By Andrew Snook
Experience gives Snowbird Rentals its edge.
By Andrew Snook
When it comes to running a successful rental house, customer service is key. This is especially true if you’re a small company competing against much larger corporations with far greater buying power.
Operating two rental houses in the Edmonton area’s west end and south side, Snowbird Rentals’ owner and staff understand this very well. The company has been competing and surviving against much larger rental houses in the area since 1977. The equipment rental house services contractors, homeowners, landscapers, farmers and automotive tradesmen.
The small rental house relies on a small, core group of employees that have been devoted to the company for the past two decades, starting with its current owner, Dan McFetridge.
McFetridge joined the company in 1989. He started by working in the back of the store loading and unloading customers and cleaning and fuelling equipment. He enjoyed the industry so much, he never left.
“I eventually took over as manager of the west end store in ’92, and then in ’93 became operations manager for both locations. In ’97, I became a partner in the company; and in 2005, I bought the company. It’s been a fun journey,” he says.
McFetridge has had several employees stick with him for most of his journey, including Amy London, operations manager for Snowbird Rentals.
“There’s something about Snowbird that entices loyalty. Our mechanic has been here for 20 years, I’ve been here for 19 years,” she says, adding that she started out in a similar way to McFetridge, working her way up to overseeing operations for the south side branch.
Despite have a reliable core group of employees, finding good people can still be a challenge.
“Turnover of staff in this industry is probably one of the biggest challenges,” McFetridge says. “I have a really great core group, but because this industry isn’t like a trade, there aren’t those kinds of trade positions available [to retain them]; and people coming in can take a long learning curve.”
For London, staying at Snowbird Rentals hasn’t been a difficult decision.
“This company is one in a million, it’s a big family. We all care about each other. It’s a great feeling to have,” she says. “It’s an extremely satisfying place to work.”
One of London’s favourite things about working there over the years has been watching younger employees grow, working at Snowbird Rentals while making their way through school.
“Watching some of them become electricians, pipefitters, while working here with us, learning skills they need here and filling the gaps between schools. Some of those kids come back and see us. Nothing makes me happier than our guys coming back to see me, telling me about their lives,” she says.
Another aspect of working in the rental industry that London has enjoyed in her near two decades at Snowbird Rentals has been the variety of problems that she gets to solve.
“The best thing about rental is no two days are ever the same. It’s a new experience every day,” she says. “I love it when a senior or a gentleman comes in and has no idea how to use a tool. They come in and talk to you and you walk them through it. Then they come back, and they’ve accomplished the things they set out to do. The look on their face is the best when they come back and feel good.”
That vast product knowledge base that Snowbird Rental’s core group has is essential for a significant percentage of their customer base. Homebuilders and smaller contractors make up a good part of their business, and they’re often looking for hard-to-find tools that Snowbird Rentals prides themselves on keeping in stock.
“We have some really weird stuff here, some odd-ball tools,” London says. “We still have nail pullers. We still have liquid line levellers, knockout punches.”
Homeowners also account for a large portion of the customer base, and often lean on the experience and knowledge of Snowbird Rentals’ staff to find answers to their repair and renovation challenges.
“We have lots of do-it-yourselfers, and we have lots of regular customers. I know them all by name. That’s a great thing about being in a small company,” London says.
Working in the pandemic
Like most industries across the county, and the globe, Snowbird Rentals got hit hard when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic struck.
“When it first happened, we laid off almost all of our staff except for six people. We were still open because we were essential and our winter heat service was going on,” London recalls. “As soon as business came back in the spring, we brought our guys back as soon as possible.”
Fortunately, the following spring was fairly busy for the rental house. That said, the pandemic still made for tenser times.
“In the pandemic for companies like us, if somebody gets sick with a small staff, you’re looking at shutting everything down,” London says.
To help reduce the risk of infection and adhere to health and safety guidelines, Snowbird Rentals staff quickly set up a variety of precautions at its locations.
“Dan went out and bought plexiglass for our counters, special cleaners, disinfectant spray to sanitize our pens, hand sanitizer, masks and gloves. We did everything we could to keep ourselves safe and our customers safe,” London says. “We roped off areas where we couldn’t have our customers, they only had a specific area they could go into. I think our customers were pretty good about it.”
McFetridge says that keeping up with all the changing safety regulations, especially during the first few months of the pandemic, was the most difficult aspect of adapting his stores’ operating procedures.
“It was the hardest part. Just when you had everything set up the way you needed it to be, it would change,” he says.
Waiting for the rebound
Despite having a busy spring in 2020, McFetridge says the market certainly hasn’t rebounded yet.
“We’ve seen significant downturn since the beginning of year, considerably lower than we were last year,” he says. “We rely a lot on the housing season to carry us through the winter and we didn’t see a lot of that this year.”
The pandemic arguably hasn’t hit any province’s economy at a worse time than Alberta’s, which was already trying to recover from a struggling oil and gas sector.
“From 2015 to 2017, it was bad. In 2018, we started to come out of it a little bit, started to see revenue getting better. Then we increased exponentially in 2019, but then COVID-19 hit. We got through 2020 okay, but we’re really starting to feel it in 2021,” McFetridge says. “We’re expected to have most of Alberta’s adult population vaccinated by mid-July. But even after this is all said and done, there will be a long-term recovery coming out of this.”
Supply chain disruption caused by the pandemic has affected most companies in the rental industry. London says it hasn’t been too bad at Snowbird Rentals, so far.
“For the most part, it’s been pretty good. My mechanic struggled to get parts in a decent amount of time for a while. Something that normally took a couple days was taking 10 days or two weeks sometimes,” she recalls.
Looking to the future
In the coming years, London would like to see the company continue to grow its customer base and its fleet of skid steers.
“We want to expand our customer base and keep moving forward and growing as a company,” she says. “It’s a big accomplishment, what this tiny little company has been able to do in the 44 years it’s been around.”
London says all of the staff take great pride in working for Snowbird Rentals.
“We love the company and we don’t own any of it. It feels as much our company as it is Dan’s. The respect we get from Dan and the sense of family and the respect that happens in this company, I don’t even have the words to express it. It’s an amazing place to work. I depend on my team heavily. They are a big reason why we are successful and why I am able to do my job with confidence.”
When asked if she had any tips for other smaller rental houses, London says there are a few things to always consider.
“Make customer service a priority. Work with your customer to the best of your ability with pricing, and make sure your fleet is in good condition,” she says. “It’s the personal touches that are going to make someone succeed. It’s the personal touch that makes someone come back to you. When a guy has to work late or drops a piece of equipment off late because he had to take his kid to the hospital and you don’t charge them for it, those are the little things you can do for your customer to keep them coming back to you. It’s all about customer service.”