Larry O'Toole
Gentle Giant Moving, Somerville, Massachusetts

Larry O'Toole understands that when customers are difficult, it's often because they are going through something really hard. So the employees of his moving company learn not only how to pack trucks but also how to unpack the contents of the human heart. "You don't know what kind of stress someone is dealing with," says O'Toole, an Irish immigrant who is imposing of stature and soft of speech. "Diagnosed with a terrible illness. Death in the family. Divorce. You have to be able to read your customer. You see what they need, and you give it to them."

Combining the tough-love leadership skills of a Marine with the nurturing patience of a parish priest, O'Toole began his trade in 1980 while saving to start a light-manufacturing company. "I'd move someone's furniture, and they'd act like I'd saved their baby from drowning," he says. "I realized they were thrilled with me because they'd received such lousy service in the past. To me it was simple. Someone is paying you by the hour. You're going to give them 100 percent, for God's sake. How could you not?"

O'Toole's concern for service has helped him build a $27 million business with 300 employees in eight states. Gentle Giant charges more than many competitors, but the money goes to creating a work force of the quality you would expect to find at a high-end hotel. Initiation into the Gentle Giant culture starts at a gallop: New employees run the stairs at Harvard Stadium—all 37 sections—with 60-year-old O'Toole chugging right alongside them.

He is also fanatical about feedback and expects his managers to be the same. "If you live to be 83, you can fit all the feedback that you got in your entire life onto one CD," he says. "You get very little of it. It's very precious. If someone yells at me in traffic, I just say to them, 'Thanks for the feedback.'"

O'Toole lavishes on his movers, many of them students, the kind of care for their physical and emotional well-being normally given to Olympic athletes (which a few of them are). As a result, they become the kind of high-performing, motivated employees that, frankly, seem too good to be working for a moving company. Or maybe just for a moving company that isn't Gentle Giant. "The people who have done this job at the highest level have gone on to greatness in their lives," says O'Toole, who loves to tell stories about successful alums. "The people I know who are great surgeons and great pilots and great scientists were great movers back when they were movers. When they were here, they wanted to be the greatest movers in the world. And they took that attitude out into the rest of their lives."