Community in Motion
How one moving company became an integral part of the Cambridge community
Intelligent Labor is a moving company with a very unusual value proposition. You probably never thought that moving, such a vehicle-intensive business, could be sustainable. Yet here we are. Intelligent Labor promise to move your goods from point A to point B with maximum positive impact. Today, I am meeting with Ezekiel Wheeler, who started this company and is currently operating it. He speaks fast and moves quickly. Ezekiel comes off as a very energetic person, and the more we speak, the more obvious it becomes how important the feeling of fellowship with others is for him.
11 years ago, Intelligent Labor started out at their first Cambridge location. As the demand for more employees grew, the need for sustaining responsible workers did, too. For Ezekiel personally, sustainable labor means providing a sensible and safe working environment, starting with higher pay for everyone. In his own words, “Moving is a lot of hard work.” Fair compensation is important for retaining talent, but also as an investment into the community. Dollars spent in small local stores stay in the community, unlike the ones spent in a big box retailer.
Aside from taking good care of their staff, the company also considers the materials they use for moving the goods. While most moving companies still use tape to secure the items, Intelligent Labor switched to a smaller kind of stretch wrap, which benefits them in two ways: the items hold together better, and less trash is produced, since stretch-wrap is recyclable. In fact, Intelligent Labor only produces (and recycles) three types of waste: stretch-wrap (or low-density polyethylene), cardboard, and plastic water bottles.
You might think this leads to higher operating costs. Especially the part where we mention the higher salary. And yet, the company has installed a solar array on the roof, has enough business that they sometimes have to turn away customers, and they just bought their own warehouse in Somerville. So, is Intelligent Labor thriving despite employing sustainability principles, or because of it? This is what we set out to determine in this interview.
Over the course of this interview we cover topics like sustainable labor practices, access to renewable energy, and waste management for a small business. By the end we had a deepened understanding of the meaning of community engagement, fair labor practices, and “doing good”.
Waste management – Ethical labor – Triple Bottom Line
Q.: How does your typical day go?
Ezekiel Wheeler: We usually open up at around 8AM. They take the trucks and make sure they got the equipment they need, and all the supplies. Then they will head out to their customers’ houses. They usually load the goods around noon, then grab a quick lunch, and try to get unloaded and drive back to the warehouse and pull off any waste materials.
For me personally, it’s making sure the guys have everything they need, and then general customer service. I go to people’s houses, look at their goods and write down the lists of everything they want to move. We do the estimates based on the information that the office has collected from them. And then take care of managerial details like truck repair or material replenishment, and that’s pretty much how the summer goes. In the off season we go into more longer-term plans, but in the summer it’s really just doing the work. There is very little time for anything else.
Q.: Did you plan out a sustainable business model for Intelligent Labor from the beginning, or did that come together with time?
ZW: We were in Cambridge at a couple of different locations since 2005. Eventually, we could afford our own space and bought this location. The Small Business Administration (SBA) provided us with a loan with a smaller down payment, so we were able to invest the rest of the cash in some improvements and put the solar panels on our roof. I’ve always been interested in what can be done to preserve the climate conditions as they are, so we have always done a lot of recycling and now, solar.
We did a little research on the rate of return and the feasibility of the building, and it turned out to be a perfect building for solar. The cool thing is that we generate more net metering credits than we need in the summer, and we are planning to use them to offset our energy costs in the winter. So, because it fit within the budget, and because with Mass Department of Energy incentives the payback is in between 5 and 7 years, we decided to go ahead with it. The fiscal incentives are what makes it possible to do things like this. For a small business, it has to make financial sense, because there is always an opportunity cost.
One of the reasons to make your own business, as opposed to just getting a job, is to be able to do more than just make money. To enact some sort of change, to take part in society and the future. For me as a business owner and also as a person, this is where the intangible positives of running a business come from. At the same time, these financial incentives provide business sense, which helps satisfy other human motivations.
Q.: Could you tell us more about your waste management practices, logistics, and the financial implications?
ZW: Aside from the cardboard and stretch wrap which we recycle in bulk, we have the municipal recycling bin where the bottles and cans go, and a dumpster for the remainder. We don’t have a lot of other kind of waste, what goes in the dumpster is usually a second half of somebody’s lunch, or couple of bits of packaging that are not easily recyclable, or bubble wrap. We also do furniture disposal on an on-call basis, and usually donate it to Goodwill or Salvation Army.
We learned a lot from the folks at the Cambridge recycling center. We used to bring our polyethylene (stretch wrap) and cardboard there. Eventually, we bought our own compactor to avoid making multiple trips a month and switched to a waste management company in Framingham called Conigliaro Industries. Now that we have a compactor, we can wait until we fill up the truck with recyclables – the only way to commodify is to sell a lot of it. Conigliaro function as a generalized private transfer station, and they recycle everything from scrap to stretch wrap to cardboard. They do things like strip fabric off of mattresses and separate the springs from the fabric so the fabric gets shredded and turned somewhere else.
Buying a compactor simplified our logistics because, when you compress stretch wrap, stuff that usually would take up a lot of space (or, approximately, 50 cubic feet) turns into a volleyball sized item. [Another way to think about it: a truck load of compacted stuff would take up half our warehouse (5000 square feet) if it was uncompacted.] So now instead of shipping out the materials twice a month, we go twice a year. That has a huge impact on trucking, labor, and storage. The compactor we bought used, and rather cheap, and it saves thousands of dollars in labor costs.
No. We go about things a bit differently. Most companies use tape to hold the blankets which wrap furniture. We don’t use tape, we use a smaller, 5-inch stretch wrap. It costs a little bit more, but it does a much better job. Since it doesn’t have any adhesive, you do not run the risk of any adhesive damaging furniture. It also makes our moving blankets last longer. It also means is that we end up with only 3 types of waste at the end of the day: cardboard, stretch wrap, and water bottles. Cardboard and stretch wrap are easy to separate, but the hard part is making sure new employees don’t the the cardboard and stretch wrap in the dumpster. But we teach them.
You consume a lot of water as a mover, and reducing water bottle waste is something we have been working on. We provided the guys with stainless steel water bottles with Intelligent Labor logos, which cuts down on the amount of waste. They lose them all the time, but whenever they lose them – it is good advertising for us.
Q.: How do you build a good relationship with your employees?
It takes time. Part of it is picking good people, and the ability to have confidence in the early reads on people and not persist on stuff that is not going to work out. This is something I’ve learned after 10 years of doing this job. Another thing is compensation. When you pay more, you can be a bit more picky about who you hire. You can try some people out and pick the best as you are not just trying to fill seats, which saves you a lot of trouble.
A lot of companies start guys at $12/hour, and I wouldn’t do this work for $12/hour. It’s a little ridiculous, and it shows a certain amount of disrespect for your workers – moving is hard work. It is also the kind of work where the customers watch you the whole time, so you have to always maintain a positive attitude.I think that is a little ridiculous that it is possible to get away with paying your employees less. In return both the guys and the customers treat me better.
On its face it seems a lot more expensive, like a lot of things. But at the end of the day, if you tally it up at the end of the year – is it less expensive not having to hire any summer staff, not having to do so much training, and you end up with fewer damages. Higher wages prompt lower turnover, you end up with fewer ancillary problems. Our rate of claims and cargo insurance, vehicular accidents, and injuries are very low, which brings cost down.
Q.: For you personally, what does sustainability mean?
ZK: Consistency over time. If you’re doing something and it is consuming a nonrenewable resource – you can’t continue doing it forever. It’s a good way to look at the materials that you use, but it’s also a good way to look at labor. If you run your guys for 16 hours for the first half of the summer, then you can’t expect them to do it for the second half of the summer. You have to provide people with a sustainable kind of employment that makes sense, which is another way to avoid turnover.
It is also a mentality that allows any organization to continue their operations indefinitely. Sustainability is definitely helpful on a climate perspective, but it is also a good mentality to have in business because part of running a business is that you are going to continue to run a business.
I think this is one of the unfortunate things – it doesn’t cost any more to do business right, it’s not like you are not going to be able to feed your kids by paying people a living wage, and not making a mess. You just gotta read a little bit, think a little bit, and pay some attention. But it doesn’t really cost any more at the end of the day, and in my experience, it actually saves money. It’s too bad everybody doesn’t do it, because everybody would be better off if they did.
Q.: At the end of the day, what keep you up at night?
ZK: All the things that I do not understand. I think the unknown unknowns are the real scary thing. There is always an element to a part of your business or your life that you are completely unaware of, but which exists and functions regardless of whether you are aware of it or not. That sort of big ticket item that you’ve missed. That’s where you can really get blindsided by things. So, I guess the answer is – I don’t know! And not knowing is what’s going to keep me up at night.