Don and Netta Robertson have a lot to celebrate in their 20th year in business with Roberston Rent-All.
By Patrick Flannery
Don and Netta Robertson have a lot to celebrate in their 20th year in business with Roberston Rent-All. Their two sons, D.J. and Cameron, are fully involved in the business and are bringing a youthful energy to the operation. And Canadian Rental Service and the Canadian Rental Association Ontario have just recognized them with prestigious awards.
|Justin Horsley has taken over most of the counter time from Don. Don says it is nice to have an experienced rental hand at the helm both out front and in the back.|
D.J. Robertson, the older of Don and Netta’s two sons, gives a fairly standard answer when asked how Robertson Rent-All has achieved the success that saw it named Canada’s Rental Operator of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Rental Mart. He credits great customer service. While true, this answer fails to satisfy. Everyone knows you need great customer service to be successful and most rental operators strive to deliver it. The question is, why has Robertson succeeded in doing that? On his second try, D.J. gets right to the heart of the Orleans, Ont., rental business his father built: “I think the family-based business has a lot to do with that. We care a lot more. Some other businesses have one owner and then everybody else works under that owner. There are four of us all involved here.” It is a single, simple idea that probably dictates success or failure in almost any enterprise you can name. Robertson Rent-All has done well because it cares.
Don and Netta started Robertson Rent-All in 1992. Don grew up in Toronto, and moved to the Ottawa area to work in his brother-in-law’s construction business, Nicolini. Nicolini was a big player in the Ottawa commercial construction market, helping to build the airport control tower, the baseball stadium and several hospitals and schools. Don worked for Nicolini for five years, and observed that the brothers were spending a great deal of money renting equipment from what was then B&R and United Rentals. Don always knew he did not want to work in the family business forever, but was unsure what enterprise he wanted to start himself. He researched a number of businesses and developed some business plans, finally showing his ideas for a rental operation to the brothers. Don had had some exposure to rental when he worked at TIP Trailer Leasing in Toronto, Ont. The brothers were enthusiastic and wanted to immediately invest a large amount to launch Don into a big operation right away. Don was more cautious. He told the brothers that instead he wanted to start the business with his own money and build it up himself, relying on them only for steady rental business.
Don remembers that things were quite uncertain in the early days. “Basically, they kept me in business for the first year. It would have been very, very tough otherwise because when I opened in Orleans 20 years ago, it was really weird there were just two other rental stores at the time, Rental-Ex and Belleview Rentals. When I did open, another two rental stores opened up in Orleans at the same time. And I remember my wife saying ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do now?’ And I said ‘Well, we will do what we do and hopefully we will do it better.’ And now we are the only ones here except for Home Depot.”
Robertson started out in a small strip mall at the corner of Jeanne D’Arc and Innes, right behind a Kentucky Fried Chicken that the Robertsons had to smell all day long. Don made a deal with a big scaffolding supplier that was very lucrative for the company. He remembers that he once had 200 frames out to Nicolini alone on long-term contracts that were bringing in between $8,000 and $10,000 per month. Don also got involved in renting and selling fitness equipment. He bought a treadmill, a ski machine and a bike and watched the business grow very quickly. He called that end of the business Robertson Fitness and became the local Icon dealer. It occupied a 1,500-square-foot showroom by the time Don decided to exit that market a year ago.
These early successes made the difference to the company that allowed Robertson to go forward. Just keeping up with Nicolini’s demand soon became a challenge, so Don brought Netta in to work and his nephew, then a driver and a mechanic. Within two and a half years, he was ready to grow out of his first location.
In 1995 Robertson moved to a 2,200- square-foot location only about a kilometer away from the original store. The new building was strategically located across from a Builder’s Warehouse to capture DIYers looking to rent specialized machinery. Ever since, the homeowner market has been an important one for Robertson. In 1997, Don hired Pat Flosse to manage the shop so he could be freed up to find ways to grow the business.
Around 2005, Don started looking for opportunities to buy some land and build his own building, purpose-built for his rental operation. After looking for several months and failing to find a fit, a real estate agent walked into the shop one day and drew Don’s attention to a property right on Innes Road where the Robertsons had always done business. Don said he’d like the agent to look into buying it, and the agent returned the next day with a price. Don bought on the spot.
The addition of Pat Flosse to the organization gave Don the time to act as general contractor on his new build site. He was there every day, supervising every part of the build. It took seven months.
Around the time of the move to the new building in 2006, Don’s oldest son, D.J. (for Don Junior) was completing his architecture program at college and expressing interest in joining the family business. Cameron after graduating from architecture was about to begin studying business when he then realized the best person to learn from was right infront of him. “It was really weird because never, at any time, did I say to those guys ‘Would you like to work here full time?’” Don remembers. “It was their doing.” Don eased Flosse out of the company to make room for his sons to join. He could see they shared his business vision and had the drive to take Robertson forward. “They are very much into this,” he says. “They are eager and it is great. They know the potential, they have seen what it has done for me. I have always made a decent living.”
The building Don built was 5,500 square feet, which was more than they needed, so he has rented 1,500 square feet of it to a nearby chiropractor. He thinks it will not be long before they need the whole thing. He designed it with equipment rental in mind, with a mezzanine around the main floor to expand his useable space. There is the usual showroom, office space and lunch room, but Don also added a wash bay for washing machinery in the winter and a lockable storage area for the new equipment he carries. There is a drop-off area where customers can return equipment without having to come to the counter inside. Don is restricted to big signs on the outside of the building itself because Orleans will not allow a separate sign post, but he also parks equipment out front in the summer to draw attention to the business.
Don says his best-moving lines are Echo, Husqvarna and Bomag. He also does quite a bit with Billy Goat lawn care equipment. He does carry Bosch tools, but has seen that end of the business decline as Lowes and Home Depot are nearby and are either selling or renting most of that kind of equipment. “I don’t feel it is the kind of thing we should be competing against,” Don says. “Our focus is mainly equipment you cannot buy at at the Home Depots, like a texture spray machine or a diesel compactor, that kind of thing.” Robertson also has numerous skid steers and mini backhoes. Since moving to the new building, Don reports that the business has been growing by five to 10 per cent per year.
The whole family involved
By Don’s own admission, his wife, Netta, probably puts more hours into the business than he does, these days. “She looks after the books and the hours she puts in are crazy,” he says. “She’s talking about getting some help because it is a little much. She spends hours and hours and 90 per cent of it is done at home because we are hooked into the computers here. So she is working morning, noon, night and weekends. She does a great job.”
As co-owners in the business, D.J. and Cameron do whatever is needed, but D.J. tends to focus on the IT and digital marketing needs of the company while Cameron is more involved with front line sales and promotion. Don says Cameron is effective on job sites because he is personable and tends to get along with everyone. Cameron was also instrumental in landing the ROOTY award for Robertson, energetically sending information about the company and collecting photos for the judges to consider. When it came time to accept the award, it was Cameron who got pushed to the front to do the talking for the company.
Don has mostly retired from working the counter now “because I was told I wasn’t needed any more.” He has hired Justin Horsley, previously of Contractor’s Rental Supply in Haliburton, Ont., to help manage the store. “He is the first guy we have ever hired who knew something about the business,” Don says. He has been impressed with Horsley’s expertise around the shop and in the back, and thinks he will be an integral component as the business expands. Robertson employs between 10 and 12 other employees through the summer, including a mechanic and several part-time workers. Don hired a driver for the first time last year because he had picked up a mini excavator and needed someone with an A licence to haul it. Robertson also takes in several co-op students from the local high schools to help out its mechanic and learn small engine repair. The quality of this help is mixed, but Don has found several good workers this way.
Keeping a clean and up-to-date fleet is very important when serving the homeowner market, Robertson has found. “We hate renting anything that does not look good,” Don says. “I don’t want to rent something that is rusted. Our equipment is always upgraded or it is turned over in a timely fashion. The homeowners do not want to pay the bucks for something that does not look good.” Getting the equipment into top shape for renting is one of Cameron’s functions. He makes sure everything in the shop is freshly painted and has the Robertson decals on it.
|Our panel of judges selected Robertson Rent-All to be Canada’s outstanding Rental Operator Of The Year. D.J., Cameron and Don accepted the award at the Canadian Rental Service booth at the Rental Mart with Bryan Baeumler and George Olah on hand.|
Don has found that by keeping his investment in equipment modest and finding markets for the machinery he can afford, he has been able to avoid taking on debt and paying the bank. “Our niche now is dealing directly with landscapers and small contractors,” he says. “I don’t deal a lot with PCL [a large Ottawa commercial contractor] and all those guys, we leave that up to United and CRS. When I started the business, I didn’t want to get into the heavy debt part. That is what my brothers-in-law wanted to do, saying ‘Let’s go out and get compaction rollers and stuff.’ And I said ‘No, no, no, everything I want to do, I want to do without debt.’ And I’ve been able to do that. In 20 years, I have had no debt except for maybe two years when I borrowed to start the business. I have leases on the equipment, but you can’t really call that debt, you know.”
Careful control of his expansion is important to Don. Plans are in the works for a new Robertson location on the other side of the city, but Don initially put the brakes on the youngsters to make sure the company was ready to take on the challenge. “D.J. and Cameron came to me about three years ago and said they wanted to have a meeting, and I said OK so we sat down and they said ‘We would like to open up another location in the west end,’ and I said I thought it was too soon. ‘I don’t think you guys are really ready for this. You have only been working for a couple years and I think what we should do is concentrate on getting this branch up and running well: very efficiently, safety-wise, everything. And that is what has happened over the last three years and now we are moving ahead. I have always thought about opening there, but I wanted to do it when it was right. If it doesn’t feel right, I am not going to make the move.”
The Robertson customer-first philosophy came from some negative examples Don saw in his former competition, a now-defunct rental operation that used to have 13 locations in Ottawa. “I would deal with them for my own house stuff and they just treated me like garbage,” Don remembers. “Every time I went in there, it was just terrible. So that was another reason I got into the rental business. I thought I could open and just get a bit of gravy from them.”
“My motto at the time was, ‘Nobody leaves pissed off out of this store,’” Don says. “I don’t care if I have to give it away, people are not going to say a bad thing about Robertson Rent-All in this town. To this day, my kids are still doing the same thing. It is great, the way they treat people. I was just saying to my wife how they just kind of take over and you don’t realize you are teaching them but they have been watching and listening.”
D.J. and Cameron learned the business at their father’s side, but they are bringing new blood and new ideas to the operation, as well. D.J. recently became curious as to the return on investment Robertson was seeing from its various equipment purchases. He developed a spreadsheet and worked up a number of formulas to tell him what equipment was making money and renting well and what equipment was underperforming. Then he applied the results to the company’s last trip to the Canadian Rental Mart, drawing up a shopping list based on what would deliver the most bang for the buck in their store. “I just took all the different factors that come into play when you are renting equipment,” D.J. explains, “like repair costs, and using the computer systems we have now we can see the percentage of days the equipment is out on rent. So using this information I can say that if we were going to get a piece of equipment I can see what we are going to make off it and if it is going to be profitable.” D.J. has taken his system as far as multi-year analysis to predict whether the equipment will continue to pay off over time given its lease structure and expected maintenance requirements, which enables him to pinpoint the best time in its lifecycle to replace it. Don is thrilled with the detailed information D.J.’s system can deliver. “I always used to go to shows and just kind of buy on feel,” he confesses. “Then D.J. showed me where we didn’t need some of the stuff I would always pick up. It caused some problems at the Rental Mart because some vendors who were used to getting an order from me every time did not get one this time around. I should have just shown them the sheet.”
D.J. is also an adept hand at web development, and has made an attractive website with all the information and online services that Robertson customers would want. The ROOTY judges all commented on Robertson’s strong web presence.
Cameron is leading Robertson’s marketing charge, and he is salivating over some of the posh new developments in the west and southwest end of Ottawa with their associated need for renovations and construction equipment. “One of the first things people do is put up a fence,” Cameron observes. “That is prime for us. Then they want to take care of their landscaping, then you don’t want that concrete step out in front of your lawn, you want some nice interlocking brick or something. That is where we come in and we can help them do that at an affordable cost.”
Along with big, expensive houses, new developments come with schools and Cameron has his eye on them as well. “We have found that they need scaffolding and floor polishers,” he says. “In the future we want to put together different lists of equipment that schools might need and restaurants and various types of businesses and target them directly and let them know what might be of interest to them.”
Robertson was singled out at the Canadian Rental Mart in March not only by this magazine, but by the Canadian Rental Association Ontario. Robertson won the ROOTY award, a competition open to any rental operator in the country and judged on the candidate’s commitment to success, innovation and safety. And it won the CRA Ontario Image Award for 2011. Don credits the surge of interest and activity to new blood. With two dynamic young men getting ever more involved with the experienced veteran still at the helm, Robertson Rent-All’s greatest achievements may still be ahead.