Going with the flow
Patrick FlanneryFeatures Profiles
Getting into the rental business was never part of Dale Brinklow’s plans. He had a career as a truck driver and lived with his wife, Sandy, in Peterborough, Ont.
Getting into the rental business was never part of Dale Brinklow’s plans. He had a career as a truck driver and lived with his wife, Sandy, in Peterborough, Ont. When he started thinking about getting off the road and taking better care of his health (Brinklow has Type II diabetes) about 10 years ago, the original idea was for them to buy a motel or trailer park that she could run while he continued to drive truck. But the banks would not play ball.
|Dale and Sandy provide a full line of equipment for landscaping and light construction. Lately, they have branched out into more construction supplies, as well.
The Brinklows had no motel experience and the failure rate in the hospitality industry was too high for them to take the risk. Brinklow heard about an opportunity to buy a rental operation in Minden, Ont., and went to take a look. He was not impressed with what he saw. “It was all piled in a corner of the building,” he remembers. “There was nothing here. There was nothing to buy. It was nothing. It was not well looked after.” He juggled some numbers, sold some property he owned in Peterborough and decided to buy anyway. The previous owner had been struggling because he was also trying to run an excavating business on the side. “Customers are not going to rent from a competitor,” Brinklow shrewdly observes. He figured that without the conflict with the excavating business, there was no reason a rental shop should not be able to thrive in Minden.
Brinklow’s friend Dave, owner of Lakefield Rentals in Lakefield, Ont., suggested he contact Paul Everitt, who was then working at Uniquip, for some advice on how to get started in the industry. Brinklow remembers that Everitt got hold of him on his mobile phone while he was driving truck, and the two talked all the way across the state of Pennsylvania. It was the start of a lasting friendship and business relationship. One of Everitt’s first pieces of advice was for Brinklow to attend the Rental Mart trade show, then taking place in Niagara Falls. “We got our eyes opened there,” he remembers. The other thing Brinklow remembers Everitt saying was that his business was going to grow whether he wanted it to or not. Brinklow’s intention at the time was to have a small, stable operation that turned a profit without too much effort. Everitt tried to warn him off that notion right from the start. “Your customers are going to make you grow your business,” Brinklow remembers him saying. “We argued about this and I said ‘No, my customers are not going to tell me how to run my business.’ And he said, ‘No, Dale, you don’t understand. They are going to push you to grow your business..’ We argued and argued about that for a long time. And now I understand what he means. I hated somebody coming in and wanting something we didn’t have.”
Initially, what Minden Hills Rent-All didn’t have was a lot more than it had. The original shop is a tiny converted garage perched on the edge of a steep hill next to Brinklow’s home. The entire interior is perhaps 700 square feet. Brinklow panelled the entire interior with peg board to get as much equipment up off the floor as possible, but the place was still packed front to back, floor to ceiling. Still, Brinklow found he could never have enough on hand to meet demand. “We would be short a compactor,” he remembers. “So let’s get another one. Then get another one. And that’s how it just kept on growing and growing.”
|Brinklow bought this building, which was an Arctic Cat dealership, some time after he ran out of room at the small shop on his home property. He has expanded it several times.
Today, Minden Hills Rent-All carries Ariens, Stihl, Toro, Honda and Swish for sale and a full line of light construction and landscaping equipment for rental. Brinklow also sells all-terrain vehicles and a range of construction supplies. Four years ago he moved from the little shack on the hill into a much larger facility that housed a struggling Arctic Cat dealership. He has added on to the building several times, so he is unsure of the exact floor space, but looks to have around 10,000 square feet. Far from his initial idea of keeping his day job while Sandy ran the shop, they both work full time at adjacent desks. “We’ve gone from me being home Thursday or Friday then gone again Sunday to being together 24/7,” he remarks. Sandy handles the bookkeeping and parts and has recently done most of the counter work as well, though they are looking for help there. Dale avoids the counter. “Jeff [Campbell] was up last summer and said it didn’t take him too long to figure out that I am not a good counter person,” Brinklow admits. “He said, ‘You are good for organizing and giving direction and you can run around here and do that all day long, but counter, you are not. You are too abrupt.’ I am straightforward. I don’t mince words.” Brinklow says he has always found it difficult to stay cool when customers are being unreasonable or when they damage equipment. He’s better at selling, driving and managing the overall operation.
Not bad results in a town with about 5,000 permanent residents and 20,000 seasonal residents far away from any significant urban areas in central Ontario cottage country. Minden is a scenic little town that exists mainly to serve the local tourist industry. It is surrounded by dense forest and lovely small lakes. Brinklow shows visitors the original “highway” to the town that comes out of the bush next to his property. It is little more than a dirt track, yet until about 40 years ago it was the only way in to the area over land. While not as posh as the Muskoka cottage country, Minden’s summer residents have enough money to finance some pretty ambitious renovation projects. Brinklow remembers one time he had to lift an excavator with a crane to put it down on a beach where the cottager wanted a hole dug for a gazebo. “It was all stone but they put in sand,” he remembers. “They went to all the trouble to crane the excavator down the side of the hill to dig out a 10-by-10 gazebo. They had landscaped it and had trees planted and everything right where they wanted it. There was this nice maple tree I dug up and the burlap was still on it. I said ‘What do you want me to do with this?’ This was a hundred-dollar tree. I looked at the owner and he said ‘Just put it over there.’” When he isn’t helping out homeowners with more money than sense, he rents most of his equipment to the local contractors. Crews from Ontario Hydro are good customers as they roam about the area cutting trees away from power lines. The winters are quieter, but he and Sandy stay busy with trade shows and inventory and traveling.
Brinklow also credits Everitt with getting him involved in the Ontario Canadian Rental Association, where he has risen through the chairs to president. “He mentioned it a number of times – as he does so subtly to people,” Brinklow reports. Finally, Brinklow caved in and volunteered to become treasurer when the association needed one. Then president James Morden told him he needed a second vice president more, so Brinklow ended up with more involvement than he counted on. “He suckered me in and I’m going from there,” Brinklow admits. “No regrets, though.”
|Sandy and Dale take turns working at the counter, but Dale admits it is not his strength. “I’m too abrupt,” he says. Brinklow would like to find a mild-mannered counter person to help out at the shop.
Brinklow certainly doesn’t seem to regret getting involved with the association. He has been a constant presence at all events and taken a major role in organizing and helping out even before rising to the top spot. “If you are going to do it, you might as well do it right,” Brinklow explains. He says he’s seen some big changes in the way things get done at the association since he became involved and hopes to keep things moving in a positive direction. “It’s nice to get some new blood and some new ideas and a new outlook,” he says. He credits the previous board with creating some financial stability and hopes he can leverage that strength into stronger events and more value for members. Brinklow understands the importance of that value, because most of the meetings in the Toronto area are almost a two-hour drive away, forcing him to commit at least half a day away from work. But, he says, he always finds it worth it. “If I go to a meeting, even now, and I don’t learn something, there is something wrong,” he says. “You never know that night what you are going to miss. It might be that night that was the million-dollar prize.” He is firm about the need to approach association work as a labour of love without undue focus on personal or corporate gain. “You get out of it what you put in,” he says. “The benefit and the recognition will come, but if you are there to get that, then no.”
Minden Hills Rent-All has some competition in town from Home Hardware’s rental department, but Brinklow says he is able to maintain healthy margins because of his commitment to top-quality machinery and good service. Rentals, he says, are more lucrative than sales these days, and his goal is to keep things simple, bring in some extra help and reduce the amount of time he and Sandy have to put in at the shop. Right now, it is an open question whether his customers are going to let him do that.
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