 to join the army but after three months
was asked to leave. Over the next few years he took a number
of casual jobs including fork-lift truck driver and double
glazing salesman.
When Ward Thomas quit his job to make something of
himself all he knew was that he wanted to set up his own
business. His first idea was to start up a business that did
people’s supermarket shopping for them. He says: ‘I was
going to get orders from, say, 500 people for their weekly
shop. I would have a van and would do the shopping and
deliver it and put it away in their cupboards.’ He had a
meeting with a supermarket to discuss how much discount
he could get if he used them exclusively. Then he started

looking into the logistics of how the service would actually
work. He says: ‘I went quite a way down the line with it and
it was all quite do-able. It was quite exciting.’
But then he had a meeting with a stockbroker and in their
research department he discovered that many people, rather
than finding their supermarket shopping a big chore, actu-
ally saw it as the highlight of their week. He says: ‘I discov-
ered that people like to get out and see what is new on the
shelves and compare the prices.’
In hindsight he says it is perhaps just as well he abandoned
his plans. Soon afterwards the internet arrived and the super-
markets themselves started offering delivery services.
Ward Thomas then started researching two other types of
business he quite liked the look of – the furniture removal
business and the funeral business. He explains: ‘I just looked
at the simplest things. I thought that it didn’t take an
academic mind to be able to dig a hole and stick someone in
it, and it certainly didn’t take an academic mind to go into
someone’s house and take a piece of furniture and put it in a
lorry and deliver it somewhere else.’
He had a meeting with Howard Hodgson, who had revo-
lutionised the funeral industry in the 1980s by buying up
family-run businesses and revamping the services they

offered, after bumping into him by chance in the waiting
room of a doctors’ surgery. Ward Thomas says: ‘I would
love to have turned the idea of a funeral on its head a bit.’
But the idea of setting up a funeral business was decisively
quashed by his wife, who said she couldn’t think of anything
worse than dealing with dead bodies all the time.
So Ward Thomas went to work for a furniture removal
company for a few weeks to find out how the industry
worked. He was horrified by what he discovered. He says: ‘I
learnt all there was to learn about how not to be a removal
man – how to steal, how to be dishonest. It was dreadful. I
couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Four furniture removal
men would go into a house and all four of them would steal
– money, drink, clothes, whatever wouldn’t be noticed until
weeks later.’
It was then that he had his big idea. He realised that the
problem with traditional removals firms was the type of
people working for them. So he decided to set up a removals
company of his own and employ only young men aged
between 19 and 24, many of whom had come to the UK from
Australia and New Zealand in search of work, whom he
thought would be fitter and more honest than the older
workers traditionally employed by removal firms.

He bought a second-hand removal lorry for £5,000 at
auction, paying a £1,000 deposit for it, which was all the
money he had. Then he persuaded the bank to lend him the
rest. He says: ‘I phoned my bank manager up and said if you
don’t lend me the money I am going to lose £1,000. So they
lent me the money.’
His first commission came via his wife, who told colleagues
at the publishing company where she worked about his new
business. He says: ‘I earned more in that one day than I did
in a month as a salesman selling aluminium.’
It was slow going. It took Ward Thomas three months to
get his second job. But by the end of the first year the business

was doing well enough for him to buy a second lorry and
after two years he bought a third.
He explains: ‘The young men I employed were pleasant to
be with and the customers loved them – moving is such a
ghastly experience that if you can dilute the ghastliness a bit
you are a hero.’
But then recession hit. Ward Thomas says: ‘There was
nothing I could do. I couldn’t force people to buy and sell
their houses, I couldn’t force people to move, I couldn’t
discount things. I was staring at a blank diary.’
Ward Thomas survived the downturn largely thanks to
the Carlton Towers Hotel which employed him to move the
contents of the entire hotel, and a lady client who had six
houses.
As the housing market recovered so did his business and
Ward Thomas started adding new lorries. He had a fear of
borrowing money to expand the business so each time he
bought lorries he paid for them outright with cash from
company funds.
His caution has paid off. He now has 62 lorries and the
company has a turnover of £16 million a year.

Six years ago he heard that another furniture removal
company, Moves, was close to receivership and so bought it for
£200,000 from company funds. He also sold 15 per cent of the
company to his management to encourage them to stay with
the company and retains the remaining 85 per cent himself.
For Ward Thomas the secret of a successful business idea
is to take an existing idea and then do it slightly differently.
He says: ‘The biggest mistake people make when they
embark on an entrepreneurial type of career is they try to
reinvent the wheel. New ideas are dangerous because they
just never seem to work. A great example of something
which is not a new idea is Prêt a Manger. All they are is
sandwiches, but the secret of their success is consistency and
freshness. And that’s really all Ward Thomas Removals is –
it is a simple business done with a slightly different angle.’

In his case that has meant deliberately staffing his remov-
als firm with a very different type of workforce than tradi-
tional firms used. He says: ‘In this business you are only as
good as the guy who is lifting the sofa. That really is what it
boils down to. I can go into someone’s house and promise
the earth but if Joe Gorilla turns up it is a problem.’
Ward Thomas is now aged 52, with a wife and three chil-
dren. He has used some of the money he has earned to buy a
couple of race horses which he rides himself in point to point
meetings.
He says: ‘I am enormously proud of the business because
we have been competing in a world where there are some
very good businesses and an awful lot of rubbish. You have
got to be very convincing to charge the sort of prices that we
charge and yet still get the business.’

The story of another entrepreneur is at

http://www.bukisa.com/articles/479655_the-story-of-david-sanger-founder-of-rollover-hot-dogs

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