Nestled in a quiet suburban street in St. Thomas, Ont., Jeff and Dave Campbell’s St. Thomas Rent-All is a home and meeting place first and a business second.
By Patrick Flannery
Nestled in a quiet suburban street in St. Thomas, Ont., Jeff and Dave Campbell’s St. Thomas Rent-All is a home and meeting place first and a business second. A lot of people would say you cannot succeed that way, but after 34 years Jeff Campbell is the incoming national CRA president and says his biggest challenge is avoiding unwanted growth.
|The sign out front says “Renting – The smart way to get things done.” The Campbells want to create a positive business environment in addition to branding their own company.|
The Campbells were born into the rental industry. Their father, Ross, worked at Rietzel Rentals in London, Ont., and made the family home in Dorchester, Ont., with his wife, Marion, and their brother, Steve. Jeff Campbell knew from an early age that he wanted to own his own business someday, and started at Rietzel with his father as soon as he was able. In 1978, Ross left Rietzel to start St. Thomas Rent-All at its present location, telling Jeff he had about 10 years of work left in him. He did turn the business over to Jeff about 10 years later, but continued to work and still comes in to the shop frequently to supervise. Dave bought in as a partner in 1990. Marion did the books for the business, retiring five years after Ross did. “I think you have to have a certain fire, a certain drive to go into business for yourself,” Jeff says. “Some people have it, some do not.”
Dave Campbell was not available to comment for this article because he was recovering from a serious motorcycle accident. He is expected to make a full recovery.
To get started, the Campbells went to the Canadian Rental Mart in Toronto to buy equipment. They knew the St. Thomas market from their time serving it at Rietzel. They chose equipment they knew was popular there: pumps, plate compactors and concrete breakers. Campbell remembers he knew they were going to have a successful business when the recession of 1981 came and went and St. Thomas Rent-All still did well.
Today, the shop measures about 3,200 square feet with a larger yard for bigger equipment a few blocks away. The Campbells employ four full time and three part time employees. The showroom is neat but crammed to the rafters with equipment and tools of all kinds. Campbell’s customers are the usual mix of homeowners and small contractors. He doesn’t carry anything at the main location he cannot load into a ¾-ton pickup truck. Out at the yard, he has diesel generators, wood chippers and boom lifts.
|Restoring antique cars is Jeff’s passion and stress-reliever. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of early automotive history. |
Here, he is in a 1913 White that still runs.
At the shop, Dave helps Jeff run the counter, freeing him up to manage the business. Dale Pickard is the mechanic and James Wilson does service and delivery. Both have been with St. Thomas Rent-All for over 15 years. Susan Brown has done the books for the last 16 years. Jeff calls her “the key.”
Most businesses strive to be a part of their communities, but St. Thomas Rent-All has succeeded in creating a more intimate bond than most. Jeff says when he was considering moving the shop some years ago, the neighbours got wind of it and badgered him to stay. Not bad for a company bringing heavy equipment into a residential area. Jeff figures 80 to 85 per cent of his business comes from repeat customers. “We are active in the Chamber of Commerce and with the home builders,” Jeff says. “We give scaffolding to the Santa Claus parade and all that. The last guy that was just in here said ‘You have been here since way before I was born.’ We get second and third generation people coming. It is an old cliché, but it is a family, it really is. The customers are family.”
The trust the Campbells have built up makes business a lot easier. “Staying here is important to us,” Jeff says. “This is where we thrive, where the comfort level is. I can’t remember an argument at the counter in five or 10 years. When our customers come in, we can work it out for them. They are confident we can work it out for them. If a guy comes in with something that is damaged or broken, I can send him out with something else and say ‘We’ll work it out when you get back,’ and they leave comfortable. To me, staying this size allows us to do that and that is what makes me tick.” Jeff estimates he has at least 20 customers who have been coming in regularly since the shop opened in 1978.
St. Thomas Rent-All concentrates mostly on St. Thomas and the surrounding county of Elgin. It is a rural area with some automotive industry right in the town of St. Thomas, which has a population of 36,000. London, Ont., is close by, but the Campbells do not try to get business there. Jeff says he is busy enough, and most people who come to work in the shop cannot believe the volume of product running through it. During business hours, there are a steady flow of people at the counter and phone calls. “When the counter is hopping, I’m in my glory,” Jeff says.
Staying small and local gives the Campbells the flexibility to serve their customers better. Jeff can get any kind of rental equipment his customer needs from larger operations in other cities, partly because he knows everyone through his work with the Canadian Rental Association, and partly because they are not his competitors.
“Right from day one, my father kept saying ‘Service, service, service,” Campbell remembers. “That is what we do, we do not rent equipment, we give service. I rented out a two-behind boom lift [recently]. I had promised it for the next day but mine was still out on rent. I drove to Barrie after work to meet Dale [Brinklow] from Minden to get one for the guy for the next morning. We do not go out trying to rent 100 generators, but if you want 100 generators and you are a customer of mine, I will get 100 generators for you.”
|A rare chance to get a look at St. Thomas Rent-All without a crowd of customers at the counter. Campbell gets a steady stream of business both from neighbourhood homeowners and local small contractors.|
When Campbell is not at the shop or a CRA meeting, he is in his garage, fixing or rebuilding one of several classic cars he drives and shows. And these are not classic in the sense of being a few decades old. Campbell’s cars include a 1913 Twombly, a 1913 White, a 1925 Star and a 1928 Studebaker. “For me, the cars are just like work,” he says. “It is social. I like the rental business because it is social and I like the antique cars because it is social. When I am driving an antique car at 30 miles per hour, it slows me down and I enjoy life. “ Riding in one of Campbell’s cars, it is not hard to see his point. They are open to the sky, more like horse carriages than automobiles, and you almost cannot help but wave to people as you go past. There is a friendliness, a simplicity, to the cars that mirrors Campbell’s approach to life and business. Take a moment, connect with someone, and good things will happen.
In 2013, Jeff Campbell takes his seat as national president of the Canadian Rental Association, having risen through all the chairs in the Ontario local. He says the national CRA has experienced a period of tremendous change and growth due to the strong efforts of recent boards, and his presidency will focus on fine-tuning and streamlining the execution of those initiatives. Communicating the changes and new services to members and potential members will be important, he says.
Campbell is following a family tradition of association involvement, as his father became a member almost as soon as St. Thomas Rent-All opened. “It has made a small guy’s world much bigger,” Campbell explains. “The reality is, all of a sudden I am not just the little guy in St. Thomas. I know people throughout Ontario and then I move up to the national board and I know people throughout North America. I got to sit on the Global Rental Alliance board and now I know people throughout the world.”
Campbell says the broadening experience of attending CRA trade shows and meetings makes rental operators better businesspeople and opens their eyes to possibilities and approaches they could never otherwise understand. “I am a car guy and I belong to one club,” Campbell says to illustrate the point. “It was about 15 years ago I started realizing that there are other clubs and how narrow minded you can get, how my blinders were on. I didn’t realize what else was out there that I enjoy. It is not that the club I was in was wrong, just that there is a whole bunch more out there.
“My father told me before I bought the business that if you surround yourself with people you respect and admire, it will rub off on you,” Campbell says.
“I remember walking down the road with my grandfather when I was eight years old,” Campbell goes on. “He was a car salesman. We were walking down the road in Brantford and a guy coming toward us walked over to the other side of the road. And my grandfather said, ‘Jeff, a successful man is a guy that can walk down the road and look everybody in the eye.’”
In St. Thomas, and around the world, the Campbells are out there looking everyone straight in the eye.