Patrick FlanneryFeatures Party and event Profiles
At Hub City Display in Saskatoon, Sask., business success comes down to one simple formula
At Hub City Display in Saskatoon, Sask., business success comes down to one simple formula: if the client needs it, the answer is “yes.” That is because Blair, a third-generation partner in the business, draws his motivation from a desire to help others and solve their problems. His wife, Jill, also a partner, is right at his side.
|The party rental business is not just tables and chairs any more. Jill Holtsman picked out this photo booth at The Rental Show in Las Vegas in an attempt to keep Hub City’s offerings fresh. Posing with the booth are Jill, Carol Baker, Vickey Wood and Michelle Lear. Photo credit: Jerry Humeny
Their commitment to customer satisfaction has seen the event rental and custom exhibit company they share with Blair’s father, Larry, break out of its Prairie roots and start to make waves across the country.
Hub City Display occupies a 17,000 square-foot office, showroom and warehouse. The Holtsmans own 18 tractor-trailers plus assorted vans, trucks, cube vans and other vehicles to move gear around. They employ 17 workers, plus up to 60 casual helpers. The company has four main lines of business that overlap and interact with one another: custom exhibits and displays, large-format digital printing, exhibit management services and event and party rental services. Most of its business is still in Western Canada, but Hub City goes right across the country doing exhibits for the likes of Makita, Black and Decker, Stanley and Potash Corporation. Some of the shows its does might require five tractor-trailer loads of carpet alone. A recent show for the Western Retail Lumber Association needed 22 trailer loads of gear.
Trade shows are big, but corporate parties are now even bigger. There seems to be a never-ending appetite for novelty at the corporate gigs today, so Hub City carries a wide selection of the unusual, including a calf-roping game, a pit-stop game where participants race to change the tires on electric go-carts, and photo booths.
The custom exhibit business involves designing and fabricating podiums, stages, signs, counters, reception desks and myriad other exhibition structures. Most of the exhibits are made of wood in the company’s fully tooled wood shop by Wayne Redekopp, a veteran millworker and cabinet maker who has been with the company 15 years. More standard exhibits are usually constructed using Octanorm, a standardized aluminum-tube-based exhibit system from Germany.
Hub City is also unusual in that it makes a great deal of its own party rental furniture, often using the same designs Blair’s grandfather, Eldred, invented when he started the company. The Holtsmans made the furniture themselves until recently, when demand outstripped their ability to keep up. But sourcing furniture that met their quality standards proved to be a challenge. “We used to have these black bar stools with swivel tops,” Blair remembers. “I had 300 of those and I threw them out. Somebody sat on one and the legs broke where the bolt went through. Threw them all in the garbage, every one of them.” Blair experimented with sending their designs to China for production there, but found the quality from offshore suppliers very uneven. Now, Hub City gets its bar stools and padded chrome chairs from My Chair, a Toronto furniture maker, even though it costs more. They are still producing much of their wood furniture in-house, having recently completed a batch of 180 banquet tables.
Hub City also makes its own drapes and skirts, though that has been waning lately. “Now I’m starting to buy it because we can’t sew it for as little as we can buy it,” Blair says. “It’s weird.”
The idea to get into digital printing occurred to Blair as a way to save money when making displays, and has turned into a thriving sideline in its own right. He hired an experienced printer, Pat Holmes, and asked him what he would need to set up a large format digital printing shop. Then he went and bought it. “I don’t even know how to turn this stuff on,” Blair admits, “But I sure know what it costs.” The print shop has enabled Hub City to offer cutting-edge graphics with its displays and event materials, and to emblazon its logo on all its trucks and vehicles. It can supply pop-up banners and banner stands, as well as custom graphics and decals for snow machines and other vehicles.
Exhibit management is the service-intensive side of the company. “We make a plan,” Blair explains. “We pick out all their pieces, make sure it is all good, ship it to the venue, go in and set it all up then stay for the show. Then we take it all down, load it up and bring it back here.”
So Hub City is into manufacturing, rental, printing and services. It is a level of horizontal integration that is not supposed to work well, but the structure serves Hub City well. “To us, it does not seem like four different businesses because we do it every day,” Jill says.
Blair’s grandfather started the company in his basement in 1947, after returning from the Second World War. Initially, the core business was storefront window dressing. Eldred had no background in the business, but did well enough at it that more opportunities came along. He branched out into decorating restaurants, then to doing parade floats. By the 1960s, Blair’s father was skipping school to help Eldred set up trade shows in Regina, and Hub City had moved into its first separate location in what would later be the Prairieland Exhibition Centre. That shop was tiny, so Eldred moved the company to St. George Street into what used to be gun range. The advantage there was the company now had a small yard. The operation grew and Larry built on to the existing building, then bought the building next door. Eldred had kept the company about the same size for many years, but Blair’s father was not afraid of growth. In 1989 he bought the existing facility from the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, and the stage was set for another bout of aggressive expansion. “I remember I used to work weekends when I was going to school moving stuff from the old shop to this shop,” Blair says, “and when we put it in this warehouse it was so huge. ‘How are you possibly going to fill this place?’ I thought.”
Hub City has weathered the changes of time and markets, evolving away from storefronts and parades into trade shows and now corporate events. In the early days, trade show backdrops were often made with crepe paper instead of drapery, and Eldred was an expert at creating them. When Blair and Jill got married in 1994, Larry did a crepe paper backdrop for their head table. “That was the last one ever,” Jill says.
When Blair’s father started managing the business, he started doing more manufacturing of custom exhibits for trade shows. Parade floats were still a big deal in those days, and companies would pay well to have a spectacular custom float made. “I remember as a kid on the morning of the parade, Saturday morning, there would be 15 or 20 floats,” Blair says, “and we would have to go in at four in the morning and set them up at our shop.”
Blair’s father always told him to get into some other line of work, but there never seemed to be any chance of that happening. “He has pictures of Blair playing with Lego as a kid,” Jill says, “And they are all set up as trade shows with the little curtains. He’d make his own curtains to go with the Lego.” Blair remembers the day when his father turned things over to him for good. “He came in and put a stack of cheques on my desk and he said, ‘Here, sign these,’ and that was my training.”
“Larry didn’t have any problems letting go,” Jill adds.
“Grandpa would come in at seven in the morning, put the coffee on and sit here until 10, until he died at 70,” Blair says. “I don’t think Dad has been in the building for 10 or 12 years.” Blair’s father has become a silent partner, but there seems a good chance that the tradition of Holtsman family ownership will continue at Hub City, because Blair and Jill’s middle son is very interested. They have three children: 18-year-old Alyssa, 15-year-old Brayden and 14-year-old Adam. “Mostly just Brayden is interested in the business,” Jill says. “The other two only come in once and a while.”
“The other two are probably smarter,” Blair jokes.
Blair and Jill married fairly young, at 20, so they are already at the stage where the kids are becoming more independent and they can concentrate more on the business. “I stayed home and raised our kids and I had a daycare,” Jill says. “Then as they got older, I started coming here more and more. We thought someone else should know how to do the books, so I learned that end of things. Now I seem to be coming here full time. I’m not sure how that happened. I didn’t agree to that,” she says, laughing.
“That is one of our things,” Blair says: “if a customer ever asks us, the answer is always ‘yes.’ ” That can-do philosophy is not just talk; the Holtsmans say they have never let a client down. “A new customer will phone and they ask, ‘What happens if this does not get done in time?’ ” Jill says. “It is a hard question to answer because we have never not finished in time.”
Blair jumps in: “We have never, ever not been done.”
Jill continues, “It comes close; you are vacuuming and doing final touches all night and the show opens and you are going out this door as they come in that door…”
“…but we have never not been able to meet a deadline,” Blair says.
Blair’s determination to satisfy the customer is both his motivation for being in the business and the reason for Hub City’s success. “One year, I painted a fishing line with black marker because it showed up on camera,” he says. “That is how detail-oriented we get. [Our client] had those portable walls that fold. They have a silver bar between them where the two sections join. The cameras picked up a glare off that, so they said, ‘You guys have to figure out how to make that disappear.’ So that was my job. I ended up putting a strip of tan Velcro on the silver and it blended perfectly with the wall and you couldn’t even see it.” Blair says finding solutions like this is what gets him out of bed in the morning. “What works really well for me is, I love working with people. I love trying to figure out what they need and to be able to solve their problems and issues. I got a hug today from a customer because she really liked what we do.”
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