Canadian Rental Service

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Shifting with the market

Profile: Peter Sulyma, Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals, Hamilton, Ontario.


May 13, 2008
By Chris Skalkos

Topics

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The showroom at Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals. The company keeps diversifying its retail products which account for 25 percent of revenues. Items include air tools, wedges, nylon slings and Klein products for iron workers.

Peter Sulyma of Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals in Hamilton, Ontario, gazes out the window of his rental house and points to the green space at the front of the store. “I could use 20 more feet out there!” he says, and chuckles about his desire to expand the square footage of his store.

He is whimsical about his comment knowing that his 20 foot expansion plan will be vetoed by his business partner and wife Fran, and his son-in-law Neil De Jong. However, the comment is tinged with a seriousness that reveals the entrepreneurial spirit behind this rental veteran. At an age where Sulyma should think about retiring, he would rather think about expanding. His dedication to his customers and his eagerness to keep innovating is shared by his family and employees, and this has been a key ingredient in the company’s 40 years of success in the rental industry.

The company first opened in Oakville in 1967 after Sulyma followed up on a suggestion from his brother-in-law who was a boiler maker working in an oil refinery plant. “He said there was an opportunity to rent equipment to the trades people who were working at the refineries during plant shutdowns. They were always looking for tools, but they weren’t available,” he recalls.

At the time, he and Fran had their own window washing business with lucrative commercial contracts and he was reluctant to walk away from a successful company that he ran for 25 years. “What made up my mind was when I asked myself, “How long will I be washing windows in the winter time? Will I want to do this when I’m 64?”

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He kept the window washing business while he and his brother-in-law cautiously tested the market, stocking an array of hydraulic equipment, chain hoists, air tools, impact sockets and air winches along with a variety of equipment that he bought at auctions. Out of this, the company soon developed a reputation for the depth of its chain fall inventory. “We had 300 so we sub-rented a lot, less 20 percent of course,” says Sulyma. “That’s when we really got known. These things are expensive to buy, but we made it easy and affordable for contractors to get these products.”

De Jong says the equipment that was rented were unique items, mostly used in oil refineries. “The company was a pioneer in that kind of rental service,” he says.

After four years, Sulyma and his brother-in-law went in their own directions with Sulyma and Fran relocating the business to Hamilton, a port city of about 500,000 people, to provide an industrial rental service to the steel industry which used very similar equipment as the oil refineries.

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The team at Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals in Hamilton, Ontario, include, from back row left: Kathy (Sulyma) De Jong; Penny (Sulyma) Saville; Russ Hazelton; Bruce Watters. Front row: Neil De Jong; company owners Fran Sulyma and Peter Sulyma; Bill Thompson, Dave Silva and Craig Cripps.

Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals is unlike traditional rental houses as it specializes in servicing the industrial trades. “This is a unique line of mechanical equipment that is all together different than what you see in a rental store that services homeowners,” says De Jong.

Moving from Oakville, the company rented a shop out of an old bakery that Sulyma says used to be a horse stable, and built a makeshift mezzanine for storage space. The company kept growing, adding equipment used by refractory furnace contractors and Sulyma recalls how the heat resistant mortar material the contractors used, being a tough turning mixture would burn out the motors on the electric mixers they rented.

They soon grew out of the rented facility and they purchased their own building in 1975 at an ideal location. “We share a driveway with Dofasco,” says Sulyma with a chuckle, noting that many of his customers work at the steel mill next door.

De Jong says the street they are on is the main route and access way to the steel mills in the industrial park. “One of our customers said he loved our location because he grabs a cup of Tim Horton’s coffee up the street, comes in here to rent his tools and he’s at work within a few minutes. We do a significant amount of business with mill wrights, pipe fitters and refractory contractors who work at Dofasco.”

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Married for 57 years, Peter and Fran Sulyma are the principal owners of Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals in Hamilton, Ontario.

With 10,000 square feet and three bay doors, the new facility had more room than they needed so they planned to rent out half of the building. That changed after Sulyma returned from an auction and filled the extra space with equipment. “Peter kept buying equipment and we didn’t have room for a tenant,” says De Jong. “I knew we could expand 20 more feet out front if we needed,” replies Sulyma.
In 1985, De Jong joined the company after pursuing a 14 year career in ‘Non Destructive Testing’ Performing primarily Industrial Radiography (X-raying) of welded joints and corrosion detection. Lack of work in Ontario in this trade in the late 1970s prompted De Jong and his wife Kathy, who were newlyweds, to move to Alberta where De Jong X-rayed airplanes and ‘chased’ oil pipelines. “The work I was doing and the industries we service today helped me to understand the business quickly,” he says.

His specialty lay in equipment testing procedures and he adapted his organizational skills to help re-design the entire layout of the rental operation. Hundreds of items were categorized and given dedicated isles in the warehouse that made it easier to track and locate parts and tools with the aid of a computer software system. “Customers come back here and are amazed by how organized we are,” says De Jong. “I could have organized the place like that if I could just get another 20 feet out front,” chuckles Sulyma.

Fran remembers her son-in-law’s ambition when he first came on-board. “We didn’t do anything right,” she says, sharing the same sense of humour that runs through the family. “He knew it all and he had big plans.” With new blood come fresh ideas and the entire layout of the building was configured as they set out to expand the company’s showroom and build a new office area. “We had to put a makeshift office in the paint booth and run the phone lines in there while the renovations were going on and we had to hire security on the long weekend because most of our equipment was outside. It was very involved. We re-did the entire racking system and painted the interior and exterior to give the building a new face-lift.”

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Brick saws, 10,000 pound air winches with auto locking disk brakes, impact sockets, very large wrenches and hydraulic lifting equipment are only a few of the specialized items the company carries to provide an industrial rental service to the steel industry trades people such as mill wrights, pipe fitters and  refractory contractors.

The company prospered and weathered two recessions while it continued to grow; however, this growth did not come without its own challenges. Start-ups were popping up to take advantage of the market that they had developed thus far without competition and although the company is different from traditional rental houses, it was not immune to the consolidation that gripped the rental industry in the mid 1990s.

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Neil De Jong (left) and Peter Sulyma stand next to a 10 ton chain hoist checkout station and a 3/4 ton Come-A-Long for customer repairs. The company certifies hoists for many of its customers.

“Before we didn’t have competition and now there are bigger rental companies than us here who have more money and buy in greater volume. They have the financial backing that we don’t,” says Sulyma. At the same time, the industries they served were also changing as amalgamations and closures changed the city’s industrial landscape.

Undaunted, the company reinforced its strengths which lay in its reputation for providing a high level of customer service and diversifying its products which included a line of tools for iron workers. “This really took off after we were able to buy direct from the manufacturer,” says De Jong. “We wanted to expand our showroom and do more retail with consumable items, but the question was, ‘What do we stock it with?’” he asks. Sulyma answered that question when he filled the showroom with gloves… stacks of them.

De Jong was skeptical at first, but any hesitations he had were soon put to rest. “We sold a ton of gloves, so after that I became more open minded about what would work and what wouldn’t,” he says. “We were constantly trying new things and we found that retail sales were really helping.” However, digging deeper into retail products came with its own set of challenges posed by the growing influx of offshore products that are sold much more cheaply than the quality tools the company prefers to offer. “It’s the curse of the offshore tools. I don’t want to sell it, but I have to because that’s what the customers want. Things were much simpler when a tool was based solely on its quality, but we have to listen to our customers. Some want the cheaper products while others want the top of the line, so we carry both. We sell $25 to $30 tape measures or we sell $6.00 tape measures by the box.”

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A 10 ton chain hoist stored for the next rental. The company developed a reputation for the depth of its chain hoists, making these expensive items easily accessible and affordable to contractors.

The retail section today accounts for 25 percent of the company’s revenue and is growing as they strive to continually add new products in the showroom. “Customers come in and ask what’s new? We like to show them something new and we are constantly experimenting with new items. Customers come to expect that,” says De Jong.

The company’s flexibility in shifting with the changing market is coupled by the customer service they provide, which has elevated the company’s credibility among its customers to the point where they will call just to ask for advice. “I used to wonder why Peter would spend so much time talking with customers, but I soon realized he was building relationships with them. We have become a source of knowledge for them and it has become one of the services we also provide.”

While all of these things have helped the company through these challenges, Sulyma, Fran and De Jong credit the employees for much of the company’s success. Many of their employees are recruited from within the rental industry and bring with them a wealth of expertise and knowledge.

“Each of them has been with us for a very long time. We try to keep them happy and we treat them like family,” says Fran, explaining that this goes beyond paying well and providing benefits. “We sit down with them and include them in the decision-making to let them know they are an important part of what we do here,” she says. They also credit their long-term involvement in the Canadian Rental Association for much of what they have learned.

Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals is coming off a very good year and the company plans to hold the course in the future while listening to customers, observing and responding to shifts in the market and experimenting with new ideas. “We want to expand, but we aren’t going to force it. We will let the business take off in the direction the market will allow it to grow,” says De Jong.

Although Sulyma and Fran are developing a succession plan to pass the business on to their children, Sulyma says he is not in a hurry to leave this industry. “I love this business and I spend all of my time here. I’m ready to retire soon,” he says, pausing to point out towards the front of the building, “but not until I get 20 more feet out there!” -end-

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Fran Sulyma and Penny Saville, behind the counter. The company has built a reputation for its customer service and for being a source of knowledge that brings customers in for advice.Neil De Jong stands underneath an aluminum A-Frame, or ‘gantry crane’, a popular rental item because of its light weight and easy assembly.
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Peter Sulyma started the company which first opened in Oakville in 1967, renting equipment to trades people working in oil refineries. He plays an active role in the company and is often at the shop on weekends.The shop and warehouse section of the building utilizes every square inch to keep hundreds of different items of equipment organized and categorized.

Presiding as president
As the incoming president for CRA Ontario, Neil De Jong says he has it easy thanks to the excellent work of previous presidents, Penny O’Sullivan and Jeff Campbell who have led the association for the past four years. While Industrial Tools and Equipment Rentals has been a supporting member of the association since the beginning, De Jong says that he has always wanted to contribute more to the association and now that his four children are grown up, he has more time to pursue this goal working his way up through the ranks of 2nd vice and 1st vice-president.

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Neil De Jong is the incoming president for the Canadian Rental Association (CRA) Ontario.

“I have come to appreciate the people on the board for their knowledge and dedication to the industry. I have made many friends and gained much knowledge just by going to meetings and getting involved. Whether it’s succession planning, questions about equipment, finding a supplier, no matter what the issue is I have a network of people I can call on a personal level and ask for help or information,” he says. “It’s the kind of knowledge that you can only get from people who work in the same industry. You speak with different people from different companies to get their advice and opinions and draw upon what works for your business.”

De Jong says he wants to further and expand upon the direction CRA Ontario has been moving. In particular, the rotating rental yard tours hosted by either a rental store or supplier, have been very successful in getting more members out to meetings. “Moving the association meetings around gets members from different geographic areas involved and we have seen more participation since we moved away from hosting meetings at hotels,” he says.

De Jong and the Ontario board of directors are improving the communication system by compiling a comprehensive e-mail list for the sales representatives of their supplier members. “Instead of contacting their head office and hoping the message gets through, we want to be able to communicate with them directly. They are an important part of the association.”

The CRA Ontario division will be participating in the Canadian Rental Mart show being held in Toronto, Ontario, March 4 and 5, 2008, and it is planning a social and educational program that will coincide with the event. As of press-time, the details were still being finalized, but De Jong says the educational portion will offer seminars that are directly relevant to both equipment and party rental suppliers.

“We want to take advantage of having so many rental professionals in one place at one time. The learning opportunities will be tremendous,” he says. -end-