From Sinatra to the Spellings, California’s oldest moving company has thrived by remaining discreet
With 30 days to vacate her 56,500-square-foot mansion, Candy Spelling had decades of rococo treasures to relocate. So producer Aaron Spelling’s widow hired California’s oldest — and perhaps most discreet — moving company.
Stretching back to Hollywood’s Golden Era, Rene’s Van & Storage is a lens into the history of celebrity real estate, with a client list dominated by the famous or just plain rich, all drawn by a combination of white-glove service and the ability to keep a secret.
The Lambert family, the firm’s owners, has relocated an incoming U.S. president, a notorious mobster, multiple leading men and screen sirens as well as the best snowboarder of all time.
“I understand why this business has stood around for 85 years, and it’s mum’s the word,” said Marshall Lambert, president of the Los Angeles company, remembering that some family members were apoplectic when he told them he was going to start an Instagram page.
“The privacy. It’s why customers trust us. It’s why they come back,” Lambert said.
But what might seem like a terrible marketing strategy in the age of search engine optimization and viral posts has helped keep Lambert’s fourth-generation family business alive through economic downturns and unforeseen increases in the cost of doing business.
The industry still hasn’t returned to pre-recession revenue levels, said Michael Scott, chief executive of the American Moving & Storage Assn., a trade group representing 3,500 companies.
The 2008 housing industry collapse caused the number of moves to drop 30% to 40%, and the industry is still climbing back, he said.
With the increased ability to work from home, fewer people are moving to be closer to employers. Millennials and other generations also just have less stuff, Scott said.
“They don’t want their grandmother’s china set, and the cabinets that hold them are heavy,” Scott said. “Most shipments are determined by weight, and lighter shipments mean less revenue.”
Long-established companies with full-time staffers and fleets of trucks are being challenged by a new generation of smaller players who undercut rates and rent trucks only on an as-needed basis. Newer competition is also coming from companies like Dolly, which operates in seven cities and matches clients with drivers who have their own vehicles.
Even Amazon.com is making life miserable for moving companies.
“They are buying up every cardboard box they can find,” Scott said, “so the cost of cardboard is up 40%. The paper inside those boxes that provides extra padding? The cost of that has been driven up, too.”
Rene’s Van & Storage’s clients are less price sensitive, Lambert said, although they do have unusual ways of measuring trustworthiness.
“‘Well, you passed the test,’” Lambert said one affluent homeowner once told him. “‘I left two brand-new Rolexes in the top drawer of my dresser, and when it got to my new house, they were there. You’re my mover for the rest of my life.’”
Marshall Lambert’s great-grandfather Bernard Lambert founded the first version of the company in 1933, after relocating his family to the United States from Beaumont, Canada.
Clark Gable was one of the earliest celebrity clients, and Beverly Hills was the destination of choice. Nowadays, company trucks might be seen in Calabasas moving a Kardashian or waiting for entry into the gated nouveau Hollywood enclave of Hidden Hills.
In 1945, Marshall’s grandfather Rene Lambert opened Rene’s Van & Storage with his wife, Marjorie, and the two companies competed for clients.
Through the early 1960s, Rene and Marjorie’s company bought out several local rivals and built a star-studded list of clients, including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Ernie Kovacs, Edie Adams, Jayne Mansfield, Dean Martin, Danny Thomas and Groucho Marx.
In 1963, Rene’s Van & Storage bought Lambert’s Van & Storage from family members and consolidated operations under one roof. In the 1970s and the 1980s, clients included such notables as Steve McQueen, Robert Stack, Marlon Brando, Elvis Presley, Rita Hayworth, John Huston, Hedy Lamarr, Natalie Wood and the estate of John Wayne. In 1981, the company moved the Reagans into the White House.
By 1998, Rene and Marjorie’s three sons — Russell, Rene Jr. and Ricky, Marshall’s father — were running the business. In 2006, Marshall left a film production equipment company where he had worked for 17 years to join Rene’s Van & Storage as a vice president.
The company’s website advises potential clients of the lengths it goes to pamper customers. All movers wear white gloves and booties while on the job. Wooden crates are custom built for oddly shaped and oversize items.
Lambert says new hires have to go through a drug test and criminal background check, even though the job is mostly manual labor.
“When we hire someone, we put them with a crew that watches them like a hawk until they’ve earned their trust,” Lambert said.
The value of what they move is sometimes best kept secret, Lambert said. For instance, the 12-plate serving set valued at $12,000.
“We don’t tell our guys that,” he said. “We don’t want them shaking as they’re putting something in a box.”
Fine art, furniture and other valuables are stored in floor-to-ceiling crates throughout the company’s 88,000-square-foot warehouse near Griffith Park, which resembles the famous final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Sultry actress Marilyn Monroe was among those who liked to periodically visit her stored belongings. Family lore has it that Marjorie Lambert thought a chaperone was needed.
“She would send my uncle out to stand next to my grandfather, because she was a little jealous,” Marshall Lambert said of his grandmother. “‘Don’t leave him alone with her.’”
Another family story involves mobster Bugsy Siegel, who wanted some of his stored furniture returned to his home and placed in front of the windows. It didn’t help; Siegel was rubbed out at his girlfriend’s house.
Marshall Lambert’s other grandfather, David Lopez, also worked at the moving company and once was called out to a Santa Barbara ranch to help move a very heavy refrigerator. But Lopez couldn’t get it to budge.
Then future President Ronald Reagan rode up on his horse and tied a rope around the refrigerator.
“Reagan smacks the horse on the butt, and out flies the fridge,” Lambert said, recalling the much-told tale that never leaked outside Lambert’s family. Maybe that’s why, not long after the refrigerator extraction, Reagan called Rene Lambert for help moving to the White House.
Lambert, 46, was 9 when he heard his family would be relocating the next president, “so growing up, I was always a fan of his.”
Over the years, the family had other pursuits, owning racehorses and the television studios called Ren-Mar, where shows such as “Seinfeld” were shot. It has since been sold and now operates as Red Studios Hollywood.
But helping people uproot and resettle has always been the family’s core enterprise.
The business got a rare dose of exposure in 2011 when the Spelling move was filmed as part of a two-episode HGTV reality show, “Selling Spelling Manor.”
“I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Lambert said, because not only were there multiple TV cameras, the mansion contained 14 bedrooms, 27 bathrooms and 82 other rooms. But his 15-worker crew was finished in just 28 days, “and we’re talking 9½-hour days.”
Among current clients willing to talk to a reporter, snowboarder Shaun White, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, said he gives Rene’s Van & Storage award-winning points “for taking care of my stuff for so many years.”
James Lassiter, co-founder with actor Will Smith of Overbrook Entertainment, said his company relies on Rene’s because “we appreciate their expertise, their care, and their attention to detail, as well as the confidentiality they have long provided to us.”
For more business news, follow Ronald D. White on Twitter: @RonWLATimes
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