By Andrew Snook
Customer relationships key to growth of Sussex Rent All.
By Andrew Snook
Nestled in the middle of New Brunswick’s busiest cities lies the town of Sussex. The town of just over 4,200 residents is located almost directly in the middle of Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton – an ideal place to open a shop looking to service the most populated region of the province.
This is where equipment rental store Sussex Rent All ended up setting up shop in 2006. The store is currently co-owned by Doug Crandall and Craig Brown, owners of the store’s parent company, CRB Rentals. The business originally opened its doors under Crandall’s brother-in-law, who was unsatisfied with his equipment rental options in the area.
“He was a contractor who built a grocery store and wasn’t satisfied with the equipment or rental shops in the area at the time,” Crandall recalls. “He had been on the road for quite a few years and was originally from Sussex. He felt it was time to get off the road and start something different. He saw the need for a rental shop and asked me to come work for him and manage it.”
Crandall took on all the sales and marketing responsibilities for the company, in addition to anything else his brother-in-law needed help with. The company started out servicing what has come to be its core customer base: homeowners and local contractors.
“Homeowners and local contractors are our biggest client segment. But we service the bigger contractors too, like Bird Construction,” Crandall says.
Over the next decade, Sussex Rent All grew in popularity throughout the region.
In 2016, Crandall and his brother-in-law were approached by Craig Brown, who was interested in getting into the equipment rental business. Crandall and Brown decided to partner together and buy Sussex Rent All under their parent company, CRB Rentals. As part of the deal, Crandall was asked to stay on as general manager of the Sussex location. In 2017, CRB Rentals expanded and opened up Big Rock Rentals in Quispamsis, N.B., which is managed by Brown.
“My father owns the plaza in Quispamsis and he was looking for tenants. I was looking for a business to get into and saw an opportunity. There was only one other rental shop there, so we decided to get into the rental business,” Brown explains. “Instead of going in blind and not knowing anything about the business, we bought Sussex Rent All and brought Doug in as a partner because he knows what he’s doing.”
CRB Rentals employs eight people between the two shops, including Crandall and Brown. Despite sharing larger equipment and only being about a 45-minute drive from each other, the clientele at the two locations does vary a little. Sussex Rent All has a larger construction and renovation contractor base while Big Rock Rentals has a larger landscaping contractor base.
“Both are based on the same theory and demographic; it’s all about service and keeping people happy,” Crandall says, adding that the company is always finding ways to diversify its services. “The Sussex store is also an agent for Discount Car Rentals, and both of us have small engine repair shops. We have a mechanic to service our own equipment, so it only makes sense to service other people’s equipment. We do repairs on lawn mowers, tillers, chainsaws – small engine stuff. You can’t put all your eggs in one basket. Being a small company in a rural town, you have to diversify to survive. In addition to all the rentals, we sell nuts and bolts, rods and screws for all the contractors. We carry a lot of accessories for stuff that we rent. We try and make each of our locations as much of a one-stop shop as we can.”
Rentals without borders
Sussex Rent All has built a loyal customer base over the years through its dedicated service, which, of course, is vital for the long-term viability of an equipment rental business. That loyalty runs so deep that, on occasion, their regular customers will reach out with equipment rental requests even when they are thousands of kilometres away.
“I have some customers that work all over the country, and we do all their rentals for them, no matter where they are. I’ve rented them stuff as far away as Calgary,” Crandall says. “I have customers that call and say, ‘This is what I want, this is where I want it. Can you deliver?’ If you give them that good service, they’ll keep coming back.”
Crandall says his favourite aspect of the rental business is being able to help homeowners find solutions for repairing issues around their homes themselves so they can save money.
“There’s a satisfaction from helping people with projects. People come to me with issues such as a crack in the basement that they need to fix,” he says. He regularly draws on his experience he’s gained over the years working with contractors. “Working with guys in the construction industry, you can help people that have no understanding of what is needed to fix a problem. It’s satisfying to take something from the construction industry and show a homeowner how to fix a problem. I enjoy dealing with the public for the most part. Most people in this area are appreciative of any help you can give them. A lot of people may not know which products and tools are out there. You can teach them to use the right tools to do a job that they normally would have to pay someone else to do.”
No matter what the business, there are always hurdles to overcome. Crandall says finding and retaining good employees is one of the hardest parts of being in the equipment rental business.
“Wages of course is an important part of it. Also, a good working environment. This is what I try to create. Allow the employees to work on their own and give their own feedback – their own solution to a problem,” he says. “I’ve always tried to have a lighter feel in the business, where you’re not constantly dictating what they’re doing. We are a small company; it’s hard for us to offer some of the wages the bigger companies do. So, we have to offer them something else in return. We do offer employees health benefits that are paid for by the company. That’s worth a lot in today’s times. Maybe not so much for the younger generation, but the older ones appreciate having part of that paid for.”
Expanding the business over the past few years has also had its share of challenges.
“We’ve put a lot into expanding since we took it over,” Crandall says. “Sussex Rent All was brought to a new location, so we built a brand-new showroom. We remodelled our mechanic shop. We built the new location from scratch and opened it. The whole expansion has been a challenge.”
Only a few years after opening the new location, the company, along with the rest of the world, experienced a challenge like no other – the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 hit us hard at the end of March,” Crandall says. “The last two weeks of March we were down 50 percent from the year before. But when New Brunswick declared the state of emergency, we stayed open because we were considered an essential service, and we worked under locked doors for a couple of months. We only allowed people in one at a time, and then slowly beefed it up the last couple of months.”
For the first couple of months, the company had to lay off all of its staff, leaving Crandall and Brown to manage the two locations on their own.
“We went from working five days a week to six days a week,” Crandall says. “We’re back now to full staff and everybody is back working.”
Some of the precautions the company put into place will likely stick around on a longer-term basis until the pandemic is under control.
“We’ll continue to keep a better handle on cleaning the store, keep the hand sanitizer out, and limit the number of people in at one time,” Crandall says. “We’re typically two people at a time in the store. We’ll keep this practice up for the time being, for sure.”
Crandall says some expansion is just a natural part of owning an equipment rental business.
“We continue to expand every year. You have to keep expanding all the time – seems to be never-ending,” he says. “We’re always purchasing new equipment. We keep getting more diversified in our equipment. That said, I don’t want to be too big. I’m eventually going to retire. I’ll be 60 this year. The rental shop is my retirement.”
“I’d like to increase the number of contractors that we deal with and get out and see them more – build the contractor and commercial side of the business,” Brown says. “Another opportunity for growth is working with landscaping companies for equipment repair. It’s another side of the business we’re trying to grow on both locations. I would like it to see it be a business in itself.”