Getting the word out
By Colleen Cross & Patrick FlanneryFeatures Profiles
For a guy who is as likely to be elbow-deep in a machine as waist-deep fielding customers at the counter, Phil Morand sure knows how to drive a brand message.
For a guy who is as likely to be elbow-deep in a machine as waist-deep fielding customers at the counter, Phil Morand sure knows how to drive a brand message. His hard work on Riverside Rental’s image and his ability to make the most of opportunities has helped the Tecumseh, Ont., rental store to weather the severe ups and downs of the local economy over the years.
|The store’s logo, a charming and quirky worker who looks a bit like Super Mario, is everywhere you look at Riverside Rentals.
The 27-year-old business is anchored by family. Morand’s wife Joanne works in the shop two or three days a week, taking care of the bills, while daughter Alex, a 20-year-old university student works part time at the counter. Their younger daughter Ashley is 17.
Morand got his start sweeping the shop floor at his uncle’s company in Windsor, originally HT Reaume Construction, now Reaume Homes.
After two years of electronics at St. Clair College, he realized “I was making more money sitting on a bulldozer than they were making after three years in the field.
“So I went to work as a repair guy for Riverside Rentals for the previous owner, Bernard Sokoloski, for about a year.”
His construction experience led to a five-year stint of electrical work for Lynx Petrochemical all across Southern Ontario, and in 1985 an opportunity presented itself when his old boss at Riverside told him he was getting out of the rental business.
But he did not have it in mind for himself. He told his father, Eugene Charles, known as Gene, about the sale, saying, “You’ve been looking for a hobby or thinking about retiring. He doesn’t do any volume or dollars. . . . Why don’t you buy it for a hobby? There’s two staff there.”
He came home from working on the Bruce the next weekend to find himself running Riverside Rentals on weekends then turning it back over to his father during the week, with help from two other brothers.
That was April 1, 1986: “a good April Fool’s joke,” says Morand. “It ran along just fine and we’ve just slowly progressed into more and bigger.”
Sadly, Gene got sick about seven years after they bought the business and when they lost him in December 1995, he says, they had two options: sell the shop or close it.
They went for the third option: run it – with a few changes.
Morand admits the new venture didn’t always go smoothly.
“Obviously your risk level changes. Your clientele changes. You learn by getting lumps on your head. Mistakes that you’ve made you try not to make twice. They hurt.” As an example, they had to get out of snow removal contracting around 2005 because without a second person to run the shop during the day, the night and day workload was unmanageable.
Around that time, the shop’s location was becoming a concern.
“I was getting feedback from my good customers that their drivers didn’t even want to pull into my parking lot because it was on the main street Tecumseh,” says Morand. “They had to pull through a parking lot to get to our building. They couldn’t get big trucks and tractors in. We were loading and unloading on Tecumseh Road for the big stuff. It wasn’t safe for my guys.”
|Morand does not spend any more time behind the counter than he has to. Working with machinery is his passion.
When the economy took a downturn in 2008, the Windsor-Tecumseh area was particularly hard hit, with its heavily automotive sector. After surviving that first difficult year – and motivated to make a move – the Morands bought a repossessed property that was split into two parts: Riverside Rentals took on the 24,000-square-foot building while another 18,000 square feet behind it went to another purchaser Morand had lined up.
Always good at spotting, and seizing, an opportunity, Morand sought a market for the equipment that originally came with the business.
“There were a lot of industrial tools that were not being utilized and there was a lot of potential from the big construction areas. So it was sitting around doing nothing so I went and found a market for it.”
He and Gene started with small contractors and transitioned with them as they grew.
“We need to supply what our customer’s asking for or they will go somewhere else. It’s just not – it’s not something you want to lose a customer over because you’re not willing to put a machine in your fleet that you can possibly make money at and you take a look at it. The cost. Is it affordable? And you try it for a year. If it’s not, you get rid of the machine. It’s as simple as that. I think the worst thing a business can do is not try something new.”
Morand estimates Riverside’s market at roughly 40 -45 per cent residential, 40-45 per cent contractor and 10-15 per cent industrial.
In addition to carrying mainstay Stihl products that Morand says bring in all-important foot traffic, over the years the store has grown its stable of skid steers to seven and added compaction equipment such as 66-inch pad foot rollers and mini-excavators up to the five-ton model. He says small equipment is doing well in the commercial market because it saves on labour costs.
“Nobody uses a shovel any more,” he says. “They want a mini-excavator. . . Instead of having the mini-excavator that digs to 10 feet and buying another one that goes to 15, we’ve bought one that goes down to seven and collapses to go through a gate so the guy can get it in his backyard and dig out his flower beds. Or the contractor can get it through a three foot door because he can’t find an apprentice with a jackhammer and a shovel to dig the plumbing trenches.”
To maintain cash flow in the fluctuating economy, Morand says, they’ve taken on lots of work. Among 10 part- and full-time employees, Riverside employs a licensed mechanic, an industrial mechanic and a small engine mechanic, and has been taking on more and more repair work. They actively seek out work.
“Come September we’ll go out and we’ll promote bringing your equipment in for repair,” he explains. “So I don’t have to lay anybody off, so I don’t have to retrain anybody. Because retraining is very expensive. . . . As an employer, it’s your job to make sure that you can sustain their paycheque.”
Morand advertises through radio, local newspapers and magazines, and relies on a couple of savvy business associates for direction. “I’m not an advertising guru,” he says.
He is currently considering doing promotional work, supplying light towers in exchange for logos and signage, for example, for a couple of charity events.
|Repairs are a big part of Riverside’s business, filling in the gaps when the rentals slow down. With around 24,000 square feet of shop space, Morand has lots of room to move equipment in and out.
“You have to be selective because everybody’s got a charity,” he says. “So you have to pick a group of people you feel are good exposure for your industry and stay with them. You can’t kind of one-shot it because that doesn’t prove to work anywhere. Repetition is essential.”
The potential exposure is worth the effort, he says, but it comes at a cost. “Even though your equipment doesn’t have a dollar value on it, it has a cost to run. It has a cost to service and deliver and pick up. So you have to realize that that becomes part of your advertising budget. And you have to spend so much on advertising if you want to go forward.”
Riverside Rentals has expanded more than tenfold since the Morand family took over, which Morand attributes to enjoying the work.
He also offers practical day-to-day advice: “The biggest thing that I’ve tried to teach my guys . . . is if you wouldn’t be happy using that tool, why would you put it on the shelf with the regular ready-to-rent. If it looks like a piece of junk, it’s going to get treated like a piece of junk. It has to be clean. It has to be as presentable as you can get it when that customer gets it.”
Morand is always looking for opportunities to expand while retaining Riverside’s image and advantages as a small independent. “I want to see us get a better foothold in a couple of other industries in our area,” he says. One strategy he is considering is hiring a salesperson.
Windsor is a town in search of a new way of life following the near-collapse of the Big Three automakers five years ago. Large engine and assembly plants that were the lifeblood of the city for the last 50 years have been shuttered, taking much of their support industry with them. Riverside has had to be flexible and adaptable to survive.
“I think one of the things we’re lacking right now . . . and I hear it from my customers more than anything else – ‘well, how come you never come on site like a salesman?’ So we may have to look at more time for somebody making contact with our customers and making new customers because right now our new customers are all word of mouth. I don’t know if it’s advantageous or not.”
In Morand’s words, when your customer’s saying, “I wouldn’t mind if somebody stopped by,” it seems a good problem to have.
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