Emma Lanman is director of London-based Van Girls, which she started at the end of 2011 to provide a reliable alternative to the traditional ‘man and van’ service. Their drivers and movers collect and transport whatever clients need to move, whenever they need to move it – from domestic removals to commercial moves, trade fair and exhibition transport and art moving. Emma appeared on Dragons’ Den earlier in 2015.
“…Amongst the girls we have a lot of firefighters, we have police officers and paramedics, we have ex-army and RAF, premiership rugby players, ex-England footballers. But you don’t have to have that kind of pedigree to make a great mover. Other previous jobs include carpentry, painting and decorating, running a café, IT sales – the list goes on…”
Emma, please can you tell us about your career to date and what gave you the inspiration to set up Van Girls?
Before I started Van Girls I was working as a crew manager in the Fire Brigade, where I had started as a firefighter five years earlier. Before that I worked at a theatre doing an admin job, following a History of Art degree and various internships in galleries.
Working as a firefighter I often got a really excited reaction from people when a woman turned up in a fire engine. So, when I was trying to think of something to do to supplement my income in my days off I thought, let’s turn man and van on its head, people might like it. I then spent about a year procrastinating and thinking of silly names for the company with friends in the pub before settling on Van Girls and buying a van.
What sets you apart from your competition?
In an industry that has for so long been dominated by companies that were set up by men and where the customer facing work force has been 99.9% male, we are immediately differentiated.
There are many great women working in the removals industry in different roles but because Van Girls was started by a woman, works very hard to create an environment where women feel happy, comfortable and motivated to work and aims to be a leader in creating a positive work environment for women going forward we are something new in the removals industry.
We have a strong emphasis on customer centred service and our customers have responded to that with overwhelming positivity. We also pay our movers a decent wage as I believe a company that can’t thrive whilst paying a decent wage isn’t a viable company.
Is there any such thing as a ‘typical’ customer and what has the response been like?
I would say our largest demographic is young families – either couples who are expecting a baby very soon or who have young children. But honestly there is a real mixture of people who book us, much wider than I expected. Men, women, couples, the elderly or their children on their behalf, parents on behalf of their children, the LGBT community all seem to like the idea and are keen to book us.
The two reasons we hear most often are that they want to support companies offering women this kind of work and that they have a perception that women will be more sensitive and take more care of their possessions than men might. This is not something we would ever say but we can’t deny that it is a perception that brings people to us.
How do you recruit your team members and would you consider recruiting male colleagues too?
The women working for Van Girls in the early days were my friends from my rugby club and the Fire Brigade primarily – they were ready made – strong, practical and enjoyed physical work. As we have grown this has widened to friends of friends who have heard about us and wanted to come and be a part of it. We’ve also had people who’ve seen the vans out and about or come across our website when looking for manual work. We haven’t really had to advertise so far.
Amongst the girls we have a lot of firefighters, we have police officers and paramedics, we have ex-army and RAF, premiership rugby players, ex-England footballers. But you don’t have to have that kind of pedigree to make a great mover. Other previous jobs include carpentry, painting and decorating, running a café, IT sales – the list goes on. They share a love of sport and physicality. There is a great feeling of camaraderie.
We have a male mechanic and accountant who are both very dedicated to making a success of Van Girls but, as yet, no men directly employed by us.
Whilst it might seem unfair that you can’t choose to only employ women when you are trying to provide both an employment option and a service option in an industry that doesn’t currently offer it, sex discrimination employment law is there to protect us all and can’t be got around. Removals work is not exempt from this legislation.
People often read our brand name as an employment policy when they would never assume that a company with ‘man’ and ‘van’ in the title could avoid employing a woman, if she met their selection criteria. Our brand name represents how the company started and what it will always be able to offer, but doesn’t mean that men who wanted to work for Van Girls, as we grow, wouldn’t be given a fair chance to form part of a mixed crew, if they matched our ethos and fulfilled our selection criteria. There are scenarios where people might specifically request an all female crew and we will always maintain ratios of staff to be able to meet that need.
What was it like going on Dragons’ Den and what did this do for your profile?
Utterly terrifying! I didn’t get any investment, fundamentally because none of the Dragons had experience in the removals industry and whilst I knew a brand like mine wouldn’t be a low margin business once it grows, I couldn’t back that up with the figures of other larger brands.
However, despite not getting investment, it has been an invaluable experience. I got some great feedback from the Dragons and since the show we have been inundated with enquiries from potential customers, from potential investors and from other companies in our industry wanting to enlist us to help them to be able to offer female crews to their customers. All together a fantastic endorsement of what we’re trying to achieve. And I now know I can memorise a pitch, which I never thought I’d be able to do in a million years!
Are you still considering angel investment? What are the pros and cons for you?
I will continue to consider investment as an option but would have to weigh up the pros and cons of any offer on a case by case basis. We haven’t had any investment yet.
What are your tips for other women looking to set up in male dominated sectors?
Be strong. Don’t feel you have to justify your existence to anyone. Provide a good service and customers will flock to you.
What is coming up for you and Van Girls?
In five years’ time I hope to be running a business that is known for treating its employees well, offering employment opportunities to women in areas they normally feel alienated from, and providing a service that continues to be highly regarded. I hope to have grown the company so we are inhabiting our own warehouse space to offer containerised storage, and to have a fleet that allows us to bring in revenues in excess of £2 million, with a 20% net profit margin.
Now I’ve said that publicly I’ll have to achieve it!