This year marks the 70th anniversary of Massachusetts moving company Ayer Moving and Storage, a northAmerican Van Lines agent and family-owned business. Started by Karen Strickland’s grandfather and owned and operated by her father, Karen took the helm after graduating from the University of Rochester’s William Simon School of Management with an MBA in 1985.
She never intended to go into the family business. In fact, Karen resisted it for years. Eldon Strickland, Sr. opened the company on Central Avenue in Ayer when Karen was just a child. Her dad was a full-time policeman and when his father died, Eldon, Jr. took over the operation of the business. Karen remembers her dad working more than one job … driving a tractor trailer and working part-time for the police department while building Ayer Moving and Storage.
One particular memory stands out of riding in a police car with Hobo, a stray dog that her dad found at the top of Prospect Hill. No one claimed the dog, so the family kept him. Karen remembers that Hobo would watch her younger brother Phil leave for school on the bus and then find his way to the school to wait for Phil to get out at the end of the day. Karen says, “We never did figure out how Hobo knew where the school was and how to get there.”
Worked Hard, Always Learning
Karen was always motivated to keep busy and keep learning. As a teenager, during the summers she worked at Fruitlands Museum in Harvard on weekends and afternoons. She sold tickets and worked in the art gallery, which fostered a life-long love of art. (Years later, as a businesswoman, Karen served on the Board of Trustees of Fruitlands Museum.)
At the same time, she worked mornings at Ayer Moving and Storage, often assisting her mom in the office. After graduating The Bromfield School in Harvard, Karen attended Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, NY, where she majored in French and minored in History, graduating Cum Laude. While in school, she worked in the food service department for two years, organizing and managing the catering of university parties. During all her vacations, she was back at Ayer Moving doing accounting and managing office operations.
Ambition, Accomplishments, and Self-Doubt
After her college graduation, she worked for a year and a half for Ayer Moving, but knew she wanted to return to school to study business administration. Although industrious and ambitious and despite her accomplishments, she says, “I never thought I was good enough. At college, I thought I was the dumbest of my three friends. My grades were good, but I was never sure I was really smart.”
When she graduated with an MBA from the University of Rochester, she was offered a job in downtown Boston. She was tempted to accept, but her dad said, “Why do you want to drive all the way to Boston every day when you can work in the family business?”
Karen explained, “Maybe it was the old doubts and lack of self-confidence, but I was nervous about it. It is difficult to go off on your own when you don’t know your own worth.”
Asked if she has regrets, she says, “No. At Ayer Moving and Storage I had flexibility. When I married and had children, I was able to be involved in their lives even while working. I learned a lot and began to be more confident in my abilities.” Her dad stepped back a bit in 1985 when Karen joined the business full time. He told her, “Sink or swim … you’ll figure it out.”
Karen’s brother Phil, the youngest of five Strickland children, came to work in the Ayer Moving and Storage warehouse in 1988. He learned to drive a tractor trailer and forklift at an early age, so it was a great fit for him. He manages the warehouse now and is in charge of operations for Ayer Moving and Storage.
Even though Eldon wasn’t working full-time any longer, he was a constant presence in some form. He was in the warehouse; he made bank deposits; he took an occasional truck delivery – until 2011 when he retired, and Karen and her brother Phil bought the business. Eldon became ill in 2016 and passed in 2020.
Karen credits Landmark Education with helping her gain confidence. In 1988 she attended the Landmark Forum a two-weekend, self-development event which she says gave her self-assurance and the faith that she could try things … take risks in the business. At that time, the business was bringing in about $250K a year in revenue. Within two years, revenue jumped to $1.2M. Karen bid on a military contract and won it. She hired her first salesperson and in 1990 began plans to build a new office building in front of the warehouse to replace the trailer which formerly served as the office.
Business Ups and Downs
In 2001, in anticipation of the military presence at Fort Devens Army Base expanding, Karen planned to enlarge the company. Unfortunately, instead, the base was closed completely. Having done some business with Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Karen proposed that they do more business with Ayer Moving and Storage.
Karen said, “There have been many ups and many downs in this business. The close of Fort Devens hit us hard, as did the 2008 recession and the normal ebbs and flows of the real estate market. The Pandemic was especially harsh. We lost one-third of our revenue in 2020. Military moves were shut down until August, which took out most of the moving season. Civilians were not moving; we lost a salesperson. We survived, though, and we are back on the uptrend.”
To combat losses, the company switched to virtual estimates instead of in-home visits. Phil began doing in-home estimates when it was safe to do so. At first people didn’t want to move because they were just “hunkering down” at home. Now people want a larger home because they are working from home and children are schooling virtually.
Karen said, “January is usually a very slow time, but we had lots of calls and estimates. My entire crew has been working during March and we have a lot of requests on the books for April.”
And … the Future?
Is Karen looking to retire anytime soon? And will her children or Phil’s want to continue the Strickland legacy? Karen says, “I won’t pressure my children to work in the business. They can do whatever they want to, and they have many interests. Son David, Jr. is in his first year of college at UMass Lowell. I’m a proud Momma to say he made the Dean’s List! Daughter Ashley is a junior at The Bromfield School in Harvard and is an avid Lacrosse player and is even now being sought-after by colleges near and far.”
Karen has always been involved in her kids’ school and after-school activities. She was a class mother involved in Pizza Days, served on the marketing committee at Country Day school, elected to the School Council at Bromfield, and involved in the Athletic Advisory Group.
She organized the Reality Fair for the sophomore class to learn life skills: how to balance a checkbook, pay rent, get a student loan, create and live on a budget, or buy a car. A feature of the Reality Fair was to spin the Wheel of Misfortune, where you might get a flat tire, your car breaks down, you lose your phone, or get pregnant … what do you do then and what does this misfortune cost you?
A firm believer in serving her community, Karen has been a member of Rotary International and has been in every position, except treasurer, of her local Ayer, Harvard, Shirley, Devens Rotary Club. She was its first woman president in 1998, 20 years after her father, Eldon, served as president. She has been asked to serve as president again in 2023 or 2024.
Karen was also president of the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce when it expanded and renamed from the Ayer Chamber and then Greater Ayer/Devens Chamber to the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Karen’s favorite activity is to travel. For years she has slated Christmas week for a special family vacation often involving brother Phil and his family. They have visited Paris and toured eastern France and the South of France. They also went to Italy and Greece. She also travels in February and in the fall for northAmerican conferences. Last year a trip to Ireland was cancelled, but she is hoping that next February she will be able to go to Ireland and maybe enjoy a Disney Cruise at Christmas. Germany, a river cruise in Switzerland, Egypt and the Pyramids, Australia, Scotland are also on her bucket list.
Karen says, “Whether you are a new female entrepreneur or one who has been in business for a while, do what makes you happy!” She added:
Ask for advice when and if you need it.
Always keep learning.
Join organizations. Rotarians and Chamber members were helpful to me. Remember you are not alone.
Don’t be afraid to take risks; you can always correct the course. It’s not do or die! If you go down a path and it isn’t right, go back.
Your family is fundamentally more important than work. Always be active in your kids’ lives; you don’t want to find they have grown, and you don’t know them.
A pioneer in the moving business, Karen Strickland is no stranger to hard work. She relishes it and isn’t looking to retire anytime soon. She is entering a phase where planning for succession is a good idea. Karen says, “One thing is for sure, the next chapter will most certainly be as exciting as the last 70 years in the life of Ayer Moving and Storage. Being an entrepreneur in this business, there is always excitement and drama!”
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