Meet JJ and Lara Van Pletzen. This power couple has experience in the small business world prior to purchasing Big T Moving & Delivery. Work has brought them near and far, and now they work out of Alpharetta, GA, and they are here to stay and make a huge impact in the moving industry and beyond.
What is Your Background Story? Where Did You Go to School?
Lara: I got a degree in education and psychology. I’ve got an MBA as well. I started out in training and development, but then I moved into financial services. So I worked in banks and banking products, and then I started to specialize in investments. I was a stay-at-home mom for a period of time because JJ traveled overseas, and both of us couldn’t have demanding jobs.
In 2014, I got a realtor license to be a business broker for 2 years. We decided it would be better if we bought a business because I gained so much knowledge from that. I didn’t need someone to represent me. I could handle the purchase, do my due diligence, valuations, and recognize a good deal.
JJ: I didn’t have the fancy degree she had. I studied law at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, which is where we met. Then I worked in training and education with her. We started a small business in adult basic education. South Africa’s background involved racism, and black people didn’t have access to proper education. We offered adult education so that people can at least reach a grade 10 level of education. A lot of companies invested in their workers, so we developed the courses from scratch, testing methodology, literacy, and the cognitive ability of somebody that’s illiterate. It was very rewarding work.
From there, I started to work as a management consultant, and it’s something I was good at. I started off in insurance and industrial. And then I got involved in mining natural resources. From South Africa, we then immigrated to Toronto, Canada for two years. And then a client of mine offered me a job in Wisconsin, so we moved there, where I worked for a company called School Specialty, working with government contracts for reselling education supplies.
It was a very interesting job because you had to figure out optimal pricing. We did state and school district and federal contracts. How many school districts do you think there are in the United States? It’s more than 100,000. At that time there were 126,000 schools in the United States. Over a two year period, we touched all schools in the United States. It took me six months to understand how to price it. We formulated our own pricing elasticity formula. Then my working visa expired, so I rejoined my old consulting company in Australia.
Lara: I went back to work while in Australia because it was too expensive.
JJ: In 2008, both of our companies closed and we were both out of a job. We were immigrants in a country, and with the companies closed, our working Visas expired too. I was very fortunate, at that time, I was offered to transfer back to the states, and I again worked in South Africa while Lara was living in New Zealand. I have the language skills to operate in South Africa. I ended up helping people do an RFP for the largest diamond producer in the world. We got a big project there.
Lara: That three months became, what, five years? Gone a month, home a week. That’s why I didn’t work because he’d be gone for months at a time.
JJ: I was brought back to the U.S. to work at the international national resources division. I was sent off to work in Chile, Mongolia, Kazakstan, Canada, Hong Kong. That’s why we decided to buy a business because I was sick and tired of international traveling.
What Brought You to Work in Alpharetta?
Lara: We were just looking for a good business that was well run, well set up that we could grow. It was about price and cash flow. But it’s got to be a business you can see yourself doing. We almost looked at an Indian motorcycle deal and was close to buying. It’s that fantasy when you get to 50, we picture a bike, a Polaris.
JJ: But we’re not bikers.
Lara: What we liked about the moving business is people will always need to move. Of course it’s cyclical. And also with the business model, you have very low overhead. We can cut down on trucks and people. You’re not tied to W-2 employees and big machinery, so we can scale it. This business survived 2008 and has been around since 2004.
What Makes Your Company Different from Other Moving Companies?
JJ: The way we position our pricing. Nobody else in the industry is doing it. If we over estimate, we’re not going to make you pay for it. If we under estimate, you get the benefits. And the reason why we feel so confident in giving a fixed price is because we’ve got the best software in the state of Georgia.
Also we have positioned ourselves as a reliable company in a shady industry. Just last week we had to go and help somebody. One of our competitors just left the customer. It was raining and a lady phoned me and said “I need people. Can you come and help me? My people aren’t coming today.” You see this often in this industry where companies break their commitments. We’re different. If you sign up with us, we give special deals if the customer is flexible, but either way we keep our commitments.
What is Your Number One Struggle?
JJ: Finding good people is a struggle. We’ve changed our management philosophy, and we treat people with dignity and respect, and that’s the feedback I got. I’ve lost two people since we bought the business and both were people we want to lose. So I was pretty happy about that. So I think I’ve got a good core of people. So when we get people on-boarded, we tend to keep them. The bad part is to find the good people. It’s really a physically demanding job. The tips are goods for the guys. I mean amazing tips, especially in affluent areas.
Lara: For me, the challenge is the juggle of having the right amount of people to match the amount of trucks.
JJ: We have a lot of fixed costs. And it’s a highly regulated environment. . . and it should be.
Lara: And people are also nervous about the quotes we give them. A lot of moving companies give quotes, and then they get there, and then it’s more. Sometimes the customer didn’t give a full accurate inventory list or they’ve got 20 boxes more. Because the quote was based on the inventory, there are surprises. But for our in-home estimate, we will guarantee that if we go and see the inventory ourselves and we give you a quote, then that’s a fixed price. If it takes us longer than what we quoted you, we stand by it.
Where Do You See Your Business in Five Years?
JJ: So I’ll break it down for you, year by year. By the end of this year, I’m wanting to expand to add two more locations more to the south of Atlanta. Maybe in Macon; we don’t have any coverage there. The following year, we want to move to another big city in Georgia, like Savannah. I want to go long distance, but within Georgia. By the end of year 5, we need to dominate Georgia. I don’t want to get involved in the first 5 years with going interstate because insurance and fixed costs go up.
Right now, it’s about focus. We are looking at business moves, residential moves, and storage. At the moment, we just have one client that we receive goods. She’s an interior decorator and we want more of those kinds of people. So we receive furniture, we stage for her, and then when she needs it for a client, she comes to pick it up. It helps that they can order the quantity and get discounts.
What’s Your Favorite Thing About Alpharetta?
JJ: It’s by far one of the prettiest cities around Atlanta that I’ve seen, with its own unique sort of style. You go to downtown Alpharetta, and it’s upmarket. I also like the vibe that the younger people bring, the ones that live in the condominiums. It’s a nice blend of ages, diversity of immigrants. I get greeted more often when I just walk around here than in any other city.
Lara: Alpharetta is our target market with bigger homes. It’s one that really pushes you to give them excellent service because the type of customer you’re dealing with can just really destroy you with a few bad reviews. It’s an area of people that seek excellence as a standard. It’s one of the safest cities as well. And the convenience of the location. We can join the Alpharetta Chamber of Commerce just to have that presence.
What’s it Like Working Together?
JJ: We’ve actually worked together long ago when we did the literacy. Lara’s better with admin and regulations and finance. She’s pretty good with front end as well. I look at operations, pricing models, and how to grow the business. Training and team.
Lara: What also helps is we are very good friends, and we’ve been married since 1995. It’ll be 24 years this year. It’s not like we both want to be the boss. I like doing more of the background stuff. I love my papers and doing the Quickbooks. So we’re kind of lucky with the roles we’ve fallen into. And he’s very big picture, and I’ll do all of the little detail stuff. One struggle we have is that we distract each other a lot.
JJ: And then also one of the challenges is when we talk about the business all the time, so even when we are home. We’re excited about it, and it consumes a lot of your time. It becomes such a big part of your life.
Lara: It is a struggle of work and life balance. Our daughter and son are in band, and I’m on the band board. Next year I’ll be on the treasury team. In our spare time, we also just launched a ministry at our church. It’s something he wanted to do a long time ago. It’s a Bible study for adults with cognitive disabilities.
What Do You Like to Do for Fun?
JJ: I don’t get time for hobbies, but it’s probably not a good idea to say this, but I like shooting. It’s not that I’m doing it competitively. I also play golf.
Lara: Once a month, we have some neighbors over just to relax. I host a lot.
Where in South Africa are You From?
Lara: I’m from Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa. I moved a lot. My mom moved around a lot. JJ grew up in a small rural town. We went to the same university.
Most universities in southern Africa, like where he grew up, speak Afrikaans and I grew up English speaking. It was the only university that was bilingual. What’s interesting is in our work experience in South Africa, he worked for English companies and had to work in English, and I always worked for Africans companies, so I had to conduct my work in Afrikaans.
We had very different backgrounds and upbringing. His parents were very stable, small time. My mom was always moving and married four times. But for some reason what we wanted out of life was the same.
Who Inspired You the Most in Life?
JJ: My parents. Lara. There were a couple of business guys that I worked with it that inspired me, business wise. A CEO for a company in Atlanta, his name is Greg Cessna. I worked with him at the company in Wisconsin; just the way he looks at numbers, looks at people and treats people. Almost everything I do is from Greg. Also Pamela Hackett, she’s the CEO for another company I worked for. She took over during a difficult time and you could see it grow. How quickly she got the skills and how effective her leadership and sheer willpower. Leading is a lonely job. You have to move the company forward and set the example in the pace. If you don’t set it, people are just going to be comfortable.
Lara: With my upbringing, whatever’s driven me has always just been between me and God. My husband, he’s just a grounding person. Steadiness, I always feel protected and feel like he makes me not afraid. But also just letting me feel empowered as well. Whether he’s been a thousand miles away or one mile, I’ve always felt he’s right next to me. Last thing, I think having kids make you want to be the best version of yourself you can be.
(Interested in learning more about Big T Moving & Delivery? Click here!)