Innovate or Die

When the economy tanked, Peggy Coakley transformed the family business

Mention a moving company and immediately the image of a musclebound hunky male inevitably comes to mind. Don’t most customers want alpha males moving all that big equipment and heavy duty boxes?

But what if leading a moving company today requires an innovative, flexible leader who excels at listening to the needs of customers and offering a new set of services not traditionally associated with a moving company? In other words, the current business climate calls for brains and innovation over brawn.


Enter Peggy Coakley, the chief executive officer of Coakley Brothers Co., who is the youngest and only female of four children. Their father, Neil Coakley, sold the business to his daughter.

Peggy recognized early on in her tenure as a leader that their company was really in the hospitality business and not in what seems obvious – the moving business.

By focusing on customer needs and perceptions, Coakley Brothers can make the moving experience positive and enjoyable. As a result, she’s created a loyal customer base that feeds more customer referrals and strong brand loyalty.

That commitment, in turn, required Peggy to create a culture that would support that vision.

For example, her team puts the customer at the center of team meetings so everyone understands the need to support frontline movers with the right equipment, information and logistical support so critical to delivering on customer expectations.

It also required her team to conduct focus groups and listening sessions with customers and then study best practices for serving its customer base. Her employees are selected because of their brainpower.

In 2008, the moving industry faced an ugly economy when the housing market plunged and businesses stopped relocating because of costs, creating a nightmare for a company that moved both residential and commercial customers.

It was Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Peggy took that approach. During the economic downturn, she led Coakley to launch the first Coakley Brothers office in Madison; added an installation division to handle the need to install modular office furniture; sold the facility that became the Iron Horse Hotel; added self-storage facilities to address the need in the market for secured accessible storage units for both homeowners and businesses; and scaled its Datastore state-of-the-art automated record storage.

But one of her boldest moves was recognizing that while Coakley had spent more than a century moving other people’s furniture, it was time to test the marketplace to sell furniture targeting both Milwaukee and Madison. Furniture sales is a cutthroat business, but being able to assist customers in purchasing new furniture and equipment worked successfully, despite the risk of adding  a new business.

This initiative gave birth to Brothers Business Interiors by Coakley Brothers, so customers could have a one-stop solution to their needs when contemplating a move.

What can you learn from Peggy Coakley’s leadership?

  1. Ask your leadership team, ‘What business are we in?’ This is a lot harder than it seems. The barons who built the railroad industry saw themselves as builders of railroads, not providers of transportation by any means. They didn’t see the new industry of air travel as part of a transportation solution by any means for customers. Peggy concluded Coakley was really in the hospitality business, driving a whole different approach to customers.
  2. Transitioning to a culture focused on the customer is easy to say but extremely difficult to accomplish. Everyone wants to sell products or services that have been in their wheelhouse. Hiring sales professionals and employees who are smart, and as Peter Drucker would say, “knowledge workers” who have the requisite humility to listen rather than talking is not easy. But seeking out sales professionals who enjoy sharing their savvy business talent to address the customer’s needs is a critical priority.
  3. Do not waste a crisis. Our instincts are to cut costs and hunker down when the world blows up on us. But a crisis creates an opportunity, because the brutal facts require change. When employees recognize that business as usual represents a greater threat to financial stability than taking the risk of a new approach to the marketplace, change can actually happen.

Coakley Brothers proves that a family business can survive even into a fourth generation when the right innovative leader, who is not bound by the past, is chosen to lead the company. Peggy Coakley has proven she has the “right stuff.”

-Dan Steininger is the president of Milwaukee-based BizStarts, a lecturer on innovation and creative problem-solving at the UWM School of Continuing Education and president of Steininger & Associates LLC, which helps companies drive new revenues through innovation. He can be reached at

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Dan Steininger is the president and founder of BizStarts. He is also the president of Steininger & Associates. The firm focuses on teaching the tools of innovation to drive growth for companies in all sectors of the economy. Steininger is a former president and CEO of Catholic Financial Life and a graduate of Marquette University and Boston University's School of Law.

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