By Jack Kohane
With 40-plus years of rental service under his belt, Peter Lavigne can speak at length about longevity in business. “You have to enjoy helping people everyday, solving their problems, giving them the right tools,” says the 61-year-old co-owner.
By Jack Kohane
The shop has been in the same Waterloo, Ont., industrial plaza since the mid-1960s, and is today one of the last independents still standing in its original location in this bustling metropolis, sited an hour west of Toronto. Lavigne owns A-Z jointly with Paul Hannoush.
“I’ve learned that there is still a lot more to learn,” he opines while sauntering through his 3,500-square-foot store with its bevy of name brand banners. “The rental business is constantly evolving. It has rarely been the same for more than five years running. For me, that keeps it fresh, fulfilling and fun. And that’s why, after 40 years and counting, I can’t wait to get to work in the morning.”
Long adhering to the principle that a rental store should be known as the place that has everything, Lavigne asserts that, “To do that you stock simple tools that may only rent out once every other year – like a 12-foot sewer spoon. You have it, the big boxes don’t. And you listen to your customers. You stock oddball items like thermal imaging cameras and air dancers that the corporates don’t have. That broad mix expands your trading area and differentiates you from the competition.”
Lavigne recalls the first day he first walked into what was then called the A to Z Rental Center. “I was looking for a job to gain experience after graduating in business administration from Conestoga College. My life-long passion has been mechanics, making rental service a great fit for me. I got the job, loved it, and never left.”
At that time, the shop was a part of a rental service franchise operated across Canada by U-Haul, based out of Phoenix, Ariz. (thus the original spelling of “Center”). In 1977, Lavigne, together with another partner, purchased the store and took it independent from the parent company. The new owners guided the business through numerous changes, built an expanding customer base with the addition of a diverse selection of rental products – everything from moving trucks, tent trailers, and motor homes to bicycles and party supplies. “While our product offerings came and went, we’ve always been set on helping customers get things done with tool and equipment rentals,” Lavigne explains.
During the 1980s, along with the crucial name change to A-Z Rental Centre, the enterprise went to the next level by becoming an authorized sales, service and parts dealer for such name brands as Honda Power Equipment, Stihl Industrial Products, and Echo Power Equipment. In 1990, its party goods section became so popular it necessitated its own store and is now known as A to Z Party World. While other independents were being gobbled up by the major chains, the individualistic spirit of A-Z attracted clients as well as skilled employees.
In 2008, as the recession clamped down on the economy, Lavigne’s first business partner decided to retire. “Those were anxious times,” he remembers, saying some customers went elsewhere to rent equipment as prices went cutthroat. He knew they had to turn things around, and fast. First on the chopping block were discretionary operational expenses, such as window washing and store clean-ups (employees took on these chores) and switching off all lighting overnight. It freed up capital. Those reserves were re-invested in buying good used equipment at bargain basement prices. “Paul came into the business with a creative approach,” Lavigne points out. “He was imaginative and aggressive, sourcing equipment from across North America. Boasting a partner who is younger than I am, and thinks very differently than I do, has been the best part of growing a rental business.”
Having survived and even thrived through the tough recession years, Lavigne and Hannoush remain resolute in their self-reliance and their hands-on business model. Many of the customers (mainly DIYers, landscapers and contractors) have since returned, drawn by the personalized service and widening selection of tools, service and equipment for rent or purchase. “And, customers also get a team experienced in the mechanical and construction trades to provide expert advice whenever they need it,” says Hannoush.
Among A-Z’s service roster are tool sharpening and equipment repairs that the partners tout as an example of the way the combined rental and sales operation benefits customers. “When someone buys a piece of equipment from us, we don’t tell them to take it somewhere else for service. When we say ‘We sell what we rent, we service what we sell,’ we mean it.”
Nothing is more aggravating or unprofitable than having a piece of equipment break down for lack of a replacement part. At A-Z Rental, it’s always been a must to stock a copious quantity of repair and maintenance parts for the product lines they sell and rent. In addition, they stock replacement small engines from brand manufacturers and an extensive assortment of oils, lubricants, tires, batteries and other items. The A-Z team of mechanics check customers’ equipment to ensure top working order, supported by the shop’s state-of-the-art computer system.
A Honda dealer since 1979, A-Z Rental currently carries an array of Honda power equipment, snowblowers, generators, heavy-duty lawnmowers, and commercial tillers. Stihl dominates the power tools section, replete with gas powered chainsaws, handheld gas blowers, pressure washers, shredder vac/blowers, as well as safety gear, including helmet systems, cutter’s jackets, safety pants, leather work gloves, hearing protectors and safety glasses. Under its Echo banner, A-Z displays hand-held leaf blowers, backpack blowers, gas-powered and electric hedge trimmers, snow throwers, stump vises and power pruners. And for compaction and heavy equipment, there’s Ammann, Cat and Bobcat compactors, excavators, skid steer loaders, and other heavy-duty machinery.
How does he know what product mix best meets his clients’ needs? Lavigne is quick to credit communication. “The best source of information on plumbing, electrical, building, etcetera is to ask the plumbers, electricians, and builders who come into the store. Everybody likes to talk about what they do. A customer is more concerned with the time they get with the tool rather than the price. In my experience, they will gladly pay $20 for the two-hour slot they want rather than $20 for the two hours they want plus the 22 hours they don’t.”
The right location is a big plus in the story of a successful enterprise. Being in the same location for over 50 years has made A-Z a landmark retailer in Waterloo and surrounding region. “We were one of the first rental service centres in this area,” says Hannoush. “Most people know us here; we have built great name recognition. And word of mouth is our biggest marketing tool. We have very easy access in and out of our location for customers with any type of vehicle from cars and trucks with small and big trailers to delivery companies with big rigs. The same with our locale: we’re on a busy street with easy access. I have seen at least two competitors in the last 30 years that have changed location. Their rent was cheaper but access and exposure was miserable. They’re no longer around.”
As Lavigne sees it, the customer trust factor is another key differentiator between A-Z and nearby big box stores. He offers an example: “Most of my direct competitors demand ID and credit card deposits for equipment sales and rentals upfront, each and every time, even from repeat customers. So imagine what happens when they come to our store and after a few visits we ask for nothing upfront and let them pay when they are done. I have even done this with new customers when I see that they have their ID and credit card at the ready and I tell them to put it away. Have I ever been burned? Almost never. But now that customer is mine. It’s great fun.”
Throughout its history A-Z has been, according to its financially savvy owners, fortunate to boast excess capital. “It’s always been part of my personality to have a cash buffer,” affirms Lavigne. “As a result, Paul and I have never done business out of desperation. There have been more companies fail than you can count through poor credit management, unwise buying decisions, rigid customer policy and poor location decisions because they were not funded properly and made decisions out of financial desperation. And not being desperate gives you the flexibility to take some product risks, to be a bit loose with rental policy, to more easily accept employee mistakes. But most importantly, it means that you and your staff will be excited to be part of your team. Success for us means seeing customers come back time after time, and having a good experience at our store.”