Canadian Rental Service

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No horizon too far

A lively, entrepreneurial spirit animates Erik Gerlof, owner of Rogers Rental in Kamloops, B.C. Only eight years after moving to Canada and buying the business, Gerlof has expanded and is moving into a new role as president of the B.C. local of the Canadian Rental Association.


February 28, 2012
By Patrick Flannery


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A lively, entrepreneurial spirit animates Erik Gerlof, owner of Rogers Rental in Kamloops, B.C. Only eight years after moving to Canada and buying the business, Gerlof has expanded and is moving into a new role as president of the B.C. local of the Canadian Rental Association.

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Rogers Rental provides full event rental services in about a 150-kilometre radius around Kamloops. Weddings are the biggest part of the business, but Gerlof has several important corporate clients as well. Photos by Jose Larochelle


 

People often talk about the importance of lifestyle and how you do not really have anything if you are not happy in your environment and your daily activities. We also hear a lot about the importance of keeping an open mind and being open to new challenges and experiences. When we hear these things in Canada we furrow our brows and nod in solemn agreement, then go back to doggedly shovelling snow under leaden winter skies while we fantasize about the sunny beaches we never take time to visit. Gerlof is different.

Here is a guy who, at the age of 33 with a wife and two young children, took a look around at the small town south of Rotterdam in the Netherlands where he had lived all his life and decided he wanted a change of scenery. For most of us, that might mean painting the living room. For Gerlof and his wife, Diana, it meant considering locations in the Caribbean, Australia and various points in the U.S. and Canada before deciding to move half way around the world to Kamloops and buying a business in an industry they had barely touched before. And, as “they” keep telling us, the acceptance of risk and challenge has paid off. Rogers Rental is growing fast and Gerlof has risen through the ranks of the B.C. Canadian Rental Association to take his seat as president in January.

Gerlof grew up just outside of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. From the age of 12, he spent as much time as he could riding around in trucks and hanging around his future partner’s business. Mostly, he admits he was just trying to avoid going to school. He did finish school at the age of 22, however, then went into storing and warehousing goods using shipping containers with that same friend.

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Gerlof is a big believer in documentation, using ready-to-rent tags to track maintenance and committing all his company procedures to writing. Having a written manual greatly simplifies training, he says. 


 

Before long, the business grew to the point where just using shipping containers was no longer enough and he and his partner bought warehouse space and launched a full logistics company. After 10 years in business, Gerlof was ready to sell out to his partner and find somewhere outside of the “crowded” Netherlands to raise his children. “There are 17 million people in a country the size of probably half of Vancouver Island,” he says. “We got married in Hawaii and found we really like the North American lifestyle and space. It was mostly for the kids because Holland is really, really crowded.” They settled on Kamloops because they still wanted seasons, but liked the mild winters.

Gerlof brought his family to Kamloops in 2001 after several trips to the area to locate a business to buy and a place to live. He had identified Rogers and had been speaking to the owners, Rod and Laurence Thiessen, for a year before being able to obtain his visa papers and buy the business. The Thiessens were not the original owners; the company had been started by Glen Rogers in 1974. Its well-established nature was one of the appealing things for Gerlof, who was looking for something stable and proven. He also found the rental industry fascinating because of the way it extracts value over and over again from the same capital investment. “The whole idea really intrigues me,” Gerlof says. “You can buy something, rent it out, then it comes back again, you clean it up, do repairs and you do it all over again. It is a good way and an interesting way to make a living.”

Gerlof closed the sale of Rogers a little over a week after receiving his visa papers in September 2003. One of the reasons he went into business immediately was because buying a business and employing Canadians for at least a year was a condition of his visa.

His initial plan was to buy Rogers, run it for a year, then look for opportunities to sell it and get back into dockyard logistics, his familiar field back in Europe. Eight years later, Gerlof admits the plan changed.

Of all the challenges that one might encounter when setting up shop in a new country, the one that springs to mind for Gerlof is surprising. Business communication, he says, is quite different in North America than it is in the Netherlands and the rest of northern Europe. “I had a really hard time in the first few years,” he remembers. “The Dutch are really direct. We basically speak our minds and in the business environment that is not really that big of a problem. But here in Canada people want things wrapped in a nice package. You have to be more political about how you address certain issues.” Still, Gerlof thinks his Dutch heritage has prepared him well to succeed in any business environment. “Dutch people adapt really easily to a lot of cultures because no one speaks Dutch, so you always have to adapt to someone else,” Gerlof says.

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Rogers Rental employs six staff in the winter and 12 in the summer at its location in downtown Kamloops. The business is about 15 per cent equipment rental and 85 per cent party, serving an area roughly 300 kilometres in diameter. Gerlof owns the whole, 20,000-square-foot building, but is only using 9,000 square feet presently. He carries what he describes as a fairly standard inventory of light equipment and event supplies, renting mostly to homeowners, small contractors and landscapers on the equipment side and weddings, sporting and corporate events on the party side. He carries tents, tables, chairs, dishes, concession equipment, barbecues and some staging and audio-visual equipment. “What is interesting about this business is the only thing that party rental and equipment rental have in common is the name rental,” Gerlof says. “Everything else is different: the way of approaching the customer is different, the customer service is different. When a customer comes in for a tool, your goal is to get him out of the store as soon as possible. Homeowners do not want to hang around the store to talk about the weather. When a bride comes into the store, your goal is to keep her in the store as long as you can. You want to tell them what you have and show them what you can do. You have to sell them a service. That is what we do, we do not sell a product, we sell a service.”

When asked for the secret to his success, Gerlof has three words: “Get on it.” In his view, being deeply involved and active in every aspect of the business makes the difference. Attention to detail is what he feels distinguishes his business from others. He is also pleased to have a staff he can rely on. “Everybody in the store here is better than I am,” he says. “The people behind the counter are doing a way better job of handling the customers, the guys out back are way better mechanics and the girls in the back who pick the tables and chairs do a way better job than I can do.”

One of the reasons Gerlof has stayed in the business longer than he planned is because of the great support and camaraderie he has experienced in the B.C. rental industry. He says it is surprising how willing other rental operators are to help each other out.

For now, Gerlof is looking forward to a period of slow, stable growth with few changes to the business. But it seems likely that it won’t be long before Gerlof and Rogers Rental are looking for that next new horizon. 


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