By Lindsey McCaffrey
When Blake Menning heard his company’s name called out at the Canadian Rental Association’s recent annual general meeting, he wasn’t sure he had heard correctly.
By Lindsey McCaffrey
“I looked over to one of the vendors I was sitting next to and said, ‘Did they just call out All Choice Rentals?’” he recalls.
Earlier this year, Menning, vice-president of Drayton Valley, Alta.,-based All Choice Rentals (ACR), accepted the prestigious President’s Image Award on behalf of his company at the American Rental Association rental show in New Orleans.
“I was and still am kind of speechless,” says Menning. “We’re a small rental company from Drayton Valley and there are thousands of other rental companies across Canada. To be singled out in your industry is both humbling and awesome.”
Then, in early March, ACR was also recognized at the CRA Prairie Show in Edmonton as 2017 Alberta Rental Store of the Year.
“It’s been an incredible year for us,” says Menning. “These awards are solidifying our hard work and efforts, and to realize that we’re doing something different that is being noticed by others — and that people took time to nominate us — makes all of this even more special.
“You could say we’re floating on Cloud 9 right about now.”
All Choice Rentals was established in 2009 in Drayton Valley. Initially a Cat Rental Store, the business was acquired by a group of investors (including Menning).
“At the time, there was only one other competitor in Drayton Valley and the demand was high for another rental store, so we saw it as a good opportunity to get into business,” says Menning. “We knew that with some small tweaks and changes we could make this into something really great.”
What started off as a small rental store offering a limited range of equipment has since grown to offer a full range of products and services including 125-foot aerial platform lifts, light towers, heaters, excavators, portable toilets and septic services, on-site repairs and parts and an oil-field rental division.
“We really try to be a one-stop-shop provider for any one project,” says Menning. “We feel our customers are the key to helping us realize our final goal, which is to offer a complete rental solution to every aspect of the oil and gas industry, and to become one of western Canada’s premier rental houses.”
Recession brings opportunities
More than 70 per cent of ACR’s customers come from the oil and gas industry. So when the recession hit Alberta, the company was unable to escape being affected.
“There was a significant noticeable decrease in Drayton Valley. Businesses were moving out of town and we were seeing more buildings and leases up for sale,” says Menning. “It was pretty noticeable that Drayton Valley was hit a little harder than most communities in Alberta. Business wasn’t slow for us, but there was a significant decline.”
That said, the company saw an opportunity to do a few things to improve the business.
“We thought this would be a good time to focus our efforts on what we could do better, to benefit our customers and streamline our business and differentiate ourselves from competitors,” says Menning.
“Basically, we used that time to fine tune our business model so that when work picked up again, we’d have built something that would get more customers through the door.”
Fine tuning customer service
To get started, ACR brought in a customer service consultant.
“We looked at customer service and how it can no longer be average; it needs to be remarkable,” says Menning. “Everyone thinks that cutting prices is the way to customer service excellence but that’s such a short-sighted approach because customers can always find another rental house with similar products for cheaper services.”
ACR decided instead to focus on enhancing the customer service skills of all employees.
“When customers call us, we want them to look to us as a trusted advisor. So our front counter has been trained to ask qualifying questions, to ensure the customer is receiving exactly what they need to do their job efficiently,” says Menning. “We don’t want to be order-takers; we want to go out and provide a value-add so we can become customers’ first call when they need help.”
The President’s Image Award recognizes customer service, knowledgeable staff and telephone habits as part of its criteria.
On the topic of telephone habits, ACR has a mandate to answer the phone day or night, 365 days per year.
“No matter what, we always answer the phone,” says Menning. “I feel like customers really appreciate that, knowing that if they have a downed light tower at 2 a.m. we’ll be on the road within 60 minutes to go out and fix the issue. Customers can feel confident that they will be looked after regardless of the time of day, knowing we will be there to swap out or fix equipment if necessary.”
All in all, it’s about establishing and maintaining a high level of trust.
“Building trust in us is vital in maintaining a high level of customer service, and it’s really helped us as a business for sure,” says Menning. As a result, ACR has acquired some large-scale projects from oil and gas expansions to commercial developments.
Criteria for the President’s Image Award also includes inventory maintenance, store cleanliness and appearance.
“We take pride in our appearance,” says Menning. “Our building is beautiful, with 16,000 square feet on a three-acre lot, which means we’ve got a lot of room for big trucks to come through our yard, park and turn around. Because it’s not cramped and compact, drivers don’t have to feel uncomfortable about backing up a trailer.”
In addition, ACR has upgraded its lighting to LED.
“These lights emit 2.5 times brighter than halogen bulbs, so when customers are here at 6:30 in the morning and it’s dark outside, our lot is bright and they can feel safe about dropping off and picking up equipment safely. There are literally no dark spots in our entire lot.”
ACR also painstakingly ensures that its rental equipment is clean, presentable and freshly washed, no matter the weather conditions or location.
Menning recalls one time when a large oil and gas company was doing a three-week plant shutdown and needed to rent office trailers, washcars and garbage bins. “It was around the time that it was becoming nice outside, but the roads were extremely muddy. By the time our equipment was on site, you could hardly see our logo, let alone tell what each piece of equipment was,” he says.
“We knew this project would be on for three weeks and be highly visible, so we used our portable pressure washer to wash every single office trailer, washcar and garbage bin. The customer was really blown away by that, as they hadn’t asked us to do it.”
Expansion and next steps
After fine tuning its model, ACR decided to open a second location in Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
“We took tools and lessons we learned from our first location and applied them to the new business and it’s flourishing; we’ve never been busier,” says Menning.
The leadership team has an aggressive expansion plan. Across both locations, ACR already has 25 employees and a total fleet value in the range of $10 million. Within the next 12 to 18 months, they would like to open two or three more stores.
“When we acquired the business, our 10-year plan was to expand,” says Menning. “If we felt we were onto something, then we would take that business model to other locations.
“We really want to be a player in the industry,” he continues. “There are some fairly significant rental companies in the area that started with one store and look where they are today. If we continue to grow and expand and be industry leaders in customer service, maybe that could be us down the road.”
“A fun game”
Menning, who is also on the board of the Canadian Rental Association Alberta chapter, is keeping his eye on how technology trends are changing the rental industry. “It’s a fun game trying to stay ahead because the rental industry is always changing and evolving,” he says. “Especially at the ARA show this year, there was a heavy focus on software and technology. Look at Amazon, which has direct shipping to your door within two days. And at the show we saw how you can now use Siri or Alexa to close out rental contracts. It’s really all about convenience for the customers.”
Regardless, Menning is intent on staying ahead of the curve.
“It’s important to recognize your business model must change constantly and to look at what the market is dictating, but we also want to be trend setters and not necessarily followers,” he says. “We will always be looking at how to make things easier for our customers, whether it’s through our direct website, or a new app or something else.
“No matter where the industry goes, ACR is focused on being at the forefront of change.”