A husband and wife moving team launched their company in Myanmar this year with the aim of offering a stress-free transfer from old homes to new.
Jackie and Brian Ackerman spent seven years working as electrical engineers in Washington DC before deciding it was time for a radical sea change.
“It seemed like everything in America was so predictable – we were doing the same thing day in, day out. We came to Southeast Asia on a holiday in 2012 to see if we could lead a different lifestyle. But when we flew to Singapore it was evident from the moment we landed that we weren’t needed there. We also struck out in Ho Chi Minh, Siem Riep and Bangkok,” said Jackie Ackerman, Director of Pathway Moving Services.
While in Cambodia, their local guide mentioned in passing that Myanmar had just opened up and that it might prove an interesting destination to visit.
“Myanmar wasn’t on our to-do list: we hopped on a flight on the spur of the moment and spent a couple of night at Park Royal Hotel. When we came here, we felt that we could make a difference.”
Neither Jackie or her husband Brian had any experience in the moving industry, but that didn’t deter them from starting up their own venture.
Most expat business owners in Myanmar open bars and restaurants – so why did the inherently stressful moving industry appeal?
“Brian and I are total introverts. It wouldn’t be in our nature to open a restaurant or bar, or something that required us to mingle – it’s just not in our DNA,” Jackie said.
The seeds of the idea of a moving business were sown in 2011, when Jackie’s office relocated and she had a chance encounter with a company that stood out from the rest.
“Mover after mover came into our office and they were really stereotypical – these guys parked their trucks out the front and rolled in like they’d just finished a job.”
But when a man in a suit strode in, sat down and calmly explained the logistics of moving in detail, Jackie was pleasantly surprised.
“He was so professional. It was like an ‘a-ha moment’,” she said.
Her boss opted for a company that gave the cheapest quote and a discount to boot – but it became less of a bargain when an insurance claim had to be lodged for damaged office desks.
“I knew it would be horrible – but the experience keyed me into the industry. And it culminated with the idea of looking for something to do outside the US. You could say the two thought patterns converged.”
Jackie and Brian, the latter of whom is Pathway’s managing director, met a couple in Washington with decades of experience in the relocations industry and spent the next couple of years gleaning insights from them.
Jackie and Brian’s first move in Yangon was in March this year. Both admit it’s a tough industry. Fortunately though, Jackie said that expats in Yangon are ready to roll with the punches – such as sudden refusals to allow movers to use the elevators in condos or tricky architectural designs.
“For the most part, people living in Yangon are willing to deal with all sorts of strange things,” Jackie said.
Jackie and Brian’s Myanmar language teacher has equipped them with a moving-related vocabulary, and their director Min Thu Aung, offers limitless supplies of invaluable advice, Jackie said with a grin.
“We spend a lot of time on the job saying ‘phyay, phyay’ [‘slow, slow’]. We also often ask a single worker to team up with another to carry heavy objects – sometimes they get a little crazy and want to carry heavy things upstairs, which could result in damaging floors or walls – and themselves.”
Jackie said they convey the importance of protecting owner’s buildings to their team and make sure that belongings are covered in cushioning wrap whenever necessary.
“Wherever possible, we use dollies to exert less energy: it’s about working smarter and working slower,” Jackie said.
Pathway is marketed as a premium moving service. While cheaper options are certainly available in Yangon, in the long run it can be worth spending more to avoid having to replace the irreplaceable.
“We really pride ourselves on protecting people’s goods and internalising what matters most to our clients.”
The task can be daunting in Yangon, as elevators aren’t yet par for the course in apartment buildings.
“We’ve done stairwells with no lighting source – when our guys are in total darkness and we’re speaking two different languages it can be challenging,” she said.
For the most part, Pathway finds its customers by “trolling Yangon Expat Connection” and Brian Ackerman’s SEO skills help to recruit others online via its website.
“Our strike rate is about 50:50. When people say no [to an inquiry on YEC], it’s usually because of the price. If someone really wants the rock bottom price, where a bunch of guys turn up and move your stuff without caring, it’s hard for us to match that price-wise because we provide a premium service.”
That said, Pathway “says yes to everything. We want to see if we sink or swim and we won’t know unless we try.”
The heaviest item Pathway has moved was a 200 kilogramme piano, which had to be delicately lifted out of a fourth floor apartment.
A definite advantage for expats who choose Pathway is having at least one person on the job who speaks English and Myanmar to explain what goes where. Pathway also has an add-on service for packing and unpacking belongings by a team of ginger-fingered ladies.
Moving offices as opposed to homes takes up a quarter of Pathway’s business, while moving locals comprises but a fraction of their overall jobs.
“It’s hard for us to get local business – we haven’t quite figured it out, but perhaps it’s a price point thing,” Jackie said.
As for direct rivals, there’s Asian Tiger and Crown Relocations, although Jackie said they haven’t gone head-to-head with either yet when bidding for jobs.
What makes Pathway unique is that it’s a wholly foreign owned, family-run business.
“I think maybe we’re the one-off that doesn’t necessarily fit under the corporate umbrella,” Jackie said.