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In the fast lane

What is 113 years old and goes really fast? Answer: Raymond Brothers, the tent and event rental store owned by the supercharged Jacobs family in London, Ont.


February 19, 2015
By James Chliboyko

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In addition to fabricating tents and renting party gear

What is 113 years old and goes really fast? Answer: Raymond Brothers, the tent and event rental store owned by the supercharged Jacobs family in London, Ont.

When the Jacobs are not providing in-house sewn and welded tents and a full range of party supplies to as many as six weddings on a weekend, you can usually find them at the stock car race track, cheering on one of their four out of five kids who drive. It’s been a radical change of pace for Ken and Jodi since Ken left his career as a funeral director, and there are no yellow flags ahead as the shifting world of social media marketing keeps this busy team on its toes.

“My wife and I bought Raymond Brothers back in the fall of 1998 — seems like a long time ago now,” says Ken. The idea for it initially came across their accountant’s desk. He had located the business up for sale in London and suggested it to Ken and Jodi, knowing Jodi hailed from nearby Tillsonburg. Ken was ready for a change from the funeral business, which he was finding more corporate and competitive in an environment where big franchises were taking over the independents. Looking for a chance to own a business that would bring him back into touch with his customers, he was surprised to find the wedding industry was similar in many ways to the funeral business. “Although it’s a happy occasion, it’s not unlike a funeral, where you have one opportunity to make it right,” Jacobs explains. “A lot of organizing is involved and a lot of high stress, whether it’s the bride or the mother of the bride or you name it. And so there are a lot of similarities to a funeral. We kind of liked that aspect of it so we decided to jump in. It was more of a family decision.” The Jacobs bought the company and moved from Brampton, Ont., to London, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive away.

At that time, Raymond Brothers was strictly a tent fabrication and rental operation located in London’s Hyde Park area. In 2004, the Jacobs found an opportunity to expand by buying Forest City Rentals from Jim and Pat Rudder, who were retiring. Acquiring Forest City gave Raymond Brothers a full offering of tables, chairs and other party rental fleet. A year later, Ken and Jodi moved the company across town to its present, much larger, facility on Oxford Street.

That’s the recent history of the company under present ownership. But the Raymond Brothers of the company name and logo are not merely the brainchild of graphic designers; they did actually exist. They originally came over from around Detroit over a century ago, moved to Windsor and two of the three brothers eventually went to London. “That’s why our logo only shows two, because it was two that actually formed the London location,” said Jacobs. “When they started, it was mostly exterior canvas manufacturing. So, anything to do with camping: tents, cots, some party tents back then. The factories all had window awnings on them to cool the factories, so there was a lot of that. When the war came on, a lot of efforts apparently turned to the war effort, backpacks and clothing and that type of thing, because they had the equipment to make the heavy-duty goods.”

“And as time went on, they started making rental tents. Obviously, they’re too large for someone to purchase, so they started making them for their own rental, and we still make them today for our own rental purposes. Again, even in today’s market, they’re still pricey for an individual to buy to only put up twice a year. So, it’s still a rental item for the most part.” The Jacobs family (Ken and Jodi are parents to Marc, 21, Savannah, 19, Jaxson, 17, Paighton, 14 and Shane, 11) bought Raymond Brothers from a couple named the McCreadys.

One way Raymond Brothers never changed from its earliest days was in making and selling custom awnings to local stores and houses. “The awning division was always part of Raymond Brothers, going back to 1903, more so because of the factories and that’s how people cooled homes,” Jacobs says. “Now, we’re seeing awnings more for esthetics. You know, they’ve got these big air conditioners, so the air conditioners will cool the home no problem, but now it’s more for curb appeal. And the canopies at the back of the home are obviously for sitting under. A lot of people are going to couches and more indoor furniture coming outdoors, and that needs to be covered for the summer, for rain, wind, that type of thing.”

Making and selling awnings gives Jacobs a chance to reap additional revenue using much of the same space and resources he uses to make and rent tents. “That was the nice synergies from being under the same roof, because we mixed both party and tent rental and awning and shade products so we have installers on both sides and we kind of put the installers where they need to be that day. They’re all interchangeable. So if we have a large tent going up, we’ll steal some from the awning side and just make sure that tent gets erected properly and installed on time. It’s nice to be able to do that. When we were working in two buildings, it was always kept separate.”

In terms of what’s needed to produce their tents and awnings, Jacobs says, “You know, back then it was a lot of canvas, so it was a lot of sewing, and now of course, we have a lot of vinyl material, which is heat welding. We manufacture new tents every year, so the designs change a little bit, and it’s just a matter of keeping things fresh and white and clean and new. The largest tent we have now is 100 feet wide by 300 feet long so it’s a huge tent. But, again, it’s great for those organizations that want to make money, like charities, so they can erect the tent, sell tickets whether it’s a dance or music or whatever they want to do, and they can generate a lot of money with just one night or one weekend.”

Raymond Brothers is located in the light industrial area of London, out towards the airport. In the wintertime, the company employs about 10 people; in the summer, that grows to about 40. Three of those employees have over 20 years of experience with the firm. Their business, Jacobs estimates, is 40 per cent weddings, 50 per cent corporate events and 10 per cent miscellaneous things, like Christmas parties. Their territory is generally Chatham to Goderich, to Kitchener to Longpoint, though they can go farther afield if it’s needed.

The company gets great support from local businesses like Fanshawe College, Western University, 3M, many of the car dealerships, and General Dynamics, a manufacturer of military vehicles which is just across the road. As a London institution itself, it seems natural that Raymond Brothers would do business with many of the other long-time pillars of the business community.

Jacobs says Raymond Brothers can handle up to about six weddings at a time. “We don’t want to normally take on any more than that, only because we start to spread ourselves too thin. And, so, again, a lot of these events have to go up on a Thursday. Wednesday’s sometimes too early — they want to cut the grass, they want to get things organized before we show up. Friday’s too late because they want to dress it up. That’s again where that whole stress thing comes in with the bride”

Serving weddings takes a special level of customer service and dealing with customer stress. “Whether it’s myself or the installers or the ladies at the front counter, we all know how to handle it as far as dealing with the issues at hand and resolving them immediately. We don’t dwell on who’s right, who’s wrong. Because it’s not about that at that point; it’s making sure the tent is white. And I always say, and it’s kind of a joke around Raymond Brothers, that the tent better be as white as her dress or it’s not going up. You don’t want issues? Make sure it’s white. And so the guys understand that.”

Ken sees a shifting landscape when it comes to how companies like his reach out to customers. “The marketing is really changing, I think, with the Internet, Google, with the home shows, that type of thing.  I don’t know how long those shows will be around. It costs a lot of money to do them, a lot of money to set them up, a lot of money to rent the space and do you get the same bang on Google? If the bridal show is in January, well, that only serves maybe one week of brides because then it’s gone. So now you have to rely on the Internet. Because obviously they’re still going to be trying to find rentals in February, March, April, and there’s no shows then. I mean we don’t do any Yellow Pages anymore — zero. It’s all Google now. It’s all keywords and AdWords.”

As for other social media, “We do a little bit of Facebook, a little bit of Twitter, as well. Probably not as much as we should be. We also do radio. It tends to work for us because I can turn it on, turn it off. February might be a time for engagements, so we can run some ads then. And the same when it’s summertime, when it’s really hot, it’s nice to advertise awnings.”

Like in the funeral business, Jacobs says constant marketing and promotion is key because he’s providing you service for something that happens (hopefully) once in your life. “We can do a beautiful job on a wedding and now we have to go find another bride. So it’s very hard. We have  to constantly advertise somewhere, somehow. And the same with awnings — you put an awning on a home, now we have to find another home. The bride, hopefully we won’t see again. And on a home, it could be 10, 20 years before that awning needs to be addressed again. It’s always find a new customer, find a new customer.”

Local partnerships alleviate some of the difficulty in digging for new business. “We do a lot with caterers. And with caterers, it’s mostly tableware—dishes, cutlery, glassware, that type of thing. And they’ll come in on a Friday and rent for the 200-person catering that they have to do. They rent it all clean, Monday it all shows back up all dirty, and then so we turn it around in a couple of days and rent it out the next Thursday. So, that’s kind of another aspect of the business. My term is, we’re the caterer to the caterers. So, we kind of take what’s the most stress for them off their plate. They know food and how to prepare it and present it so they can just show up here (they know they can show up anytime) pick it up clean, return it on Monday dirty and so that aspect of all the dishes and tableware is off their plate. So we kind of work hand-in-hand with them and it’s a good fit.”

Another concern is that safety, which is no light matter, especially since the electrocution death of a young tent installer erecting a tent in nearby Watford in the summer of 2013.

Says Jacobs, “We do go through the WHMIS training and the health and safety aspects of it. So, you know, where we walk them through videos and booklets and that type of thing. And then they’re put with a crew leader, who’s an experienced crew leader –and, again, it’s their job to assess the area first obviously, before anybody even starts putting stuff in the ground, or to look above, in that case.”

And while the magazine spoke to Jacobs during the slow midwinter days, post-Christmas, one might have been able to sense that he was gearing up for another strong year. After all, summer is only ever a few months away. He seemed to be ready to get his hands dirty, again.

“I think the main secret, and as far as the secret to any business, I’m hands-on here every day and I think the staff appreciate that,” said Jacobs. “So, that I know what’s going on, I know what’s coming in, what’s going out, kind of on all sides of the business. If issues come up, they get dealt with right away and they’re not waiting for an answer. I think as far as a secret to success, there’s a lot of things roll into there. And obviously, with Raymond Bros, when we ramp up to 40, it’s pretty hopping here in the summer. So we try to treat people as fairly and as properly as possible, as we would ourselves. We’ve been able to retain a lot of staff. And when push comes to shove, we get ‘er done.”


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