Home of the square deal
By Jim ChliboykoFeatures Profiles
Once upon a time a young salesman and an old salesman were having a beer.
Once upon a time a young salesman and an old salesman were having a beer. The young salesman was complaining bitterly about his customers, saying people in his territory were cheap and constantly trying to get more out of him and his company than they had paid for. “At this rate,” the young salesman ranted, “my employer won’t be able to stay in business!”
|Economy Rental Centre is a 34-year-old institution in Leamington, Ont., and has been in this location since 1997. Hutchinson bought it in 2007 and has made some significant upgrades to the facade and work areas.
The old salesman listened to all this quietly then said, “You know, jobs come and go and the lines you represent come and go. But as long as you live in this area and have this job, these customers are going to be the people you depend on for a living. That’s why the customer always comes first.”
Greg Hutchinson is the old salesman. He came to the rental business after eight years as the service advisor at an Essex car dealership, and then several more years as the North American representative for air filtration companies serving Big Three auto makers. Before he ever purchased a rental store, Hutchinson learned in his bones that his customers must come first. He believes it so strongly that he has actually turned away from some growth opportunities in order to right-size his business to optimize service to his community in Leamington, Ont.
That business is Leamington’s Economy Rental Centre. The company has been a significant part of the Leamington economy since 1980.
“Four high school teachers started it as a sideline business, and hired their first small engine tech, which was Dave Nelner,” said Hutchinson. Nelner eventually became sole owner, until 2007, when he sold the business to Hutchinson’s group. “I was looking for a business opportunity in 2007 and Economy Rental was available,” said Hutchinson. “After researching the rental industry, I realized it would be a great fit for me. It has allowed me to use my technical skills, customer service skills and business knowledge in the day-to-day operation of the business. These would certainly all be important requirements to operating a rental business. I am very fortunate to have other investors, along with myself, in the ownership of Economy Rental. I am the only one involved on a day–to-day basis and left alone to make decisions. It truly has been a very simple relationship that we have.”
Economy Rental currently employs about a dozen people, some of them seasonal. It sees its main customers as industrial (20 per cent), agricultural (20 per cent) and homeowners/small contractors (60 per cent). Some of the lines it deals with are Stihl, Air Liquide and Honda. It also represents Bobcat, Miller Welders, Skyjack and Kubota, and they are also a Superior Propane filling station. Propane is a big business for Economy – Hutchinson says the steady flow of revenue from that business is irreplaceable.
Economy Rental recently got out of selling and servicing lawnmowers and lawn tractors in order to make the business more concentrated on the core aspects of its business. The decision, for Hutchinson, was all about being able to fulfill his commitment to his customers. “We have never lost sight of how important it is to do what you say and keep your promises,” said Hutchinson. “I am a firm believer that customers make a choice to come to us, they are not forced. This is even truer now with the competitive pressures we face. The old story of ‘build it and they will come’ is wrong; it should be ‘serve them and they will stay.’ Having knowledgeable, friendly staff is obviously a key ingredient of what we do. We pride ourselves on achieving that. All staff are equally important. Front-line customer service representatives at the counter may see many walk-in customers, but our employees and technicians out on the road see many customers each and every day. At Economy Rental we do our best to ask each customer, upon return of a rental item, how they made out and did it work for them. We pay attention to them to learn from their experiences with using the item they rented. We can learn from them to help advise and guide the next customer.
“Equally important is to properly explain how items rented or purchased are to be safely operated. I guess the message I am trying to make is simply that it’s important to pay attention to your customer.”
For all his focus on the customer, Hutchinson’s years in the cutthroat world of industrial automotive supplies have taught him to keep an eye on the bottom line. His rates are not the cheapest, even in the small Leamington market, but he refuses to engage in a race to the bottom on price. The strategy is to make money off of what he does and deliver unique value in the form of better service. Everyone wins. “I have an interesting, diverse background of blue collar and white collar,” said Hutchinson, who was born and raised in Leamington. “I worked in a factory, I owned my own business. I just did a little bit of everything. It gave me a good skill set for this business – because you need customer service, you need the technical and you need solid financial knowledge. I graduated in 1983 from motor power technology at St. Clair College. So that gave me a good technical background for this business.”
Leamington hasn’t had the best year. The town of 28,000 on the shore of Lake Erie has, within its borders, Point Pelee National Park, the southernmost mainland point in Canada. It’s also known as the Tomato Capital of Canada and has flourished with a strong greenhouse industry and, for over 100 years, was the site of a major Heinz factory. But last fall, Heinz announced that they would be moving away from Leamington, taking with them several hundred jobs. Despite that, Hutchinson doesn’t seem alarmed at the prospects for the town. “We’ve always got something going on there,” he said. “And it continues now because there’s ongoing projects and ongoing maintenance that’s going on. I would expect that we would be no different than the tomato farmers and suppliers that are affected by this, that we will continue to do some business, just not as much.
“We will (notice the difference), and it’s a measurable amount of money but, at the same time, it forces you to do what you should be doing anyway, which is going out and looking for new business, and that’s a difficult thing in the rental business when you talk to independent rental shops. It’s a struggle to get out there and pound the streets and look for new business. You have to find the time to do it. It’s hard, but it’s important. You have to do it. At all times it is equally important to look for, seek out and implement cost savings.”
“People are going to want to sell their houses, maybe move out west,” says Harry Reinhardt, who joined Hutchinson as his store manager just this year after many years in the rental industry. “We’ve heard of some people moving out west. So if they’re going to sell their houses, what does that mean? They’re going to come to Economy Rental and they’re going to get stuff to upgrade their home, to do some landscaping to try and increase the value of their home, so yes, we’re going to lose some Heinz, but we’re going to get some of that homeowner business to offset it. Hopefully, in the meantime, someone’s going to take over Heinz and then we’ll be back up with whoever takes over.” Right now, that looks to be a consortium of investors calling itself Highbury CanCo. The company signed a letter of intent to purchase the Heinz facility in late February and keep up to 250 workers employed there. That’s a lot less than the 740 the plant used to employ, but better than nothing.
Hutchinson started out his time with the Economy Rental Centre as a student of sorts. He is influenced by the writings of Dick Detmer (“A Practical Guide to Working in an Equipment Rental Business,” “The Guide to Great Customer Service”) and he even mystery shopped other rental outlets before he bought into ERC. He’s also an advocate of nudge marketing.
|According to Hutchinson, this is a “dirty” truck. Behind it you can see the big
propane tank that Hutchinson says they fill three times a week when things get busy.
“One of the guys that works here who started last year went and bought a bunch of cheap Styrofoam coolers and some bags of ice. He buys bottled water when it’s on sale and he’d stuff the cooler with ice and water and take it to a construction site in the heat and just leave it there and say, ‘There you go, boys.’ You know, little things like that. I think it’s important, but you’ve got to cement your relationships with your existing customers before you look for new customers, too. So the Heinz thing, yeah, it’s a big blow to Leamington. Is it the end, the death sentence? No, by no means. Absolutely not.” Even though Heinz is gone, the plant continues to operate and Hutchinson is seeing huge growth in many of the local greenhouse operations.
A big part of Economy Rental’s approach to business has to do with the company’s staff and the company’s presentation. “You can have the most pristine building and clean trucks and the clean shop, but you have to have the right people too,” said Hutchinson whose two sons work for the store. “And we’ve got a great bunch of people here.”
“It is very, very important to have clean equipment which operates as intended. The equipment has to be modern and you have to react to trends in the industry. The buildings and trucks must be neat and clean, along with the employees being well groomed and well spoken. It’s important to portray a professional image in the community.”
And Leamington has taken notice of Hutchinson’s commitment to the community. Economy Rental Centre was recently honoured with the Leamington Chamber of Commerce award for customer service. It’s not a small deal. The Chamber gets dozens of applicants for the award and a panel of judges conducts an exhaustive research process before deciding one winner each year.
Hutchinson expands his focus on customer service to include his whole staff, and hires accordingly. “In the rental business, nobody’s working the factory floor and just putting a nut in the hole; everybody is interacting and exposed to and part of the customer service experience every day. They’re exposed to customers, whether it’s the guy loading a truck, whether it’s the guy delivering the equipment on a truck, whether it’s the guy unloading the truck and demoing product. It’s important. It’s very, very important.”
And part of Economy Rental Centre’s strategy to stand out from the regional rental competition is simple – to merely treat his customers better than he thinks anyone else can.
Says Harry, “I think we spend the time with people. We create a lot of personal relationships with the people. It’s not that we go out with them socially, but you know, we talk to them, we call them by name, we spend the time to educate them when they do have a rental. We don’t just say, you know, here it is, good luck, look it up online or whatever. We try and show them how to use it, explain to them what is the best way to do it.”
They must be onto something good; sometimes the people behind a business may not actually realize the impact they have on the community. Hutchinson had recently been to the funeral of a man named Len Morel, who had been one of his more inspirational bosses in the past. Morel hired Hutchinson out of college but, in recent years, Morel had become a customer of Hutchinson’s. “He rented a Bobcat every year; in fact, I’ll show you something. This is how you know that your customer absolutely loves your rental equipment when they put a picture of the Bobcat he rented…”
At this point, Hutchinson holds up Morel’s memorial handout. One of the pictures is of him and the rented Bobcat that he used yearly to bolster the beach at his home. It would be difficult to come up with a more complete statement about customer service and loyalty.
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