Readers Air Concerns

Utah: Liability tops the list of concerns

Alan Elder, owner of Northwood Rentals in Hyde Park, says he often worries about liability when renting equipment. As a former contractor, he knows how equipment can be misused and how dangerous that can be for the operator.

While he carries liability insurance and feels he is well covered, Elder says he still fears his customers will become injured while using his equipment. Also, insurance rates go up if there's a claim, and that's something he'd like to avoid.

Luckily, there haven't been a lot of injuries or insurance claims at Northwood, so Elder says he's concentrating on making the most of the winter downtime. The six-and-half-year-old business typically experiences a 75-percent drop in business during the winter months, so employees spend the time maintaining equipment.

"We have good employees," Elder says. "We've been pretty lucky."

Despite the fact that Hyde Park is in a fairly quiet area about 85 miles north of Salt Lake City, there is a fair amount of competition that keeps Northwood Rentals on its toes.

Cat Rental and a John Deere/Case dealer have moved into the area, affecting Northwood's business with the big iron. Lowe's and Home Depot have also moved in, causing a short-term drop in light equipment rentals.

"We saw a drop and then it came back up," says Elder. "They don't maintain their stuff and customers don't want rundown equipment."

Vermont: Employees, weather and customer loyalty

Located in St. Johnsbury (population 8,000), All Around Rental rents "everything contractors need and some party," says Phil Brown, manager. Brown says the greatest challenge for this single-location rental business is finding employees who want to do the job.

"It's hard for a smaller outfit like us to attract dedicated employees," says Brown. "Right now, we're a one-person show. We place ads and use word of mouth, but we can't seem to attract people who are dedicated to this industry."

In addition to employee challenges, Brown says All Around Rental's winter downturn is exceptionally bad this year. "It's hard to sustain yourself through the winter," he explains. "There are projects people will do, like sand floors, but that's not enough to get you through several months. You have to find a niche. Our niche is snow machines, but we haven't had a lot of snow this year, so those aren't moving as well."

Another challenge Brown cites is retaining customers. "I like to keep our equipment in top operating condition," he says. "If something's not running right, and a customer needs it, you'll lose that rental. Our customers are very loyal, but if they have a bad experience, they'll go to the guy down the street and never come back."

Brown says he has two competitors within three miles of his business. "We get along well with one of our competitors," he says. "They'll send customers our way, and if we don't have something, we'll send them over there. It's a win-win situation. The customers get what they need, and they come back to you because you helped them out."

Kansas: Lack of employees' initiative hurts business

At Anderson Rentals in Lawrence, the biggest challenge is finding competent help, says owner Hazel Anderson. "We've got the products, we've got the customers, but it seems like the attitude of employees is not what it needs to be," she says.

In business for 58 years, Anderson says she's noticed a certain lack of initiative among younger individuals entering the workforce today. "They don't see things that need to be done and do them," she notes. "This seems to be the general attitude among young people."

What's at the root of this problem? Anderson guesses that families run differently than in the past or that possibly there are too many conveniences today and the younger generations have grown indolent. In any case, she says, it's hard to provide top-notch customer service if employees aren't willing to go the extra mile.

While business is going pretty well for Anderson Rentals, Anderson says the economy is something of a concern for her and her husband and co-owner Raymond. "We're paying the bills but the economy isn't going to get much better because the government doesn't handle our money well," she says, noting that U.S. lawmakers spend too much money supporting foreign concerns and not enough taking care of Americans.

"But we're not here to make a lot of money," she says. "We like what we do and we're grateful for our customers, so we're willing and happy to work hard."

So what's the secret to success? Anderson says she and her husband have always put a lot of stock in maintenance. After every rental, equipment is checked with a fine-tooth comb and repaired, if necessary, so it's always like new. "We also buy quality," she says. "We don't buy the cheap stuff, so we can get the most out of our equipment."

Texas: Staying "up with the new"

Nationwide General Rental Center, located in Amarillo, is a "family deal," says Tyson Berryman, owner.

"We don't have any employee disagreements," explains Berryman. "It's me, my dad, wife, brother and nephew, and we all get along."

While finding good employees might not be an issue for this rental business, keeping everyone up to speed is.

"Our greatest challenge is staying up with the new," says Berryman. "There's always something new in the rental industry -new tools, new equipment, new technology -and sometimes it's tough to stay on top of it all."

To stay ahead of the curve, Berryman says he reads trade magazines. He also utilizes customers and suppliers.

"We'll just go out on the jobsite and talk to customers to see what's new and what they need from us," he says. "We also have vendors give us demonstrations and keep us up on trends when they come to visit."

Berryman says he also likes to attend the Construction University that the American Rental Association (ARA) offers during The Rental Show.

"We don't get there every year, but it's a good learning experience," says Berryman.

Catering to a 70-percent homeowner/30-percent contractor customer base, the single-location Nationwide General Rental Center features general tools and "just about anything" a homeowner would need for remodeling projects.

How does he feel the rental industry will fair in 2005? "This industry is tried and true," says Berryman. "It's stood the test of time. Pricing is back to where it should be."

>And what are his plans for Nationwide General Rental Center in 2005? "Just keeping up with the new," he says. "That's our challenge."

Idaho: Keeping equipment in tip-top shape

Susan Walker, store manager, says keeping the equipment at Brown Rental in good condition is her greatest challenge. With two locations in Boise, Walker manages the branch that focuses mostly on parties and events. While her branch also rents some general tool, party is her main concern.

"Last summer, keeping the equipment up to date, clean and in good condition was a huge challenge," she says. "We really take pride in sending out good looking chairs and tables. Our timeframe was just so tight between events -we had event on top of event on top of event -that it was hard keeping things in order between events."

Walker says it wasn't a lack of employees, just too many things to do.

With its motto, "Brown Rental delivers more," Walker says the rental business takes pride in delivering on time as well. "We have to struggle with weather challenges and other delays, but you have to stay on top of it," she says.

Walker also recognizes that what Brown Rental does -and what shape its equipment is in -reflects on other companies, like caterers, they partner with to successfully complete an event.

"Our plates can't have chips, and our linens need to be pressed and covered in plastic so they don't arrive soiled and wrinkled," she says. "All these things leave an impression, not only with the client, but the others helping with the event."

Brown Rental plans to purchase and update its equipment for the upcoming season, says Walker. Another challenge this rental business faces in 2005 is getting the right employees on its team.

"We have a great team right now, we work well together. But we have to add to it. I want this team to be above and beyond the best in Boise," she says. "Our challenge is looking for individuals who have the same goals as we do. You have to be particular who you bring in. I always try to focus on the right age group, and I look for someone who has a desire to be a part of this industry."

Michigan: Battling the winter woes

>The winter downturn is the biggest issue facing Button's Rent-It in Royal Oak, according to General Manager Ursula Kroppa. "We're only as busy as our customers," she says. "During the winter we lose our cement guys, the landscapers, anyone who does work outside."

In addition to the unavoidable effects of weather, Kroppa says it's made doubly hard by the fact that they can't effectively promote themselves when their budget is at its lowest.

"It's not a surprise," she admits. "Every rental business worries when the winter comes along."

So what do they do to make the most of the situation? Kroppa says first off, they adjust the personnel schedule to cut payroll. Secondly, starting in the early fall, they make up a list of things contractors might be interested in buying and distribute it before the end of the tax year.

Like most independent rental businesses, Button's Rent-It has had to deal with the entrance of big box chains into its local rental market. In addition to losing three employees to Home Depot, Kroppa says they saw a major drop in "trunk food" business, or the type of equipment that fits into the trunk of a customer's car.

"Home Depot either sells it so cheap or they rent it for nothing because it's a loss leader," Kroppa says. "But Home Depot can't provide the same level of service we can so the customers have come back."

Despite losing some employees to the big box chain, Button's Rent-It has been fortunate to have a stable employee roster for several years. The biggest challenge in that area is finding experienced rental professionals when a position needs to be filled. Since most people with experience in rental seem to stay put, Kroppa says, they advertise for people who are mechanically inclined and who can communicate well, a tall order at times.

"We need people with knowledge of equipment and who are able to explain equipment operation to customers as well," Kroppa says. "The problem we run into is trying to hire people when we're busy. We tend to hire in a hurry and then it's hard to train them when there isn't much time."

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