1982 was a perilous year to be a businessman. The United States, along with the rest of the developed world, was suffering through a severe economic recession that began in the late 70s and continued through the early 80s. Rising unemployment, inflation, and the savings and loan crisis were hardly fertile ground for an entrepreneurial venture.
Fortunately for Chuck Kuhn, 16-year-old high school student and brand-new business owner, no one bothered to tell him that.
“I was lucky,” Chuck says today, “in that no one told me I couldn’t succeed. The economy was in tatters and I was starting a business.”
Chuck had just bought his first truck with a five thousand dollar loan from his uncle, and started JK Moving Services, named for his father’s initials. Fresh faced and with limited experience, he was determined to make his business a success. He may not have known how to work a balance sheet, but he knew how to work hard. He also had a personal insight into the moving business that would grant him a valuable sense of empathy in working with his customers.
That empathy, and the root of the decision to enter the moving and storage services industry, can be traced back a few years earlier to 1977, when his parents, longtime Bell Labs Telephone employees, were set to move themselves, Chuck, and his brother to Iran for what was to be a three-year stay. This involved moving much of their belongings from their home in Northern Virginia all the way to the Middle East.
As it turned out, the move was a complete disaster. “I remember the experience very well,” Chuck says today. “Even before the move began, my parents were stressed. They had grown up in this same area, and now they were moving their two children all the way across the world.” The stress piled on when the movers arrived late and intoxicated. Once they broke into his parents’ liquor cabinet, Chuck remembers that things went from bad to worse. “It started to snow heavily,” he recalls, “and the movers started having a snowball fight in the yard among our belongings. This evolved into an actual fist fight, and eventually my parents had to call the police and have them arrested. It was truly a disastrous relocation.”
Once his family arrived in Iran, they realized the disaster was far from over. Of the belongings that didn’t go missing, the majority arrived late and damaged. Even though Chuck was only middle school aged at the time, he knew that this was wrong.
Two years into their stay in Iran, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown in the Iranian Revolution. Chuck and his brother were sent home to live with their uncle in Rockville, Maryland. Their uncle owned and operated a moving and storage company in Rockville called Thomas AAA. To keep them out of trouble, Chuck and his brother were put to work for the company, moving homes and sweeping the warehouse floors. The difference between the disastrous move to Iran and the work he did with his uncle was like night and day. “I had a great feeling of accomplishment at the ends of those days,” Chuck recalls. “I was learning a trade and enjoying it. Typically, we were moving a family from a smaller home to a larger home, and they were excited and happy. They might have been expecting the worst from our industry, but when we showed up and did a great job, you could see the relief and joy in their faces.”
When Chuck’s parents returned from Iran some six months later, their moving nightmare repeated itself. They had bought antiques and memorabilia, Persian carpets and crafts. Coming back, half the shipment was stolen or damaged or arrived late. “The contrast of those experiences, positive and negative, made a great impression on me,” Chuck says. “I realized that this could be a very bad industry, or a very good industry. It really hit home that people had low expectations when trusting others to move their cherished belongings, and that I could confound those expectations with excellent service.”
Starting with just that $5,000 loan and a single truck in the trenches of a double-dip recession, Chuck set off to translate that realization into a successful enterprise. Today, JK Moving Services has approximately 600 full-time employees, 330 pieces of equipment, and in 2012 will bring in about $80 million in gross sales. They service individuals, corporations, and the federal government, with local, interstate and international moving services. JK has moved and continues to move military generals, corporate CEOs, and Presidents of the United States.
According to Chuck, this journey was not without distractions or moments of doubt. By 1984, he had long since paid off the loan from his uncle, and his business was expanding. He was first licensed to do interstate moving, and he invested in a second truck. Things were looking great for JK and he was challenging himself to learn as quickly as possible how to scale his business to meet increasing demand from outside Virginia. He didn’t have a single mentor to teach him the ropes, instead relying on determination and trial and error to build his business. Then, a sudden and unexpected question gave him pause.
“I ran into a friend from high school,” Chuck recalls. “We were talking, and at some point she basically asked me what I was really going to do with my life.” At first dumbfounded, Chuck responded that he was building a business. “In my mind,” Chuck explains, “I was thinking of my parents. They both took jobs early in their lives with Bell Atlantic, and they planned to work through to retirement. Once I started JK, I never thought of doing anything other than building the business I started, and working to retirement.” Although this conversation startled him for a few days, it ultimately made his resolve to make JK his life’s work all the more concrete.
That’s not to say that he never considered what might have happened if he had worked in other industries. Before he started JK, Chuck had taken an interest in computers, even before the PC revolution had truly begun. Later, in the mid-90s, as the housing market was soaring, Chuck had a few friends in the homebuilding industry who were experiencing phenomenal success.
“I remember thinking,” Chuck says, “boy, I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off if I had gone into homebuilding.” But after talking to an industry peer twenty years his senior, Chuck was able to comprehend the boom-bust cycle of real estate. “He said that moving and storage may not have highs like these industries, but it doesn’t have the lows either.” As expected, the housing boom didn’t last forever, and the bust was hard on his homebuilding friends. Later, at the turn of the millennium as the dot-com bubble burst, JK continued to stride forward with stable growth that, while not dramatic, was not merely modest either.
Looking forward, Chuck’s plan for JK’s future is to continue that controlled, profitable growth. “Our core values as a company,” he says, “are to have happy customers, happy employees, and happy profitability.”
Although these days Chuck doesn’t get to see the looks on every customer’s face at the end of a lovingly-executed move, he makes a point to read every single piece of customer feedback the company receives. When asked about the most rewarding feedback he has read or experienced, Chuck is quick to answer. “We do a lot of military moves,” he says. “When you’re moving some of these military generals, you’re moving someone who has literally moved more than 30 times in their lives. And when they tell you, or put in writing that out of decades of military service and however many moves, that they’ve never received the quality that JK performs… there is not much that compares to that.”
Chuck’s grasp of this kind of service came from his experiences as a young man. In describing how he has translated that sense and know-how to his employees over the past thirty years, he cites his very low turnover and long-time employees. “It comes from the top,” he says. “The first driver we brought on back in 1983 is still with us today. My personal assistant has been with us for 25 years. Our safety director has been on board for 26 years. Our first salesman is still on board and selling for us. The early culture is still here and the early team is still here today. They infuse that culture into the new hires we bring on. “What I’m most proud of today in JK are its people,” Chuck continues. “We have a profit-sharing system and other vehicles that ensure our employees will retire with a comfortable existence no matter what happens to social security.”
JK’s people also have a large say in the direction of the company’s charitable activity. “We have a committee that solicits feedback from our staff on what they feel is important,” Chuck explains. “The trend has been that a large part of our support goes to children.” Chuck himself sits on the board of Fight for Children, an organization that fights to ensure low-income children in Washington, DC stay healthy and receive the education they need to succeed. “I think both JK’s employees and I,” he says, “feel that children are our future and are defenseless and need our help.”
Perhaps Chuck is so empathetic to the needs of children without supportive families, because he can’t imagine where he would be today without his own. Indeed, he named his company after his father, who always maintained an almost super-human balance between work and home life. “My father worked very hard,” Chuck says, “and yet he always had a great balance between work and family. I remember times he was working two and three jobs, and somehow he would manage the kids’ sports teams, be at all of our events, and make it home for dinner most nights. I still don’t totally understand how he managed to do so much and still have such balance. My mother was that way too, always working very hard and also supporting us in school and at home.”
Chuck and his own wife have nine children in their household today, two of whom came to them after Chuck’s brother-in-law passed away. “I often think about whether I’m maintaining the same balance that my father was able to,” Chuck says. After a moment’s pause he smiles and jokes, “I like to think he had it a little easier raising three of us, as opposed to the nine my wife and I have!”
Chuck met his wife in high school, when they briefly dated before she graduated. They then reconnected three or four years later and got married. She has always been very supportive of the business, and Chuck relies on her to help keep their kids on track and to ensure that he maintains the balance he strives for. “She is a caring, loving, very hardworking woman,” Chuck says.
Thirty years after starting his business, Chuck is still excited to get out of bed every morning and put in a good, hard day. He gets into the office at 6:15 in the morning and leaves at 6 in the evening. At 46 years old, he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon, but he does think about the long-term future of JK Moving Services and his own legacy. “I plan to build JK to a point that it continues in my absence and long after,” he says. “I envision getting to a point where it will continue to thrive and provide a quality service in the industry. But above that I hope that the nine children we raise are educated, good people who are strong contributors to society.”
Chuck’s final words of advice to young entrepreneurs entering the business world today stems from how he tries to raise his own children, and from his own experience of entering the business world at such a young age. “One thing I try to teach my own kids,” he says, “that concerns me with younger people today, is that they need to pick a path, and pick it early. I see people going into college who get out and they’re absolutely clueless about what path they wish to take. I encourage my children to identify their passions and interests. To get into something, and then get going so the trial and error process can begin to work its magic. I hate to see these kids five years out of college still trying to figure out what they want to do with themselves. That is my advice: pick a path early and get with it!”