With over 60 years of experience and 1,000 offices worldwide, UniGroup Relocation is one of the world’s largest American relocation companies. It goes beyond moving boxes and household items to provide its customers with what they need for a smooth transition into a new city

By Leon Lee

Moving can certainly be a hassle. Figuring out how to pack your possessions and furniture into individual boxes quickly becomes a stressful situation. It’s certainly harder for those who have to move to other countries for a new job. Luckily, there are relocation companies such as UniGroup Relocation that offer companies and their employees assistance with the daunting process.

But besides the delivery of boxes and furniture, UniGroup actually offers many other services to its customers to help their transition.

“The way I explain what I do as a living is moving is just one service out of 10 that we offer,” says Joseph Lai, general manager, Hong Kong of UniGroup Relocation and Sterling Mobility. He compares them with logistics company DHL as they take care of the actual transport and delivery of packages. But unlike DHL, they offer other services before and after pickup and delivery.

Photo 14

“For the moving part, we specialize in handling household goods. If you have an eight-person dining table, I don’t know where you’re going to find the materials to pack that and be able to do it well enough to go across the ocean in a container. We [can] deliver it and unpack it and help with any claims processes.”

This is certainly a plus for their customers as they won’t have to worry about where their belongings are and how to unpack everything. Instead, they can focus on settling into their new lives in a new city.

Welcome to Hong Kong

While Hong Kong is an amazing city to live and work in, it can be quite overwhelming at times and require some time to get used to.

“People come over with the idea that Hong Kong apartments are smaller, but they actually don’t realize how much smaller it is than in the United States or Australia,” Lai explains.

“What we have seen for difficult adjustments really is the personal space. In the United States or anywhere in the world, you say ‘Why don’t you guys come over? We can play Xbox or just hang out in the house’. But in Hong Kong, I noticed it’s not that way. It’s ‘Let’s go to the coffee shop down the street’ or ‘Let’s go to the American Club or the Yacht Club’.”

Other issues that some new residents in the city might face are the loss of a strong friends and family support system, lack of knowledge of their new surroundings and not being able to communicate with the locals.

To help their clients settle into Hong Kong, UniGroup provides them with a welcome pack. Some of the items included are a taxi guide, helpful tips and information on how to pronounce street names in Cantonese using English phonetics and AmCham’s Living In Hong Kong guidebook filled with information on local festivals and customs, things to do around the city throughout the year, recommended restaurants, etc.

“We have services that we offer where we take them around the city. We show them the supermarkets, we take them to get Octopus cards, take them on the MTR. We show them where their offices are, where their housing is, and where the country clubs are if they want to join one. It’s like a private tour for people living in Hong Kong,” Lai says.

If their clients own pets or have children, the company will work with them to find places that best fit their lifestyles. They would make all the necessary arrangements to get the pets over safe and sound. They help to ensure all the necessary paperwork is completed, working with veterinarians from both sides to be informed and setting up home quarantines.

For families with children, UniGroup can assist parents navigate through Hong Kong’s notoriously intense process of enrolment into schools.

“We do help put somebody’s children into school. There is no guarantee. What we do is we know the right people to connect them to. We can get them on a [school] tour with a few days notice. We can help them with the paperwork and sometimes coach the parents on what they need to do to get their kids ready.”

Local knowledge

While UniGroup might not be an instantly recognizable name, it’s actually the parent company of United Van Lines and Mayflower Transport, the two largest household goods trucking companies in the United States. It is also Asia’s largest American relocation company with 12 offices in all major cities in Asia, including Hong Kong, Tokyo and Beijing.

Photo 15

Around the world, Unigroup has more than 1,200 offices in over 180 countries which comes in handy as they have firsthand knowledge of local customs and practices to prevent any complications for their customers in their move such as what they can or cannot bring into their new destinations.

“For example, if you’re going to move from Hong Kong to Tokyo, you cannot ship [any toy guns or airsoft guns] to Tokyo or anywhere in Japan. Even if they’re fake. If they look like pistols in the X-ray, they’ll pull your whole shipment out and search through every single box. But we know these things in advance,” Lai says.

In the Middle East, people work from Sundays to Thursdays and rest on Friday and Saturday, so UniGroup would communicate with their clients on the best delivery time. For Hong Kong, the company knows how to work around its smaller streets that moving trucks can’t drive onto or tiny elevators that can barely fit a three-seater sofa-headaches that new arrivals might not have been able to know beforehand.

Increasing their footprint

In 2014, the company’s profile grew significantly with the acquisition of Sterling Mobility. Following the recent consolidation trend in the relocation industry, UniGroup found a like-minded partner in the London-based relocation company.

“[Sterling is] a fantastic relocation company that aims for the top. They aim for quality versus quantity. They have great talents, really good footprints in Europe and extremely solid business practices in compliance practices. So if you look at a checklist of things, they checked all the boxes that UniGroup, as an American moving company that is extremely invested in compliance, has as requirements,” Lai explains.

Last year, Sterling managed over 9,000 international employee moves on behalf of nearly 400 corporate clients.

One service that Sterling offers and UniGroup doesn’t is full assignment management. The relocation company can actually help companies manage expats they placed overseas. Working with a budget that the client company sets, Sterling could hire people, do their taxes and issue payments on their behalf. This way, the companies’ HR department can focus on the local staff while Sterling handles the rest.

Right now the plan is for the two companies to operate separately under their own names.

“We could share expertise and best practices, however the current direction that we feel right now is that we’ll let Sterling focus on what they’re good at, and we’ll focus on what we’re really good at,” Lai says.