IT’S at the Larrik Inn in Fulham where I meet self-made millionaire and chairman of Aussie Group, Brian Burgess. The location is fitting for a myriad of reasons.
One, the pub’s name befits Burgess, whose cheeky smile, bronzed Aussie glow and larrikin can-do attitude has fuelled his removal-cum-jack —of-all-trades empire that turns over £6 million annually.
Secondly, our position in the window on New Kings Road, a busy London junction, allows Burgess to point out whenever one of his distinctive black and yellow Aussie vans whizzes past (which happened six times in an hour).
The intersection outside is also relevant. It forks in a number of directions — Fulham one way, Putney another, Parsons Green the next, representing a metaphor for Burgess’s business and life.
I am stunned when he volunteers, mid-interview, he will turn 60 in February. I had estimated somewhere between 40 and 50 but didn’t want to be rude.
Speaking about his life and his business is like listening to an exuberant schoolboy, bursting to tell his classmates about his exciting summer holidays. Such is his passion and energy, he struggles to concentrate on a single topic for minutes at a time, slipping almost seamlessly from one to the next.
In our two-hour chat, topics as wide-ranging as the business, the past, the present, the riots, role models and expressing ones feelings are covered. He strikes me as a man on top of his game — on and off the field.
But as he speaks, his story unravels. It becomes clear the van’s journey hasn’t always been a smooth one.
On moving to London in 2000
In what seems like a lifetime ago, Burgess was a successful businessman in Sydney. He had a wife and family, wealth and status.
But with such extravagance came vices like addiction which led to turbulence and eventually downfall.
I can tell he’s cagey on spilling the details of why he had to come to London, but he offers this:
“I had some reasonable successes in Australia in business. I did have one failure and it was a big one. It was Compass Airlines. It brought me down and a few others. We failed. London became my fresh start. I came here with very little funds. I left behind a few kids in Australia.
“There was a time in my life when I wasn’t an honest person.
“Now I can say I live a clean and honest life.”
From humble beginnings
After some failures in Australia, Burgess got a chance to start afresh in London.
“I was having to start my life all over again. A fresh start after various degrees of difficulty in Australia and Sydney. I found myself at Heathrow in 2000. It’s a very anonymous city, London. It’s big enough to get a fresh start and that’s one of the reasons I came here, for a fresh start.
“I have always been an entrepreneur but when I first got here I had to get a normal job over here for a year or so. Between jobs, when I was waiting for contract jobs to come up, I bought a van. I put an ad in the Richmond/Twickenham Times. It said ‘Aussie Man and Van’. The phone rang the next day and I did my first job. I moved some boxes for a lady from Richmond to Twickenham and the lady gave me £40. Now, we move between 250 to 300 houses a week in London. We’ve got 200 people, 70 vehicles but there is a big story between then and now. “
On getting Aussie off the ground
“I saw an opening straight away. When I was doing those jobs in the early days, I soon realised when I got to people’s houses if you were friendly, on time, clean and not ripping people off, you had a customer, they’d ring you back again. So I took advantage of that. I had to buy a second van and get people to help me. That was the beginning of Aussie Group back in 2002.
“I never went back to my old job. I didn’t have to. I had had enough of that shirt and tie, 8-6 culture.
“But when I started Aussie Man and a Van I had no idea how much I’d love it. Then I discovered Europe. People started asking: ‘can you move my stuff to the South of France? Can you move my stuff to Cyprus?’ and I’d say ‘Yes’. Sometimes I’d say yes without even knowing where the place was!
“One van led to another and led to another. I financed everything with the cash flow. The typical guy who worked with me could have been an Aussie, a Kiwi or South African, a rugby type. I would train them. The moving business is skilled. People think that anyone could do what we do. These days we’re moving a £2 million pound houses with expensive furniture and you’ve got to know what you’re doing.
“I wasn’t skilled when I started, but I learnt. And I learnt by my mistakes. I broke a few fridges and stairwells and hurt my back. I was trained by professionals (I employed really good people back then). Aussie Man and a Van led to other things. People used to ask: ‘Can you clean the place?’ and I’d say: ‘Yep’. And ‘Can you store something for us?’ and that’s how the business has evolved, just by saying ‘Yes, we can!’ Now we’ve moved into Aussie worldwide shipping because people want that. I’ve got four Antipodean children myself. They end up accumulating all this stuff. It’s gone from shipping a few extra bags to a whole house to places like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa.
“I’ve always never worried too much about price. The important thing is service. We’ve got this thing where we’re open seven days a week at Aussie Group. Our staff are there from 6.45 in the morning and answering phones until 7-8 at night, seven days a week and no one else does that. Service plus rapid response seems to be the right formula. Our edge is good, friendly, Aussie service. In London when I arrived there was a strong ‘can’t do attitude’ when you wanted something and I took advantage of that.
“People can call us today and we can move their house tomorrow. There are few removal companies in London who can say that.
“That’s how the business has grown. By saying ‘Yes, we can do it’.”
Burgess on winding down
“I want to switch off in a couple of years to spend time doing more of the good things I’ve already got,” he said.
“Family, wife, kids, horse riding.”
Hang on, back up. Horse riding?
“Yeah, on the beach in Bali.”
“OK … go on.”
“We have a property in Bali, where I met my second wife. We’ve been living there on and off for past 10 years. When I am there I like to ride a horse along the beach in Bali. It frees my mind. When I am not working, I like to do stuff like that.”
Burgess on social media
Recently, Aussie Group started experimenting with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Burgess concedes he is dipping his toe in very foreign waters here but has so far been impressed with the results.
“I didn’t realise such a big community existed behind a keyboard and mouse,” he said.
“I have been ignorant to how relevant these things are to these people’s lives. I’ve been a bit closed mined. I asked a guy who works for me ‘tell me why I should get into social media. How many sales is it going to get me?’ But now I can see it’s not about that. It’s about building up a community that can engage with you and your brand.
“So far I’ve been amazed. People have left detailed feedback about jobs we’ve done for them. They’ve actually taken the time to write that on our facebook page. That’s better than any TV commercial on a Sunday night. It has far more integrity.”
On employing non-Aussies
“It’s not an exclusive Aussie show anymore. We’re too big. We can’t afford it. We’ve got Hungarians, Polish, Latvians, Lithuanians and some English. Our HQ in Wandsworth (we’re just moving to Fulham, across the river this week), is very multicultural. And of course we have loads of Aussie, South African and Kiwis there too. 70 per cent would be Aussie.”
“The problem with Aussies is they like to come and go a lot. When I first started, it was easy. People would say ‘Can I work for six months?’ and I’d say ‘Yep’. These days I don’t say ‘Yes’ as easily. People with ancestry visas who say they are staying for four or five years, we like them. Now the business has had to become a bit more corporatised whereby everyone gets one month of leave. A lot of Aussie people don’t want that. They are looking for float in, float out part-time work.”
On how Brits perceive the Aussie brand
“No issue yet. Not so far. When you go back to the beginning of the story, the company was called ‘Aussie Man with a Van’. It was practical with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour.
“When I called the paper to place an ad, the lady at the other end said, ‘What’s the ad, have you written it?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Ok, what do you want to say in it?’ and I said, ‘I’m a man with a van and I want to make some money with it for six months.’ She said, ‘it sounds like you’re an Aussie.’ I said, ‘yeah I am.’ She said, ‘perfect, we’ll say in the ad: Aussie man with van’. Lastly I said, ‘can you put a kangaroo on it.’ She said, ‘I don’t think we’ve got any’. She rang me back and said they found one. It turns out people kept ringing me back because they identified an Aussie by the kangaroo and thought of Aussies to be hardworking and reliable.
“There is less of a tall poppy syndrome here. I don’t like to use the word victim, but I have experienced the tall poppy syndrome in a big way in Australia. It’s a defect in the Australian character to say ‘oh good, so and so has fallen over, let’s stick the boot in’. Whereas in London people seem to want to celebrate your success.
“By moving people’s houses I got to know the British. Know them in their bathrooms and bedrooms. To be honest, my opinion has changed for the better about embracing the local community. When you go somewhere it’s almost an insult to not get to know the local people. Because our cultures are quite different.
“It’s good to be proud of Australia, of our culture and heritage, but if you come 12,000 miles you may as well meet the people. They don’t bite; they haven’t bitten me anyway.”
Quickfire with Brian Burgess
Success: Following your dreams without fearing the consequences.
Failure: My personal crash in 1995.
Motivation: Love, for others, for heath, work, family… those are the three keys.
Blow off steam: walking along the river thames.
Olympics: looking forward to being involved. The Australian Olympic team may be using our services for the storage of uniforms.
Riots: dis-ease… the word disease comes from not being comfortable
Have you found peace: yes, but only recently.
How long will you work for: three to five more years.
Advice Aussies who just got here: make British friends.
Read what Brian Burgess has to say on the London riots and why he will give “anyone” a chance
BURGESS HITS THE HEADLINES WHEN HE HELPS ELLE MOVE
Who said moving houses doesn’t have benefits?
Three years ago Burgess hit the headlines when he helped supermodel Elle Macpherson move house and was later snapped by paparazzi riding shotgun in her swanky Aston Martin.
The photo sparked such a worldwide media frenzy — whereby tabloids claimed the two were an item and took the liberty to dig up as many sordid details from Burgess’s past as they could — so much so that Macpherson’s lawyer issued a statement distancing the model from the removalist.