From Father to Son
By Treena HeinFeatures Profiles
Larry’s Rentall carries an iconic legacy into the next generation
So many rental businesses in Canada that are running smoothly as you read this were started with a dream, a leap of faith and hard work by the present owner’s parents.
The son or daughter learned the business as they grew up, and Dad still comes by the shop even though he’s enjoying a well-earned retirement.
In the case of Larry’s Rentall in St. Catharines, Ont., Larry took the leap in 1994 with his wife Irene by his side. He had one employee (a mechanic/driver) and started with a small amount of used and new equipment. Their son, Trevor, took it over about 20 years later, and Larry still comes by to work on equipment or do other helpful tasks just about every day.
Up to 1994, Larry had had about eight jobs, including automotive manufacture, mining and managing outlets of a large rental company. “I learned a lot over about seven years, opened a couple of locations and brought one back from the brink,” he says. “One of the best things I did was talk to some of the old timers and we’ve stayed friends since, over 30 years. Back then the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Rental Association really wasn’t operating, and a bunch of us resurrected it, and that was one of the best things I did in my career. I was president from 1989 to 1992. We went to the shows, did a lot of networking, visited stores. We passed on a lot of information and learned a lot. I was also president of the Local Business Club at the same time and did a lot with sports teams. It was very busy. We still have an alumni group with the Business Club and the Ontario chapter is going strong.”
In 1993, events led the owner of Larry’s company to cut back and Larry suddenly lost his position. He did financial planning for a while but then decided to do what he loved. “As they say, the rental business gets in your gut and it’s hard to leave,” Larry explains. “We put everything up that we owned. We used our house and everything else for collateral. It wasn’t easy but I knew at least what to buy and not buy. I bought my first two items, an excavator and a skid steer at a racetrack near Barrie where a guy was selling used equipment. I picked them up with a used trailer and borrowed truck. Some friends helped me make a logo and motto for my new business: ‘Putting experience in your hands.’”
Larry was also lucky enough to secure a really good location on the main street in St. Catherines, a former car dealership with a sufficiently sized building and a large lot. He rented out the used excavator, skid steer and a diesel compressor, along with tools for lawn and garden, flooring, plumbing and other typical residential and commercial contracting tasks. Over the years, the business grew, and he added indoor scissor lifts, outdoor scissor lifts, booms, various other excavators and more.
Back, then front
As a youngster, Trevor started working behind the scenes, pressure washing equipment and fueling it up, then graduated to other tasks. “I’ve done every job here, so I know what it’s like to do it all,” he says. “To fix things, I got the best training, hands-on. I learned from the mechanics who worked here. So I was in the back and my dad would be serving customers and directing deliveries and looking after all the other things to run the business. Over time, I learned to do all the things he was handling every day.”
When Trevor was at university, the internet was born and he knew their business needed a website. He worked with a company to do that, and they still have a printed and framed copy of their first website home page on the wall.
Trevor bought the business from his parents in 2012. “We weren’t going to change the name to Trevor’s Rentall,” he laughs. “I’m very proud to have taken over. Working with my parents has been really good. Having your own business has its disadvantages and advantages of course, and it’s a great thing to have the ability to adapt it in whatever way you want, depending on how the market changes.”
At this point, Trevor and his wife, Michelle, (who does the books, customer service and loads equipment when needed) have four employees and, as mentioned, Larry still comes in just about every day. “We’d like to have another mechanic and person at the counter, but it’s not easy to find employees,” says Trevor. “You need to find a person who’s a good fit.”
Repair and sales
Larry’s Rentall started doing outside equipment repair by the end of the ‘90s. But when they had to tell customers their equipment was beyond repair and the customers asked what Larry’s sold, there was a problem – and an opportunity.
“Customers would ask what we sold and we’d say nothing, so it was a dead end, and you don’t want that in a business,” Trevor notes. “You want to build repeat business. You buy something here then, when you need to rent something or buy a part, you also come here. Or you rent here and when you want to buy, you come here.” The first equipment line they offered for sale was Ariens snowblowers. “I had one,” says Trevor, “and I wanted to be able to get the parts for myself, so it made sense.”
Repairs continued for just about every brand and type of equipment, but it became unwieldy. More efficiency was needed with getting parts and having repairs go quickly on equipment that was familiar. They narrowed it down to servicing only brands they’re able to repair under warranty, but also still do seasonal tune-ups for any lawnmowers and snowblowers.
In terms of competition, the number of other independents in the area has stayed pretty much the same but, as in most other parts of Canada, the chains moved in and offered lower cost.
“You’re not going to battle them on pricing but with service,” says Trevor. “We make sure our delivery window is 10 minutes. We will call customers and let them know if it’s going to be outside of that either way. On-time delivery is something that has been and still is really important to our customers, and we’re happy when they are pleasantly surprised that we are on time, because others aren’t. It’s the same with picking up. Some of our customers work in detention centres and so on, and the equipment cannot stay on site, so they also like the rapid pick up. It sets us apart.” Larry’s used to offer after-hours emergency service, but they found customers don’t want to pay for that (and that almost every issue can be sorted out the next morning).
Reflecting on success
“Over time, we’ve become a more rounded business model, with adding the sales and repairs,” says Trevor. “Every day is different and when you think it’s figured out, you are thrown a curve ball. You have to put in the hours to make the business succeed. My dad always worked six or seven days a week, and I learned that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen yourself.”
Trevor and Michelle try to keep adding fresh Facebook and Instagram posts, and it’s not easy with everything else there is to do, but nowadays they have some help. When Michelle took pictures of the new Ariens snowblowers last winter, for example, their daughter, Marissa, stitched them together to make a great video. “And in one of the pictures, Michelle captured our canine staff member, our German Shepherd, Levi, on top of one of snowblowers,” says Trevor. “Ariens noticed it and wanted the picture to use on their social media. That was neat.”
Marrissa is now 17 and her parents want to see her do what she wants in terms of a career, whether that’s taking over the business or not. “When she was very young, I wanted to be home on time, so I would get up very early instead when she was sleeping as needed, rather than stay later,” says Trevor. “Business success is very important to us, and our customer service reputation is excellent, but time spent with family is also very important. We try to strike a good work-life balance for ourselves and our employees.”
Larry is very happy to see his business thriving under Trevor’s leadership. “You have to back off and let things go to the next step,” he says. “He’s doing a great job.”
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