By Treena Hein
At its very core, the addition of a rental counter by Topmar Building Supplies of Fredericton, N.B., was a case of north and south. The opportunity presented itself in late October 2004, shortly after a local rental company moved to the south side of the Saint John River, a geographic boundary which bisects the city into Fredericton North and Fredericton South.
By Treena Hein
“There wasn’t any other rental company on the north side at that point, where we were and are located, so the owner decided to take the plunge,” says Topmar operations leader, Trevor Parker.
That first year, Topmar offered a selection including pumps, vacuums, floor sanders, nailers and tile cutters mostly only to contractors who would also buy their building supplies onsite. “Many other customers did not know we even had tool rentals,” notes Parker. “It was another seven years or so before we started to make the rentals a bit more noticeable, in 2011, by placing some of them inside the store instead of in the back, in our warehouse.”
In 2012, rentals took a large step forward when Topmar sought the help of its hardware supplier, Orgill. “We used their experience and store set-up program to really take the rental side of the business to a new level,” Parker explains. “By 2013, we had made rentals a ‘store within a store,’ by creating a rental counter and department at the entrance. Today, we have a highly visible rental department with a clean look. We have knowledgeable team players who follow best practices and work our marketing plan. We continue to see steady sales growth each year.”
Parker says having the rental store within the building supply store very much promotes renovation projects by homeowners. “It compliments our regular sales, in that when we hear what the project is we then let the customer know that we have the tools for rent that will help him or her complete that project,” he says. “Once they see with our instruction how easy it is to operate many of the rentals, they are much more confident to tackle their own projects, which helps them save on labour costs. On the other side, when customers come for just a rental tool, they usually end up buying the building materials and other accessories they need. Either our team members suggest products that will help customers stay safe and complete their jobs or they just peruse what we have to offer. Rentals really do increase your total business income if worked properly by your team.”
As its name suggests, Topmar is a building supply company. It is family-owned and has proudly served its community for more than 45 years.
It was 1964 when John Mahar and Calvin Thompson first formed the partnership the company is founded on, then known as Thompson and Mahar. It was a construction firm contracted to build three homes that first year. Early the year after, the partnership was incorporated under the name of Topmar Housing and Construction, with the name being an amalgamation of the two founders’ names. Over the next few years, the company expanded into commercial building construction and in 1968, moved to a one-acre site in an industrial park.
By 1976, it was time to move again to bigger quarters. This time the company filled a large new building with a showroom, warehouse, service area and offices with the intention of meeting all the materials and services needs of local builders at fair prices. To further these goals, in 1981, Topmar became a member of the Castle Building Centres buying group, then called Bold Lumber. Calvin and his wife Joyce left Topmar to pursue other projects in 1982, and the construction side of the business was phased out a short time later.
In 1990, Jack and his wife Gladys retired and turned the store over to their son and his wife, John W. and Marie Mahar. John had been involved at Topmar since it had first opened when he was young. In 2000, the company moved yet again to a bigger site in North Devon, creating a 20,000-square-foot store with a drive-through lumber yard and services such as delivery, screen repair, key cutting, free estimates and more. In 2007, things changed again with John W. Mahar dying in a tragic accident. Son John G. (Gerry) Mahar took over most of his father’s responsibilities in the day-to-day operations.
Since 2012, Topmar has added offerings such as compact equipment, a 16-foot enclosed trailer, post hole augers and specific plumbing tools like a pex pipe expander. “We keep a missed rentals report each season and based on that as well as demand we like to add new tools regularly,” Parker explains. “It also creates a bit of excitement for our customers when we introduce a new tool or piece of equipment. Currently, we have a new lawn aerator on the show room floor with a tarp over it and we’re asking customers to submit their guesses on what it is into a draw for a chance to win a free one-day rental.”
Just recently in March 2016, Topmar opened a second outlet 60 kilometers west of Fredericton in the town of Nackawic, where a building supply business with some rental tools recently closed. It, too, is a building supply store that will soon have its own full rental department. Parker says until the rental department is fully stocked, Topmar is bringing rental tools and supplies to the new location from their main location on an as-needed basis.
There are currently 10 employees at the main store and four at the second store with one employee managing all rental department operations. Some other key employees help with counter sales and rental contracts. “It takes time to train people just on the operation and maintenance of each tool, not to mention sales techniques, point-of-sale operation and rental contract details,” says Parker. “It’s harder these days than it used to be to find experienced individuals with knowledge of small engines and basic tool operation and we are very pleased that our current rentals manager has this experience.”
In the slower winter months, part of the rentals manager’s responsibilities is to help look after building materials customers. In the busy season, Topmar employs the same students several years in a row to help out with rentals, but after two or three years these young people move on and recruiting and training is required. “Another challenge is trying to keep your fleet well-maintained and looking great in the busy season,” Parker says. “Also, it’s tough to keep enough equipment on hand. There always seems to be something that we don’t have available. We do, however, have a few other great rental companies in our city that we can point someone to if we have to. Sometimes in certain circumstances we’ve rented from another store to get our customer what he or she needed. It’s very good service to be able to say ‘We can have that for you in a couple hours.’”
Parker says there are great benefits to being part of a family-owned business. “We have the flexibility to offer a level of service that other companies may not be able to provide,” he notes. “We have the autonomy and flexibility to respond and accommodate customer needs, and to offer really personal service, like dropping things by or picking things up from customers. It’s great to be able to say, ‘Yes’ in circumstances that warrant it and not have to consult anyone at a head office. We are looking at bright times ahead with what will soon be two fully-stocked rental outlets.”
Topmar showed its commitment to the rental industry by joining the Canadian Rental Association’s Atlantic local at the Atlantic regional trade show in January. Looks like the rental business offers some great opportunity for growth for this pillar of the Fredericton construction community.