“Working in grocery and retail wasn’t really for me, despite being born into it,” he recalls. “I felt I was missing out on something.”
That “something” was a completely different environment than bakeries and fresh produce: an environment that involved trucks and large equipment like excavators and tractors. “When I was younger and used to look at equipment working in the fields, it felt like I was looking at angels,” recalls Gray.
Clearly, his future was destined to head in a different direction.
An opportunity arises
In the late 1990s, Gray’s father sat down for coffee with the owner of a small equipment rental company in the Orangeville, Ont., area.
“My dad had known the guy since grade one. He asked my father if he wanted to buy his business,” says Gray. “The owner was kind of joking, but my dad responded that he knew ‘a couple of boys’ that would be interested in taking it over.”
Gray’s dad was thinking of his own two sons: especially Troy, a self-professed equipment enthusiast, who was driving trucks for a couple of companies at the time and who had recently expressed an interest in owning his own business in that industry.
“When my dad came to me, telling me to go talk to the owner about this chance, it really felt like a dream had come true,” Gray says about the newfound opportunity. “It was pretty exciting; I jumped in with all hands and feet.”
And so, in 1999, Gray bought the business along with his brother.
Growing the business
When the Gray brothers first purchased Orangeville Equipment Rentals, the business was quite small, renting out only skid steers, a couple of excavators and a wood chipper.
But the business evolved quickly, especially as the brothers began purchasing and renting out an increasing amount of large equipment. “We were working Monday to Sunday for the first five years and there was such a demand for us to grow. That’s when we started to prosper,” Gray recalls.
Pretty soon, the company had grown from two to four trucks, and from three to eight employees on the floor.
Now, with OER in its 18th year, Gray is the sole owner of the business, having bought out his brother’s side just two years ago.
Today, OER continues to serve a wide range of customers including homeowners, landscapers, electricians and home builders — all within approximately a 50-mile radius of Orangeville.
Gray credits a great deal of his success to his wife of 20 years, Lisa. “I could never have done it without her,” he says. “She’s stood beside me right from the start.” Gray says he’s very conscious of the need to strike the right balance between the business and family life. “You can’t get away with that workaholic stuff in this day and age,” he says. “My family is the most important thing.”
A wide range of products
OER’s products include many well-known brands including Bosch, Cat, Stihl, Honda and Bobcat.
While the business originally started with larger equipment (bulldozers, excavators, forklifts, and tractors, for instance), it has since added a number of smaller tools to its list of product rentals. Customers can choose from a long, diverse list including air compressors, small compaction equipment, tools for concrete and masonry jobs, drywall accessories, floor tools, generators, heaters, ladders, tools for lawns and gardens, levels, pressure washers, and more.
(Fun fact: OER even rents out a popcorn machine!)
Offering the smaller things has proven to be very good for business, as OER customers often need both larger and smaller equipment for their projects.
Moreover, says Gray, “Four cut saws can rent out in one day, generating almost as much money as a small excavator. However, a small excavator costs $30,000 to buy, while the cut saws are only about $1,000 each. Plus, the smaller items are easier to handle, so the customers can come and pick them up and bring them back. We don’t have to deliver them, which saves us time.”
As for Gray’s favourite thing to rent out? “It’s got to be construction forklifts,” he says. “They go for long-term rentals, they don’t get abused or take on as much wear and tear so they last forever, and you always get good money for renting them out.”
OER’s aerial division is also very popular with customers. The business frequently rents out indoor electric booms, rough terrain booms, towable booms, as well as scissor lifts to home builders and electricians.
In addition to renting equipment, OER offers custom repair as well as floating services. “We do quite a bit of floating for our customers,” says Gray. “A lot of people don’t have their own means to move the larger equipment, so it’s an additional service we can offer, to make their jobs easier.”
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An unexpected success
For the last 10 years, OER has also been renting out containers and storage space. People in the midst of moving can call OER who will then set a container in the customer’s driveway. Customers can put all their belongings in the container and OER will then either deliver it to a new location or store it on site.
“This container side of the business kind of grew without us even realizing it,” says Gray. “It’s like Elvis Presley who once picked up a guitar without knowing he was going to be a superstar. This success just kind of fell in our lap.”
When OER first started dealing in containers and storage, they began with only two or three containers. Today, the business has just under 100 containers, with 99 per cent of them currently spoken for. Meanwhile, OER continues adding about 10 new units every year to its collection.
Key to success lies in customer service
Now that the business is almost 20 years old, Gray explains that OER’s success is all about the team’s commitment to customer service, and focusing on creating return customers.
“When it comes to servicing our customers, we go over and above the call of duty—even if it’s not in our job descriptions,” he says. “We all wear many hats. For example, I’m not just the owner, I get involved every day with customers and servicing and quality assurance. And if we’re overextended on our deliveries, I or one of my phone guys can help deliver the machine, which allows the customer to get to work right away, without delaying their project.”
Gray also attributes the business’ success to consistency, which results in return customers. “We make our return customers our top priority, no matter what,” he says. “We get them coming back because we provide them good service, reliable and new equipment and we educate them as best we can on the products they’re renting from us.”
Moreover, “We don’t make them wait for service; I used to have one phone guy downstairs in the lobby, but now I have two so nobody ever has to be put on hold. That makes a difference. And if the customer can’t understand our instructions over the phone, we will send them a tech guy to help them understand the machine they’ve rented. We do what we can to keep them happy and focused on the job they need to do.”
Gray also emphasizes the importance of employees “keeping their cool” when dealing with customers.
“My policy is that, when dealing with the public, we’re sometimes going to have to communicate with challenging people. They might be frustrated or upset because they don’t know how to run a piece of our equipment, and sometimes they may lash out at you. My policy – and my policy for the entire business – is to never, ever lash back. After all, these are the people who are paying your bills. I tell my guys that, bottom line, the customer is always right and we will do whatever we can to help them. That’s what keeps them coming back.”
Moving forward with OER
As for the future, Gray plans to continue growing Orangeville Rental Equipment. The current location will remain where it is, but he is also considering adding a new location eventually. He also hopes to extend his sales by about 40 per cent within the next 10 years.
Gray acknowledges that growth requires much more investment, including purchasing a lot more equipment, and hiring new staff. He hearkens back to hard lessons learned when he and his brother first started out with the business in 1999.
“In our first five years, we had such a heavy growth that we almost sunk our boat by buying more equipment,” he says. “Back then, we personally guaranteed everything with the bank and tried to get as much leeway with the bank as possible. I do believe a slow and steady growth is a little healthier. There is a procedure to do this properly. That said, sometimes to grow and become more efficient as a business requires taking a leap of faith.”