The name may bespeak classic Americana, but the owner of The Padded Wagon, a high-end moving company with offices nationwide, hails from Dublin. And, in the 13 years since Eddie Dowling took over the firm, he has stayed true to his roots, with family members continuing to play pivotal roles in the organization, and Irish people making up the bulk of its workforce.
The Padded Wagon began expanding from its New York base not long after Dowling took control. Now it has offices in Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in Pompano Beach, Fla., and Parsippany, N.J.
Whether the national economy is booming or tanking, the moving business hums along:
“Obviously it goes in cycles to a certain extent, and it’s better for everybody when things are going well,” Dowling said recently. “During the good
times, people are earning more money, they are getting bonuses and they will often decide to move to a bigger place, which is good for us. But we stay busy in the bad times too because, unfortunately for them, a lot of people decide they need to move to somewhere smaller.”
Eddie Dowling was born in Dublin in 1961. The date was March 21 — Good Friday. The Dowlings lived in Castleknock, a middle-class area in North Dublin, close to the famous Phoenix Park. As a schoolboy, Eddie traveled across the city to attend Terenure College. The college, founded in 1860 and run by the Carmelite Order, occupies sprawling grounds and an impressive building that was once a stately home. Its rugby team has long been among Dublin’s best, and it was while at the college that a passion for the sport was ignited in Dowling.
After leaving school, Dowling trained as a chartered accountant, soon beginning to specialize in actuarial work. One of his less pleasant tasks was to travel to the north of Ireland in the wake of major bombings in order to evaluate and quantify damage.
It was a happier time in other ways, however. In 1984, Dowling married Aine Lennon, who had grown up in County Wexford. The couple met through work. Two decades later, they have four children.
1980s Ireland was not a prosperous place. Jobs were in short supply and money scarce. Dowling’s parents decided they were going to make the move across the Atlantic. Their son followed, with his wife, in 1986.
Dowling had no sooner made the move himself than he found himself in the moving business. He worked as an accountant for Liffey Van Lines, a firm that had been founded in 1973 by Clare native Danny Moloney. Liffey was well on its way to becoming one of New York’s major moving companies.
Dowling stayed there for five years before striking out on his own.
Taking over the Padded Wagon in 1991, he became the fourth owner since the company’s formation in 1952. By Dowling’s account, the firm had been founded by a small band of writers and actors who wanted to augment their otherwise lean and irregular incomes.
One of his challenges was to build up the business as professionally as possible. He says radical change was not needed; interestingly, one strand of the expansionary efforts involved building upon the company’s original progressive ethos.
Even in the early ’90s, Dowling recalls, some moving companies and their personnel did not hide their distaste for the gay community, in part because of the hysteria and homophobia which surrounded the AIDS epidemic. His company, he determined, would be different. Aside from its ethical dimension, the decision made sound business sense and paid dividends.
A series of other sound choices helped the firm become bigger and more profitable. Dowling recalls that “we started in New York with just six trucks.” That soon changed. Now, the Padded Wagon has 75 vehicles and a staff of 200 in New York alone.
The owner makes light of the challenges posed by opening offices across the country — he contends that one only needs to take the same principles and practices that have been successful in one place and replicate them somewhere else. His sister runs the New York office; his brother does the same job in Florida; and his father and brother-in-law are intimately involved in the Florida operation.
The moving sector is “very competitive” in New York, according to Dowling. But he adds that in a business where trust is particularly important, word of mouth recommendations and reliability are more highly prized than the capacity to offer bargain-basement prices.
The Padded Wagon, he says, does a lot of moving from prestige addresses such as those on New York’s Fifth and Park Avenues — for that kind of clientele, care taken with priceless possessions is likely to be the main priority.
Dowling’s commitment to the Irish community extends far beyond employing Irish movers at his firm. He has invested $100,000 in the Randalls Island project, which hopes to set up a sportd complex and stadium at the East River location. The facilities would be used by the GAA, among others.
He is also a fundraiser for Maynooth College, the university in north Kildare that includes Ireland’s last remaining seminary. For the last six years, Dowling has organized an annual dinner for the college in New York, to which he invites figures from the Irish business community in addition to some Padded Wagon clients. It is, he says, “pretty successful.”
Dowling will not be drawn on his plans for the future. It’s odds-on, though, that his commitment to his moving business will remain undimmed.
So, when he himself moves house, does he get involved in every step of the process?
“No, no,” he said, laughing. “I get off to the golf course and let my wife take care of that.”