Canada's largest network of independent moving companies is coming under fire from some customers for its business practices.
"I've moved a number of times and it was probably the worst move in 20 years," said customer Shelagh Bruhn. "They have no hearts, as far as I'm concerned."
'They have no hearts, as far as I am concerned' —Two Small Men with Big Hearts customer Shelagh Bruhn
According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), Two Small Men with Big Hearts receives more complaints than any other moving company in B.C. — 50 in the last three years. The BBB has given "F" ratings to the company's B.C. locations in Surrey, Richmond and Kamloops.
Bruhn complained to the management in Surrey after her move in June of 2009. Bruhn said the movers, who are paid by the hour, took several hours more than they estimated.
"I was quoted a certain amount every hour and we figured about six to eight hours. Instead it took 11 hours," said Bruhn. "They deliberately dragged it out. They were ill-equipped. They were inept."
Bruhn said the movers lost her ladder, broke a large piece of furniture that they dropped and chipped and scratched several other items.
"I picked this company based on its name — Two Small Men with Big Hearts," she said. "It was just one disaster on top of the other."
Toronto operators facing charges
TSM Canada started as a Vancouver company with one owner in 1981. It now has more than 30 franchise offices across Canada, "working as one, a collective organization," according to the company's national website.
Operators based in Toronto are facing charges after consumer complaints were filed about overcharging and broken promises.
In March 2009 the Ontario government filed several charges under the Consumer Protection Act against a North York, Ont., location of Two Small Men with Big Hearts. Company representatives Jeff Green and Brent Witte are also named in several counts.
The allegations include making false and misleading statements, renegotiating prices while in possession of customers' goods and exceeding estimates by more than the 10 per cent of the maximum increase allowed under provincial rules.
"There are probably reasonable grounds for not moving with a company like that," said John Levi of the Canadian Association of Movers. Levi represents several Canadian moving companies, but TSM Canada is not a member of his group.
"By the time you add up your time, your losses, your damage and the estimated cost plus the overcharges — you are at a significantly higher cost than you would have been with a reputable mover," said Levi.
Bruhn was charged $1,500 for her move. In September, she said she reluctantly agreed to settle for $186 in damages, which she said is far less than her real losses. Despite that written agreement, Bruhn said the company has not paid her a cent.
"They suck you in — and they have you believing they are going to do the best job they can for you. Then, once they have your money — $1,500 later — they drop you like a hot potato," said Bruhn.
"Almost every day I can find something else that was wrecked."
Stu Starkey, who took over the Surrey, B.C., franchise after Bruhn's move, said he will now do whatever he can to resolve her complaint.
"I can only handle problems case-by-case and make sure our customers are now satisfied at the end of their move," said Starkey, who said he is also moving out of the rundown location.
"We want to clean up the appearance a little bit. We’re going to paint our trucks and put new ones in and get a brand new yard."
Representatives from TSM Canada, the franchiser, refused a request for an interview with CBC News. Ben Hanuka, a Toronto lawyer who represents the company, sent a statement.
"TSM Canada takes its customers and reputation very seriously and regrets the inconvenience that was caused to them," Hanuka wrote.
"The root cause of these problems is in large part inadequate customer communication and insufficient administrative oversight on the part of TSM Canada's local offices and movers."
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"It was a harrowing experience just moving my things," said Bradley Lang, another upset customer, who estimates he lost $10,000 worth of property in his move to Vancouver from London, Ont.
"It did, to some extent, make me regret even moving," he said.
The London location also has an "F" rating with the BBB.
"I lost almost half of my things — gone, broken or smashed. There were boxes that had been opened and things pulled out of them," said Lang. "I literally was picking up boxes that rattled — and all there was were large chunks, broken."
Lang said his shipment arrived almost a month late, after he was told it was left sitting for several days on a loading dock in Toronto.
His box spring and mattress has to be thrown out because of severe water damage, he said, while several items were missing, including a leather jacket and irreplaceable pieces of art and pottery.
"It breaks your heart — when you've got all those things and you've spent so much time collecting," said Lang.
"I also lost coats. I lost pants. I lost boxes of clothes — so I hope they enjoyed them."
The company admits it has customer-service problems that need to be addressed.
"Avoiding such customer complaints requires better training and supervision of TSM Canada's local office representatives. This is not an easy task for us. There are over 30 Two Small Men With Big Hearts Moving offices in Canada, which together handle between 25,000 and 30,000 local and long-distance moves every year," read the statement from the lawyer.
Court-ordered damages not paid
Lang's move happened in 2003. He then spent four years trying to get the company to cover the damages. In 2005, after failing in several attempts to get a settlement, he filed a suit in small-claims court.
"When I took it to the lawyers they said, 'Oh this will be no problem. We've seen these people before,'" said Lang.
B.C. court records show 150 lawsuits have been filed involving Two Small Men with Big Hearts since the early 1990s. The majority are small claims against the company by customers.
In 2007, the court issued a default order directing TSM to pay Lang $8,582.65.
By then, longtime company owner Glen Buckler had sold his interest in the company to six other operators. Buckler appeared in court to argue that because of the 2004 sale, he was no longer responsible. In addition, Buckler said the company's legal name had been filed incorrectly.
"The court said I needed to re-file more papers — that my lawyers needed to file the last set of papers with an amendment to this name," said Lang.
Faced with more legal hassles, Lang decided to give up.
"For the years that I've been going after this — that I have made myself sick over this — it was easier just to let it go."
Kate Wittaker and James Carter moved from Port Elgin, Ont., to Sooke, B.C., in November 2009 and have filed a complaint with the BBB.
They claim TSM Canada arbitrarily inflated the price of their move by more than $700, including a surprise "fuel surcharge" of $283.80, after their belongings were picked up.
"What your company has done is unconscionable," Wittaker wrote in a complaint to representatives in the B.C. booking office. "You cannot quote a customer one rate then once you pick up their stuff, inflate the rates and add additional charges."
Tips on hiring a mover from Ontario’s Ministry of Consumer Services:
- Get the contract in writing.
- If an estimate is provided, the final cost cannot exceed the original estimated price by more than 10 per cent.
- Check the ministry's Consumer Beware List: complaints received and charges laid are disclosed.
- Remember that the lowest price may not be the best choice — you get what you pay for.
TSM responded by telling Wittaker her belongings would not be delivered until the higher price was paid in full.
"If you don't pay your bill, it will go into storage and you will have to pay that before we deliver your goods," a company representative wrote in an email. "If you are reporting to the BBB and government agencies, it seems you don't want to pay your bill."
Wittaker said she was more than willing to pay the amount originally quoted. However, she said, after the threat of having her belongings put in storage, she eventually relented and paid the charges.
"We were on the phone every day for a month trying to find out where our stuff was, before it finally showed up," said her husband.
Apology from head office
"TSM Canada will be certainly reviewing these issues in an effort to learn from the past and avoid such customer complaints in the future," wrote Hanuka. "TSM Canada apologizes for these delays and overall failure to address these three particular customer complaints in a timely manner. "
"As a result, TSM Canada is prepared to offer full compensation to Shelagh Bruhn [her claimed amount is $160] and Kate Wittaker [her claimed amount is $300]. TSM Canada will mail out the cheques to these customers this week."
As for Lang's longstanding claim for more than $8,500, the TSM statement indicated the company wants to settle with him, too.
"TSM Canada would like to have an opportunity to investigate this matter and attempt to resolve it with Mr. Lang with a suitable settlement offer over the coming several days."
Hanuka also told CBC News he is also currently handling the allegations of unfair practices by TSM in Toronto, which are before the courts.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of Consumer Services said it could not comment on the details of the complaints. Company representatives could be fined up to $50,000 and the corporation up to $250,000.