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For the last four years Matthew Imboden, the owner and operator of Matt’s Rentals,  has been renting his log-splitter to customers until he recouped his return on investment and sold it for a profit in the spring. For that entire time that he owned that machine it could not fit inside his rental shop.


July 16, 2009
By Trevor Mouck*

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For the last four years Matthew Imboden, the owner and operator of Matt’s Rentals,  has been renting his log-splitter to customers until he recouped his return on investment and sold it for a profit in the spring. For that entire time that he owned that machine it could not fit inside his rental shop.

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Company owner, Matthew Imboden, was presented with the Entrepreneur of the Year award by the Nottawasaga Futures, an industry of Canadian affiliated organizations, after his first year in business.


 

As the sole proprietor running a rental operation out of a small 960 square-foot unit inside a strip mall, without a shop or a garage bay door, he did not have much of an option. “I couldn’t get it through the front door so I just stored it at home, bringing it in as needed” he says.

This is typical of the many challenges that small rental operators face daily, yet, like Imboden, they manage to grow their businesses alongside their larger rental counterparts that dominate the industry.

Matt’s Rentals is a family run business, located in Stroud, Ont., servicing small contractors and homeowners. Imboden started the business when his job as a production planner at a local office furniture factory was “downsized” after demand for office furniture fell following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

“I was one of the last on the list to be let go. I knew it was coming so I started looking around for something else. But what I really wanted was to be in business for myself,” he says, adding that there was no other stand-alone rental company servicing the area.

He opened the store in 2004 and while he did not have much space to work with he was able to stock a basic supply of party items, tables, chairs, a cotton candy machine and gaming wheels alongside a good selective variety of small tools and light equipment. Most of the equipment rentals are for his compaction line of three plate compactors, jackhammers, tampers, cement mixers, cut-off saws, power tools and hand tools.

Imboden knew that he was starting off small and would need something to complement the equipment rentals so he also signed up with U-Haul to offer truck and trailer rentals. “I was looking for a sideline business that I could get into that would require a minimum amount of time,” he says, noting that he would be operating two businesses by himself.

Although both business models embrace the concept of renting, Imboden says the similarities end there.

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Matt’s Rentals is a family run business, located in Stroud, Ont., servicing small contractors and homeowners.


 

“It’s all commissioned based so you make a few dollars arranging an in-town rental or you can make a few hundred dollars for a long-haul to Nova Scotia or B.C., but both take the same amount of time. I can spend a lot of time on the phone, but I don’t get paid unless I send a truck out,” he says. At one point he was debating whether to keep offering this service or not considering he only had room on his lot for one truck at a time. “I’m always holding out for that one way long-haul trip. The big one makes it all worthwhile,” he says with a chuckle.

Recently Imboden has relocated, to another building, not far from his original place. The 1200 square feet he has now is not much more than what he started off with, but he says every little bit of extra space helps.

More importantly his new location has a bigger lot with more yard space outside. “Now I can keep seven trucks and three trailers onsite. Before customers would call and I might have one,” he says.

The biggest challenge to any one-person rental operation is mobility. Since Imboden has to be in the store during business hours he cannot make deliveries so his equipment purchases are focused on equipment that can be picked up or towed away by customers.

This can also be a challenge for getting timely product deliveries and support from suppliers. “Some of them deliver right to my door and this is important for me because I can’t get out to pick up parts,” he says listing Rentquip, DSI, Uniquip, Wacker, RDSI, Compac Equipment Manufacturing and Hitachi as key suppliers to his business. “They sell good tools and they were more than willing to deal with me when I was starting up,” he explains. “I’m a small rental company and I can’t stock a lot of parts, but when I call for $75 worth of parts they are happy to deal with me and they are willing to deliver it to me in a day or two. I don’t have to worry that I’m not ordering $750 worth of equipment which is a huge benefit to me. Some other companies require or expect high dollar purchases.”

With a limited budget to market his business and limited resources to develop its growth, Imboden was quick to join the Canadian Rental Association (CRA) recognizing the benefits it offered to small independent rental operators. “I wanted to take advantage of the supplier discounts, credit card and insurance programs, but what really attracted me was the free website hosting for members,” he says. Knowing full well that businesses today must have a presence on the World Wide Web he registered his company’s domain name targeted to a server hosted by the American Rental Association (ARA) which is affiliated with the CRA.

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In the company’s showroom customers will find quality tools from brand name suppliers to the rental industry.


 

“Other service providers charge a lot of money for a basic service that you either can’t update or have to pay extra to update and make changes to the site. “This way I can update it regularly to change my holiday hours or advertise a used equipment sale. When I get a moment I go in and update it.”

The website, www.mattsrentals.com , has allowed Imboden to express his creativity, as well as his sense of humour, while using it as a free tool to market his business.

There are several tabs from the site’s home page that offer everything from the company’s store hours, products and services to on-line coupons, ‘how-to’ articles and a joke page. “A good joke is always in fashion. Some customers tell me they visit the site just to see what the new jokes are. I try to keep a sense of humour,” he says, noting the ‘how-to’ articles, sourced from the ARA’s database are useful but tend to lead customers into believing that he knows everything. “Sometimes I have to learn about it myself before I can help them.”

Since the website went online in 2005 his home page has received 8000 hits. The most popular tab is the equipment listing which has generated 6000 hits, followed by the ‘how-to’ tab with 3000, the coupon page with 2000, the joke page with 1500 and the U-Haul tab at 1300 hits. Imboden says the used equipment tab has garnished 1300 hits but this section is only posted occasionally when he has equipment to sell. “It does the job, the equipment moves,” he says. “People call and I can direct them to the website and remind them to bookmark it. It is the most cost effective way to market your rental store and the easiest way for customers to find you.”

While Imboden intended to grow his business at his new location to offer larger machinery the economic recession has postponed his plans. While he is in a holding pattern he is developing this market for the future by forming strategic alliances with other rental companies to at least provide his customers with a referral base.

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With a limited amount of space to work, the company stocks a basic supply of party items, tables, chairs, a candy machine and roulette wheels alongside a good selective variety of small tools and light equipment.


 

“I know there is a potential market for that but once I get into bigger machinery I will need to have a full-time mechanic,” he says. “I’m still getting quotes for bigger equipment such as a mini-ex, and a tractor loader backhoe, but since I am on my own and I don’t do deliveries I will be looking at models that can fit on a single axle trailer. If I get into tandem axles I will have to get a special license. Right now I’m looking at light equipment with a bucket to excavate or trench up to five feet deep, that can be hooked on the back of a vehicle and wheeled into a backyard.”

He says the key guide he uses when making purchase decisions is the quality of the equipment. “I could have stocked my store with equipment that’s half priced but who wants to rent sub quality tools that they could buy at Canadian Tire? Public perception of equipment is important,” he says, admitting this can be an uphill battle with the flood of off-shore products in the market.

“I have had customers compare a rental with a similar retail product and say they can buy the same thing and keep it for $20 more. But it’s not the same and I explain they will get what they pay for. Be prepared to take it back,” he says, adding he hears this more from homeowners and new contractors. “The professional contractors who run these things all of the time already know the difference. They understand they need tools they can rely on because they are not making money if the tool stops working. I try to educate them about the value of renting quality products. You need to spend more to get a tool that works.”

“Even with a quality tool, proper care and maintenance are key to keeping them in good running order. Nobody wants to rent a tool that looks dirty and worn out, or one that breaks due to poor maintenance.” As an example he holds up a Hitachi roof nailer. “I bought this four years ago when I first opened the store. Look inside, it’s like brand new.”

After the first year of business Matt’s Rentals was recognized by the Nottawasaga Futures, an industry of Canadian affiliated organizations, when it presented Imboden with the Entrepreneur of the Year award. It was a fitting start to a rental company that could not fit a log splitter through a door.

Imboden says he will purchase a new log-splitter this fall to replace the one he sold. Although it still will not fit through the door of his current building, with little steps in his company’s growth, it soon will find a place inside.


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