Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Eric Maldonado had long hoped to open his own financial services firm. He recently did so, seven years after graduation and on the heels of a successful career in the industry. His business, Aquila Wealth Advisors, owes its existence, in part, to a life-shaping experience Maldonado had in college. During the summers, he moved furniture.

Meathead Movers, based in San Luis Obispo, California, shepherds people into their futures. For customers, that means future homes. For employees, it means future careers. The company hires student athletes with ambitious career goals and helps them achieve those goals through coaching, training, and confidence building. When employees start their postgraduation job searches, founder Aaron Steed proactively calls hiring managers to sing their praises.

Steed, who launched the business in 1997 with his brother Evan, calls the practice "encouraged turnover." He wants Meathead "to be the ultimate stepping-stone job that prepares them for bigger and better things."

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Meathead, which projects revenue this year of $17 million, is a distinctive hybrid of sports and empathy. The business recruits its 350-plus movers--mostly wrestlers, as well as football and baseball players--from colleges in southern and central California. "We have relationships with the coaches," says Steed. "We have relationships with athletic departments. We walk around campuses. We tap guys on the shoulder in gyms."

Student athletes exhibit strength both of body and character, says Steed, himself a former wrestler. They apply that physicality to each moving gig by, for example, jogging between the truck and the customer's house when they're not carrying something. "We are running hard. We are stomping up that ramp," says Steed. "We are creating an almost theatrical experience."

Athletes seek out Meathead for the kind of personal development and mentoring they might not get from internships (which, in addition, often don't pay). Many are also drawn by the company's high-profile philanthropic work with domestic-abuse victims, whom it moves for free.

Customers seek out Meathead because, as Chuck Braff puts it, "they love your stuff as much as you do." Before he hired Meathead in August, Braff's previous experience with movers included the near-total destruction of his infant son's custom-ordered crib. Meathead, by contrast, "was 100 percent damage-free," says Braff. "If you were a coach, these are the people you would want on your team."

Braff's real-estate company, Bow Tie Holdings, is building a 75-room hotel in downtown San Luis Obispo, "and we are not having the supplier deliver the furniture to the rooms," he says. "We are having Meathead do it."

The joys of heavy lifting

At 17, Aaron Steed was long on muscles, short on cash. At school he was captain of the wrestling team. Outside of school he competed in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. There were tournament fees and travel expenses. To make money, he offered to do whatever needed doing. Heavy lifting was his specialty.

His friends' parents hired Steed, Evan, and a few wrestling buddies for local moving jobs, which conveniently fell mostly on weekends. His rates were reasonable: "Whatever they thought we were worth. That made it really hard for them to tell me no."

Moving, Steed found, is more rewarding than you'd think. After 18 months of community college, he dropped out to run the business. Evan followed immediately after high school. Steed's wrestling coach let them use office space in a landscaping company he owned. 

For four years Meathead operated without a license. Then in 2001 some competitors hired an attorney to file a complaint with the body that regulates movers in California. They charged that Meathead was acting illegally by transporting client goods over public roads without a permit. Steed argued that the clients did all the transporting--truckless Meathead just loaded and unloaded. Still, the regulator shut them down.

It was time to go legit. "My brother got the permit," says Steed. "He became the youngest professional mover in California history."

By that time Meathead was doing more than 1,000 moves a year. But the Steeds still couldn't afford their own full-size moving trucks. Instead, they rented U-Hauls and Ryders at a cost of more than $6,000 a month. Without credit, cash, or cosigners, Steed asked a bank to lend him $300,000, explaining that by acquiring five trucks he could bring monthly costs down to $3,500. To his astonishment, the bank agreed.

Moving up and out

Steed believes that moving, like sports, requires finesse as well as machismo. The company has developed 400 procedures for everything from how to lay down Ram Board for floor protection to how to secure an appliance. Meatheads even have their own phrases to signal which way to move while they're carrying items.

But the company's not interested in developing great movers. Meathead remains a generalist--contracting out for specialty jobs like pianos and hot tubs--because it doesn't want workers to stay there long enough to become specialists. The idea is to send them off to bigger and better things.

Every new employee at Meathead crafts with management a career goal statement. "If we know what they are interested in, we know how to coach them," says Steed. "We do things to help cultivate them and keep them on track." 

The business emphasizes skills like customer service, team building, and problem solving in high-stress situations. After a year, most movers shift into team-lead positions so they can gain management experience. When an employee leaves Meathead for a job in their intended field, the company celebrates with a barbecue.

Meathead's Hall of Fame includes firefighters, police officers, accountants, and entrepreneurs. Jordan Beck was a linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons. Chad Mendes is the fifth-ranked featherweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Former employees appear at monthly meetings "to talk about how Meathead Movers helped make them who they are."

Maldonado was a wrestler at Cal Poly when he worked for Meathead Movers between 2005 and 2010. Meathead, he says, helped put him on the road to starting his business. Steed "would talk about setting a goal and putting a time frame on it, making it specific, and writing it down," says Maldonado. "I learned about taking the time to train employees, work ethic, leading by example, and putting the client first."

"Will you help me?"

In 2001, the calls started coming. "They were women seeking to flee abusive relationships," says Steed. "They would say, 'This is my time to get out. He is on a business trip. Will you help me? I don't have money. But I will give you a TV or a couch.' "

Steed doesn't know why the women chose Meathead. There was no question he would move them, and do it for free. But one day "the guy came home and got confrontational and the police came," says Steed. "I realized we have to do this in a safer way. So I knocked on the door at the local shelter." Meathead still does those moves--50 or 60 a year. But now it requires callers to contact a shelter for screening and services. 

Two years ago, Meathead Movers launched #MoveToEndDV, a nonprofit that acts as a kind of registry for businesses donating goods or services to victims of domestic violence or to shelters. To date it has collected several hundred pledges, from a financial services firm offering financial literacy lessons to an ISP waiving its fees for a local shelter to a florist donating flowers. "Our very lofty goal is we want to inspire 10,000 businesses to take action," Steed says.

He is also encouraging other moving companies to transport victims for free. "I can't think of a more valuable way for someone in our industry to give back."

Published on: Nov 16, 2017