Janesville moving company restructures, grows in niche market
JANESVILLE — The calls come weekly, but the response—at least since 2008—has been the same.
J&W Transfer and Storage has put household moving in its rearview mirror.
These days, the Janesville company focuses on machinery rigging and industrial moving.
From a simple relocation of an air-handling unit to a corporate move to Mexico, J&W has its hands in a variety of commercial and industrial projects rooted in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois.
It's an equipment intensive business, one in which forklifts outnumber employees two to one. One forklift is remote-controlled and can lift 100,000 pounds.
Clyde Jewett and his wife, Alice Ward, started the business in 1932, which explains the J&W name.
“They were doing local cartage and storing anything to serve the community,” said Jeff Knopes, president of the company that his father, Harry, bought in 1957. “They delivered drums of lard to local bakeries, peddled some freight and also did some big stuff.”
After Knopes' father bought the business, it became an agent with North American Van Lines.
Knopes and Clint Ellefson, J&W's operations coordinator, grew up on big trucks moving residential customers.
For a variety of economic reasons, the number of residential moves decreased, and the company in 2008 transitioned to industrial, commercial and office moving and machinery rigging. In the 1970s, 95 percent of the company's business was residential moving. By 2002, it had dropped to just 15 percent.
“It just wasn't that lucrative, anymore,” Knopes said. “You used to go out to the Interstate and see trucks going by representing all five or six of the big moving lines.
“Now, you can probably drive to Chicago and maybe see one.”
J&W is now about packaging, setting up and moving commercial and industrial equipment. Sometimes the moves are within a facility, and other times they are moves from one location to other.
“It seems that once we do a job, we're on the list,” Knopes said. “Most of our first-time callers end up being three-times-a-year callers.”
In 2010, J&W moved Sanford Business-to-Business from Janesville to Mexico, a move Ellefson said was unfortunate for Janesville but gave his company some work.
J&W routinely helps the Whitewater-based Weiler and Co. move and install food-processing equipment in restaurants around the country. Other well-known area manufacturers—Prent, Goex and Tyson Foods to name a few—have relied on J&W for heavy lifting as well.
For major renovations at Craig and Parker high schools in Janesville, J&W spent a weekend at each, moving equipment, supplies and furniture into gyms. For a renovation at the former Lab Safety Supply, J&W moved 1,000 truckloads of material over a 42-hour Labor Day weekend.
“The economic downturn hurt a bit, as people were not spending big capital dollars on new equipment,” Knopes said. “But industry can't stop, and there was a lot of sideways movement, such as closings and acquisitions, and that triggered the need to move used equipment.
“Business is coming back. You just can't stop technology, and there are an awful lot of very smart people who are figuring out how to do stuff and keep things moving.”
Neither Knopes nor Ellefson miss the days of household moves, times when they would think nothing of packing up a local house on a Friday and unloading the shipment Monday morning in New York City.
“We were young then,” Knopes said.
Now, the restructured business is growing.
“We're all about equipment, and we can always figure a way to get a job done,” Ellefson said.
Added Knopes: “We never have to worry about getting bored around here.”