Canadian Rental Service

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Celebrating diversity

There’s a well-worn formula for weathering a recession or economic downturn with your business relatively intact. Diversify product lines and offerings, and reach out to as broad a cross-section of consumers as possible. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.


August 23, 2010
By Mike Davey

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 Some of the team at Country Corners Rent-All. From left: Cam Darling, Sandra Darling, Chris Merner, Barb Krueger, Pat Darling, Kenny McNicol, Jamie Reis and Todd Lightfoot.


 

There’s a well-worn formula for weathering a recession or economic downturn with your business relatively intact. Diversify product lines and offerings, and reach out to as broad a cross-section of consumers as possible. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Multinational corporations are masters at this technique, with far-flung and diverse business interests around the globe. Of course, it’s a bit easier to manage when you have billions in capital assets, and can diversify by simply buying a company that looks good. But are there ways that a small business can do this?

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 Taylor Lightfoot helps out during the summer when school’s out. Country Corners Rent-All has a strong family presence. 
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 Kenny McNicol is the manager of the rental operation.

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Cam Darling has proved that you can. He’s the owner of Country Corners Rent-All in Exeter, Ontario. He got into the equipment rental game in 1999, when he purchased the company his brother Mark had founded in 1982. Almost immediately, changes were in the works.

The first was a move from its decidedly rural location outside of town, to a new location in downtown Exeter. A more centralized – not to mention more visible – location has helped the business to grow.  

“It’s a better location with higher traffic,” says Cam. “Exeter is a hub for a lot of the smaller local towns. We’re still far enough out from major centres that the big guys don’t step on our toes, and we don’t step on theirs.”

The most easily visible sign of diversification at Country Corners Rent-All is the Arctic Cat division, started in 2004. While the business does rent ATVs, most of the business for that division comes from sales. It’s an area in which the business has exceeded expectations. Until recently, Country Corners Rent-All was the single biggest dealer in Canada. In fact, the company still is, but a new title has been added. The day before I visited the business, Cam had just received word that Country Corners Rent-All was the single biggest Arctic Cat dealer in all of North America. It’s very rare for a Canadian business located in a small, rural town to outstrip the big American dealers, who generally have access to a higher population base. What is even more stunning is that Country Corners Rent-All gained the top spot by a wide margin. The business sold nearly 50 per cent more units than its closest competitor.

 “We’re proud that we’ve managed to become the top dealer in North America in just six years,” says Cam. “I give credit to our staff, and to our strategy of becoming involved in the ATV community.”

The Arctic Cat portion of the business had become so large that more space was needed. In October 2008, the decision was made to purchase the building next door, and move the rental operation into that location. The Arctic Cat dealership now takes up the entirety of the original building, and includes a large storefront operation with ATVs, accessories and gear on display.

There is a rental element to the Arctic Cat dealership as well. In addition to their recreational purposes, ATVs have a lot of appeal to those working on large construction and other projects. Simply put, they go places trucks can’t, and can be much cheaper to operate when used simply for personal transportation.

“We’ve got seven ATVs on rent right now, for a solar farm project in Middlesex County,” says Cam. “The project itself is actually using hundreds of them. There is definitely a market for ATV rental, but it’s not necessarily something the average rental store can pursue. You need to be set up for it, with service, parts and accessories readily available.”

Although the Arctic Cat division is easily the most visible way that Country Corners Rent-All has diversified, the company has expanded its offering in other ways over the years. Fairly recently, the company started offering a number of access and lift options.

“Up until three years ago, we never owned a lift. We only re-rented them,” says Cam. “By the end of last year we had 37 lifts. It’s been successful, in part because the safety requirements have grown so much. That market has just grown unbelievably.”

Country Corners Rent-All has also found success with the fairly recent addition of a Kioti dealership.

“We added it about three months ago, basically to become more diversified. We used to have a lot of lawn and garden, but started phasing it out in favour of the Arctic Cat, which was more profitable. The Kioti line is a step above lawn and garden rental. It’s certainly been more profitable.”

Country Corners Rent-All started as a family business, and it still operates that way today. Cam’s two nephews, Todd and Taylor, are employed there for the summer, while his brother Scott and sister-in-law Gabby are employed at the business full time. Pat, mother of the Darling clan, is also employed at the rental store. In addition, Cam’s wife Sandra has recently joined the staff, essentially to set up and administrate the company’s Internet marketing initiatives.

Currently the company’s website allows customers to shop online for a wide variety of ATVs and accessories, such as auger covers, brushguard bumpers and cargo boxes. Future categories for online shopping may include snowmobiles and utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), a sort of cross between a traditional ATV and a pick-up truck.

“It’s something you can’t ignore these days,” says Cam. “Especially with the Arctic Cat, a lot of our sales come from the online side of the business.”
Plans for future diversification are tentative for now, but include targeting more niche markets.

“The state of the economy has been really questionable for the last two years, so we’ll probably start to weed out lines that aren’t profitable or where there’s no growth,” says Cam. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t areas for us to grow, for example with specialty concrete saws. It seems like something that none of the big guys want to touch, so there may be opportunities for growth there.”

Ask Cam Darling what he thinks the biggest challenge facing the rental industry today is, and he’ll tell you the same thing a number of operators would: too many operators fighting for the same dollars. This leads to falling prices and shrinking profit margins. That’s not a situation that will promote a healthy industry.

“It sometimes seems like the big guys are so worried about turning that equipment over constantly, that they’ve slashed prices to the bone. It might work in the short term, but in the long term you’re looking at increased maintenance and more wear and tear for less profit. It might be better to charge a higher price and rent something twice, than to charge a much lower price and turn it over five times,” says Cam. “If you don’t want to get stuck in that, you’ve got to stand out with specialty product.”

For more information on Country Corners Rent-All, please visit www.countrycornersrent-all.com.