Canadian Rental Service

Lift off

By Treena Hein   

Features Profiles

CanLift achieves steady growth in southern Ontario.

Vito Lattanzio positions a Genie in CanLift’s spacious back shop. The company has expanded three times since 2009 and now lives in a purpose-built facility on 3.6 acres of land housing over 900 lifts.

When Ryan Fitzgibbon and Johnny Dragicevic were hanging out as teens, the last thing they might have imagined was that they’d co-found an extremely successful rental business with Johnny’s younger brother, Marko, some years down the road.

It’s been a smooth ride, though a lot of hard work of course and not without risk. But from the start, the biggest challenge these partners have had to face is how to handle the growth of their firm, CanLift Equipment in Burlington, Ont.

You could say Marko’s career choice was what led the three to co-found CanLift in 2009 (with a fourth partner, Jacob Fuller). Marko was working as a mechanic and operations manager at a smaller independent rental firm focused mostly on lifts. Johnny was also helping out with sales and operations while working on his career in real estate. Johnny reached out to Jacob and Ryan (who were business partners in an online marketing company) to do some on-line lead generation when the majority of rental companies were still relying on traditional print advertising to attract new customers.

Somewhere around 2008, Marko and Johnny had decided to purchase a few lifts of their own, having established an arrangement with the rental firm owner to share rental profits from this equipment. But when the downturn of 2008 hit, they were eventually downsized from their roles. By spring of 2009, the four friends decided to capitalize on their collective knowledge one evening sitting in Johnny’s backyard, laying the groundwork for a rental firm of their own.


“There was a lot of equipment available on the market due to the crash, and we bought a few dozen lifts from various places,” Johnny explains. “It was a really great opportunity to build a fleet at a low cost.” And so, CanLift Equipment was born.

They then found a small building to rent in Oakville to house their operations, shared with a contractor customer. Johnny and Marko were full time with day-to-day operations while Ryan and Jacob worked to launch the business with a website and other marketing tools. In less than a year, they’d outgrown their building, found a new one-acre site with a 10,000-square-foot building on it and moved in. They also started to hire more staff for serving customers and delivery. 

But again, they rapidly outgrew their location. As luck would have it, the same person they were renting from had another, larger, property to rent in nearby Burlington, with a 24,000-square-foot shop on 2.3 acres. It became home for the next few years – but again, they grew. In 2017, the partners purchased land and built a new building of roughly the same size but on 3.6 acres. They now have 900 pieces of aerial work platform equipment in their fleet, and more on order. 

“Our customers range from everything from manufacturing, commercial and industrial clients to a few residential contractors,” says Marko. “We have about 45 staff now, with 15 of those being mechanics. That includes staff at our London location, which we opened in 2012.”

Their secret to success has been simple: Hard work and an incredible staff, dedicated to unparalleled customer service.

Using time wisely
The new building at the present location was officially opened in February 2020, just in time for implementation of lockdowns related to COVID-19. “It was scary,” says Ryan, “but we used our time to dive into all of our procedures. We looked at how we could do things differently, how we could handle equipment more efficiently and, across the company, doing more with less.”

 In retrospect, as for other firms, the lockdowns were a blessing in disguise. “It forced us to re-evaluate and streamline,” says Ryan. “We laid off staff at that point, but they were soon back as CanLift was declared essential.” Since then, business has been busier than ever, with the staff level increasing from 30 in 2020 to its present 45.

 “Construction and manufacturing have been booming in the area since we started the business,” Johnny explains. “There’s lots happening: massive projects in electric vehicle manufacture, greenhouses, hospitals, warehouses. Our customers tell us they are booked solid for three years, so our forecast is great. Along the way, our salespeople have done a great job at growing the business organically, and Ryan has done a lot through online channels to accelerate our growth. And we’ve always had a reputation for being a Mom-and-Pop business that serves our Mom-and-Pop customers really well.”

 Ryan adds, “Our customers want to be able to talk to the owner and that’s what we give them. When people call, they get another human being. It sets us apart from the corporate firms.”

 But do Johnny and Marko take equal turns fielding equipment-related calls after hours or on Sundays? “Well, Marko is seven years younger than me and Ryan, so he has to take more of the calls and show respect for his elders,” laughs Johnny. 

Managing growth
The supply chain has been tight the last three years, especially for parts, which has presented challenges for CanLift as it has grown. But growth has also meant adding more staff, another tough challenge for the firm and one that Marko, Ryan and Johnny have addressed in several ways.

 Years ago, they had sponsored a relative of Johnny’s wife to immigrate from Serbia and work for CanLift as a mechanic. At the time, they didn’t think of using that hiring strategy again, but a few years ago an equipment contact in South America asked if they needed mechanics. Through an immigration lawyer, CanLift has now offered immigration employment contracts to three other mechanics, from Argentina, Brazil, and just recently, Columbia. These employees enjoy the same very competitive salaries and excellent benefit package that CanLift has in place to both recruit and retain its other workers.

 “Our employee retention is very high,” says Ryan, “with great wages and benefits and a great company culture. We’ve had quite a few people come to us from other rental companies looking for a more positive work environment. We have flexible hours in the shop and our team knows that if they have any issues, they can speak to us directly. We have staff barbeques and breakfasts regularly, and lots of swag (company caps, toques, t-shirts, hoodies, jackets, even socks) which everybody likes. We also have a group RRSP program, we permit leaves from work where needed, and we made sure to have some mental health supports within the benefits coverage. We want to ensure good physical and mental health and that means a good work-life balance.”

 But of course, this isn’t always easy to achieve in the rental business. “We have after-hours emergencies and sometimes have to work a lot of the weekends,” Marko says. “There can be early mornings and late nights, but we lead by example.”  

Reflecting on the journey
For Ryan, what’s been most rewarding is seeing their brand progressively get more well-recognized all across Ontario. “The CanLift brand – the logo ideas that are always evolving, the website, the swag – I’m involved in the design and production of it all,” he says. “I love seeing staff proudly wearing our branded clothing, and seeing our equipment on the road, on job sites all across Ontario. Staff, friends and family are always sending me pictures of equipment they’ve spotted. I’m also very proud of our company culture. Our staff are all very close and loyal. We are one big happy family. It’s also very, very rewarding for me to build a brick-and-mortar business compared to my career before, which was purely in e-commerce, software development and online marketing.”

 For Marko, customer satisfaction and retention is among what’s most rewarding. “Providing equipment is just one facet of our business, and having a mechanical background I know that anything with moving parts can fail at any given time,” he says. “It’s the customer support and expectations to have that equipment reliable and up and running with minimal downtime that’s instrumental in their satisfaction and confidence in Canlift as a trusted partner. When long-standing customers refer us to their colleagues, it makes me happy for our team and the hard work they put in to continually achieve this.  We could never have reached these heights without putting our customers first and our team should be very proud of that!”

 For Johnny, one of the most gratifying things is the journey. “From a backyard conversation to a greenfield start-up to where we are today 14 years later has been nothing short of exhilarating,” he says. “The ups and downs (pun intended) of owning and running a lift business is always a learning curve, one that can never be done alone. We are very thankful for our wonderful and dedicated staff. They were all instrumental in getting us to where we are today. It starts with having drivers and dispatch on site before 5 a.m. to mechanics working late into the evening to have equipment ready yet again for a 5 a.m. start, to all the work behind the scenes that goes on all day to produce the customer satisfaction we like to see. Nothing makes me more proud than the team effort that gets us over the goal line day in and day out.”

The next growth goal is how to expand the London location. “We need more land there, and we may add another new location, as soon as the end of this year,” says Johnny. “We’d also like to add more branches throughout southwestern Ontario in future.” 

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