Canadian Rental Service

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Making it look easy

Don Maltby bought Ingersoll Rent-All in 1989 from a fellow who had started the company only three years before. “A lot of people think rental is very easy,” Don says. “You just buy the equipment and it never breaks down and you just make loads and loads of money.”


April 19, 2011
By Patrick Flannery


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Don Maltby bought Ingersoll Rent-All in 1989 from a fellow who had started the company only three years before. “A lot of people think rental is very easy,” Don says. “You just buy the equipment and it never breaks down and you just make loads and loads of money.”

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Don Maltby has built strong relationships with local farmers and small contractors over 21 years in business, and now their sons, Mike’s high school friends, are becoming clients.


 

Don had already learned this is not the case at the feet of his mentor, the late Doug Earle of Northgate Rent-All in Brantford, Ont. Since buying the company and bringing his son, Mike, on board in 2000, Don has leveraged his mechanical aptitude and a bred-in-the-bone understanding of his clientele to find success in this very tough industry.

Don met Earle when he was fixing his truck in 1977. “He said, ‘If you ever want a job, come and see me,’ and I said ‘How about lunch time,’” Don remembers. He worked at Northgate for a short time, then left to take his millwright apprenticeship. But after growing up on a dairy farm, factory life didn’t suit Don well. “I really didn’t like the walls,” Don says. When Earle asked him to come back to Northgate, Don said he would, but he’d like to start learning the front office side of the business with a view to owning his own shop someday. To his credit, Earle agreed and started getting Don more involved in running the shop. Don remembers when he heard about Ingersoll coming up for sale. “When I told [Earle], his first comment was ‘Gee, it is kind of slow around here. Let’s take a drive up and take a look.’” Don credits Earle with giving him the selfless support and encouragement he needed to become a business owner himself. “ I cannot say enough good about Doug,” he says.

Ingersoll, Ont., is a small community in southwestern Ontario, just off the 401 near London, Ont. The official population is listed as 11,760, but Mike says it is closer to 14,000. The confusion is understandable, as the number of people in the town depends on what shift is on at the local Cami plant, an automotive parts manufacturer. But the real lifeblood of the town is farming. Oxford County is heavily agricultural, which has helped Don to enjoy his work as well as be successful.

“When you grow up on a farm, the equipment gets in your blood,” he says. “As the season changes, the mixture of equipment changes. This gives us a chance to get outside and meet people. We can relate to the farm trade.”

Don’s small-town location has enabled him to establish a niche of his own, almost in a literal sense. “This is a small centre, between London and Woodstock,” he says. “There are advantages and disadvantages. We do not have any of the large players in town, the Uniteds or the Battlefields. They make their presence known, but we can service the small, local person better.”

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Ingersoll Rent-All moved to this location four years ago. It was originally built by the Canadian Silo Corporation in 1956, and boasts 6,000 square feet of interior space on 3.5 acres of land.


 

That personal touch with service is a key for the Maltbys. “The customers who are going to cause you problems are inexperienced,” Don explains. “That is where you have to be extra careful with your explanations and give them proper instruction.” Don’s policy is every piece of equipment leaving the shop is started up in front of the customer before it goes. “That changes the conversation from ‘This thing is a piece of junk, it didn’t start,’ to ‘I know this works, I saw your man start it up, but I’m having trouble.’”

“We like to be problem solvers,” Don says. “People come in and they think they want a certain type of equipment. They have a hole to dig, so they want a post-hole digger. We might look at the whole picture and say ‘You are doing a deck, so if you got a skid steer with an auger you could level off the area and bring your gravel in.’ One larger piece might do more for their specific task and be more economical in the end. I like it when people call us up and say ‘I’m not really sure what I need, but this is what I’m doing. Over the years we have that rapport with customers and the trust has built up.”

Ingersoll Rent-All carries a wide variety of equipment, including construction tools, lawn and garden implements, party rentals, plumbing and cleaning supplies. The mix leans toward agriculture, with stump grinders and an extensive selection of skid steer attachments. The Matlbys also sell Stihl power tools, which Don says is a welcome revenue generator. The front showroom is bright and welcoming, with plenty of light flooding in from big windows. A slick Stihl display rack with a huge variety of equipment dominates one side of the room, while the rest of the room is laid out in well-spaced racks that invite casual browsing.

Don says his big movers are Bobcat skid steers and Stihl lawn and garden equipment, which he sells as well as rents. “Working with the farm trade, we have a lot of the different attachments for skid steers because the farmer may have his own unit but often does not have the attachments,” he says. Don has watched the rental business change over the years. “Thirty years ago, palm sanders, grinders and drills made up most of the mix in a general rental store. Now, if somebody comes in for a drill or a grinder, the question is why doesn’t he have his own.” Rental owners need to move up that value-added chain to bigger equipment in order to improve profitability, he says. “With wages what they are, you cannot have somebody servicing a small item,” he says. “It can take as long to service a chainsaw as a skid steer.”  

Focusing on larger equipment means more inventory and more pressure to close deals. But Don and Mike refuse to participate in rate cutting. “We do not compete on price, but we compete on the quality end and the service end,” Don says. “Competitiveness is more out there now. You have to be more in tune with costs. The tendency of the big guys is to cut prices. We cannot get involved in that.” Ingersoll Rent-All’s small-town market makes it a little easier to protect a fair margin. “When we did the town hall [in 1996], at my first meeting with the supervisor, he said, ‘I want you to make a dollar on this site. I don’t want you to make two dollars, but I want you to make a dollar.’ That has always stuck with me. We have to make money and our customers have to make money because if they do not, the customers cannot pay their bills and we cannot pay our bills to the suppliers. Everybody has to make money. You do not have to gouge, but you have to be fair.”

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Garth Henderson started with Ingersoll Rent-All last year. The company relies on strong technical expertise to keep its machinery running well without paying for outside service.


 

Another part of making money is giving careful thought to the equipment mix he carries and choosing suppliers wisely. In this, Don is very satisfied. “Our Bobcat dealer has bent over backwards,” he says. “We have gotten a lot of great service. The key for us is how fast something can be fixed and at what cost so that item can be back ready to product revenue for us again. The one thing we cannot have is something that is down for three months waiting for a part. We have lost our season if that happens.”

Don’s strategy has been to standardize, as far as possible, on Honda engines. “It keeps our parts inventory down,” he says. “In such a changing world with the way engines are changing and the technology is changing and the parts are changing it is easier to be a little bit committed to one. It is a lot easier when you get a phone call. If a guy calls and he can’t start something and it is a Honda engine, we know which way the throttle is and which way the choke is instead of ‘OK, can you describe the engine on that for me?’”

Don’s right hand is his son, Mike, who joined the company full time in 2000 after swearing for years he would never work for his father. “All the way through high school I said, ‘I am not working for Dad, I am not working for Dad,’” Mike says. “Then I went off and tried some other things and said, ‘Well, maybe I could work for Dad.’”

Mike has added some 21st century tech savvy to Ingersoll Rent-All. “You see what is on my desk,” Don says, “a calculator and some pens and paper. The computer is over there.” Mike says the website is now a critical part of their business. “Customers who come in here are much more educated. They already know just what they want and sometimes they have even checked out prices at the competition.” Mike maintains a simple but effective site with a comprehensive rate schedule, directions to the shop and instructional videos for their most popular equipment.

Don is looking forward with obvious pride to Mike taking over the shop someday. “When I started here 21 years ago, there were fellows also starting up then who I built relationships with,” Don says. “Mike went to high school with their kids, and now we see less and less of their generation and more and more of Mike’s generation. There has been a flip-over. It is nice to have two generations of loyalty in a store.”

The strategy now is to get Mike more exposure in the industry and the community while Don is still around to hold down the day-to-day business of the shop. To that end, Mike has served as vice-president of the Ontario chapter of the CRA, and will take over the presidency in August. Both Maltbys are very keen on the benefits of the association and happy to see the direction it has taken recently. Mike likes the protected insurance program, and hopes to spearhead new association initiatives to offer even more help to smaller, independent operators. “This marks our 50th year,” Mike says, “so we are going to be doing some celebrating.”

Don is enthusiastic about the participation of such younger members in the CRA. “It is nice to see,” he says. “It used to be just the older ones, toward the end of their career. Now we are seeing, with the likes of James Morden and Mike, members that have their future ahead and their careers. It is great to get involved early. Twenty years from now I’m not going to be doing this, but Mike is. We are seeing a real resurgence in the association.”

For his part, Mike is enthusiastic about the benefits of the CRA protected plan insurance program, saying it is critical for rental operators to have risk management solutions tailored to their needs. “We have never really shopped it around, because most insurers’ coverage stops the minute the equipment goes out the doors,” he explains. “It is one of the nice things about membership.”

Life in the rental industry is not what anyone would call easy. But after spending a few minutes with the relaxed and confident Maltbys at Ingersoll Rent-All, an outsider could certainly get the impression that it is.


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