Risk and reward
By Treena HeinFeatures Profiles
Attention to detail and steady effort at Aerial Plus.
My better half gave me permission to cash in everything – RRSPs, RESPs, all our savings,” says Bill Irvine, referring to how he purchased Aerial Plus in Burlington, Ont. with his wife Debbie about 25 years ago.
If that sounds like a big step for Irvine, it was. The year was 1998. The only inventory owned by the five-year old company at the time, about 24 electric scissor lifts, were in good condition. There was also a truck and trailer for delivery. However, the seller had been winding things down and his customer base had shrunk.
To buy this small rental business, Bill would have to cash in everything he and Debbie had, but he also would need to get a loan from somewhere unconventional, as the banks weren’t really willing to lend him much or even anything at all.
But Bill wanted to try. He was 43 and, up to that point in his career, he’d worked as a sales rep for a few rental companies, so he knew the business. The company he was at in 1998 had just been bought out by a multinational and he’d basically lost his entire territory. So he had to do something else…and why not buy his own rental company?
“Pretty much right away I started looking to go out on my own and started talking to the banks,” he recalls. “It was a lot of money to buy a normal-sized rental business but I became aware of Aerial Plus and that he wanted to sell. About 18 months later, he and I agreed on a price.”
Even with all their savings, Bill would still need a loan but as mentioned, the banks weren’t playing ball. But he had a mentor, Brent Martin, who was following Bill’s progress and he offered Bill the last $50,000 he needed. He couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to accept it, but Brent convinced him to do so. “I paid it back in full in one year,” says Bill. “Brent would not take interest so it was paid in full with a nice dinner for him and his wife, Ricki.”
On the first day of ownership, however, Bill had some moments of panic and wondered literally, “What have I done?” But he was fairly mechanically-inclined and scissor lift repair wasn’t that difficult. He could seek outside mechanics if needed. He knew going in that the business only had a few customers, but it turned out that his reputation preceded him and he soon had more.
“My customers from my previous job tracked me down and rented from me,” Bill explains. “They knew me and wanted to support me. I could only handle small companies, small electrical and mechanical companies that needed a machine here and there. But it was enough at the start.”
At the same time, Bill and a few mechanics began to form what would become a tight-knit group. “I did what I could with repair, but I needed outside help sometimes and there were a few mechanics I knew who had gone out on their own for the same reasons I did,” he explains. “So we knew each other but we were new to doing business with each other. But we built trust. They knew that if they did work for me, they would get paid. We became really a tight-knit group that looked out for each other.” (One of these mechanics was Rob Blaik, who will come back into the story later.)
Bill got up every day but Sunday at 5 a.m. and delivered lifts to customers. By 8 or 9 a.m. he was back at the office/shop (a 3,000-square-foot building with no yard), answering the phone, doing maintenance, doing paperwork. Then came pick up of machines at the end of the day, more maintenance, answering the phone and more paperwork until bedtime. He did this day after day.
But as he stayed afloat, with the support of his wife, he started feeling good about his decision. “It was a big change for me and I was enjoying it,” he says. “I was working a lot of hours but I was working for myself. I was there for my customers and I was proud. I couldn’t go on family holidays over the years and I missed out on time spent with the family in those years, but it’s been worth it.”
Three years in, he hired his first employee, a driver. The company now has seven employees besides Bill, Debbie and their son, Taylor, who now runs it. They have about 175 machines in total plus attachments for rent, including electric and rough terrain scissor lifts, electric and rough-terrain booms, articulating and straight booms, industrial forklifts, skid steers and compaction equipment. They also sell new and used equipment.
Growing into the business
Taylor was eight when he started helping at the shop. His brother, Will, also worked there growing up and is now a sales representative for Haulotte. “Our daughter Amy also worked in the early days helping with office work,” says Bill. “She now lives in Calgary with her husband and two daughters.”
Taylor also spent his high school summers at the business and during his university degree in business he also worked at Aerial Plus every week. In 2013, after his degree, he started fulltime in both the shop and office. At that point, with help from Will and Debbie, who has always worked in marketing and sales, Taylor re-branded Aerial Plus and gave it a new logo.
During all those years, Taylor had learned a lot about machine repair. “One of my biggest mentors back then was Rob Blaik,” he says. “He’s a guru. He gave me the confidence of trying to fix things, to take them apart and investigate because you might as well try. You’ll maybe be able to fix it, you’ll learn, and if you send it out, they’re going to do the same thing anyway. Like if a joystick in a scissor lift goes, you take it apart and maybe it’s just a new switch that takes 20 minutes to replace. Rob taught me a lot.”
Taylor and Bill had always wanted Rob to work at Aerial Plus but circumstances never lined up. However, he finally started in January. “We’re really happy about that,” says Taylor. “We’ve got Rob who has so much experience and we’ve also got Dylan Gray, who started with us six years ago. I’ve taught him everything I could and he’s gone from there. He’s a super hard worker and very bright. He and Rob get along well. Dylan and another recent hire Austin are pursuing their heavy equipment mechanic apprenticeships. We’ve also got Mark Eades in the office now, who was doing our bookkeeping for a long time and now has come on board full time to do all order-taking and administration as well. Our whole team is fantastic.”
This is how Aerial Plus has grown, organically and through Bill and Taylor filling the gaps with hard work and dedication. “I like to stay true to the family business philosophy,” says Taylor. “We all get along and it’s a good place to be. I ask my guys about bigger decisions, what direction we should go in and they give me their opinions. I never wanted to take loans to expand and I don’t want to hire more people until I’m sure I can support them, so I will wear a lot of hats and make sure. You reduce the risks that way.”
The company now resides in a building of 14,000 square feet with a one-acre yard, located at the edge of an industrial zone near the busy intersection of the 403 and QEW. The location is in Burlington, but is also very close to larger Hamilton, Ont. And the entire area is, of course, the Greater Toronto Area, home to dozens of rental operations, big and small, including the Canadian headquarters of all the big franchises and the largest rental operations in the country. Aerial Plus’ success is proof that the little guy can survive and flourish even in a saturated rental market surrounded by far larger and better-financed competitors. Building customer loyalty is a big part.
“We’re a little guy and we serve the little guys and we try to do it well,” says Taylor. “We are on time, we take care of our customers and we’ll take quick action if anything goes awry. I answer the phone anytime, sometimes it’s 10 p.m. at night. And we know our customers, you get to be friends. They know they can count on us.”
Besides hard work and customer service, Taylor has learned other lessons from Bill that ensure Aerial Plus will stay a success. These generally relate, he says, to doing things right and not cutting corners.
“My father has also always taught us that we should try and improve,” he says. “Even if we won a hockey game, he would talk to us about how we could do better next time. But he always supported our interests too. He got me and Will into go-kart racing, and we were up early, working on them ourselves. And he and my mom supported all three of us to go to school, whatever education we wanted.”
Bill is now retired and Debbie is semi-retired (she still retains a few marketing clients) but he comes to the shop once in a while to see how things are going and do a little work if he feels like it. “I put in my over-40 years, and I am enjoying myself now for sure,” he says. “Taylor and his team are doing a good job and I’m glad the business is being run by one of the kids. I think it’s all about hard work pays off, getting the job done, doing what you say you’re going to do, watching your pennies, looking after your customer. I’m really proud that we have customers still with us that were with me from just about day one.”
If they were a hockey team, Aerial Plus would be the four-line grinders getting in the corners and driving the big-payroll teams crazy in the playoffs. Could be an approach that takes them all the way.
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