By Roger Knox
First Call Rentals genuinely cares about customer needs.
By Roger Knox
He didn’t mention anything about an apartment or living quarters in the newly renovated 18,000-square-foot facility that is the new home of Burnaby’s First Call (“1st Call”) Rentals. But for owner Victor Cabral, maybe there should be.
On a recent Saturday morning, Cabral was called at his home at 5:30 a.m. by a customer needing a generator during a power outage. Cabral, who says he doesn’t sleep much past 6:30 a.m. on weekends, happily got out of his bed and delivered said generator, then went back to the office to do the requisite paperwork and talk to a freelance writer about his company. “It’s fine,” says Cabral of the early morning call. “We’re on-call 24-7. We’re open Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I’m usually at the office until 6 or 7 p.m. In the morning, I get to the office about 6 or 6:30 to get everything organized for deliveries. Sometimes we get calls at night due to a water leak, or a fire happens, or a generator is needed because the power’s gone down. Your brain never turns off. I have problems getting quality sleep because my brain won’t slow down.”
For a year and a half, Cabral was looking for a stand-alone building in Burnaby, a suburb of Vancouver in the hub of B.C.’s Lower Mainland region, to replace the existing 3,500-square-foot facility First Call Rentals had been housed in since Cabral joined the company in 2015. He bought out the original owner in 2018.
He found a place about a kilometre east of Burnaby’s famed Metrotown Shopping centre, near the Queensborough Bridge in the heart of the Kingsway-Gilley region, and started giving the future First Call’s home a much-needed facelift.
“We cleaned up the warehouse and our primary renovation is to the showroom,” says Cabral. “I’d get home from work and start reading magazines or online articles [there’s another example of his brain never shutting down] that called for the need for rental industry businesses to have real showrooms so customers can walk in and find dormant or oddball equipment like a rail saw or channel saw, and realize they have other things, too.”
The new First Call Rentals will feature one-stop shopping for customers. Along with the showroom and warehouse, there’s a virtual A to Z of rental equipment and product for sale. They’ve also installed a courtesy station where a customer can grab a coffee and a muffin or donut while doing their business.
“It’s a little perk to keep them coming through the doors,” says Cabral, who started with First Call after striking up a relationship with the original owner, who was Cabral’s customer when he worked as sales manager for a large independent firm in the Lower Mainland. “The more I helped him, the more sub-rentals I did, and the more I did to help him out as a small [business] guy, the more he was looking to have me come on board. So, in 2015, I came on board and haven’t looked back.”
Cabral, though, had no desire or interest at the time in becoming a business owner again. He’d been there, done that, in the past. He was quite comfortable in his role as sales manager, complete with salary, company vehicle, phone and the stresses of dealing with customers. With a background in finance, Cabral worked as a consultant in the past on a contract basis for companies that were losing money. “I’d look at their operations, their suppliers’ contracts and rework the business to get it to a profitable state,” he says. “I’ve never seen such an interesting and complicated business to run as an equipment rental company. This has got to be the hardest business to manage. You’ve got to make smart purchasing decisions; you’ve got to find capital, good employees and keep them motivated; find good customers and, in fact, in this business, you almost have to screen your customers and push one or two away because they’re not worth dealing with. It’s a really tough, hands-on business.”
What works for First Call Rentals, says Cabral, is that he and his staff of less than a dozen full-time employees – from licensed mechanics to delivery drivers, to sale personnel – truly care about the consumer. It’s that simple.
“[Let’s say] a customer who regularly deals with us calls us and is in need of a specific tool, and maybe ours are all out,” says Cabral. “We’ll call around and find it and if we can get it from another rental outfit that we have a really strong relationship with, we can play with the numbers, massage the discounts and get it to the customer. We are being completely transparent. I tell my guys all the time to treat the customer the way you’d want to be treated. If they have to pay a little bit more for that tool, the guy appreciates that we spent an hour trying to find what they couldn’t, and they’ll say ‘go ahead and rent it for me. It’s a few bucks more. I don’t care. Can you get it there tomorrow?‘“
No-nonsense pricing is also a credo at First Call Rentals. There are no hidden fees, no enviro fees, no rental protection fees. Just the price, GST and PST.
“That keeps our customers coming back,” says Cabral. “We’re transparent and we’re finding stuff for you. People appreciate being treated that way. We’re a small outfit compared to the publicly traded firms. It’s hard enough to manage your staff and your business at a smaller business level. The more you grow, the bigger you get, the less your staff cares. And it’s harder to manage staff and find really good people, and the service levels get watered down.
“Our guys take ownership of this company. They’re proud to be here at First Call. We’re a smaller, privately owned company but our diverse level of inventory and inventory levels is bigger than some of the companies that have been in business for more than 40 years.”
Speaking of inventory levels, First Call Rentals will add to its inventory to help out a customer.
For example, they currently have 12 dustless grinder systems and each system cost $4,500. Last summer, they had eight or nine and all were rented out to customers. An existing customer came by, saying they had a building downtown they were working on and needed a dustless grinder for three or four months. Rather than sub-rent the grinder, Cabral went out and bought four more and got the product to the job site.
“We get our product on site and feed our inventory level, putting it back into the company as opposed to just taking 20 per cent of the revenue in your pocket and the other 80 per cent to the other rental house. Anytime we do a longer-term rental, I’d rather buy the equipment than re-rent it. My sales guys are always asking questions. ‘Where’s it going to go? How long do you need it for? What are you doing?’ If they say they need the equipment for four months we need to know that so we can buy replacement inventory and keep our levels up. It seems to be working.”
Every new customer – and Cabral says he’s all over his guys when it comes to this – is treated as a potential long-term customer. “We show them the knowledge we have, the equipment we provide, offer them suggestions and take a little time to find out about their jobs and what they’re doing,” says Cabral.
“What separates us from other rental companies is all of us really, really care. Chemistry is important. I tell people when I’m hiring, if you can’t get along with the other staff, I’m not here to babysit you, I’m not here to look over your shoulder. If you’re being rude or not helpful with customers, you’re going to be gone. We all have to work together and help each other. I don’t care if you’re a sales guy and you have to make a delivery or help a driver load something. Get your coveralls on and get your hands dirty. Just get it done because customers are waiting on it. There’s no room for attitude in our industry.”
First Call Rentals’ staff is fully trained and will offer equipment training. They service all of B.C. and have clients in Alberta.
They are happy to take on the stresses of their customers.
[Editor’s note: First Call’s branding spells the company name “1st Call.” It’s been changed here to conform with our copy style.]