"Do it right the first time” is one of the primary professional goals that owner Rick Dahl promotes in the workplace at Metrolift, an independent rental house serving the Chicago area with lift equipment since 1991. From his commitment to his employees and customers, to safety, and even his diligent approach to complying with government regulations, it’s apparent Dahl believes in doing the right thing, and he doesn’t cut corners. In this day and age, it can be tough to succeed with such a conscientious business philosophy, but the company has seen it pay off with dividends.
Born and raised around Eau Claire, WI, Rick Dahl got his first taste of equipment from his family. His father was a union equipment operator and two of his uncles owned excavating companies. After college, Dahl worked in sales, eventually going to work for the Chicago-area rental operation Timesavers in 1986. This ultimately led him to start Metrolift in 1991 as a wholesale operation, buying and selling aerial equipment around the country. Only a year later, economic conditions suddenly had Dahl with an inventory of equipment on his hands, so he began renting on a wholesale level out of a location in Elmhurst, IL. Success grew out of that, ultimately requiring the company to move to its current headquarters in the western Chicago suburb of Sugar Grove, IL. When the move took place in 2002, Metrolift owned 288 pieces of equipment. Today, the company is home to a total of 1,300 units and 40 employees.
Building a brand
Metrolift serves the entire Chicagoland area up to southern Wisconsin, over to northwest Indiana and out to the Mississippi to the west. The company gets 85 percent of its business from commercial contractors and 15 percent from industrial customers. Not so long ago, only 5 percent of the business went to the industrial segment, but this market has been actively cultivated by Dahl’s right-hand woman, Jacki Valdez, who heads up sales on the industrial side. She says Metrolift’s success in growing its industrial base has stemmed mostly from a serious and active commitment to company branding.
“We haven’t had to do a lot of prospecting because we’ve done so much marketing,” she explains. “We really have created a brand.”
Building awareness of the Metrolift identity has resulted from simple things like designing a colorful, recognizable and upscale logo and then promoting it with decals on every piece of equipment. “We have a consistsent look that’s visually appealing and it’s really helped,” says Valdez.
Growing the fleet
Going from 288 pieces of equipment in 2002 to 1,300 today reflects a tremendous growth spurt, considering the expansion continued despite the most serious economic downturn in the history of the rental industry. “We were growing by leaps and bounds through October 2008, and then we saw things fall off the table; revenues dropped 33 percent,” Dahl recalls. “At that point, we had to make some tough decisions, but we were financially in a good position to withstand the storm. We actually had months and years during the downturn where we were profitable.”
He adds, “We still bought equipment in 2008 and ‘09 - we never stopped buying new.”
Of the 1,300 pieces of equipment in the Metrolift fleet, 25 percent are booms (Genie and Skyjack), 70 percent are scissors (Skyjack) and roughly 5 percent are telehandlers (JLG SkyTrak and Genie).
Dahl says he believes in keeping his fleet tuned to industry metrics such as average fleet age and utilization. And lately, this has meant making significant capital expenditures. To that end, Tony Moore, CFO, says the company purchased $4 million worth of new and used equipment in 2011 and has already placed $2 million in orders so far this year, with plans to make a similar overall investment in equipment by year end, particularly in the area of telehandlers.