Staying close to friends and neighbours is more than just a pastime for Jim Clipperton. He has built his connections into a solid foundation for profitable business in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.
By Patrick Flannery
Staying close to friends and neighbours is more than just a pastime for
Jim Clipperton. He has built his connections into a solid foundation for
profitable business in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.
|Nor-Val often supplies lift platforms, generators, heaters and other equipment to the local lumber mills when they shut down for scheduled maintenance. |
Jim Clipperton does not rely on fancy marketing metrics when it comes to promoting his Armstrong, B.C., rental house, Nor-Val Rentals. He admits it is hard to track the direct effect when he buys the naming rights to a local arena, or donates barbecues to a local softball tournament. What it is about, he says, is letting the people in his community know that when they spend their money at Nor-Val, that money stays in the community. He knows he can never be the least expensive rental operator in his area, but he can attract the loyalty and patronage of his neighbours by giving them his loyalty and patronage in return. He must be doing something right. Clipperton just bought out a competitor and opened Nor-Val’s third location.
Nor-Val consists of three rental centres, each in a different town in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley: Vernon, Armstrong and Lake Country. The company is owned by Clipperton and two partners, Ralph and Larry Vandergugten, who handle such behind-the-scenes aspects as finances and special projects. Clipperton’s wife, Shelli, is also involved, running the party and event rentals side of the business. The company employs about 45 workers in the summer and 30 in the winter, renting into a varied market of lumber mills, farms and housing developments. Clipperton has a full roster of construction and lawn-and-garden equipment, including a large fleet of lift platforms. Nor-Val was started by Clipperton’s parents, Paul and Shirley Miron, in 1994. They retired in 2006.
|Nor-Val employs about 45 workers in its busy season. When the Alberta oil sands are hiring, it can be hard to find help for the shop floor.|
In 2003, the cooler system broke down at the Armstrong arena. There was no ice all winter, which was something of a calamity for the local Junior B team and beer leagues. The arena is a focal point for the community all year round because of the hockey in the winter and the lacrosse in the summer, which Clipperton says is always sold out. A petition went out to fund a new arena, and Clipperton joined the fundraising committee. “When the building was finished, the parks and recreation people asked who wanted the naming rights,” Clipperton remembers. “They went to other businesses first because they didn’t want people to think I got it because I was involved in the fundraising. The other businesses turned it down, so I picked it up. There are so many sports events that go on here, and it is all reported in the local newspaper.
Now, any time they mention an event in the paper it says Nor-Val Sports Centre. It makes people realize that any money that goes into Nor-Val stays in the community. Any time you spend money with United and Cat Rentals the money does not stay in the community, it goes elsewhere. I really try to push that.”
Part of Clipperton’s community focus comes from growing up on a farm. His parents farmed cattle and grain in northern Alberta before coming to the Okanagan out of frustration with the up-and-down fortunes of that lifestyle. “One year the cattle would do well and the grain would suck,” Clipperton remembers. “And the next year the grain would do well and the cattle would suck. No matter what, you were never ahead.” So Clipperton has an understanding in his bones of the need for people to support their neighbours. “It is something that was ingrained in me, being a farmer,” he says. “Back where we grew up, Mom and Dad were always helping out at the community hall. My wife and I belong to three chambers of commerce, and I’m a director on the Armstrong chamber of commerce. It is a farming community, and it is the way we have always been brought up.”
|Don’t let the smile fool you. Shelli is still mad at Jim for talking her into taking over the events division. |
But as a marketing strategy, Clipperton’s involvement in community causes is also a strategic reaction to the power of the big franchises. “I don’t discount. I don’t believe in that,” Clipperton says. “If you want your community to grow, you can’t do that. Our prices are not that much higher than the Uniteds, but we try to keep everything in the community. We do not try to measure it.” Nor-Val lends equipment to Funtastic, a huge slow-pitch tournament and music festival that raises money for charities across western Canada. It puts its logo on hockey, lacrosse and soccer teams in the area and directly sponsors Relay For Life, among other charities.
It makes him feel good, but it is also good business. “The more mentions we get on the web, the higher our profile is and the spiders pick us up quicker,” he says. “The way we get there is when charities mention us on their websites. It is hard to gauge what we do. It is not like giving out a coupon and seeing how many you get back, or tracking phone calls. We just want everyone to know Nor-Val is a really strong supporter of everything in the community. All three communities.” Clipperton is conscious of the need to build a clear identity for his company, and understands that this can help him fend off the economies of scale enjoyed by larger competitors.
The success of Nor-Val has led to faster expansion than Clipperton planned for. “I never do an expansion until I have everything running perfectly at the other stores,” he says. But the owner of another rental house in Lake Country contacted Clipperton out of the blue and offered his company for sale for an attractive price. Clipperton has had to move quickly to integrate this new centre into his operation. The biggest challenge has been logistics: figuring out how to make sure the right equipment is ready to go at the right place with non-overlapping schedules. Clipperton expects to be putting some extra effort into developing Nor-Val’s procedures over the next while.
Added to the expanded equipment rental operation has been Nor-Val Events, the party and event rental division run by Clipperton’s wife, Shelli. Shelli had a perfectly good job working at the Vernon office of Kal Tire’s truck assembly group in Vernon before Jim convinced her to quit and join him. “She still hates me for it,” he jokes. “There is a whackload of work in events. At Kal Tire, she did not work Saturdays and Sundays. In the summer, we work seven days a week.”
The events division has been very lucrative for Clipperton, with a number of opportunities for future growth. He carries a full line of tents, tables, chairs and linens, as well as the “classiest shitters in the Valley.” That last item means high-end portable toilets with air conditioning, heating, full power, fans and running water. Nor-Val has three of them mounted on an axle trailer it can take up and down the Valley, all the way from Penticton to Golden, to wine tastings and other outdoor events. Clipperton admits the units were expensive, but they are paying off well.
|Now with three locations within an hour’s drive, Clipperton sees some opportunities to share equipment and realize some efficiencies. But the logistics will take work.|
Shelli has overseen a growth of event planning services to go along with the equipment rentals. Nor-Val Events now has three full-time ladies dedicated to helping brides set up weddings. At the showroom in Vernon, the brides can choose their tables and set them up the way they want them, choosing from a huge selection of linens, dishes, cutlery and centrepieces. “They can change all the colours as if it is a playroom,” Clipperton explains. “They can try different tablecloths with different runners with different flowers and different vases. If you had a 3-D computer program you could do it a lot easier, but the girls all want to see it live.” Clipperton admits the events business has been fun. “When you go to the shows in the States, you meet people who are in events. When you say ‘Are you events or tools,’ they say ‘We used to be tools but we got rid of that a long time ago and it was the best decision we ever made.’” There is a recession-resistant element to the events side that Clipperton likes. “It doesn’t matter the economy, if people aren’t building subdivisions and houses, people are still getting married and having parties.”
Between hockey games and wine tastings, Nor-Val Rentals has made success a community affair.